You can read my 2016 post to see whether I had any success in predicting the major trends from last year, and here are the trends that I think will have the biggest impact in 2017.

1. The F word

I believe the guiding star for marketing, and digital, for 2017 will be: Focus.

In part, this is because the economic outlook is uncertain so there is less appetite for risk and instead a desire to focus on either fixing what is not working or doubling down on what is working and scaling that.

Businesses want growth, brands want saliency in a cluttered landscape, but there is not the money to ‘throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks’ so focus has to be the answer.

In part, it is also a reaction against the ever-increasing complexity and fragmentation within marketing. Both at the highest levels (What even is ‘marketing’ now? What is ‘digital’ really?) and at the tactical levels (Which new emerging platforms do we now also have to manage? Have we really nailed our responsive programmatic social video campaign? What are we doing about dark social and messaging?).

Focus is an antidote to ambiguity and complexity. In part, I think shareholders and boards are starting to lose patience with marketing and digital strategy and execution which lacks focus.

There are only so many times you can say “for us digital is like changing the engines on the plane whilst still flying!” or cunningly pass off what is really indecision, lack of competence or lack of operational clarity as “agile”.

In 2017 prioritisation is the top priority. Focus on the focus. So I expect to see:

  • Brand portfolios being rationalised. This started in 2016 but I expect to continue this year. Weaker brands will be killed off so energies can be focused on the strongest.
  • As well as cutting some brands completely we will see more ‘zero-based branding’ thinking (cf. “zero-based budgeting” from 2016) where marketers revisit a brand’s purpose, promise, positioning and audience. Again, to ensure clarity of focus.
  • Agency/supplier relationships being rationalised. Again, in the name of focus, I expect to see brands favouring fewer, deeper, supplier relationships. This will be a challenge for mid-sized agencies. I believe it will favour the big consultancies and systems integrators over the agencies too.
  • Media partners being rationalised. There will be less appetite for continual experimentation and fragmented efforts. Rather marketers will want to do better what is already shown to work. In the digital space this is good news for Google and Facebook in particular.

2017 will be more about refinement than reinvention for most marketers. More about consolidation, embedding and stratification than diversity and fragmentation. Time to get better at ‘operationalising’ marketing in a digital age.

Take a cue from Google which has been busy cutting back projects to focus on artificial intelligence. In 2017 your hardest decisions will be about what not to do.

2. Macro trends impacting marketing in 2017

Following are some broader trends that are shaping marketing, and digital, through 2017 and beyond.

2.1 The democratisation of AI (artificial intelligence)

AI is the hot technology trend. But a bit like ‘big data’ I do not see it as a thing in isolation. AI will permeate all aspects of marketing and beyond.

From quite specific applications like AI-powered email subject line optimisation (like Phrasee) through smart devices and right up to Samsung-acquired Viv the ‘global brain’ and ‘intelligent interface to everything’.

AI is already powerful: Google’s Go-winning DeepMind technology, Facebook’s DeepFace facial recognition is better than a human’s etc. But the exciting opportunity for us all is that AI is becoming democratised, becoming a utility, being made available as a service.

In 2017 you should not ‘do AI’ but you should keep on top of how AI can help make smarter things that you are already doing and make sure your suppliers and vendors are using AI to improve their services to you.

2.2 Conversational interfaces

I could have gone with bots, chat, messaging, even the ‘conversation economy’. But let us focus on conversational interfaces for now.

Messaging, bots and smart home devices, like Amazon’s Echo, are the main actors on the stage of conversational UI. This is an exciting area of development, possibly even a ‘paradigm shift’?

Conversational UIs can help remove friction in a process. Before long we will expect to say “Find me three of the best tents that sleep up to five people for under £300”, get a good answer, and then purchase, all by voice. Interfaces will have API access to marketplaces like eBay, Google Shopping, Amazon etc.

From a brand point of view this conversational paradigm is also compelling. Perhaps we can have conversations like we used to with businesses and recapture some of the intimacy that technology to date has caused us to lose? Can conversational interfaces re-humanise technology?

The big question for marketers and brands in 2017 is whether you choose to play directly in this space, by creating your own chatbot for example, or whether you figure out how best to integrate in the ecosystem of much larger players, e.g. building a ‘skill’ for Amazon’s Alexa platform like the Guardian.

2.3 Realtime

Building on the conversational paradigm, we should also expect experiences to become more realtime.

Whether that is messaging, live customer service, live location tracking or live video streaming, we can see expectations rising for experiences that are ‘in the moment’. Just recently Google updated its “Popular times and visit duration” information for destinations to include realtime information on how busy the place is.

In 2017 and beyond we need to look at how we can deliver customer experiences that are realtime which is a challenge across technology, people and process.

2.4 Google/Facebook duopoly unchallenged

I cannot see how Google and Facebook will not continue to gain momentum. This will be aided by the focus and consolidation I described earlier.

For many marketers who need to get good at a few things that they know have scale and can work, it is much easier to concentrate on a few platforms than many.

Over 2017 it will be interesting to see how the video wars play out between Google (YouTube) and Facebook and also the degree to which brands work more directly with Google and Facebook which threatens to relegate the importance of the agency relationship.

2.5 Consultancies and systems integrators steal share from agencies

Speaking of agency relationships… I fear agencies may increasingly lose out to the big consultancies in winning large digital and marketing transformation work.

Creativity and media planning/buying may hold out best against the consultancy attack but, as media becomes more programmatically driven, it is access to (increasingly backend) data and smart business logic that is required.

And ‘digital transformation’ is a lot about change management, business strategy, data architecture, process, systems integration, cultural transformation etc. This is home turf to consultancies who have also been aggressively acquiring or hiring agency talent.

2.6 Identity management and authentication

We know devices are proliferating, we know we want to deliver personalised experiences across channels, we know multichannel marketing and (re)targeting can work if well executed and we know we want to measure ROI in a properly attributed way across channels. But we also know the sensitivities around data control and privacy.

At the root of these challenges is how, and if at all, we can reliably identify who someone is. And even if we can, what the legal and perception challenges are around what we then do with that knowledge.

This is another reason for the rise and rise of Google and Facebook who can address these challenges at scale and whose users are pretty much logged in all the time wherever they go online. Not a luxury most of us have.

2.7 Talent

Yes, there is still a war for that.

3. Marketing trends for 2017

And now the key trends in marketing.

3.1 Marketing transformation

The ‘death of digital’ debate rumbles on but certainly I have noticed brands talking not only about ‘digital transformation’ but also about ‘marketing transformation’.

Usually the initial focus is a restructure of the marketing organisation, often with the (re)integration of digital marketing, and often with a new person at the top who is increasingly likely to be a CCO (Chief Customer Officer) rather than CMO.

Oystercatchers (a sister brand to Econsultancy and part of Centaur Media plc) note a trend towards clients bringing more marketing teams in house – maybe not permanently but building dream teams for specific tasks.

Accompanying this internal transformation is a re-evaluation of supplier relationships, the likely outcome of which I address earlier, and zero-based budgeting has become more popular as another way to ‘reset the clock’.

The area that I find most interesting is the idea of ‘marketing ops’: the operating system for marketing. This is one effective way of keeping focus but also dealing with complexity and delivering operational efficiency.

Just as (enlightened) IT has ‘dev ops’ it makes absolute sense to me that marketing needs ‘marketing ops’. Marketing is adopting ‘agile’ from the world of technology (incorrectly in many cases, but still…) and could do well to adopt ‘ops’.

If you want to get some insight into this emerging area of marketing I recommend you look at this presentation on marketing ops by Justin Dunham of Urban Airship.

3.2 Customer experience still top of the agenda

Customer experience has been a hot topic for a few years now but it shows no sign of cooling in 2017. Every single piece of market research Econsultancy does into what topics marketers are prioritising, and indeed the equivalent data I have seen from other analysts, shows customer experience topping the charts.

The drivers for this are partly just to meet customers’ rising expectations, i.e. improved experiences, particularly digital and multichannel ones, are something that you just have to do. Partly, of course, it is in an effort to improve ROI through better conversion and retention rates.

2017 will see more ‘customer journey mapping’, more defining of personas and further efforts at personalisation. And, according to Econsultancy’s recent Implementing a CX Strategy research, it is the marketing function which is most likely to own CX within a business. Yet only 8% of companies view themselves as ‘very advanced’ in terms of customer experience maturity.

Multichannel will remain a big focus for customer experience improvements. Amazon Go, which entirely automates the in-store experience using sensors and machine learning, shows what is possible when blending the digital and physical.

Multichannel should not be about the distinction of physical and digital channels but about experience fulfilment: what works best for what experience and customer need.

In 2017 we will move away from channel execution to thinking more about touchpoints and brand (“omni-brand” anyone?) experience.

Rarely is there a single linear customer journey; more usually customer journeys are pretzel-shaped.

3.3 Data lakes and data ops

The move towards brands taking greater, first-party, control of their data as a strategic asset will continue. Expect to hear more about ‘data lakes’ in 2017 and dedicated ‘data/analytics ops’ teams comprising data scientists, engineers and analysts.

The focus will be on getting better access to the data that is already available and smarter reuse of analytics assets like algorithms and models. Perhaps this year more marketers will finally be able to get a universal view of cross-channel performance.

In 2017 we will also start to recognise the need to use data to market to machines. We already know the value of structuring our data properly through schematic language to enhance how we appear in search results. But as personal assistants and IoT (internet of things) devices increasingly intermediate between our offerings and our customers we will need to learn how to ‘teach’ these machines with data.

3.4 Measurement scrutiny

2016 saw a lot happening in the area of measurement, performance and metrics: McDonald’s zero-margin Omnicom deal setting a new precedent for agency contracts; Facebook’s erroneous video metrics; the ANA’s concerning report into lack of transparency in media buying by agencies.

As a result, there will be a lot of scrutiny from senior management around how marketing is being measured. Some may reach the nirvana promised by the aforementioned data lakes, assuming they can find the talent to realise them and harness their value, but for many this year’s focus will mean having fewer KPIs but being more rigorously held to account over those.

Marketing attribution will still be challenging (less so for Google and Facebook): according to Econsultancy’s State of Marketing Attribution research 76% of respondents are struggling to find the right staff to deal with attribution.

3.5 Rethinking segmentation and targeting

2016 saw a lot of debate around approaches to customer segmentation and targeting. How granular is too granular? Is ‘mass targeting’ the answer? How does programmatic work in the mix?

In 2017 we need to focus on resolving this question. As ever, the answer will be ‘it depends’. It depends not just on your product and audience but on your business strategy e.g. if you are going after market share at any cost versus focusing on profits and margins.

Approaches to targeting are interesting in as far as they expose the sometimes differing philosophies and approaches of ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ marketing. The former typically has a higher degree of planning and research up front and the segmentation and targeting models often built on more prescribed geo-demographic data attributes.

Digital, meanwhile, espouses a ‘test and learn’ approach to validate hypotheses, starting small and scaling what works, and using technology and data to optimise for successful outcomes.

For example, using programmatic advertising to optimise for sales using lookalike targeting which may not care what geo-demographic segment a prospect belongs to.

Digital focuses on assessing potential customer value based on realtime, dynamic and contextual data variables which might include the weather right now, your precise location right now, what device you are using, what transport you are currently in, what you have just searched for, just clicked on etc.

This year, as part of our marketing transformation (see earlier), we need to resolve these tensions between ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’. This will play out in organisational design but also in our processes, culture and capability development.

4. Digital marketing trends for 2017

There is an increasingly blurred line between ‘digital marketing’ and ‘marketing’ but the following trends focus on the digital elements of marketing.

4.1 Digital Transformation

Econsultancy’s recent research on The New Marketing Reality with IBM highlights the many challenges facing digital marketing:

  • fragmentation and complexity.
  • challenges in understanding the customer journey.
  • challenges with organisational and data silos.
  • confusion around metrics and what good looks like.
  • managing both generalist and specialist agencies and vendors at the same time.
  • lack of capability in areas like data and customer experience.
  • lack of clarity in strategy and leadership.

There is nothing particularly new here and there will not be for 2017. The challenges in becoming a digitally adept and mature organisation are many and will take years to work through.

2017 will continue to see a mix of initiatives which, on the one hand, deliberately create ‘elite’ digital units (McKinsey talk about ‘war-room teams’) in an attempt to move at speed and, on the other hand, attempts to integrate and unify ‘digital’ and ‘traditional’ within a single marketing function. In practice most organisations will do both at the same time.

Digital will also need better ‘ops’ (see the earlier section on marketing transformation), particularly in the area of data. Ops can help corral disjointed data and wrangle the complexity of channel silos.

Digital will also be in the vanguard as organisations seek to become more agile and better at design thinking, customer experience optimisation and product management.

Non-Executive Directors with digital expertise will stay in great demand. There will be more Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) but the rate of growth in this job title may have peaked.

4.2 Data and marketing automation

2016 was a big year for marketing automation. Martech outshone adtech. Companies like Oracle, Adobe and IBM went on a spending spree to acquire capabilities to bolster their martech offerings across areas including programmatic, personalisation, video and social.

Last year also saw a lot of talk about using data to optimise marketing including customer insight, personalisation, automation, conversion rate optimisation, multichannel, and predictive analytics.

2017 will primarily be about putting these things into action. For most, ‘marketing automation’ is, initially, just better email marketing. Improved customer onboarding, retention or renewal sequences, more refined trigger-driven messaging, more personalisation, introducing lead scoring and lead nurturing.

This practice is then extended into other channels as data becomes more joined up and the ‘direct marketing’ of email becomes joined to the ‘above the line’ of advertising with programmatic media.

4.3 Artificial intelligence

Earlier I noted that AI will permeate all areas of marketing so is not a discipline in itself. But it will be the digital experts within the marketing function who will be expected to take the lead in how AI is adopted by organisations.

Indeed, Econsultancy researched our subscribers to ask who is responsible for defining the role of AI-powered marketing within their organisations and 61% stated it was the marketing function.

The applications of AI in marketing for 2017 sit most obviously in the digital marketing disciplines: AI for content curation (e.g. smart recommendations); AI for customer service (particularly digital/social service); AI for content generation (e.g. email copy or video content); AI for sentiment analysis (e.g. social listening); AI for CRM (e.g. smarter loyalty or sales insights); AI for intelligent digital advertising optimisation; AI to power chatbots (e.g. for assistance in finding products or content).

4.4 Content marketing

As per Gartner’s Hype Cycle, 2017 sees content marketing moving through the slope of enlightenment and entering its plateau of productivity. There will be more focus on understanding return on investment, more refined approaches based on learnings to date, more focus on scaling the things that are working, more clarity on roles and capabilities.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle

Scott Brinker has an interesting view on what he terms the 4th Wave of Content Marketing and I agree that 2017 will see more focus on interactive experiences beyond static content or even rich content like video.

Video, as a form of content, will still be an active area of experimentation during 2017: vertical video, shorter and longer form video, video captioning and optimisation for stream viewing, live streaming, social video ads etc.

4.5 Social

“Social” is a very broad term these days. Plenty of activity to expect in 2017 across social:

Social care – deeper integration of social channels into customer service and care.

Social CRM – similarly to customer care, social data and touchpoints will become more closely integrated with backend CRM systems.

Dark social and messaging – more brands running private social groups, experiments with chatbots, greater usage of messaging as a medium both internally (e.g. Slack) and externally through integrations with Facebook Messenger or trials with WhatsApp groups and, for B2B, setting up messaging groups on LinkedIn.

Emerging platforms – social is at the forefront of experimentation with emerging platforms and formats. Last year it was Meerkat and Pinterest; this year I expect we will see more activity around Snap, Instagram and WeChat (even in the West).

Social answering – I have not yet come up with a name I am happy with for this… but essentially it is about listening for relevant conversations, or questions, taking place online and then participating and answering in order to drive awareness, traffic and search rankings.

In B2B this might be answering, or commenting on, content posted to LinkedIn; if you were targeting developers you would do this but on Stack Overflow; Quora, among others, has become a much bigger driver of traffic so it is worth answering relevant questions there.

Social amplification – thankfully there is less talk of ‘going viral’ as relates to social. But 2017 should see efforts in understanding how to use social to distribute, augment and amplify content and messaging.

There is a skillset to optimising this: the best practitioners know how to orchestrate social channels to maximise amplification. In its simplest form this is about choreographing how, and when, content is published. Enterprise social management software now allows for more sophisticated scheduling and provides the analytical insights to optimise it.

Influencer marketing – this is not just about ‘social’, of course, but 2017 will see continued efforts to identify and understand who the ‘new influencers’ might be for your brand and then engage with them, socially, commercially and through PR.

Social media advertising – driven largely by the emerging platforms as well as increasing experimentation by more traditional media owners, 2017 will offer a whole range of new ad formats, experiences and commercial models for agencies and their clients to experiment with.

5. Hot topics but still not significant in marketing for 2017

Our own Econsultancy research says that marketers are excited about VR, AR and IoT for 2017.

So perhaps I will get some criticism for having the temerity to suggest these are not likely to form a significant part of an average marketer’s job this year. Unless you work for GAFA (Google Apple Facebook Amazon) that is.

My thoughts on some of these topics:

AR (augmented reality) – sure Pokémon Go was a great use of AR but most of us are not gaming businesses. AR has many great applications but it still does not feel like it will go mainstream for marketers in 2017.

That said, the iPhone 8 release this year could change that with ‘mixed reality’ getting a big boost.

VR (virtual reality) – there is huge hype and investment around VR including from GAFAM (I have added Microsoft because of HoloLens) so it should go large some time. But this year?

The hardware requirements are still too onerous, the tech and apps too fragmented, the use cases mostly gaming or too niche, for most marketers to spend much time focusing on VR this year. As with AR, VR’s adoption could be turbocharged by the iPhone 8 release this year.

IoT (Internet of Things) – there are some fantastic examples of successful IoT services, a lot in B2B, and this will only grow. But I am less convinced there is an obvious opportunity for marketers yet.

As more products and things become connected, however, there is a really interesting customer-product relationship marketing opportunity. We should see more early examples of that this year.

Wearables – I am still not convinced there are enough use cases for most marketers to get excited about the wearables opportunity.

3D PrintingI wrote about 3D printing almost three years ago. The technology has improved, of course, but I’m still not clear how this is particularly relevant for marketers?

Blockchainimportant, exciting, disruptive, but not clear to me how marketing can leverage this, unless perhaps for identity management and authentication.

Beacons – still not doing it for me.

But what do you think? Feel free to post any thoughts or links to your own digital/marketing trends and predictions for 2017.