We’ve published a list of digital and marketing trends every January at Econsultancy for well over a decade, and have been training marketers for the better part of 20 years.

Looking back at some of our annual predictions since 2010, three types of trend stand out:

  • Trends that feel nostalgic, ideas that quickly became amusing tropes and came to pass slowly then quickly (the ‘year of mobile’, ‘content is king’, real-time etc.).
  • Ideas that endure in digital and are still the hallmark of innovative brands (the ‘humanisation’ of the user experience, integrated marcomms or cross-channel experiences, personalisation, privacy and trust).
  • Shiny tech that was considered with scepticism, or at least was/is unpredictable (internet of things, augmented reality, Web3).

What is striking about trends reports this year and last is the hegemony of AI (we developed our own eLearning and short course on the topic in 2023). Whether we are all now more susceptible to hype is up for debate, but the discussion around AI feels more akin to that associated with a platform shift (e.g. ‘year of mobile’), than it does to a shiny distraction such as the metaverse. Though we have a trend dedicated to generative AI in this year’s roundup, its presence is also felt in sections on data, customer experience and creativity.

So, without further ado, here is our list of trends for 2024…

  1. Data haves and have nots
    1.1 Owned channels, owned audiences
    1.2 Data aggregation (or, from silos to warehouses)
    1.3 Data science (and literacy) acceleration
  2. Customers are more than a conversion
    2.1 Supercharged CRM (and ‘continuous commerce’)
    2.2 CX must rise up the priority list
    2.3 A rebound for trust
  3. Creative experiences
    3.1 Value-based innovation
  4. GenAI: Beyond the cool demo
    4.1 Delivering business value
    4.2 A threat to the content ecosystem?
  5. People as competitive advantage
    5.1 Complexity demands sustainable capability

1. Data haves and have nots

Summary:

Businesses that already have in place the right data architecture, skills and literacy will have the jump on their competition in a year when the outlook for consumer confidence remains uncertain. And if proprietary or industry-specific AI models fulfil their potential, some companies could be left behind.

Data is good, with all the usual caveats – it has to be quality data, you need to be able to manipulate it, interrogate it, “get the dose right” (as Helen Edwards writes) and put it to use.

And though your company size and category may go some way to dictating the scale of your data, and your IT and Ops resource, it feels like now or never to invest in data and insight capability.

Econsultancy’s 2023 Future of Marketing survey revealed this was the top spending priority for marketers over the next two years, and a recent WFA survey found that 22% of major multinational brand respondents expect to move more data strategy work in-house over the next three years, with 11% planning to do so with data management and analytics, as they seek to build more agile and sustainable capability in this area.

How do you expect budget changes to manifest over the next two years? Source: Econsultancy’s 2023 Future of Marketing survey | Sample: 538

1.1 Owned channels, owned audiences

When we looked specifically at ecommerce in our 2024 roundups, Wulfric Light-Wilkinson of performance marketing solution Wunderkind told us, “optimising owned channels will become the defining factor in successful ecommerce performance”.

There are several trends that continue to bolster the importance of first-party data. They include:

  • Privacy changes: advertiser first-party data is seen as the best replacement for third-party browser and mobile identifiers (in a DoubleVerify poll) – hence the burgeoning market for data clean rooms;
  • Loyalty programmes: consumers are looking for value (and a value exchange), leading to the explosion of loyalty schemes and member pricing;
  • Customer retention: marketers want to retain customers in tough times (see our later section on CRM);
  • Retail media: many businesses with lots of first-party data (notably big retailers) have created ad networks and therefore new revenue streams (in the case of Uber, this strategy looks key to achieving profitability).

In parts, this section might sound like a reprise of ‘data is the new oil’, and indeed when we spoke to some data experts to get their predictions for the year, they updated the now-clichéd phrase. Kevin O’Farrell, Associate Vice President at Analytic Partners, said, “Data is (still) the new oil… However… we must understand both the benefits and risks associated with mining it, such as concerns about privacy, security, and ethical use.”

1.2 Data aggregation (or, from silos to warehouses)

Data silos are always a big talking point at Econsultancy roundtables when we talk to marketers. How can data be brought together to extract greater insight?

In Scott Brinker and Frans Riemersma’s Martech 2024 report, the authors discuss how the aggregation of data (from sales, service, digital products, CLV models etc.) is being enabled by the rise of cloud data warehouses (CDWs) such as Snowflake and Databricks.

“The past two decades of martech have operated in a tech stack environment where each app had its own private database. Most martech integrations were about exchanging limited slices of that private data between apps,” write Brinker and Riemersma.

However, the report describes the pressure that “business apps of all kinds” have faced, “to push their data into CDWs, where it could be more flexibly combined and manipulated.”

Readers should check out the report in full for some illuminating charts on how composable CDPs, data warehouses and their bi-directional sharing of data with martech apps have created a new world of connected data across organisations.

Connecting data will be vital, not just for efficiencies in a changing advertising landscape, but – as Snowflake’s own report for 2024 predicts – to make use of generative AI.

“The generative AI era… calls for an acceleration of the trend toward breaking down silos and opening access to data sources wherever they might be in the organization,” says Jennifer Belissent, Principal Data Strategist at Snowflake.

This is echoed in an article on AI and data science trends by Thomas H. Davenport and Randy Bean in MIT Sloan Management Review. Discussing the investment and change needed to take advantage of generative AI, they write, “Perhaps the most important change will involve data – curating unstructured content, improving data quality, and integrating diverse sources.”

1.3 Data science (and literacy) acceleration

So, we’ve outlined the importance of first-party data, and its integration/flexibility. But what about the skills needed to change data to insight?

One of Davenport and Bean’s trends is the notion that data science is “shifting from artisanal to industrial”. They cite the accelerating production of data science models with investment “in platforms, processes and methodologies, feature stores, machine learning operations (MLOps) systems, and other tools to increase productivity and deployment rates.”

Whether this is managed in-house or not, many foresee a competitive market of industry-specific foundational models.

Part of this trend of accelerating data science is also the slightly paradoxical notion that, as Davenport and Bean assert, the rise of citizen data science is one factor “reducing the demand for professional data scientists”.

If new tools are indeed democratising data science, it’s reasonable to point out the need for good standards of data literacy and governance. As Andrew Hood of Lynchpin Analytics puts it, “everyone has plenty of data, but if we can’t successfully categorise its meaning then the information to data ratio can be lacking. And we’ll be feeding models increasingly unhealthy diets and reaping what we sow in that regard.”

Interested in data and analytics training? View our training pages.

2. Customers are more than a conversion

Summary:

Though businesses are under pressure to acquire new customers and to make efficiency savings, customers want more than newly shrunken products pushed at them. They want to feel appreciated, and (in many cases) more than a mere transaction. The most innovative brands understand the value of experience, and advances in CRM and loyalty make it possible to have deeper customer relationships.

“It’s going to be a tough year, with a lot of pressure to turn analysts into conversion specialists. Conversion rate optimisation is important, but analytics leaders need be brave enough to advocate for the long-term benefits of insight and analysis. Those that do will reap the benefits in 2025.”

This quote from John Clarvis, Data & Insights Director at The Kite Factory, is the perfect segue from our first trend all about data to one about customer centricity.

In our 2023 Future of Marketing report, Nelson Tsai, Digital Director of PHD Media in Singapore, summarises the balance that marketers need to strike:

“Over the next couple of years, there will be a greater emphasis on customer retention alongside customer acquisition. Of course, it will still be important to acquire new customers for business growth in the future. However, retaining existing clients and fostering long-term loyalty will also become a key strategic focus.”

Tsai continues, predicting “increased investment in initiatives such as personalised marketing campaigns and loyalty programmes designed to enhance the customer experience and deepen customer engagement.”

Which leads us on to…

2.1 Supercharged CRM (and ‘continuous commerce’)

This section isn’t just about loyalty programmes, but look at some of the most sophisticated brands which have been investing in mobile and loyalty, such as McDonald’s and Tesco. Be it ordering in-app instead of within a restaurant, or taking advantage of member pricing, there’s a mix of experience, personalisation (automatic re-ordering, personalised offers) and relationship (Tesco Unpacked, McDonald’s Rewards, recent locations).

A trends report from Tesco Media and Insight platform refers to the concept of ‘continuous commerce’. The idea is that although ‘big shops’ still happen, “baskets are always being built, shoppers consciously and subconsciously deciding what they’ll add next”.

“As well as engaging shoppers around promotions, events, and seasonal periods, [brands] can continue the conversation in the spaces in between, too.”

Of course, the context of the Tesco Media and Insight report is the value of retail media, but it describes eloquently the step change that great CRM and loyalty programmes can effect, driven by mobile pushes or an app on your home screen.

And for those brands without a loyalty programme or an app, humble CRM is still seeing rapid developments. Many platforms added AI-powered functionality in 2023 in areas such as:

  • natural language generation, to create subject lines and adjust the style of copy;
  • image generation, crafting product shots, for example;
  • computer vision, allowing image categorisation within an asset library;
  • and decisioning, to predict best combinations of creative, manage frequency etc., all tied back to customer profiles.

Even with AI unleashed, the future of CRM is not necessarily segments of one, but there is a middle ground of impactful content storytelling – getting customers to help shape their interests and CRM preferences.

In a recent interview with Econsultancy, Claire Jefferies, who has held loyalty and CRM roles at the likes of SSE and EE said, “Too many of the marketing messages that I receive are product push – they lack relevance, they don’t reflect my needs as a customer, and most important of all – they don’t make me buy your product.”

2.2 CX must rise up the priority list

Back to our 2023 Future of Marketing survey again, where the vast majority of marketers (95%) said they see customer experience as playing either a significant – or very significant – role in organisational success over the next two years.

Despite this, we know customers feel that some brands are no longer being customer-centric, but finding ways to make savings. They are aware of changes in the size of products (shrinkflation), or quality of products or services (skimpflation). And “efficiencies aren’t efficient if they cause your customers to walk” (HT to Accenture Life Trends).

To meet customers’ expectations means focusing on what drives longer-term satisfaction, loyalty and retention, rather than on just short-term tactics. So, we are seeing calls for customer experience to rise back up the priority list as a route to growth. And building trust with customers is a key part of that.

2.3 A rebound for trust

Amidst global uncertainty, misinformation and the rise of AI, people want to know who they can trust.

Whilst this may not mean brands need a purpose to cut through (that debate has been had), consumers still want sympathetic and helpful brands. They want some degree of transparency; they often want a human in the customer service loop.

Shein and Temu may have grown because people want product at a low price, but equally, M&S has rebounded because (alongside more fashionable and pared-down clothing lines) people still trust the brand to deliver quality.

A trends report from IBM’s Institute for Business value contends that, “Uniquely human traits such as creativity (the skill business leaders see as most valuable by 2025), nuanced decision-making, and empathy will become even more important.”

Indeed, people can often spot LLM-generated copy because it remains uncanny, and it doesn’t inspire trust, unless its use is clearly labelled. The same goes for AI-generated imagery, if it looks off-brand.

Forrester’s 2024 predictions report also flags a rebound for trust in media. “In a world of misinformation fueled by AI-generated images, deepfakes, and faux human influencers, together with social media’s disintegrating reputation, news outlets such as The New York Times and the BBC, as well as independent journalists, will become coveted sources of information.”

Interested in customer experience training? See our courses on customer needs, understanding CX with data, and customer journey mapping.

3. Creative experiences

Summary:

Attention is limited and customers want a worthwhile value exchange. Creative effectiveness is vital, so too is value-based innovation.

Last year, in our 2023 trends and predictions, we highlighted the value of creativity and the need for businesses to make time to be creative.

This was based on a clear message emerging from our Digital Trends research with Adobe. Close to two thirds (62%) of senior executives agreed that their organisations had become more efficient, but it had been at the cost of the time or freedom needed to be creative. Practitioners agreed, with 44% citing lack of time to be creative as a key customer experience barrier.

We know that the attention of customers is an incredibly limited resource. Brands need to find ways to stand out in the competitive environment and be relevant. Delivering creatively can help to do this.

The power of creativity in a tough economic environment was supported by the findings of Marketing Week’s Language of Effectiveness survey with Kantar.

According to the research, 80% of brand-side marketers believe that creative effectiveness is the most or one of the most influential factors in the overall success of a campaign (see chart below). The importance marketers put on the quality of creative is also rising with nearly two-thirds (61%) of respondents claiming they have increased their focus on creative in the past year, with close to a quarter saying it has increased substantially.

And it’s not just campaigns. There are creative ecommerce experiences out there, even in a world of homogeneous design. Running brand Brooks, for example, has a Shoe Finder on its D2C website.

A quiz experience helps customers to find their perfect shoe. It’s quick and easy to complete and helps customers reflect on how they position their feet when walking and the relative pressure being placed on their knee joints, in addition to asking customers about their fitness goals. It also gives customers a link that provides the science behind the questions.

This is a creative way to search a catalogue, for the filter-weary or the first-time buyer.

3.1 Value-based innovation

The example from Brooks Shoes shows the way creativity can be used to add value. The idea of value-based innovation is proposed by Ogilvy in a paper written in 2022. There will be similar challenges of economic instability for consumers and businesses in 2024.

The key theme of Ogilvy’s work was that brands who want to successfully weather a period of high inflation should be moving beyond traditional promotions and messaging strategies and aiming to deliver a meaningful, positive impact on consumers, the business and the brand.

A good example of this type of thinking is a tool we found via Dentsu Creative’s 2024 trends report. The Inflation Cookbook is an AI-powered meal planner created by Dentsu and Skip the Dishes, a Canadian food delivery brand. It tracks volatile grocery prices and generates recipes in response to real-time pricing data. It therefore helps people source affordable, nutritious food and maximise their grocery budgets by keeping tabs on over 400 items at more than 80 locations nationwide.

Whilst this particular project may function more as a PR tool, with Skip the Dishes being a supporter of Food Banks Canada, it demonstrates the power of creativity when applied to customer value.

In 2024 there is a real opportunity for brands. Creativity should be seen as an investment, not an expense, and one that drives differentiation and business transformation.

the inflation cookbook
The Inflation Cookbook. Image: Dentsu

4. Gen AI: Beyond the cool demo

Summary:

There are two considerations we raise for marketers in these early stages of generative AI development. One is what a flood of cheap(er) content across the web means for how your brand is found. And the other is how to apply this technology to deliver true business value.

2023 was a banner year for robots. Generative AI has really dominated all trend discourse for the last 14 months.

In fact, as Google Media Lab’s Matt Bell writes, “AI has eaten all other trends.”

This makes a lot of sense. We were all impressed by what these tools were able to do. They bring to mind that famous Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

However, while 2023 may have been the year of the cool demo, a key question we will hear more and more this year is ‘how useful actually are they?’.

4.1 Delivering business value

It’s no surprise that generative AI and the foundational models that support it are currently to be found at the very top of “the peak of inflated expectations” in the famous Gartner hype cycle.

And after such a rise, inevitably, comes a fall. At some point soon generative AI will be heading down that slope, and into the trough of disillusionment.

However, as we’ve seen up until now, generative AI’s path on the cycle has been traversed quickly, from speed of adoption through to technical improvements. This suggests its fall may not be very deep, and it may not be languishing in the trough for very long.

The key piece of advice here is, of course, to be wary of hype, and to focus on use cases that deliver real business value. Be realistic about what to implement and why.

These technologies will come into their own – in the first instance – behind the scenes; supporting productivity, whether through assistants or other packaged applications. We are already seeing trials of such bots, designed to increase access to internal knowledge, summarise information and speed up routine tasks.

Two of the greatest headwinds for generative AI are the threat of regulation, particularly in Europe, and legal challenges around the use of copyrighted data for the training of these models – most visibly in a New York Times lawsuit against OpenAI.

But, more broadly, and likely beyond just this year, we could be looking at a platform shift, of the type that tend to happen on a 10-15 year cycle, the last one having been smartphones and the adoption of cloud computing.

In your view, what are the biggest challenges to your organisation’s use of generative AI in marketing over the next two years? (Select up to three) Source: Econsultancy’s Future of Marketing survey | Sample: 388

4.2 A threat to the content ecosystem?

Platform shifts tend to change the world in unexpected and unpredictable ways. But that’s not to say these tools aren’t already having an effect (and not always for the good).

Which is what we see with our next key trend – an existential threat to the web as we currently understand it.

There are well-understood risks and challenges around the use of generative AI within marketing and ecommerce. These include the danger of incorrect or damaging content being put out there if there are not the correct safeguards or human oversight in place, as well as copyright risks and potential brand damage from uncanny content.

We’ve seen people call out AI-generated imagery on social media, including recently when games company Wizards of the Coast admitted to using “some AI components” in a marketing image, after initialling claiming the image was “created by humans and not AI”.

But beyond marketing decision-making, there is a sense of uncertainty around the future of the content ecosystem as a whole – at least as we currently understand it – thanks to the outstanding question of ‘just where will web traffic come from should generative search come to dominate?’.

One possible version of events would see AI-powered conversational search experiences (like Google’s Search Generative Experience) push out the usual list of links and meta descriptions on the results page, with businesses then shifting their SEO efforts into engineering citations in these AI snippets.

But there’s also a nearer-term threat to the current content ecosystem due to the fact that:

  • satisfaction with the usefulness of search results is already in decline;
  • and this could be accelerated due to a flood of GenAI content;
  • and as such, we may see more users shift onto other, more human-orientated platforms, in search of answers.

We already see users appending the word ‘Reddit’ to their search queries in order to ensure they get answers and content from actual people, rather than SEO spam designed to maximise ad views or referral traffic, all at the lowest cost.

The basic zero cost of AI-generated content is only going to accelerate the production of this junk content to be found on the web, and in your search results.

For marketers, this will only add to the existing challenge of achieving cut-through and will need to be a key consideration in your content marketing plans over the next year.

5. People as competitive advantage

Summary:

This trend is all about putting the emphasis on the value of the human. In last year’s trends we talked about the ‘augmented marketer’ – how AI stands to help human marketers get better at their jobs. This year we want to highlight a return to the fundamentals – the need for a proper grounding in marketing and ecommerce through investment in learning and development.

What do TikTok, Wikipedia and Reddit (at least for the moment) have in common? Their content is produced mainly by real people. Not SEO mines or generative models.

Which brings us on to our next trend – an emphasis on the value of the human.

Michael Moynihan, SVP of Brand, Marketing, Insights and Partnerships at The Lego Group, said it eloquently when interviewed for our Future of Marketing report.

“When we think about what ​will be the core sources of competitive advantage in the future: yes, it will be our brand and our various touchpoints, but the other important pillar of that is our overall talent base,” he said.

5.1 Complexity demands sustainable capability

A thread running through all of our trends (and marketing and ecommerce as a whole) is that of increasing complexity. There’s more content, more data, massive media fragmentation, changing data privacy standards, and the expanding martech landscape (more apps/tools, horizontal platforms with lots of underutilised functionality).

We see brand mascots growing in popularity again, for example, in an effort to bring salience and consistency amid the noise. A recent study from System1 found that Super Bowl commercials featuring brand characters consistently outscored celebrity spots for appeal, brand recognition and commercial impact over the last four years.

Complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has long been analysed in business and within the org, and can imply diversity, adaptability, resilience, coordination, and inimitability (see the Harvard Business Review). And there is light at the end of the tunnel in areas such as martech, where the rise of no-code platforms, and even a future of AI-powered natural language UIs could make using these tools, dare we say, intuitive.

But in our research and conversations with clients, we regularly hear from marketers who are still struggling with all of the competing elements of modern marketing.

A response to complexity may be rediscovering the fundamentals. The strategic understanding that will make for sustainable capability. As Andrew Tenzer says, “We must continue to place great importance on market orientation, and developing a deep understanding of the customer out there in the real world.”

Marketers are going back to school – see Marketing Week’s Mini MBA – and in retail, the rise of the digital shelf has led FMCGs to seek out those with a grounding in ecommerce fundamentals, or to upskill their teams.

But there is still a gap in digital, too. Econsultancy’s 2023 Digital Skills survey showed that just 27% of organisations reported their business currently had the right digital skills in place to achieve their strategic goals.​

Those organisations not investing in their talent’s learning and development run the very real risk of being left behind.

Find out more about Econsultancy training and marketing academies.