At E-consultancy’s Future of Digital Marketing conference last week, leading industry experts took a pragmatic approach to predicting future trends.

Rather than gazing mistily into the crystal ball 20 years into the future, the conference focused on “right here, right now,” talking about how marketers can leverage existing technologies to be more innovative.

It’s all very well talking about the latest technological developments, but it’s clear that far too many companies are still off the mark when it comes to incorporating the latest tools into their marketing strategy and digital campaigns.

Last year, E-consultancy hosted the “What’s New in Digital Marketing?” conference. The change in title is significant, illustrating that the future of digital marketing isn’t necessarily about understanding emerging new technologies, but rather about incorporating the tools of today into tomorrow’s web strategy.

This was echoed in a presentation by the executive chair of mydeco, Brent Hoberman. Whilst certain verticals such as fashion and the home furnishings industry have harnessed the power of “Web 2.0” to offer a completely new e-tailing experience, there are still many industries where disruptive growth has not yet occurred.

As Ian Jindal put it later that afternoon, it’s a bit like “lipstick on a pig”  – shiny new web tools used to disguise the same old hackneyed web strategies. The tools are here now; it’s just that many marketers haven’t been quick enough off the mark to utilise them in their campaigns.

This raises a key question about the definition of innovation: it’s not about companies running a PR campaign that incorporates a Facebook application, for example. Innovation is really about the how companies leverage new technology to add value for their customers, rather just using technology for technology’s sake.

Thus, companies must recognise the broader trends in this brave new world of customer empowerment and Web 2.0 which ultimately shape their approach to marketing.

Is ROI a barrier to innovation?

At last week’s event, Brent Hoberman spoke about how competitive advantage for digital businesses often comes from having “fewer, smarter people” within the organisation, with a more agile and flexible company culture.

As Brent maintained, being truly innovative requires taking risks, which is often easier for smaller digital businesses than for long-established corporate entities, whose key objectives are focused on cutting costs and maximising ROI.
However, opinion was divided on the day over whether a sole focus on ROI prevents risk-taking and empowerment of front-line managers. It’s clear that there has to be a balance between taking risks and maximising revenue, as ultimately managers are concerned with the impact on the bottom-line.

It’s all about me, me, me

Personalisation, a natural consequence of greater customer empowerment, was a key theme on the day. “Co-creation” (popularised by management guru, C.K. Prahalad) has resulted in a cultural shift with an emerging generation of truly empowered customers, who want an always-on, on-demand service, anytime, anywhere, any place.

As Alison Lancaster, marketing manager for Charles Tyrwhitt, stated, as retail moves from e-tail to “me-tail,” marketing needs to be decentralised and highly customer-centric. As there is a shift from push to pull marketing, it’s no longer good enough for companies to offer a selection of products that customers pick and choose from. Rather, companies need to employ strategies that put customers in the driving seat.

At its very core, new media goes beyond just pushing the same old marketing spiel through a particular channel. As this video illustrates, it’s ultimately about reaching users who are seeking content that they are interested in, rather than it being pushed to them by a conglomerate.

Threadless, the community-centred online apparel store provides the best example of this. It’s important not to overlook the fact that the Threadless business model, of course, will not apply to all industries but, nevertheless, the company provides some important lessons in shifting control to the customer.

Moving on from this, Brent Hoberman spoke about “CRM 2.0”, where there will be greater integration of social technologies into ratings and reviews website, such as TripAdvisor. The next logical step for reviews websites will be further personalisation through behavioural targeting that will allow customers to read reviews from “people like me.”

Get Web 1.0 right first

Part of the challenge for companies in a Web 2.0 world is changing old legacy platforms, which aren’t properly architected in the first place. Beyond just the technology limits, however, companies need to get the basics right in terms of offering a clear USP and a key point of differentiation.

For example, one of the key reasons that companies such as Innocent drinks have been successful in implementing a social media strategy is that Innocent offers a clear brand proposition and have built trust and transparency with their customers in the first place.

Greater integration between online and offline

A significant barrier is the lack of co-ordination between online and offline channels, although this is starting to change with the introduction of mobile voucher technology and credit card tracking. However, in the future, it’s clear that rather than being seen an just another channel to market through, digital will take up the lion’s share of  the overall marketing budget.

In addition, more websites will move to recreating the offline store experience when shopping online. Fashion sites such as KnickerPicker, Oli and mydeco are already changing the rules of engagement, and this is expected to continue as screen quality improves and shopping online becomes more about sharing content.

The new rules  of the game

Simon Waldman, director of of digital strategy at Guardian Media Group talked about how publishers need to think less like media owners and more like a network, given that the internet offers limitless space for pushing through content, a huge shift away from media distributed via newspapers and magazines.

Thinking like a network is crucial for companies across all industries, particularly as the ‘irrelevant corporate website’ evolves to provide value for the customer over and above providing value for the brand.

It’s clear that innovation begins with a change of mindset in the first place, and understanding the opportunities afforded by new technologies and greater customer empowerment.