Whenever a new year begins, the technology world takes a minute to make some predictions. I’m not so bold to say I know enough about the entire techno-economy to make many predictions. So I’m not going to make any. However, I am going to keep an eye out on a couple of things, and as such, I figured now is a good time to share these thoughts. If you are a prospective or existing client, these are things we may talk about at some point as they could affect you or your marketing campaigns one way or another. So, in no particular order, here are a few things I’ll be keeping a lookout for in 2019.
We’re all familiar with GDPR. Most in our business are familiar because of the number of changes we had to make to privacy policies, terms of service, website functionality to deliver disclaimers, etc., especially if you do business in the EU. However, in the United States, no such regulation exists. Just in case you were living under a rock for the past three years, you can read up on the basics of GDPR in this nicely generalized piece that explains it. In the United States, no similar law exists, and this is starting to make people a bit uneasy. Having a scroll through my own Facebook feed shows how many people are sharing posts that indicate their data is not for sale. While ineffective, this does give you an idea of how many people care about the issue.
One idea behind GDPR is data ownership. In the EU, it’s compulsory to now give every user access to their data. In the United States, most companies have already begun to comply. Moreover, right before Christmas, Facebook announced that they were going to make it easier to download all of your data. Google already has a product called Takeout which allows you access to all of your data within their platform. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter are teaming up for the Data Transfer Project which provides for a framework of data portability between platforms.
How does this affect you? Well, first, let me return to my point… Regulation is coming, and it’s coming fast. “Fast” is a relative term, however, when it comes to government. Eventually, there will be a level of data regulation in the United States, and when it does occur, we’ll all need to comply. While what this means for you and your business is still up in the air, you can assume that any website or application collecting data from users will be subject to this regulation and be forced to make any changes necessary to come into compliance.
Overall, I think the regulation of the online industry is warranted. It’s been the wild west for a bit too long. I’ve always said that there should be regulation for web designers and developers, and especially marketers – the industry is a bit out of control with way too many people getting ripped off. But first, we should focus on data, privacy, and security - issues that touch all of us as consumers and users. Big stories like election tampering and hacks brought these issues into the mainstream, frankly a bit late, but now it’s time to take action.
So what is my advice to customers? Get familiar with GDPR if you haven’t already, and follow the news. It’ll be a regular topic in the coming months. At some point, you may need to focus on what the regulations look like as they are being formulated, and prepare a plan of attack to be within compliance. A good place to start may be by studying up on GDPR, because it is likely whatever happens in the United States will closely mimic that series of regulations.
Changes in Social
I find that the landscape of social media is changing pretty quickly. A lot of this relates to the above point regarding data, and some of it can be attributed to user behavior and other geo-political causations. However, it isn’t just those reasons but also about the services these social networks provide. Remember, everything in this post is opinion and you may disagree, but my feelings on social media are that the social networks we use are all struggling with maintaining the balance of what they do well versus policing various problems that exist with the services.
Facebook, for example, is probably the one network that has changed the most. Certainly, the audience using the app is still substantial, but it is much different than it used to be. While Facebook may be growing its user base worldwide, I do believe usage in the United States is on its way down. The amount of people in this survey that say they use Facebook on their mobile devices has been flat for a couple of years. I believe that there is much working against Facebook’s core platform these days. First, I think many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have a level of distrust for the platform after the 2016 election. The election tampering and manipulation of news is just a bridge too far for too many people. In addition, the medium served as a great place to get into those nasty political arguments with your second cousin from four states over. Need more evidence to support the decline in usage theory? In the second and third quarter of 2018, Facebook usage in Europe declined. It’s going to happen here also, and probably soon.
From an audience perspective, younger folks are flooding to networks that offer a more unique type of experience where content is being provided in even smaller bits and pieces. So SnapChat and Instagram (a Facebook property) are growing at a faster pace. I believe that the behavior of these users indicates that they want a more frequent look at what’s happening in their world with much smaller bites of content. These platforms also make it harder to sink into the cesspool of debate and discussion. Instagram comments are somewhat clunky, and it is harder to engage in debate or to troll quite as you can on Facebook.
I think the one network I’m still bullish on is Twitter. It does the best of allowing people to curate content from content providers they want to follow, and it does a decent job of separating the garbage we don’t want to see. For example, it’s easy to see original content contributed by people on Twitter, leaving the retweets and other waste aside. I find that my behavior has me checking Twitter more for my daily news, where I follow individual reporters and news stations. Even when I need local news in a pinch, Twitter is typically the first place I go. In the long game of Facebook vs. Twitter, I see a pathway for Twitter to become more valuable as a daily tool that we use.
Amazon, Amazon, Amazon
It’s odd to say that Amazon is still an emerging power, but I believe it is. Amazon has already influenced so much of our life, and I believe it’s still going to get stronger and stronger. The upside potential here is enormous, and in many ways surpasses those of the competition. I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and the luster that you saw companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook have has generally deteriorated over time. Each has their own set of issues to deal with, whether it be the aforementioned data puzzle or other things such as manufacturing issues or similar. Amazon has stayed above the fray of many of the current, and they are still just interrupting other places. I think it's somewhat interesting that of the major tech players, Amazon in many ways never wanted to be as sexy or forthcoming about their plans for worldwide domination as the other players did. They just focused on providing a smooth and efficient customer experience from a more utility point of view. And look at the success they've had!
Where can Amazon move the needle next? Think advertising. Quietly, Amazon has become one of the leaders in online advertising services. In 2018, they consolidated their ad products into a single system known as “Amazon Advertising.” Why should you care? Well, if you are selling products on Amazon, you should understand how this works as soon as you can because soon enough your competition will embrace it.
I predict growth in this area will outperform expectations because of the amount of noise from agencies. As more and more agencies are selling services managing these campaigns, it makes sense that the growth of their advertising platform will follow.
Possibly Deteriorating Economic Conditions
I don’t ever want to be the guy who says that the sky is falling, but, inevitably a good run has to come to a close. The combination of rising interest rates, political uncertainty and instability, and the possible regulation I mentioned above are going to hit the broader economy at some point. 2018 being a down year for the US equity markets makes me worry a bit, and the fact that tech stocks, in general, were walloped (including Apple losing 30% of its market cap) makes it feel a bit more like 1999 than anything else.
An economic slowdown in the past spelled better than average things for digital. In 2008, the industry did relatively well, in that digital became a more suitable place to invest dollars than the traditional methods, and marketers flooded to the space. As such, during that downturn, there wasn’t a massive digital recession. I feel that the medium perhaps has the strength to weather the storm again; however, it may hurt some players more than others.
If a downturn does present itself, I’m unsure it affects online advertising as quickly as it will affect other areas, provided that digital advertising isn't totally caught off-guard by any overreaching regulations. Print and traditional terrestrial broadcasting will feel the effects first. To put it bluntly, the mediums that are already on the decline will merely see that decline accelerate. Digital will in that way be one of the last areas where any adverse effects are shown - again - provided the government doesn't accelerate the fire with any added fuel.
I believe that a downturn can be survived via optimization of your digital channels. This means that brands will have to determine if they are putting dollars to best use. In the agency space, I think an economic downturn could be broadly beneficial, provided the agency knows what they are doing. I believe that many of the smaller, tertiary agency players may see an impact as they are fed by smaller businesses who will feel the pinch quickly. Also, many agency customers will be much more performance driven which will mean those that are unable to provide results will have negative consequences.
Overall, if the economy does take a turn for the worse, remember that digital marketing is still the most economical way to get access to the specific eyeballs that want to purchase your product, and on top of that the easiest to analyze with actual statistical insight. That isn’t an opinion but rather a fact, and because of that, digital will always outperform other mediums even in a recessed economic environment.
State of “Inbound Marketing”
So much has been said of the theory of “inbound marketing,” a term coined by HubSpot to brand their style of content marketing. While content marketing makes a ton of sense, I think that the last year or two proved to us that it’s just one technique that must work in combination with many other tactics. A holistic perspective on digital marketing must include not only content marketing, but paid advertising on social and search channels, in addition to other techniques such as video distribution and webinars. The theory behind content marketing still makes much sense, and many of the specific strategies don’t need to change, but they cannot work well in a silo without additional techniques.
My recommendations to clients seeking digital marketing advice in 2019 are to embrace content marketing in addition to paid campaigns which can result in a well-rounded approach to digital traffic and lead generation. Customers want to determine if your company is credible or not. One way to bolster credibility is to be a thought leader and a content creator as well as having a series of vibrant social media channels. However, traffic and customer acquisition through those means from an organic perspective is difficult. It can take years for organic traffic to grow enough to move the needle. You need to have a paid search and paid social component to speed up the process and show results from day one. HubSpot saw this coming in years past and added paid advertising tools to their offering. Today and going forward, I expect them to embrace the concept even more as there is most definitely a ceiling that exists when it comes to content marketing as a sole revenue generator.
2019: Hit or Miss?
Overall, I’m optimistic about 2019 while still being a bit concerned about broader economic conditions. Some level of regulation will serve the industry well, and people need to be able to control a bit more of their data, privacy and digital safety. If a downturn does become a reality this year, my feeling is that it will affect digital the least, though some major players could feel some pain, especially those in the device sector. In the aggregate, this is a good time for our clients and business owners, in general, to sharpen the saw, reevaluate what is and isn’t working, and continue dedicating an appropriate amount of resources towards their digital growth.