Approach with caution: trends for 2018

January 9, 2018

By Kevin Mason, Strategy Director

It’s crystal ball time, where pundits give their opinion on marketing trends for 2018. You know the drill. Rattle through a number of changes coming, comment on how they’re going to radically improve our lives, and advise everyone to include them in their marketing plans.

Without a doubt, the signs are there, big changes are coming. And, as in all times of turmoil, there will be challenges to match. So, for what it’s worth, I think a degree of caution and thought is advisable before setting a course for the year ahead.

The biggest challenge facing us now, I believe, is the potential to disconnect from our customers as the complexity of our technology increases.

  • Forbes Chief Insight Officer reported that 84% of companies had failed digital transformation projects at the beginning of last year. Let’s be honest, how many companies can say their systems deliver a truly seamless customer experience yet?
  • The data and processing that steers technology’s connection with customer needs will be restricted through GDPR privacy legislation this year. This will hit many organisations hard, as an over-reliance on big data pools and automation has inevitably led to a degree of lazy marketing. These practices won’t be acceptable any more.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) marketing engines promise to market autonomously on our behalf, leaving us to strategise and be creative. Copy-bots claim to automatically write narratives on a massive scale that sound like a person crafted each one. But, how much control will we prepared to hand over? In our driverless marketing car, will we be prepared to lose the steering wheel altogether?

As our technology advances, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters most – our human relationships: our understanding and connection with our customers, and our working relationships with our colleagues.

Focus on the cultural changes needed to solve technology challenges

It’s interesting that in many of the commentaries around digital transformation, the main challenges identified are cultural, not technological. Michael Gale, in this interview with Forbes magazine, says that for most Global 2000 companies: 

“This is a fundamental shift in how people had to think about how they interact, how they collaborate and work and if you don't spend time changing people's behaviours, you don't spend time changing culture and how people make decisions, all of this falls flat.”

And it’s not just the big companies who are experiencing this. Boston Consulting Group, in its report on changing the client experience in the niche wealth management sector, identifies one of the foundations for success is to:

“Forge an agile way of working with interdisciplinary teams across functions and divisions.” 

Further, these teams need to:

“Develop a comprehensive understanding of client needs and behaviours across segments and channels in order to identify the moments that matter to each client.”

This is very much an ‘outside in’ design approach to problem-solving, putting the customer at its heart, and it’s increasingly being adopted by organisations to create frameworks for digital transformation. 

Understand your customers better, using design thinking

Ernesto Quinteros, chief design officer of Johnson & Johnson, commented at a recent global design roundtable:

“Executives in virtually every sector could benefit from employing design to cope with technological upheaval. I think everyone …needs to prepare. Even if you’re in an industry that’s being disrupted… it’s going to get disrupted again.”

There’s also quantifiable evidence that those who do so outperform their competitors.

In 2016, the design value index showed companies that integrate design thinking into corporate strategy showed a 211% return over the S&P 500.

The evidence from the report is:

“Companies that embrace design understand their customers better than those that don’t. As a result, they grow faster and with higher margins and recover faster during economic downturns.”

Restore respect for customers through GDPR

“The Customer is not a Moron. She's your Wife.”

This year, perhaps more than ever, GDPR will give us cause to reflect on David Olgivy’s famous quote from the 1950s. It’s been interesting seeing how many organisations have fixated on trying to find ways around having to gain consent once the legislation kicks in. It’s an ugly word, consent. It suggests something begrudgingly asked for, used to inflict the recipient with the same old stuff. If that turns out to be the case, then I predict a sad outcome for the whole GDPR process. 

If, however, like us, you’re seeing GDPR as an opportunity rather than a threat, then now is a great time to revisit the principle of what Olgivy was saying.

At its heart, it’s about treating people with respect. It’s about acknowledging that they’re intelligent and capable of seeing through the blatant hype. Indeed, patronising people and doubting their intelligence is bad for business, whereas overcoming their natural cynicism to products is the key to success. This is the theme for our “We Love GDPR” event in January, so you’ll be more than welcome to join us and some excellent speakers if you’d like to hear more.

Recalibrate the value in your pipeline

The reality is that a lot of organisations will lose significant portions of their databases post GDPR. This will throw some interesting light on the internal relationships and politics associated with customer data.

In many B2B companies, these databases have been built up over many years by senior executives as extensions of their ‘black book’ of contacts, as well as being supplemented by bought-in lists. To hear, finally, that most of these contacts have been less than interested in what they’ve received, will give pause for thought.

Additionally, many organisations who’ve adopted marketing automation systems will have assigned a monetary value to each contact as part of their scoring process. There’s an understandable emotional reaction that losing a large chunk of your database, means lost pipeline value. However, once you accept the reality that many of those contacts had little or no value, and you recalibrate a smaller number of records with a higher value, it may (should) shift the focus to spending a great deal more care nurturing those who have given you consent to do so.

Explore Artifical Intelligence carefully

Before Christmas, I wrote a piece about marketing’s role, once we give Artificial Intelligence (AI) autonomy to make decisions on our behalf. As we head closer to getting hands-on with this technology, it’s worth considering the online environment these machines are likely to encounter.

First, let’s be clear about the difference between AI and existing technology like programmatic systems.


These systems enable media buyers to set their targeting and automate the bidding process for adverts on platforms like Facebook and Google.

Machine learning

Machine learning systems can analyse data and draw conclusions from tasks they’re programmed to do. In advertising, this enables systems to diagnose, predict and plan campaigns like an experienced media buyer.

Deep learning

Deep learning combines layers of data from lots of different sources to make connections and draw conclusions not immediately obvious from a single point of view. As an example, in advertising, it could identify that people in certain towns, of a certain age, sharing pictures of certain breeds of dog and liking certain genres of music are more likely to buy one brand of car over another.

Full AI

The most sophisticated systems will combine all the above to run campaigns, making autonomous decisions to get the best ROI on our behalf. They’ll do this at scale and speed.

These systems will start to see some fundamental shifts in people’s online behaviour as they engage in their activity. 

Expect changes in people’s online behaviour

‘Mobile first’

50% of searches now come from mobile rather than desktop devices. This shift will be reflected in Google’s ‘mobile first’ indexing policy. The process has already started and will continue throughout this coming year. Whilst this doesn’t represent Armageddon, you’ll want to make sure the mobile experience is great if your search rankings are important to your business plan.

Voice searches

Google reports that 20% of all queries on Android devices are voice searches. These tend to be more conversational, so long-tail SEO will become more important. It’s also going to be interesting to see the impact that searches from voice-only devices like Alexa have on content. Potentially, the most appropriate fulfilment will be via video with audio.

Changing attention spans for video

It’s interesting to see how online attention spans fluctuate. Facebook is now offering a 6-second video ad format, based on research which showed better brand metrics across the board. Compare that with Google’s video advertising research back in 2016, which showed that 15-second spots worked best for brand recall, whereas 30-second slots had the highest view-through rate and improved brand favourability. However, for content like ‘how to’ and product overview videos the optimal length to hold the audience’s engagement is around 2 minutes.

Focus on your customers

I’ll round things off with a nod to one of my favourite B2B video ads. It won the video marketing awards and you can see why. These guys really know their audience, using wit and empathy to prove that B2B audiences are just people at work. They’re still people, and that’s what matters.

Happy New Year.