With the end of the year comes the inevitable posts looking ahead to 2017 and breathlessly predicting The Next Big Thing in social and digital.
Some of that breath will inevitably need to be held (no, TV didn’t die as an advertising format in 2016), but in an industry that’s as fast moving and innovative as digital media, there’s always plenty to predict.
Last year, I had my own stab at predicting the future. Chatbots and mobile messaging have certainly advanced, albeit perhaps not as fast as I anticipated. Distribution still remains a challenge for a lot of brands and publishers in the ever-drowning newsfeed world.
Voice and visual search still feels like it has some way to day, although Amazon Echo is becoming ever-more ubiquitous. And YouTube’s emphasis on talent does indeed make it feel much more like a broadcaster, especially given the increase in people watching through their living room TVs.
So, what does 2017 hold. The below may not end up being entirely accurate but there's a good chance it will preoccupy the industry next year.
Branded chatbots will be become the norm, even if brands themselves aren’t sure what to do with them
Wait a minute? Didn’t you do chatbots last year? Surely that’s cheating putting this in twice in a row? Well, yes and no. Chatbots and AI definitely took a step towards the mainstream in 2016 with some brands doing very innovative work in this area.
If you want a best-in-class view of what can be achieved without a single human-to-human interaction, look at KLM’s Facebook Messenger bot. Flights can be booked, boarding cards sent to Messenger, as can updates to your flight.
At the other end of the scale, you can order a pizza through Pizza Hut’s Messenger bot just by sending an emoji. What a time to be alive.
I’ve seen plenty of other examples of brands using Messenger (although less so other bots), although a lot of these are used for what I’d call “cool” marketing: projects that are fun, innovative and engaging but don’t achieve much beyond the actual campaign itself and are easily forgotten.
And that’s where you’ll probably see a clear divergence in strategies from brands focusing on the likes of Messenger. Some will focus heavily on customer experience, some will focus heavily on creative marketing, and some will go so far down the AI road that the experience will be a mixture between interacting with a creepy stalker and a Facebook version of an endless phone menu.
Personally, I’d look at customer experience and ease of purchase before anything else. But that probably won’t stop at least one big brand doing something weird that will become a BuzzFeed meme before the AI’s had time to compose its response.
In a world of shrinking consideration, brand preference is king
This also follows on from both the above - chatbots and AI - and last year’s predictions. No, I swear I’m not rehashing last year’s notes.
In the intro, I mentioned the growing ubiquity of the Amazon Echo. Amazon are spending heavily on advertising this one-stop voice shop and in 2017 they’ll become a lot more common in people’s kitchens.
If you’ve heard the radio advert, you’ll hear a customer asking Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, to add dog biscuits to his shopping basket. But which brand of dog biscuits?
This is where things get really interesting for marketers. If you have a machine rather than a person ordering the dog biscuits, or any other product for that matter, then there is no emotion or consideration here, just a knowledge of what has been ordered before and the user’s preferences.
So if you’re marketing the Echo owner in the radio advert, does that mean you have one shot at being the preferred dog biscuit brand of choice before Alexa makes that choice for you?
We probably won’t be quite that extreme yet, but the growth of virtual assistants means brand preference will start to play an even stronger part in driving early stage consideration. After that, Alexa won’t care.
Oh, and dash buttons? 2016’s equivalent of the pager.
Virtual Reality marketing is almost a reality
Insofar as it’s possible to feel sorry for this year’s Apprentice candidates, I couldn’t help but wince when Lord Sugar set them a Virtual Reality task.
Most of us working in digital marketing haven’t quite found the right use for this yet, although it probably counts as good preparation for when their CEO tells them he wants to do something in Virtual Reality because everybody else is.
That said, 2017 will probably be the year where VR becomes a little more mainstream. For a start, the headsets are becoming a lot more accepted, while the Playstation VR has taken the technology from expos and gurus into the mainstream living room.
The biggest problem for VR still remains the fact that no matter how cool your idea is, it can still be a bit of a faff trying to get people to actually watch it. But with VR headsets becoming more common in households, this opens the platform up to brands who are willing to be innovative and try something a little different with their advertising.
Point of sale also represents an opportunity and I’ve already seen car manufacturers take a lead in showcasing VR’s capabilities.
But for all the innovation - and there will be some stand outs - there will also be a lot of brands who will waste an awful lot of money on VR will no obvious return.
Calculating ROI from influencers
Influencer marketing is hardly a new phenomenon online. It’s hardly even a new phenomenon in the advertising industry - just take a trip around the Museum of Brands and Packaging.
But with the rise of YouTubers well and truly into the mainstream and an army of micro-influencers who have the respect of their audience but not the reach of a A list online influencer, a lot of brands are spending a lot of money in the hope of hitting gold.
There are a number of elements that can be quite difficult to quantify with influencer marketing. Costs and value of an influencer are one, while measurement is another. And for every marketer who will argue that you have to hit the A listers to make an impact, another will insist smaller reach but more engaged communities are the answer.
Alternatively, you could just pay Scott Disick to copy and paste to his Instagram account.
Brands, though, are definitely getting smarter and with a growing proliferation of influencers, expect tougher questions at the outset of the relationship, especially around measurement and ROI.
To that regard, the good talent houses will start standardising their prices and being a lot clearer as to what the brand is buying. This, in turn, will filter down to the micro-influencers.
In short, brands will start to get a better idea of value for money. This is probably a good thing from both sides, as the social media celebrities who are growing their reach should also have a better idea of what they’re worth.
This still won’t change the central tenant of influencer marketing online though - don’t fit square pegs in round holes.
Social media broadcasters are live and kicking
In possibly the strangest sentence I’ve written in a long time, earlier this year I spent a good 30 minutes watching a livestream of a burning hotel on Facebook.
That hotel was the Royal Clarence, dubbed “Britain’s oldest hotel” by the media and livestreamed by the Express and Echo, Exeter’s local newspaper, through their Facebook page.
Exeter is my hometown, this was a major news story for the area, and the livestream was the easiest way to follow the story.
I wasn’t alone. The number of people viewing while I was online was close to over 100,000. That’s way in advance of any of their metrics, and this was for a local newspaper for what was, at that stage, still a predominantly local story.
Whether it’s local news, branded content, or parents in Chewbacca masks, Facebook has been pushing Live heavily this year, encouraging users to broadcast their lives direct to their friends. And what Facebook wants, Facebook will usually get.
I’m still to remain convinced that live streaming will become a normal habit for the average Facebook user - at least until 4G coverage improves across the country - but both Live and Periscope continue to grow and for brands and publishers, livestreaming opens up more possibilities that users are starting to watch in significant numbers.
So expect more around live in 2017, and more questions about the effectiveness of reach. For publishers, and particularly broadcasters, the appeal is obvious, even if monetisation isn’t. For brands, a lot depends on the effectiveness of their overall content strategy. As ever, expect a lot of live streams from brands broadcasting to a handful of people.
But it’s also not all about Facebook and while Twitter isn’t exactly the darling of the press, they are showing what can be achieved with livestreaming.
Twitter’s Thursday night NFL livestream and their US election night stream with Buzzfeed plays to the platform’s strengths, which has always been around live events. The job here is to convince investors and advertisers to part with their money.
Even if Twitter’s season as an NFL rights holder isn’t viewed as a success, one of the major social or streaming platforms such a Amazon Prime will make a play for some big sports rights. There’s a reason Murdoch invests so much in Sky Sports.
Data breaches will get bigger
The final prediction is the most sobering. We are moving into the age of The Internet of Things where nearly everything will be online. Want a connected toaster or kettle? They’ll be in your kitchen before you know it.
Well, yes, the connected breakfast appliance is a reducto ad absurdum but there’s a serious point here. Every device you connect to the web opens a potential hacking loophole, whether that’s for your data or using your fridge in a DDoS attack.
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of data out there and a lot of vulnerabilities, whether from the individual, businesses big and small who’ve been a little lax about their cyber security, or your devices.
Data hacks make the news so frequently that we’re at risk of becoming blase to them, but there’s nothing funny about your personal data compromised.
At risk of coming across like an episode of Black Mirror, we’ve probably only just scratched the surface of what data can be hacked, compromised or stolen on an epic scale.
With so many vulnerabilities, something big and bad is likely to occur in 2016 that makes the Talk Talk hack seem almost quaint. At that point, data security with stop being another item on the news to ignore and start becoming a big issue for all of us.