January is an interesting month. It’s named for a Roman god of transitions, thresholds, and doorways named Janus, who had two faces: one looked ahead, and the other looked behind. January marks a pivot between years, originally a lull between the harvest of one crop and the planting of the next. In the Mediterranean, it was too dangerous to sail or to travel over distances, so January was given to reflection.

Nearly three thousand years later, we preserve that spirit of reflection, and we transmute it into New Year’s resolutions, gifts, and well wishes, and a countdown to midnight shared with friends and family.

What Digital Marketing Trends Does 2018 Hold?

We’ve been doing some reflecting on the past year, too. Our San Francisco digital marketing agency has a responsibility to our clients to keep ahead of the shifting tides in digital marketing trends, and our location in the heart of Silicon Valley gives us a unique insight that helps us predict the year to come. Nothing is certain in digital marketing (or anywhere else, frankly), but here are our best predictions for the top digital marketing trends you’ll depend on in 2018!

#1. Big Data Is Getting Bigger

We’re edging a major shift in data collection and processing — something so monumental that it’s going to change the world. It’s already happening, but we’re not at the apex yet. Our society probably won’t complete that transition in 2018, but the process will accelerate.

First, more and more data is being collected from more and more sources. Later in this post we’ll discuss some of those new channels but for now we’ll skip ahead to the practical bits.

Through machine learning, and the refinement of processing algorithms, that data can be compiled and processed, and can be put to work. As with all computer tech, what used to be the exclusive privilege of big data behemoths, like Facebook and Google, is coming into the consumer mainstream. In short, it’s getting cheaper to build systems to process huge pools of data, while those pools are getting more lucrative.

A common metaphor is “data mining”. Think of big data (say, demographic and behavior patterns of your customers) as an ore vein, and the machine-learning tech as a combination of a drill and a refinery.

#2. People Are Moving beyond the Screen

Despite most expectations to the contrary, smart speakers, as part of the wider Internet of Things, are catching on. Think Alexa, the Spot, or Google Home. Like a freestanding Siri, people are interacting with their devices, their content, and the world around them, through connected hubs with voice interfaces.

This new behavior opens up some interesting digital marketing opportunities. Product sales, for instance, may rise or fall based on the customer’s auditory memories. If I ask my Alexa to order a particular brand of snacks for a party, my choice may depend more on which name comes to mind (or which I feel more comfortable saying aloud) than the visual content of the packaging or the food quality. Maybe I’ll ask for “Wild Wing” rather than “Dingaling’s” because I honestly couldn’t take myself seriously shouting “Alexa, order delivery. I need Ding-a-lings!” across my living room.

Beyond that, many of these hubs have small screens, usually used for video chat or media playback, but that brings us to prediction three:

#3. Ad Placement Is Getting Creative

In 2017, it became pretty clear that ads were oversaturated. YouTube introduced shorter ads, but made them unskippable and started introducing them mid-playback. Facebook doubled down on sponsored content. Ads started appearing in unrelated apps, because browser-based ad block systems were escalating in a sort of mutual arms race.

Those smart speakers showing up in more and more living rooms are prime real estate, and 2018 will see more and more cross-platform advertising partnerships.

#4. Influencer Marketing Is on the Rise

Influencer marketing is nothing new, but it’s evolving. It has become prohibitive for most brands to collaborate with major influencers, since demand for that kind of an audience has driven the cost into the stratosphere. Sponsoring a tweet, just one, single shout-out, from a prominent influencer (someone with celebrity status and a devoted followership) can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Per tweet.

That’s clearly absurd, but your options aren’t limited to the Jared Letos and Kim Kardashians of the internet. There are thousands of micro influencers with lavishly devoted followers on every content platform. These include Youtube channels, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and more. These content creators and influencers tend to have a more personal connection to their followers, so a mention from them will go much further, for a fraction of the cost.

Besides that, the mention will be more transparent, but less empty, since they will be more likely to curate the sorts of products or services they partner with. They wouldn’t risk alienating their followers by pushing every sponsorship they’re offered (their platforms are their livelihoods, after all) so the products they do agree to support will come with much more earnest support and relevance. For instance, I’ve recently been watching Mike Boyd’s Learn Quick series. Boyd chooses a skill and documents the learning process from start to finish, usually over the course of a few days. He has been sponsored by a website called Skillshare, which offers online classes –- a natural fit.

#5. Transparency and Security Are More Important than Ever

While we’re on the subject of earnestness as a factor in the quality and usefulness of an ad, we should talk a little more about transparency. So far, failure to accurately identify sponsored content (that is, the deliberate elision of the nature of the sponsorship) has been met with moderate fines in severe cases, to slaps on the wrist in equally severe cases. More often, the punitive action comes from the platform (YouTube, in particular, has been zealous in its crackdowns this year) than from the oversight body.

On the other side, ad fraud has been an equally disturbing problem. By some estimates, ad fraud in 2017 alone amounted to $16.4 billion in lost revenue. We saw a few fledgling efforts in 2017 to combat that problem, like the introduction of ads.txt, but (possibly because of a lack of awareness) it wasn’t widely implemented.

An answer to both problems, occluded sponsorships and ad fraud, might come from Blockchain protocols. So far, trials are ongoing, but they seem quite promising.

Blockchain, for those who aren’t familiar with the systems, was first proposed a full decade ago, in 2008. It’s essentially an insurance of accountability, with a number of identical, distributed registries (records of transactions, say) that mirror any updates between them and approve any use of or additions to the registries with independent verification protocols. It’s often said, erroneously, that these can’t be hacked but they are remarkably secure. Also, there would be almost no incentive to falsify them because the cumbersome effort would have only negligible payoff. Further, these registries are completely open to the public, and so, as the tech is adopted, we can expect a greater consumer pressure for broader participation.

#6. Smart Copy Will Help Answer Micro Moments

Micro Moments, as Google calls them, are those unexpected instances of interaction with a site usually based on a sudden stimulus or immediate need. They tend to be highly personal, and they often result in a conversion. The technology hasn’t quite caught up to properly meet those needs, but we’re getting close.

Smart copy is still in its infancy, but 2018 will see much more interesting experimentation, and maybe even working prototypes. It works by dynamically tailoring content for each individual user. The tech isn’t smart enough to produce something from whole cloth (yet) but we’ll soon be using algorithms to automatically select a particular piece of content from a bank, for a given user. Variables to inform that choice might include reading habits, values, conversion probability, and so on. Alternatively, it might work like a more sophisticated version of browser language filters or content summarization software.

This is another of those many innovations made possible by the ongoing surge in machine learning, which is putting big data to use.

#7. Social Media’s Tides Are Shifting

Social media, as a whole, is going to keep getting more influential, but the relative import of different sites is going to shift in 2018. Facebook, for instance, came under fire for its role in the 2016 election, and has been on the defensive against ongoing censorship and heavy-handed content promotion allegations. Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged the issues and pledged to fix them in 2018, but for now it’s up in the air.

Meanwhile, Instagram is still soaring in relative influence, while YouTube is increasingly seen as untrustworthy (largely a result of its recent mysterious and selective crackdowns on a number of channels.) LinkedIn is still the number one site for B2B dealings, but not much else.

Snapchat is in a tricky spot right now. It began 2017 as a rising star, and celebrated a massive IPO in March of that year (the largest since Alibaba Group Holding LTD’s). However, investors got cold feet when Snapchat took on Facebook as a rival, and it begins 2018 with a respectable share value, but a value less than half of its peak. Rather than taking on Facebook directly, it’s innovating in new directions, including augmented reality and live video. Where Facebook has always been more of a chronicle, Snapchat now seems to encourage users to live in the moment, and it’s coming up with some really clever approaches.

Twitter is the one to really keep an eye on, this year. It’s userbase didn’t grow in 2017, and it’s never turned a profit. Though it’s been absolutely invaluable in social movements, as a platform (from a top-down perspective) it hasn’t really earned its keep. It may further dwindle this year, unless it finds a way to capitalize on its huge reach and public perception.

#8. Live Video and Interactivity Are in Demand

Live video seems to be the hot new thing. Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitch, Instagram, and others have introduced live streaming features, and they have proven to be massively popular. They give a brand a chance to interact directly with their audience, through live chat, in a more concrete and more satisfying way than things like Twitter or Reddit AMAs.

Indeed, people are starting to expect more interaction from brands and businesses. In 2018, interactivity of various forms will become more of a core part of a business’s online presence.

#9. Virtual Reality Continues to Improve

Virtual reality, and its sister augmented reality, are becoming much more useful. The tech is starting to feel more at home in a variety of contexts, beyond the traditional headset-visor. Now, those visors aren’t going away (HTC has just unveiled several upgrades to its VIVE lineup, for instance) but they haven’t quite solved the motion-sickness problem, and they haven’t really found a useful niche.

Aside from a handful of gimmicky video games, more proofs-of-concept than enjoyable experience, there isn’t much to do with one of these fancy headsets. Besides that, until just this past year, only premium computer hardware could run them, so there wasn’t much incentive to produce large-scale consumer software with such a restricted user-base.

For 2018, the digital marketing potential of augmented reality tech is going to become much more interesting. On one hand, just about any computer tech from the past or current generation can handle virtual reality, now. Even users with legacy desktops can likely upgrade the internals, and virtually any current smartphone can manage at least some kind of VR or AR experience.

On the other hand, marketers and innovators are starting to realize that, when it comes to VR, less is more. We’re starting to move away from the idea that consumers have a meaningful use for some kind of immersive cyberscape (think Neuromancer or Lawnmower Man) but we are starting to see the value in subtle tweaks and additions to the world around us.

A lot of the consumer potential comes from enhancing physical retail spaces. Some of the concepts we’ve seen so far use graphic overlays for product details, or arrows to direct you to a certain product (selected from a searchable database). Many of them are moving beyond visual augmentations, as well. The haptic feedback in wearable tech can be put to use in a number of ways. Imagine rings or watches that vibrate when you pass a sale item, for example. Cell phone screen overlays might be used for everything from animated storefronts to geotagged scavenger hunts (spot the virtual mouse, with your camera, for a free coffee!).

#10. Chatbots Are Getting More Versatile

On the subject of interactivity, chatbots are quietly continuing to improve. They’re starting to move past their rote responses and conversation trees, to incorporate new conversation patterns into their systems on the fly. Microsoft unleashed, and swiftly recaptured, an ill-fated Twitterbot in early 2016, but with 24 months to improve the system, we can expect a few more proofs of concept in 2018.

As for their versatility, let’s take a detour and remember that in late 2017 Google updated their AdWords options for mobile ads. Now, as well as a tap to call button, advertisers can incorporate a tap-to-text shortcut. For 2018, we can expect to see more interesting, more comprehensive automated text responses.

Remember, too, that chatbots are basically just another kind of content. Their tone and phrasing need to be moderated to meet the needs of your particular ideal customers.

#11. Content is Queen

And finally, that brings us to content. As we’ve said before, content is queen! That isn’t about to change any time soon. Indeed, with more and more interaction paths, more diverse types of content, and more discerning, more particular customers, content is going to become even more critical.

In the year to come, your business will need to take full advantage of the possibilities offered by these emerging trends, and success will depend on producing, compelling, engaging content for your customers. 2018 will see many businesses succeed on the merits of their content and their ability to connect and interact with their audience, and it will see many businesses fail because they weren’t able to keep up with the shifts in consumer demands.

Ensure that your business will thrive in 2018 by signing up for our free digital marketing strategy session!

Colibri Digital Marketing

We’re San Francisco’s first and only full-service B Corp-certified digital marketing agency, focusing on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. If you’re ready to work with a digital marketing agency you can be proud to partner with for 2018 drop us a line to schedule a free digital marketing strategy session!