Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen lots of “Annual Digital Marketing Trends” lists and posts. Most of these mention technologies like machine learning & artificial intelligence, bots, augmented and virtual reality, and the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). While all of those are clearly going to impact the way people interact with brands over the coming years, for most of our clients, worrying about their chatbot strategy shifts the emphasis away from those areas that are going to have the biggest impact on their businesses over the next 12-18 months.

Rather than contributing my thoughts about “trends,” I thought it was worth taking a moment to remind us all where we are likely to find the greatest yield. You may find that I’ve oversimplified this list. That’s by design.

Here is some advice that takes into consideration trends, but hopefully keeps you focused on results.

1) Continue to invest in and expand those channels and tactics that have historically shown the best performance. They still will. I’ve been amazed over the past few months how many companies I’ve talked to who are investing heavily in paid media, but are under-invested in paid search and shopping feeds. For most brands, paid search continues to be the best way to invest a dollar. People demonstrate intent when entering a search query. No other channel better indicates that intent. Take advantage of it. Email marketing is another area that we see many companies under-utilizing today. Once you have a customer or a lead, make sure that you continue to service them to maximize your revenue. Segment your users so that your communications with them are relevant and take advantage of marketing automation tools (if you don’t have them already).

2) Make sure you are consistently testing and applying results. No matter whether you are running display campaigns, email campaigns, paid search ads, organic social posts, or managing your website, testing is a crucial component of success. Too often we see marketers start utilizing testing only to settle into the complacency of “I already know what works.” While there may be some situations in which big trends are consistent winners (i.e. product photos win over lifestyle photos on social) there are still opportunities to use those “truths” as the basis of future test iterations. Website testing and optimization present one of the greatest opportunities to dramatically impact results. Small improvements in conversion rate not only drive revenue, but they also improve media efficiency which has an immediate impact to ROI.

3) Pursue an integrated approach both internally and with your partners. It’s clear to us that the outsourced in-house model delivers the greatest results for clients because it allows for a level of intimacy and cross-disciplinary collaboration that can’t be created otherwise. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your agency partners have desks in your office. It does mean that they are tapped into the broader goals and initiatives of your business and can contribute well beyond tactical execution. You would be surprised how much competitive insight a paid search manager has from optimizing keywords and participating in auctions every day. A community manager likely knows more about your product’s strengths and weaknesses than anyone else in your company. Find the right partner who can contribute deep expertise and technical skill on the tactical side, but who also wants to be a strategic partner with long term vision.

4) Sync up your brand and direct response / e-Commerce efforts. We’ve all seen the waste that occurs when silos exist inside organizations. Most frequently we see this when brand teams and direct response teams are not well coordinated. We also have seen this when acquisition and retention efforts are seen as mutually exclusive from one another. There is a tremendous amount to gain from getting marketing groups charged with distinct KPI’s to plan together and to also establish unified reporting even though campaigns run in the interest of one group’s goals may not immediately yield results against the objectives of the others. We are also seeing that with direct to consumer becoming such a large focus for many companies, traditional brand marketing efforts are being evaluated against direct response KPI’s which is often not a good short-term indicator of success. That brings us to:

5) Don’t neglect your brand and building consumer interest and awareness. The rise of paid social as a performance marketing channel in which building awareness and creating intent can often be collapsed into a single impression as well as the increasing importance of eCommerce for many brands has led many companies to evaluate the success of all their marketing efforts against traditional direct response metrics – often on a last-click, single-touch basis. That approach has limited scale and is increasingly not performing as Facebook and Instagram become more and more saturated with advertising. You need to continue to invest in those areas – whether they are media, events, ambassadors, content, promotions or other channels – to establish and communicate why your brand and your products matter. It’s increasingly important to build higher quality content that is meaningful to your audience. Gone are the days of getting strong engagement from a stock photo posted with 20 hashtags. When you invest in brand building, it pays you back by driving scale and efficiency in your more conversion focused activities. By being smart with your approach, you can also sequence your messaging so that you move potential customers from awareness down the funnel. Of course, there has to be a balance that is reflected in positive ROI. To understand that balance and adjust accordingly you must…

6) Make sure that you have the right data structured and available for analysis. If you are only looking at your online data, how can you understand the impact of your digital marketing efforts on offline trends? The answer is that you can’t. If you are segmenting your marketing efforts, but you aren’t looking at outcomes by segment, how can you determine how to adjust? Again, you can’t. The area where we consistently put in the most effort for our clients is getting information consolidated from multiple systems – web analytics, media platforms, CRM, social media, offline data – so that we can query that data and identify useful trends that will drive informed action. If you haven’t done so already, spend some time building a consolidated data warehouse and implementing a visualization tool like Tableau so that you can better understand the impact of your efforts. Explore multi-touch, cross-channel attribution models with multiple conversion goals to better assign credit to individual efforts and inform future decision making.

There are clearly trends that have impacted digital marketing over the past few years which will continue to be important. Mobile usage will continue to grow and reshape how people interact with businesses as well as with one another. The influence of social media will expand and marketers will have to find new ways to get noticed and be relevant as feeds are increasingly clogged. Brands will be forced to invest more aggressively in both paid social as well as better, denser, shorter, more interesting content to break through and drive reach. Overall consumer interest in “advertising” will decrease with people opting out of as many obvious marketing efforts as possible. Influencer marketing will become more and more important in the channel mix as an alternative to “advertising.” Access to influencer marketing as well as value definition are reaching a higher level of maturity thanks to new partners entering the space who bring with them approaches honed in programmatic marketplaces. Amazon and other marketplaces will further disrupt retail and also continue to grow in importance as their own media channels where brands can interact with consumers who are showing intent equal to that found in search but within the context of an established shopping environment. Another area where Amazon is leading the charge is with the emergence of voice as the new user interface. Millions of units of Alexa powered devices were shipped in the past few months. That will create hundreds of millions of digital transactions in the coming year in which the user never touches a screen. It won’t be long before we migrate between voice, screen and even gesture seamlessly. However, for most of you, the need for a voice UI and latent semantic analysis platforms are still a little way away – and likely will be solved by chatbots anyway.

At 85SIXTY, we have an eye towards the future while still keeping our feet in the present. While our clients see the efforts we make every day to drive performance, few are aware of the investments we are making in things like structuring campaign data, automating data ingestion, data warehousing, and machine learning. They are unaware of the hundreds of hours we are investing in researching and learning new skills and tools to apply to their business problems. The “trends” in these lists are what keep me up at night wondering if we have turned over every stone. I’m constantly concerned that we might have missed a “breakthrough technology” that will reshape our world. Luckily for you, that’s why agencies like ours exist. We get to test the future of marketing while staying responsible for results today. We will evaluate and test the trends, but we won’t abandon what works.