It seems the only consistent tenet of digital marketing is constant evolution. In the past year alone we have seen significant changes in how consumers and brands engage within digital, social media, and mobile channels.
The adage "if you're not staying ahead, you're falling behind" seems particularly appropriate as we launch into an exciting new year. With that in mind we are taking a closer look at what we see as four key trends to watch in digital marketing in 2017.
Increasing emphasis of AI search
What if the world's largest search engine could not only think but was actually getting smarter? We are beginning to find out through the evolution of RankBrain, Google's Artificial Intelligence algorithm. It was initially rolled out on a small scale in 2015, but as of June 2016 was being used in every search query. Google has implemented deep neural networks to create a form of AI that takes large amounts of data and identifies the relevant information to provide specific answers to question. For example, in the past if you searched "How tall is El Capitan in Yosemite National Park," the results would have been top-ranked content on Yosemite, El Captain, etc. Now you are provided the specific answer of 7,569 feet, as Google's sentence compression algorithm has learned to answer questions by, ironically enough, watching how humans do it through a process called supervised learning.
What does the increased emphasis on RankBrain and AI mean for marketers in 2017? It is important to note that RankBrain is now the third highest ranking factor within Google's overall algorithm, behind only content and links. Therefore, it is increasingly important for marketers to understand the potential impact on SEO.
In general, SEO will become more technical, and competitive keyword environments will need to be reviewed on their own. As the AI algorithm will classify sites within a specific category, it will be increasingly important to stay focused in a particular area to avoid misclassification. For example, if a brand is selling blue jeans, and that is its niche, it will be easier for the algorithm to identify as the single product versus selling multiple lines, such as blue jeans, shirts, sweaters, shoes, etc.
And it will also be important to remain similar in structure and content to the top sites in that particular category. To use the jeans example, if RankBrain has deemed Levi's as an example of a "good" site marketing jeans in that category, the closer the other sites are comparatively to Levi's, the better their RankBrain prioritization.
In summary, as Google's AI continues to evolve, brand marketers will need to be continually smarter about their SEO to not only keep up but to optimize search marketing efforts.
Growing importance of data visualization
The emergence of big data, which is typically a combination of relational data (generally SQL-based) and unstructured data (usually queried through Hadoop-based tools), has generated an increasing need for data visualization. The importance of data visualization lies in its ability to visually display key findings from complex levels of information so marketers can quickly and effectively assess the data. This is particularly important not only in understanding large levels of data to be able to make decisions, but also in determining if the essential data is being delivered as well as what additional information might be needed.
There are numerous tools that specialize in data visualization so as marketer it is best to determine what data would be needed to create the optimal dashboards for your brand. Check into types of visualization a tool supports and compare that with your organizational data needs in selecting what works best for you. While big data can be overwhelming at times, the use of data visualization can turn what seems to be a challenge into an important opportunity.
Identifying opportunities for social commerce
While social networks have played a role in online sales it has to this point been primarily by influencing purchases but not necessarily processing them. Even though 71 percent of consumers indicate a purchase decision has been influenced by social media, less than 14 percent are comfortable making a purchase on Instagram, which actually scored the highest of any social channel in that measure. Top social networks such as Facebook and Twitter featured even lower percentages of users willing to buy on their sites.
But Instagram began taking steps in 2016 to change the model by implementing a test program that will allow certain retail partners to tag products in the photos they post to the social network, which now has more than 500 million users worldwide. This was after Pinterest launched a buy button on its network, which has seen moderate success, and Snapchat began delivering shoppable ads as well.
The key challenge for social commerce lies in whether a purchase process can be developed that appeals to Millennials. More than half of Millennials (65 percent) are comfortable using smartphones to make online purchases, and 22 percent consult their peers' social networks prior to buying online.
In fact, statistics show that one-third (33 percent) of Millennials say they would like to purchase items directly from Facebook, 27 percent want to shop on Instagram and 15 percent on Snapchat. For Instagram and Snapchat those figures are 3X higher than for other demographics, indicating a growing willingness to consider social shopping amongst younger targets.
For marketers it will be important to monitor the progress of social networks in implementing commerce solutions that resonate with Millennials, and identifying the verticals and categories having the greatest traction initially.
While social commerce has been slow to take hold to this point, given the social/mobile usage and consideration amongst Millennials it is still an area to focus on in 2017 and beyond.
Taking advantage of mobile moments
The term "mobile moments" was coined by Forrester to identify the point in time when a consumer takes action on their mobile device. For marketers a key element to taking advantage of these "mobile moments" lies within understanding and identifying context.
According to Forrester, 35 percent of digital business and marketing professionals use analytics to inform mobile contextual and predictive insights, and 34 percent use location and other contextual data to deliver the most relevant service. The key for marketers in mobile is to use contextual analytics to understand and anticipate consumer behavior.
To most effectively reach consumers there needs to be a strategic focus on both context and content. In short, marketers need to identify not only what consumers want, but also when they want it, to optimize results in mobile.
As a result of the need to reach consumers within this important window the use of mobile analytics and research will be an increasingly important tool for marketers in 2017.