2019 in digital marketing, through the reporting eye of MarketingTech, has seen something of a two-pronged approach. While the exploration of emerging technologies and their use cases, from voice search to AI to blockchain, continues, it has been tempered with a more measured and nuanced focus.
While this publication found plenty of column inches to tell the stories those making the most of their technological bets this year, from Mastercard, to Starbucks – and will continue to do so – 2019 saw tightening regulations on influencer marketing and social media, as well as a wider exploration of the psychological and ethical effects of both.
Here are the highlights from 2019, as seen by the editorial team:
Influencer wars: The regulator strikes back
It had been coming. In August 2018, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK promised to name those with fame who were shilling without shame. At the start of this year, many UK celebrities agreed to change how they posted online, with greater transparency on what constituted an advertised offering.
This tightening up across the board meant some were caught out. Philip Morris shopped itself in May following a Reuters investigation which found an influencer campaign broke its internal rules, while a month later fashion influencer Marissa Fuchs generated the wrong kind of headlines after it emerged virtually every step of her proposal aside from the wedding night itself was up for pitch.
In March, a report from Rakuten Marketing argued that, broadly speaking, brands and influencers alike were seeing rewards for being more honest. More respondents said that, with this updated approach, they were more likely to click through and purchase from a name they trust telling the truth. Instagram beat YouTube as the primary platform of choice.
This helped answer the question of ROI to some extent – yet many in the industry can see more path to value. Micro-influencers, while not a new idea, gained traction in 2019. Speaking to MarketingTech in September, Ismael El-Qudsi, CEO of SocialPubli, said while ROI on influencer marketing remained an inexact science, positive correlation existed when comparing alongside SEM or SEO efforts.
Like, am I bothered?
The ‘like’ is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Sure, its gamification and currency meant that it stopped being anything other than primitive years ago, but it was always there – until last year.
Facebook and Instagram both outlined plans in 2019 to hide likes from its platform, with tests in various geographies. The US joined the party in November, with Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri confirming the news at an event in San Francisco to what must be called a less-than-enthusiastic round of applause. The primary criticism came from influencers, who feared a hit against their revenues.
Yet there are many stakeholders in this argument. Some, like TJ Macke, SVP strategy at Sapper Consulting, argued it was finally time to break clean from vanity metrics. “Marketers have limited resources to make a big impact, which is the best argument against vanity metrics,” Macke wrote in October. “They only waste what matters most, and they hide bad news until it shows up on the bottom line.” Mira Kopolovic, behavioural analyst at Canvas8, noted in November that Instagram Stories was widely popular as a ‘test for a like-less landscape’ and that marketers needed to come up ‘with inventive ways of proving cultural relevance, without a like count as shorthand.’
One campaign notably hit the spot. Liqueur brand Kahlua hosted an art exhibition in July, alongside actress Jackie Cruz, with Instagram photos which had garnered not a single ‘like’ between them. Troy Gorczyca, Kahlua brand director, told MarketingTech the idea – conceived independently at the same time Instagram began hiding likes – was to explore the need to ‘cherish life in the moment versus spending all this time on social media focused on making things picture perfect.’
Social media, infinite scrolls and Machiavellian motives
Time spent on social media, whatever one is doing, can often be time wasted. Much of what we read can be wrong, whether innocently uninformed or less innocently underhanded. Indeed, Instagram and Facebook recently unveiled plans to combat fake news, with a September report from the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights listing eight primary methods of disinformation set to influence the 2020 US presidential election.
Look under the bonnet, however, and you see some fascinating and frightening mechanics at play.
Analyst Brian Solis has, in his 2019 book Lifescale among other work, looked to explore the effect of the ‘perpetual scroll’ and the psychological manipulation of persuasive design of which many of the large tech companies have taken advantage. Users need an infinite content stream, and marketing teams are struggling to fill the gaps. “Without even thinking, we’re scrolling with no greater purpose than just because it’s what our bodies and minds have come to expect,” Solis told MarketingTech in May. “It’s second nature at this point, like breathing – and it has corrosive effects.”
Some high-profile figures have argued social media is irrevocably broken. In July, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger called for users to sign a ‘declaration of digital independence’ at what he saw as a ‘long train of abuses’ by social platform arbiters. In November, fellow Wiki-founder Jimmy Wales launched WT Social as an ad-free, fake news-busting alternative.
CMOs and the boardroom struggle
Rightly or wrongly, the CMO has previously been seen as the most dispensable of the C-suite. Their tenure tended to be shorter than their colleagues – although this is improving – and for many pundits, the question was with whom to fight to show you deserve your seat. Is the chief revenue officer plotting against you? Are you stepping on the CIO’s shoes with your digital roadmap?
2019 saw plenty of opinion and greater clarity on what needed to be done. For Greg Paull, principal at CMO-focused consultancy R3, it’s a collaborative process – although he does see more engagement between the CMO and CTO going forward. “If you look at eCommerce, that’s a marketing-led function that involves parts of the whole company, as well as the C-suite,” Paull told MarketingTech in August.
Grad Conn, CXMO – chief experience and marketing officer – at Sprinklr told MarketingTech in April that today’s CMOs have been forced to toughen up, moving from brand design to harder revenue numbers, and it has done all parties good. “The CMO’s job has become one where they need to start influencing across the whole organisation to drive the experience – and that makes the job more challenging,” said Conn.
Meanwhile James Fletcher, CEO and principal consultant at consultancy JTF Marketing, wrote in January that it was a fight between the CMO and CRO for supremacy. “You might spend X which generates Y amount of leads resulting in Z new customers; but the real value for CMOs is understanding and proving the links between these figures – and more, knowing what types of leads are more or less valuable to the company,” wrote Fletcher.
The most popular stories from 2019
Aside from the above links, these three stories were the most popular among the MarketingTech readership last year:
January: Why generation Z will drive the growth of visual search
It is no surprise that a story on generation Z made it to the end-year list. Plenty has been written about them and, as a new group to generalise and fuss about, marketing professionals want to know all they can.
Except Gen Z doesn’t want to know quite as much. If you invade their space, they will tune out. This generation, as the research explains, are savvy, ethical, and don’t like being called a demographic.
Visual search, therefore, keeps things on their terms. Omri Mendellevich, CTO at Dynamic Yield – later to be acquired by McDonald’s – wrote that visual was evidently the long-term bet. “Visual search is set to become an indispensable piece of the eCommerce puzzle, already driving meaningful results with Gen Z shoppers, whose influence and adoption of the unique technology makes it highly relevant to key sectors,” he wrote. “The sooner retailers adapt their strategies to the diverse marketplace of today and tomorrow, the better-positioned they’ll be to not merely succeed but thrive.”
April: How Starbucks is looking to dark social for greater engagement – and how you can do the same
According to Chris Beer, senior trends analyst at GlobalWebIndex, dark social has significantly influenced the social landscape. Public platforms are for content consumption, while discussion around them has generally retreated to private channels. Naturally, this is an area thought impregnable to brand influence – but some are working around it.
Starbucks said in March it was bringing its marketing and product development teams closer together so it could get to trends from these channels faster. Writing for MarketingTech a month later, Beer explained how fostering trust outside would lead to rewards inside.
“Consumers may be so at home in dark social at the moment precisely because it’s more of an ‘unbranded’ space… but these caveats have a tradeoff with it being a unique space to develop and capitalise on consumer trust,” wrote Beer. “If brands can nurture the right relationship with consumers, there are great potential rewards through organic sharing on dark social.”
December: Why marketers need to be obsessed with AI and machine learning in 2020 – and what can be done
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) continued to be de facto buzzwords in 2019, and don’t expect that to change.
For the unwary, they could be ‘AI-washed’ by companies and products with style but no substance. Indeed, this was a frequent question throughout the year. John Tyrrell, SVP EMEA at social listening platform NetBase, gave the best – and most comprehensive – answer to it in November, detailing his company’s expertise across AI, ML, and deep learning through multiple models.
This notwithstanding, it remains a minefield. In December, Phill Midwinter, CTO at Third Foundation, wrote for MarketingTech that while it’s understandable marketers ought to be obsessed with the topic, investing early – and well – will be the key to success. “[Marketers] are in an extremely powerful position to become the voices of innovation and creativity,” wrote Midwinter. “While they will face resistance, scepticism, and weary reservations about the difficulties involved, data-driven professionals should be obsessed because they understand better than anyone exactly what AI and ML could mean for their organisation.
“Not only that, they must be making it their business to ensure everyone is as enthused as they are.”
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