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The past year has been a transformative time for the marketing practice. Customer behavior and attitudes continue to change—in no small part due to advancements in technology. At the same time, marketers are under tremendous pressure to be more nimble and launch effective campaigns more quickly.

Marketing success in 2016 requires some reflection on what happened this year and how the past 12 months will shape the years ahead.

Here are 15 of the biggest marketing stories that caught our eye this year.

1. Brands start to recognize the importance of customer love.

#ILoveCustomers: Love your customers and they will love you back [Contest]

In August, TechCrunch reporter Ron Miller wrote a great piece on why customer love matters in the age of the disruption.

“Every sector is bound to be affected at some point as a technological tidal wave driven by the internet, mobile and cheap cloud resources drives sweeping changes across industries,” explained Miller. “If you haven’t been focused on your customers, you are particularly vulnerable when these changes come because they have no motivation to be loyal to you.”

Indeed, many companies are waking up to the fact that, in order to thrive today, they’ll need to show appreciation for their customers. One prominent example is Microsoft. When company CEO Satya Nadella announced Microsoft’s new corporate mission, he said the company is changing the way it measures success, putting customer love over lagging indicators of success like revenue and profit.

Customer love was also very prominent at this year’s Super Bowl as some of the most memorable ads of the event featured heart-warming stories about fatherhood and friendships.

2. Ad-blocking technology shakes up the advertising industry. 

This year, Apple announced upgrades to its software that makes it easy to install ad-blocking software on iPhones. The move ignited panic and speculation among advertisers, many of whom have made significant investments in recent years trying to catch up with the mobile revolution. Ad blockers were the number one topic at Advertising Week in New York.

Some advertising creatives predict that the rise of ad blocking software is good for the industry, but many are concerned that it will make it even harder to reach younger customers. One study found that 63 percent of millennials were already using ad-blocking technology even before Apple’s announcement.

To combat the possible disadvantages of ad blockers, leading media brands are using audience intelligence to figure out the best content in the most effective mediums possible.

3. Marketers start to notice Generation Z.

While many marketers are still focused on millennials, some are starting to engage with the next generation. Generation Z, people who were born 1995 or after, are entering the workforce. Some stats suggest that Gen Z is the largest generation to emerge since the boomers.

Gen Z customers are the true first digital natives. With an estimated spending power of $44 billion a year, these young people will dominate marketing and market research conversations in the next decade ahead.

4. Account-based marketing push sales and marketing teams to align.

At this year’s Marketo Marketing Nation Summit, an annual conference hosted by the marketing automation software company Marketo, account based marketing (together with “engagement marketing”) was all the rage. But what exactly is it?

According to Marketo, account-based marketing is a “strategic approach to lead generation in which your time and resources target a key group of specific accounts.” The goal: when marketing and sales target their campaigns to specific, strategic accounts, they can scale growth and revenue.

Relative to demand marketing, account-based marketing is still a new practice. While automation is a critical part of this approach, marketing and sales teams will need to engage with their customers to optimize their content and the channels they use to effectively target key accounts.

5. Marketers take over the customer experience.

Customer experience is the new battlefield, and CMOs are feeling the pressure to drive it in the organization. According to a recent study by the consulting firm Gartner, CX is “the most pressing mandate for marketers” today. 

Tweet this!Customer experience is “the most pressing mandate for marketers” today - @Gartner_Inc (CLICK TO TWEET)

In 2016, CX will only grow in importance for CMOs, who now have to overlook the entire customer journey. A seamless customer experience results in positive word of mouth and drives brand sentiment.

“Your brand is now defined as much by what your customers say about their relationship with you as what you say about yourself,” said Sheryl Pattek, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, in a September 2015 AdAge article.

Companies can’t afford to make CX decisions based on gut instincts alone. Given that customer expectations continue to shift, companies need to leverage customer intelligence to improve CX. As Nick Stein, SVP of marketing at Vision Critical, said in a recent Influitive webinar, “Customer intelligence helps companies solve key business challenges. It’s critical to gain a more proactive pulse on customers.”

6. Social media marketing gets a reality check.

The past year saw an inflection point in social media marketing. The limitations of social media as a marketing, engagement and customer intelligence tool became more obvious in 2015.

On the marketing side, more companies grumble about the plummeting organic reach on social media as networks push their advertising platforms. Twitter, in particular, is under scrutiny for its inability to grow its user base. (Both The Atlantic and Harvard Business Review published articles in 2015 lamenting the decline of this social network.) Fragmentation—driven by the growth of newer networks like Snapchat—also make social media marketing more challenging and time-consuming.

Social listening and social media analytics have also come under fire as the weaknesses of these tools come to light. Some experts have started using the term “dark social” to  describe traffic that originates from social shares but doesn’t show up in analytics tools.

Earlier this year, Vision Critical also published a report that shows that 30 percent of social media users account for 90 percent of social media updates—which skews the results of any intelligence gathered from social media. To get a more holistic picture of the customer, companies need to complement what they hear on social media and use more robust customer intelligence tools.

7. The collaborative economy picks up steam.

Uber and Airbnb dominated the news this year, underlining the disruptive effects of the collaborative economy. Sometimes referred to as the “sharing economy” or the “gig economy,” the collaborative economy is a disruptive phenomenon where people use everyday technology to get the products and services they need from each other, bypassing traditional ways of buying.

In the past 12 months alone, sharing in the collaborative economy has grown by 25 percent. And with forecasts showing that eight in 10 Americans will be part of this movement by 2017, this phenomenon has significant implications for enterprise companies. They need to figure out how to successfully compete or complement collaborative companies, or risk extinction.

8. The marketing technology stack keeps growing.

Companies are putting more resources into technology that will help them get closer to the customer. As a result, the marketing technology space has seen tremendous growth in the past year.

rise of marketing technology solutions

Scott Brinker, editor of the Chief Marketing Technologist blog, estimates that the space now has 43 categories representing 1,876 vendors. That’s a significant increase from last year’s estimate of 947 vendors.

The impressive expansion of the mar tech space is in large part due to the amount of money marketers are expected to spend in the near future. Experts believe that spending on marketing tech will reach $120 billion in the next decade alone. But as marketers put more investment in digital tools, the importance of gaining a deeper understanding of the customer will only grow.

The conversation about marketing tech will increasingly focus on customer intelligence since marketers will need to figure out how to extract actionable insight from all the technology available to them.

9. Mass personalization emerges as a top digital trend.

The term “mass personalization” is no longer an oxymoron, thanks to the wide availability of data in conjunction with huge advances in technology. LUMA Partners, an investment bank, named it the top digital marketing trend of 2015.

The state of personalization has advanced rapidly in the past five years. Not long ago, personalization tools were very manual and/or broad-brush. But now, with "big data" (and predictive analytics/identity,) one-to-one personalization has become a reality (though is still nascent in its adoption by marketers.)

Mass personalization has the potential to improve the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and drive sales. Companies need to engage with their customers to ensure that customers find this type of one-to-one marketing useful rather than creepy.

10. Marketers recognize the value of “small data.”

The hype surrounding big data is officially passed. Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycles—an annual report on the emerging computing technologies, services and disciplines—dropped big data this year.

Nick Heudecker, research director at Gartner, says companies that are thinking of “doing big data” should avoid making knee-jerk reactions. He added, “Think about actual business needs, infrastructure impacts and how your enterprise architectures need to evolve.”

His advice for big data vendors? “Maybe it’s time to shift your marketing.”

As more companies like Electronic Arts realize that big data alone is not a sufficient source of customer intelligence, they’re also waking up to the benefits of “small data.” According to AdAge, small data refers to the smaller data sets that a single organization collects about customers. The specificity of small data means companies don’t need to rely on machine learning. It also means that the insight from small data is more actionable.

Regardless of whether companies use big or small data, they need to remember that data-driven marketing doesn’t eliminate the need to engage with customers directly. A human approach to engagement is critical to getting the most out of data.

Related resource:

11. Customers start to suffer from “content shock.”

The stats on content marketing show that companies are pouring billions (that’s with a B) of dollars in this practice on an annual basis. But as many marketers are starting to realize, creating killer content is easier said than done.

content marketing stats

A significant part of the problem is what people are referring to as “content shock”—a phenomenon where people are starting to reach a “physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume.” This shock is a direct result of the amount of content that both companies and individuals produce on a daily basis. For instance, one estimate claims that two million blog posts and 294 billion emails are are produced on a daily basis.

In a world of content abundance, companies need to find a way to stand out. More than ever, marketers that truly understand their target audience and their customers are in a better position to create content that’s relevant and useful and will drive sales.

12. “Micromoments” reshapes the marketing funnel.

There’s a new battleground for brands, and it’s one driven by the ubiquity of mobile. “Micro-moments,” a term coined by Google, refer to “intent-driven moments” when people use their devices to quickly find information.

Here’s how the company defines this phenomenon:

Micro-moments occur when people reflexively turn to a device—increasingly a smartphone—to act on a need to learn something, do something, discover something, watch something, or buy something. They are intent-rich moments when decisions are made and preferences shaped. In these moments, consumers' expectations are higher than ever. The powerful computers we carry in our pockets have trained us to expect brands to immediately deliver exactly what we are looking for when we are looking. We want things right, and we want things right away.

To meet the demands of customers in these “micro-moments,” companies need insight on how technologies like mobile phones shape people’s decisions. Ultimately, winning these moments is about providing a seamless experience to customers.

13. Livestreaming drives demand for transparency.

Here’s how Periscope, Twitter’s live streaming app, could transform your business

Apps like Periscope and Meerkat lead the next phase of social media this year as the race to dominate livestreaming heats up.

In his article for Entrepreneur, Andrew Reid, founder and president of corporate innovation at Vision Critical, explains how the livestreaming phenomenon changes the game.

“The live streaming revolution is upon us, bringing with it a greater level of transparency than we’ve seen before,” he wrote. “One reason may be that there’s something pure and honest about live streaming—the raw, unvarnished, direct connection possible only through a live transmission—and smart brands will continue to capitalize on this factor.”

Not to be left behind, Facebook announced in December 2015 that live-streaming is also coming to the world’s largest social network. Facebook’s move is a sure sign that the battle for live-streaming revolution will only intensify in the years ahead.

14. Consolidation continues in the ad world.

More and more advertising agencies are toying with idea of merging with other agencies. Economies of scale is driving the trend towards consolidation. As Fortune recently reported, an unprecedented $26 billion in advertising business is currently up for grabs, as companies like Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are reviewing their accounts for renewal. To add to the uncertainty, these ad clients are also looking to cut down their spending, increasing the pressure for agencies to keep their current customers or to win new ones.

“Ad agencies have an incentive to merge so they can weather increased client pressure for cost-cutting and other market shifts,” reports Fortune. “If an agency is big enough, the thinking goes, the loss of a few accounts might not be as painful.”

Unfortunately for ad agencies, the trend shows that many companies are starting to bring their marketing back in house. To keep their clients, agencies will need to demonstrate that their work drive revenues and that they are in tune with customers.

15. Companies take a strong stance on social issues (with mixed results).

Brave companies are sticking their neck out, using marketing campaigns to share their opinions on hot (and often contentious) social issues.

These well-intentioned initiatives don’t always work out. For instance, Starbucks’ attempt to spark a conversation on race quickly got ugly as customers complained that they don’t want to tackle a complex topic before having their morning coffee. More recently, IBM found itself in a hairy situation after launching a campaign that was supposed to encourage women participation in tech.

Other initiatives like REI’s #OptOutside were warmly supported by customers. Many companies that expressed strong support for marriage equality in the U.S. (including Burger King and Honey Maid) also saw positive word of mouth.

As empowered customers demand more transparency from brands, we can expect more companies and business leaders to take a stance on social issues in the years ahead. To ensure that these initiatives strike the right tone and communicate the right message, companies should work on getting closer to their customers and consider gathering feedback before, during and after a campaign.


Tweet this!To remain relevant in 2016 and in the years ahead, companies must invest in their relationship with their customers. (CLICK TO TWEET)

These trends show that the evolution of the marketing practice isn’t about to slow down anytime soon. Marketers must remain nimble. To remain relevant in 2016 and in the years ahead, companies must invest in getting closer to the very people they’re trying to market to: their customers.

The marketers that have the deepest understanding of the customer have the best shot at executing strategies that will resonate with the ever-evolving, increasingly empowered customer.

Why you need to embrace new customer-centric strategies

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was the former Content Marketing Manager and was responsible for Vision Critical's blog and social media marketing program. Before joining Vision Critical's global marketing team, Kelvin worked at Dunn PR, a Vancouver-based public relations firm. His experience includes working with lifestyle, real estate, and non-profit clients to develop social media marketing and PR strategies. Kelvin has a Bachelor of Business Administration from SFU's Beedie School of Business.
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