In an age where the audience is tired and the performers are eager, one can expect technological solutions to blossom – and they do. This article looks first of all at trends in best practice and then turns its attention to tools and technology trends.
Throughout the history of people’s efforts to sell to other people, new technologies have emerged that have helped the advertising process along. The first advertisers were tradesmen with symbols outside their doors, indicating their specialisms. Then, the first printing presses not only multiplied the availability of the latest scandal sheet or songs, but newspapers, handbills and trade cards also promoted the wares of those who could afford to advertise. Promotions became big business and, although quackery was common, the proof of the effectiveness of advertising and marketing soon became apparent. Poster hoardings, print advertising in paper media soon became overtaken by TV and radio advertising, driving massive revenues. These were dwarfed, however, with the advent of online advertising banners and the associated search engine optimisation.
In the age of the Internet, practically any medium lends itself to promotional work. Social media plugs paid ads, tailored to users’ profiles. Youtube video begins, is interrupted by and ends with advertising and subliminal and not so subtle messages pepper everything we read online, embedded in articles, newsletters and posts from around the world. As this becomes more sophisticated, more targeted and, yes, more effective, the subscriber to this media can become blind to the content and so ever more extreme methods are used to push messages in front of an unwilling audience.
Is this good practice? Generally speaking, no. Yet advertisers are desperate to squeeze one more drop of traction out of every item they post so they are willing to make sacrifices to their online reputations in order to get their message across. In an age where the audience is tired and the performers are eager, one can expect technological solutions to blossom – and they do. This article looks first of all at trends in best practice and then turns its attention to tools and technology trends.
Trends in best practice
It’s not always about what’s right, but what works in marketing. Ethical considerations are important to ensure that as marketers we don’t alienate our target audience, but the innovators, the people who do things differently are usually the ones who gain the big prizes. The fast-paced development of online marketing tools such as social media, email and search engine advertising means that those who keep pace with the latest developments are likely to be the winners – but the past doesn’t give up and change is always with us.
We’ve all encountered awkward systems that call us by the wrong name, misunderstand our wishes or simply just don’t work. It’s getting better though. Personalisation, which is part of automation, tailors content that we read to our needs. How does the system know our needs? It may be that it’s drawing on databases of our previous activity, purchasing choices or profile: we may be part of a group that likes rock music for example, or opera. The type of content being pushed at those two groups should be radically different and, if it isn’t, the system is not doing its job. Conditional content in emails, for example, looks for data triggers to substitute particular content matching a group’s requirements into the main newsletter. A simple algorithm makes those judgements and differentiates the content on that basis. It depends strongly on robust data and enables us to do better than one size fits all.
Automation will get more, not less and, with AI-driven systems, it will become more sophisticated, permeating not just email, but online content generally, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) and remarketing. As it improves, so the lines will blur between what is evidently machine interaction with the customer and similar activity with other human beings.
Marketing with permission
In this age of data protection regulations such as the GDPR, permission marketing is gold dust – people have given you the freedom to contact them with news about your products and services, with permission! If you are looking for ways around ad-blockers, then focus on those people who really do want to hear from you. It’s largely a waste of money, pushing messages at people who don’t want to hear or see them. The GDPR has done us all a favour in that respect.
People who have given permission can be your events – they are keen on you and what you do, so give them opportunities to share your messages with others. As influencers, they are vital to your success and the finding and keeping of such people is going to be ever more important in a world crowded with companies frantically promoting their stories.
Two-way marketing gives the customer a chance to respond to what you say and thereby, you create the conversations. Whether these are with chatbots, or simply through social media and human beings plugging away at keeping the client happy, there will be more of this in the future.
In a bid to engage with prospective customers and to retain and motivate existing ones, companies aim to continue conversations that work on a number of levels and platforms. Although the main hub for content is the website and its associated blog, conversations work through a number of other media too: chatbots, podcasts, social media, video and mailers, backed up by advertising that may be delivered online, in print or through the mobile devices that most people carry. The relative importance of each of these platforms that enable conversations will change as trends determine their relative worth. New platforms may also emerge that are synthesised from a combination of these existing media with new concepts such as virtual and augmented reality (q.v. below), for instance. Keep your client engaged and intrigued!
Search Engine Marketing
We’re all used to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), but SEM takes it a step further by integrating SEO with Pay-Per-Click (PPC) and remarketing (where adverts follow you around the web). A further useful integration that is now becoming ever more important, is Public Relations (PR) which is integrating with the other disciplines here to create a holistic content marketing approach, with coherent messages and brand reinforcement. All aspects of SEM will develop in the next few years, becoming more sophisticated, more competed and therefore requiring ever more skill and differentiation in order to identify and target the potential client.
Importance of media other than text in search
Voice, images and video will become more integrated as indicators of relevance in search evaluations. Viral video and images, for example, have huge traction on social media. Therefore, attention to the detail that optimises these media for search engines is critical as we move forward into a more diverse and truly “multimedia” future.
Security will be a large requirement for future marketing. As systems become more diverse and ever more Internet-aware devices have access to a growing online mesh, so too, the opportunities grow for those with evil intent. The online space is more fraught than ever with hackers and con artists who wish us harm. The requirements of the GDPR reflect a growing need to not only protect ourselves, but also and more importantly, to protect our subscribers, clients and prospects. International standards such as ISO 27001 play a big part in foiling fraudsters and hackers as well as providing sensible in-house security practice for any company. This approach will be one demanded by an ever-increasing body of customers who, rightly, wish to protect their intellectual property and infrastructure.
Tools and technology trends
Emerging technologies will have a profound impact on all areas of businesses with any digital footprint. There’s a world out there that is virtual, created by digital interactions using a wide variety of technologies. Whether we interact with each other through social media, across multi-person video conferencing or in a completely virtual or augmented reality, we shall need to be aware that as technology changes so will the metaphor of those reactions. Ultimately, everything we do in a digital environment is a metaphor for a real-life situation. How well that metaphor works is in part down to the quality of the delivery system and partly down to how well we all accept and agree on the terms of that metaphorical context.
The following sections briefly summarise areas of potential change in the way that marketers may talk to and engage with their audience through emerging technological solutions. Naturally, some of this is speculation and trends may move in a totally different direction.
Virtual and augmented reality
VR and AR provide new ways of viewing the world through their lenses. In virtual reality, a new world is constructed which may be seen through the viewing device – a headset that completely dominates the user’s visual field. The applications for games are almost limitless since the player can move in a virtual environment and respond with gestures or a controller to respond to the events that happen in that virtual world.
The augmented reality environment is slightly different in that it adds a layer of information and visuals to your perception of the outside world. Generally operating through a mobile device, the system triggers in response to a particular image or context and then gives the user information overlaid on the screen. Typically, this takes the form of animation, clickable elements to reveal more detailed information about an object or person or, key to marketers, promotional material that encourages investigation of a location or object. Pokémon Go is a great example here. Safe to say, marketers will use much more of augmented reality in the future, taking advantage of the prevalence of sophisticated smartphone technologies.
Contextual advertising appeared to be way in the future (think the mall scene in Minority Report), yet our phones allow our location to be transmitted in real time to the masts that serve them. The forthcoming 5G networks will offer LTE Advanced, which features a device-to-device protocol called LTE Direct, “creating new proximity service opportunities for the entire mobile industry in social networking, venue services, loyalty services, local advertising” (Qualcomm). In reality, this means that your phone will be able to receive bespoke messages that are personalised to your tastes or requirements as you enter shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. For this technology to work, companies will need to tool up accordingly to ensure that their stores and locations take advantage of this emerging technology.
Personal assistants and conversational platforms
Systems such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana are Virtual Private Assistants (VPAs) that call for content from search engines. When a user asks Alexa a question about a particular product or service, the Amazon service polls the Bing search engine to get its answers, as does Microsoft’s Cortana, unsurprisingly. Apple’s Siri, meanwhile, talks to Google. The consequence of this is that companies need to get their SEO in order if they wish to stand a chance of being found through the medium of voice search. At the same time, these systems are collecting personal data about you as you express your preferences on a daily basis in terms of what you listen to or watch, what you order (through Amazon, for example) and where your interests lie.
Chatbots, on the other hand, are dedicated conversational platforms that are usually found on website enquiry pages, providing swift answers to FAQ-type questions. However, when these become more sophisticated drawing on a) a customer’s transactional data and b) the whole body of data that has been accrued during the backend system’s life, these chatbots become much more of a force to be reckoned with. Whether you talk or type is largely irrelevant – the system will process your request and, based on the algorithms behind it, will deliver an answer – or indeed, participate in a conversation. Increasingly, these systems, including VPAs, will deliver better and higher quality results. The frustration of having to know in advance what to ask and how, will reduce and the use of much more natural language will dominate in advanced systems. As marketers, we should prepare ourselves to make the most of the opportunities these technologies offer.
Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)
This convergence of web technology and smartphone/tablet applications is allowing the creation of website subsets that appear and function in the same way as a traditional phone application. Since these share the common data that already exists on the website, there is no requirement to update two content sources. Moreover, the PWA can draw on transactional data to enable such elements as retrieval of order history or full-blown e-commerce. There are many ways to create and optimise PWAs and the future lies with those companies that develop their own particular “dialect” of coding that works optimally in this new environment.
The future is behind a veil, as ever – even AI cannot crack that enigma, as yet. We can know what’s coming and infer where it might go. Our track record as a race for doing that is not great though. If there’s a Law of Unintended Consequences, there probably should also be a Law of Unexpected Developments. If you think back to the first mobile phones, who would ever have imagined that these devices would turn into the multi-faceted digital hubs that we routinely carry with us today. By the same token, what unexpected developments will emerge from the technologies discussed here, or those yet to be discovered?
One last thing: keep your eye on blockchain. If you don’t know what it is, find out. The only people who know what to do with it seem to be virtual currencies, and yet there’s much, much more to come from this intriguing technology. It’s only just beginning …