Merry Trendmas!

‘Tis the season…for trend stories. Yes, along with the ringing of jingle bells and the airing of grievances, nothing marks the most wonderful time of year quite like a torrent of trend stories aiming to demystify and decipher the year ahead in the world of marketing. Lucky for you, dear reader, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you – we’ve digested the best looks at marketing trends for 2019 and identified what we think are a few of the most important. It’s our gift to you, you might say.

As we look to 2019, here are a few of the trends discussed in the myriad of articles that we see as important and notable:

  • Humanization, not hubris. Or, put another way, brands will focus more on customer experience and culture – and less on promotion and persuasion. While the struggle to break through the deluge of content consumers digest on a daily basis is not new, the ability of brands breaking through by being more human and focusing more on experience will only become more important.
  • Storification of social. There’s no easier way to understand the growing and lasting popularity of Instagram Stories than to see the rush of competitors to get their own versions of the service – which enables users to post short and short-lived videos – on their platforms. What makes Stories and its ilk so attractive to brands – and positions it for big growth in 2019 – is that it enables them incorporate video more fully into their content strategy without having to, you know, invest a ton in video. It also provides an engaging and easy way for brands to embrace the humanization trend mentioned above – Stories can be used to show behind-scenes videos and snapshots that make brands more personable and approachable.
  • Savvier social ads. It’s no secret that Facebook continues to “incentivize” brands to promote their organic content through paid support. As more brands throw more budget behind paid content, it will only become more important for that content to cut through the clutter and connect with audiences. Simply put, brands will need to put the same savvy, creativity and investment behind paid ads and content that they do behind their organic output.
  • Listen up. Brand engagement on social isn’t just about talking – social listening will continue to grow in importance in 2019. Indeed, listening to audience members is just as important a part of the engagement equation as talking with them is. Further, listening – which involves analyzing specific conversations, phrases, and other details – can provide attentive brands a decisive advantage over competitors and help fuel adaptive social strategies.
  • Safety first. Data breaches and other security crises seem to crop up on an almost daily basis, making security and privacy an only bigger area of focus for brands in 2019. The debut of GDPR and the need for companies to be compliant only increases the focus on digital privacy and security. Certainly across their owned digital platforms, as well as their social ones, it’s more imperative than ever for companies to understand this aspect of their digital strategy – and communicate it clearly with customers and other key audiences.

It’s important to remember that each of these trends is already under way, meaning the need to understand and adapt to them doesn’t wait until next year.

There are many more potential trends for 2019 to unwrap under the Trendmas tree, of course; if you’re so inclined, you can read about more of them here and here.

Welcome to the search party

When it comes to search engine marketing today, the conversation almost exclusively starts (and stops) with Google, especially for brands optimizing for product searches. There’s an increasingly prominent player in the world of product search – and, given their disruption of just about every other industry on earth, who it is should come as little surprise.

It’s Amazon, of course! In fact, more than half of product searches now begin on Amazon, circumventing Google entirely – and search ad budgets are starting to reflect and react to this shift. The same goes for SEO strategy – if they weren’t already, brands need to be intentional about optimizing product copy for Amazon, who provides some insights in to how its search algorithm works. It should come as little surprise that, just like with Google, placing on the first page of product searches is the holy grail.

This doesn’t mean Google is losing its clout and value in product search, however. As the article states, while Amazon is growing as a center of product discover, Google is still being overwhelmingly used to validate purchases, as well as pricing, quality standards and brand reputation. In addition, Google still offers brands a more diverse array of ad options (like YouTube) and platforms for product search.

So, what’s it all mean? For brands dedicating ad budgets to product search, Amazon is now a growing player and part of the conversation. Those search ad budgets should take this shift into account, if they weren’t already. And, as with seemingly every other industry around, brands must account for Amazon.

Is the student becoming the master?

In the rather fluid world of social media marketing, there were at least a few irrefutable truths brands could count on – namely, that Facebook is king and Snapchat was on its way up in terms of relevance and reach. With Facebook mired in a seemingly endless array of scandals and Snapchat suddenly struggling to hold to its existing user base, however, social media marketers now face an interesting question: Is this Instagram’s time to shine?

Of course, Instagram’s been building some impressive growth independent of the calamities currently befalling Facebook and Snapchat. Indeed, Instagram’s revenue and user growth is far outpacing that of its parent company, Facebook, and has been for the past several quarters.

Is that growth a result of the struggles of other platforms like Facebook and Snapchat? Or is it a result of Instagram growing into its own as a stand-alone platform worthy of inclusion in an increasing number of social strategies for brands?

The answer to both questions is “yes.” What’s most important for marketers, however, is less about competitor struggles and more about the features Instagram has recently added have helped fuel its growth as a critical platform – and revenue driver – for brands as part of their social marketing mix. Some highlights and possible reasons behind Instagram’s growth as a marketing platform:

  • It drives ROI. Business Insider reported that nearly three-quarters of Instagram users have purchased a product they saw advertised through the app – an astronomical number.
  • It drives engagement. More than four times the engagement of Facebook for brands, according to a recent report.
  • It’s adding new features. Some brands are now experimenting with augmented reality through Instagram via Facebook’s Spark AR initiative. In addition, they’ve also been testing the use of geofencing to restrict posts and Stories to limited geographic areas. This feature could be of immense value to brands who want to geographically limit their spend and targeting based on their customer base.
  • It’s highly visual, which inspires high creativity. Forcing brands to think visually first inspires them to approach content from a more creative and engaging perspective. It forces them to think beyond text-photo-link.

What’s more: As smartphone adoption reaches its saturation point and older consumers continue to become more comfortable with and savvy at visually driven platforms like Instagram, its strategic value becomes greater to a broader array of brands than ever before. It’s no longer just a platform for brands wanting to engage with youth and younger consumers.

Does this mean brands should consider bailing on Facebook? Of course not – nor does it mean Instagram is a no-brainer option for all brands. As we always say, it comes down to clearly understanding audience, which helps dictate which social platforms make the most strategic sense.

What it does mean is that, for an increasing number of brands, Instagram continues to build itself into a picture of social marketing success.

Keep it simple, strategy

Strategy. A simple word that can make things very complicated very quickly. A word that can be grossly overused (and misused) in business and marketing. At its core, however, its definition is straightforward—a plan for obtaining goals. If it’s so simple, then, why do marketers tend to overcomplicate it?

As this recent article helpfully reminds us, it’s often because marketers can’t help themselves.

For one, overcomplicating strategic planning makes marketers indispensable in their own eyes—and, they hope, in the eyes of those they’re working with. The more complex and comprehensive you can make a strategic plan, the thinking goes, the more important and profound it’s perceived to be (and, they hope, the more the perceived value is).

We call this the “thud factor;” the bigger the plan, the more thunderous the thud—and the more impressed their partners or customers are. The end result of all this, of course, is a strategic plan that may look imposing and impressive on a shelf—but does little in helping marketers achieve goals and objectives.

It doesn’t have to be this way—nor should it. At Ferguson, we prefer to keep strategy simple—and as the article above helpfully reminds us, that’s when it’s most successful. Indeed, the most focused and effective strategic plans start by answering those most basic and fundamental questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

  • What is the goal?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Why will they value the product/offering?
  • Where do we reach them?
  • When do we reach them?

Answering those questions should make it easier to answer the last, and perhaps most important, question: How? How are we going to get them to take the actions we want them to?

Altogether, these answers form the foundation of a more concise, focused (and often single-page) strategic plan. A strategic plan that’s easy to digest and disseminate—and ensures that all stakeholders have a clear understanding of the objectives, as well as the strategy for achieving them.

“There’s just not a better guy around.”

This summer, our very own Rich Ferguson celebrated a couple major professional milestones:

  • 60 years in the advertising industry
  • 50 years in the ad-agency business

He’s spent the past 43 of those years, as you may know, as our founder and friend – helping to build one of the largest and fastest-growing agencies in the state. Beyond all of that, of course, is the fact that Rich is an all-around amazing guy – kind, funny, honest, caring and committed to his community.

We were thrilled to see the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette share all of the qualities that make Rich who he is – and, by extension, who we are as a team and a family. You can read their recent profile of Rich here.

Eight for 18

It’s 2018! If it seems like you haven’t heard from us since last year, well…that’s because you haven’t. But we’re here now! And we’re here with some trends and shifts in social media we think are worth preparing for in 2018…and beyond.

End-of-year trend lists aren’t hard to find for just about any industry, and digital marketing and social media are no exceptions. Worry not, of course, we combed through some from our favorite resources to identify the trends we see as most important in the coming year.

Without further ado:

  • Video…again. If this seems like the fourth or fifth straight year where video has been predicted to be a big trend, you’re not alone. Video still provides its challenges, but what makes it a more compelling and accessible platform is its increasing variety, as you’ll see below.
  • What’s your story? Take Instagram Stories, for example. While most still think of Instagram as a photo-driven social network, Stories saw explosive growth in 2017. That growth is expected to continue this year, making it easy for brands to bring unique, quick video content to audiences they’ve already developed and nurtured.
  • We’ll do it live. Same goes for “livestreaming” via Facebook Live, Periscope and others. Trade shows and similar events in particular lend themselves well to Facebook Live – another easy way for brands to bring quick video content to built-in audiences.
  • Diving deep on data. It can get noisy and crowded for consumers online. As the analytics from brands’ social media continues to get more robust and detailed, the value of that data becomes more important than ever. Such data enables brands to continue personalizing content, engagement and experience as much as possible – which helps cut through the noise and the traffic.
  • Listen up. Some of that data comes from social listening. Brands that have a clear understanding of their core audience can better listen to what they’re saying and the conversations they find engaging and energizing – and continue to personalize their content to align with that qualitative data.
  • Less is more. Audiences continue to have more options and choices when it comes to where they spend their time on social media, meaning it can be tempting for brands to try to be everywhere for everyone. Instead, it’s now more important than ever to understand your core audience deeply; doing so enables you to know which social platforms they prefer and frequent – and focus your finite resources accordingly. Keep it simple.
  • Organic on the outs. Friendly reminder that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. aren’t charities. As they continuously “tweak” the algorithms that decide what you see in your feed, the most common victim of those tweaks is organic content from brands. As such, brands should be prepared to invest in supporting and expanding their organic content with smart digital buys and promotions when appropriate. There’s not much worse than quality content falling on deaf ears – or no ears at all.

Exciting stuff in the year ahead! If it can seem overwhelming, it’s always important to remember that a clear-eyed, comprehensive understanding of core audience and customer simplifies the strategic-planning process as much as anything. And if it still seems overwhelming, well…better call Saul.

Signs of intelligent life

Artificial intelligence is a major disruptive force across a number of industries right now, and marketing is no different. A recent Salesforce study, for example, took the pulse of marketing leaders worldwide to see if – and, just as importantly, how – they see AI impacting their work over the next few years. And while some insights from the survey seem pretty straightforward, a few thoughts about how AI may impact marketing were a bit more surprising.

First, the straightforward parts – as you’d expect, the areas where AI is seen as having the biggest impact center on “big data,” campaign analytics and operational efficiency. Upwards of 60 percent of respondents envision leveraging AI to enhance predictive customer journeys, programmatic ad buying, lead scoring and digital asset management. Nothing too surprising there, as AI’s ability to crunch massive amounts of data and “learn” from it over time and through repetition.

Now, on to the more surprising parts: Marketers also see AI helping them make the customer experience more personal and more personalized. This speaks to one of the most interesting and lesser known aspects of AI. Sure, its impact can be huge across huge audiences, but its impact can be just as huge in enabling marketers to enhance their one-on-one engagement with customers – providing more personalized content as part of a more tailored experience and at ever-growing economies of scale. There’s power in personalization, and making it easier for marketers to personalize their customer experience may turn out being one of AI’s most profound impacts in our industry.

Simply put, AI will certainly help marketers think big – and think small.

Are you experienced?

It’s easy to think of a marketing budget as a pie, with each piece representing a particular platform or tactic. As customers and media change and evolve, some pieces get smaller, while others get bigger. Digital and mobile, in particular, are pieces that have gotten bigger over the past couple of years. A recent survey of marketing chiefs, however, reminded us that there’s another, slightly more analog piece that is also expected to grow in the coming years.

A recent survey showed that more than half of brand marketers from across the U.S., Europe and Asia expect to spend at least 20 percent of their budget on experiential marketing over the next three to five years – up from barely 30 percent of marketers who do so currently.

First off: What is experiential marketing? Also known as engagement marketing or event marketing, experiential is a marketing strategy that aims to directly engage consumers through primarily in-person experiences and, as a result, transition them from passive observers to active influencers on behalf of a brand.

Secondly: Why is it growing? Well, as our world grows more digital and mobile – and as our media consumption becomes more fractured and customized – it can become increasingly difficult for traditional marketing to reach and engage with large numbers of consumers. In addition, experiential provides a high-contact, three-dimensional, immersive brand experience that other platforms often cannot. (Like dropping bags of chips from a helicopter, for example.)

While popular for B2C, of course, experiential offers plenty of possibilities for B2B as well. Trade shows and other industry events are perfect examples of times where B2B brands have a captive audience and a branded space; why just hand out brochures and free branded pens? How can you make your booth experience at the next big trade show more experiential?

From a VR headset providing an immersive experience of your product or service to an augmented reality display bridging the digital and physical worlds – and through many other experiences in between – B2B brands can use experiential to as great an effect as B2C brands. (Even if you can’t drop your products from a helicopter.)

Build your tribe

“Marketers aren’t the owners of their brands. They’re merely the stewards of it.” It’s a saying fairly well known in the marketing world, but one that can still be fairly hard to come to terms with for some companies. Of course we own our brand. If not us, then who?

Well, here’s who.

Broadly speaking, a company’s brand belongs to an imprecise and constantly evolving cross-section of its customers, prospects, employees, suppliers, influencers, partners, etc. They “own” the brand because they are the ones who, by and large, determine its success and/or failure. The more connected they feel to a brand, the more likely they are to support it. The broader and deeper the support a brand has, the stronger its sense of ownership feels. In this approach, as a recent article helpfully explains, the brand’s heavy lifting is done by its community.

As the article also suggests, perhaps the easiest and most effective ways to create a clearer and better defined sense of a brand is to think of it less as a community and more as a tribe. The examples of brand tribes within the B2C world are virtually innumerable, of course – sports teams, food brands, music acts, clothing labels, etc. Generally speaking, we’re more predisposed to join a tribe that impacts or connects to our personal lives.

This doesn’t mean, however, that B2B companies can’t – and don’t – successfully build and grow their own tribes. After all, whether it’s B2C or B2B, it’s really about B2H – business to human. Companies need to build and grow an emotional, personal connection with consumers, no matter what they’re selling. Because at the end of the day, a purchase decision is still an emotional one, no matter what they’re buying. It’s also important to remember that the purchase is just the beginning of that relationship, not the end; companies that commit to providing a positive, engaging customer experience throughout the product life cycle are the ones that most often build tribes of loyal, emotionally connected customers.

All this being said, it can still be hard for companies to see themselves not as the owners of their brands but as their stewards. The sooner they do, however, the sooner they begin understanding who the owners truly are – and how to build a growing tribe full of them.

Who’s the boss?

Call to action. Perhaps the three most important words in marketing – important because they should clearly define why it is we’re doing what we’re doing – be it an ad, brochure, circular, email, etc. What do we want people to do when they see/hear/read this? What’s our call to action? And while prevailing industry wisdom is to keep calls to action simple, straightforward and to the point, a new academic paper shows that something else marketers take for granted may actually backfire on them – especially with their most important customers.

For brands, the tendency to be direct (and even assertive) in their calls to action is obvious, especially in our increasingly fractured media landscape. Nuance is no good when you only have a few seconds – if that – of a consumers’ (relatively) undivided attention. Instead of nuance, brands often emphasize “now” – Buy now! Call now! Order now! Visit now!

And that’s where they can run into trouble, as the paper, publishing soon in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, argues. Simply put, consumers don’t like being told what to do – or even the feeling that they’re being told what to do. Instead, they have an instinctual need to feel like they are making their own choices. The challenge for marketers, then, is to make that choice easy for consumers – but in a way that makes them feel as if they’re making the decision themselves.

Of course, this is a very fine line; one that can be constantly shifting and must be constantly minded. The best results, the paper shows, come from ads that are “informative and hint at action” for the consumer. Informative is easy, sure, but “hint?” How do marketers determine between a hint and a harangue? As we say often, this is where understanding your audience and your customers to an extreme degree is so important. The better you know them, the better you know just how far to push that hint without becoming overly assertive and off-putting.

As if marketers didn’t have enough to fret about, this is something new and not insignificant. The good news, however, is that it’s also a reminder that brands who work consistently to create an ongoing dialogue with their customers are much better positioned to avoid being too assertive – and instead hit home runs with their hints of action.

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