What Are The Top Digital Marketing Trends and Priorities for 2017?

What's most important in the Digital Age — content marketing, data analytics or the customer experience? And where should you allocate your budget? This study reveals the answers.

Every year for the past seven years, Econsultancy and Adobe have fielded one of the biggest research studies in the world on the subject of digital marketing. This year’s study encompassed more than 14,000 marketing executives in a range of industries from around the world.

The 2017 Digital Trends report identifies the strategies sitting atop marketers’ list of priorities for the coming year, but also reveals some unexpected and even contradictory findings.

Digital Marketing Matures

There was a time not too long ago when digital marketing was all about advertising and “push” messaging — e.g., online ads, promotional emails and sales campaigns that plug products and offer incentives. Not any more.

These days, there is a heightened emphasis on cultivating relationships by creating engagement through content. Nearly a third (29%) of marketers say content marketing will be one of their top three most important activities in the coming year. This represents a big shift from the outbound “push” approach to marketing to one that is much more consumer centric — providing educational and/or entertaining information that people want to “pull” them in and get them to engage with the brand. Content marketing tactics can include anything from webinars and how-to guides to blog posts and infographics.

This shift is further illustrated by other digital marketing tactics rising in prominence. Coming in at #2 on the list of priorities, roughly a quarter of all marketers say they want to boost engagement in social channels (28%), and make their marketing more personalized and targeted (25%).

“Channels and tactics that lend themselves to personalization are a driving force behind marketing success today.”

This suggests that brands are willing to eschew the “buy, buy, buy!” marketing messages that dominated the landscape only a few years ago in favor of more nuanced strategy. The assumption is that by addressing people’s questions — whether that be through content marketing materials or in two-way conversations via social channels. Marketers clearly intend to spend more time listening vs. talking yelling than they have in the past, as they look to deepen relationships and build trust with consumers who will, in turn, then be more receptive to offers and take action.

Aligning Budgets With Priorities

Often in surveys, you find disconnects between what respondents claim are their priorities and where they actually intend on allocating their budgets. Do they put their money where their mouth is? Yes, at least according to the research from Econsultancy and Adobe. Their study shows a refreshing level of alignment between priorities and budgets.

Marketers said that their top three priorities for 2017 were content marketing, social media and personalization, and they will be increasing budgets in those areas at a corresponding level.

One tactic that stays stable is email marketing. As you can see in the graph above, email marketing remains firmly in the center of the budget table, despite the fact that study after study reveals that it has a better capacity to deliver higher ROI than other tactics. In a separate survey from Econsultancy, email surfaced as the most effective digital marketing tactic. However, this study found that organizations were spending around 15% of their marketing budget on this channel, even though they could attribute 23% of total sales to it. Clearly, marketers could take more advantage of email.

It’s also interesting to note that online display advertising and search engine marketing (pay-per-click ads) aren’t seeing the budgetary increases that they did back when they were considered the cornerstone staples of a digital strategy. This doesn’t necessarily suggest that they are losing their relevancy nor that their potency is diminishing. It could simply reflect that — after nearly a decade of growth, testing and optimization — these areas have now matured and are properly funded.

What About Data Analytics?

Surprisingly, marketers don’t seem terribly concerned about their data analytics capabilities. It’s virtually impossible to “optimize” anything — whether it be the customer journey, conversion rates or engagement in mobile/social channels — without robust data streams… and the ability to derive actionable insight from them.

While the vast majority of respondents in the survey said they are planning to increase or maintain their level of investment in marketing analytics, this investment does not match their will nor the immediacy of need; all data points in the survey related to analytics appear further down marketers’ lists of priorities for 2017 than one would expect.

Only 8% of those in the study said that predictive analytics and customer scoring were one of their top priorities. Less than one in ten are looking at joining their online- and offline data sets. And 10% want to improve their analytics capabilities in social channels even though 28% said they will concentrate on increasing social media engagement rates. How can you determine whether or not an activity like “social media engagement” is yielding the desired outcomes if you don’t have the data to prove it? In the Digital Age, you have access to all the data you need to identify any correlations (or lack thereof) between marketing tactics and results. But only if you make it a priority.

If marketers are focusing their attention in areas such as content marketing and social media engagement without a corresponding emphasis on analyzing data to surface valuable insights, Adobe and Econsultancy say this suggests marketers have their head in the sand. No matter who you are or how advanced you think your data analytics capabilities are today, you still have a loonnngggg way to go. It really should be the number one action-item on everyone’s to-do list.

It’s All About The Customer Experience

As companies prioritize their digital marketing efforts, there is clearly a focus on creating a seamless, consistent and valuable experience for their audiences and having the teams in place to help achieve this.

Findings in the Econsultancy/Adobe study reveal that the way most companies expect to differentiate themselves from the competition over the next five years is to focus on delivering an optimized customer experience.

Understanding device usage and combining online and offline data to better manage customer experiences come lower down executives’ list of priorities, but they’re still vital contributing factors to achieving those top two goals.

Similarly, over one fifth (22%) of client-side respondents ranked ‘optimizing the customer experience’ as the single most exciting opportunity for 2017, slightly ahead of other areas such as ‘creating compelling content for digital experiences’ (16%) and ‘data-driven marketing’ (12%).

Design thinking is emerging as a strategic weapon in the CX battle. In fact, Adobe and Econsultancy say design is the next step on the path to digital transformation, with 86% of respondents in their survey agreeing that design-driven companies outperform other businesses.

This design-centric mindset comes as no surprise when accounting for the fact that those surveyed place the highest emphasis on creating a relevant experience that both surprises and delights consumers.

While over four-fifths (82%) of survey respondents believe that creativity is highly valued within their organizations and around three-quarters (77%) are investing in design to differentiate their brand, just over two-fifths (44%) don’t think that they have the processes and collaborative workflows to achieve a design advantage.

“While they aim to optimize the customer experience, they are not building their data capabilities fast enough to facilitate this.”

John Travis, VP of Emerging Markets at Marketing Adobe, says brands need to focus on their organization’s culture if they hope to realize their CX dreams. “Adopting a collaborative, cross-team approach where everyone is focused on the same goal of delivering experiences is hard, and it’s not surprising to see that many businesses struggle in this area.”

“Respondents overwhelmingly claim that customer experience is their most exciting opportunity,” says Travis. “Many of them are investing in content and design, looking to create experiences are personal, compelling and memorable. But at the same time, their investment in analytics is lagging. It seems that many businesses are so excited to get into the experience game that they overextend, neglecting to take care of the basics. If you want to take design and deliver content-driven experiences, you need a strong foundation of data.”

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