Marketing success requires knowing your business and how to reach your customers. The secret sauce for digital success adds an eye for the opportunities in the evolving digital space. For example, when I was a digital marketer for a political non-profit, I generated good results by borrowing ideas from B2C digital (emails like Apple) and political campaigns (Facebook like Obama).
It’s easy to get this out-of-balance: the digital space produces trendy things that may have no value for a marketer. Does your company really need a TikTok account? Just because it’s shiny and new doesn’t mean it’s an opportunity.
On the other hand, the marketer who only knows their business and their customers, and nothing about digital opportunities, will suffer from digital irrelevance. They’re the ones producing 15-minute videos for website homepages and hiding content in downloadable PDFs, as if their websites are an all-day training seminar.
The savvy digital marketer needs to reach a strategic golden mean: an eye on their market and an eye on the digital world. This post aims to help with the latter: the digital marketing trends that your strategy needs to incorporate, for 2022 and beyond.
Where we’ve been: digital marketing by the decade
In the 2000s, digital trends included the simple arbitrage of content marketing; it was cheaper to produce original content and use it to generate leads than it was to use display advertising. Search ads were novel and cheap, too. Companies that advertised on Google and produced a blog were very likely to be the only one in their industry. These basics, like early search marketing and simple email marketing were often differentiators.
As digital evolved into its second full decade, around the 2010s, things shifted. No longer could you assume to be first in the basics: marketers had to snap to more sophisticated technology to have early moved advantages. Ad tech became easier to load, use, and thus more prevalent. As Google search ads got relatively more expensive, the marketers who knew how to track their audiences around the internet found those kinds of ads paying off, sometimes handsomely. As web content became more of a commodity, social networks began to top search as sources of attention. Companies with solid social profiles could have that early mover advantage.
In the 2010s, companies still generated value from content, on search, etc., but they had to invest more and better--the competition got fiercer. Successful strategies shifted in response. Social ads and third party cookies became often more efficient at generating interest and leads. It was sometimes cheaper and easier to build a social following than to build a robust and trafficked website. Companies with a social presence or spending on social ads could expect to be the only one in their sector or area, at least early in the decade.
While neither the content play nor the social + ads play lasted for very long, depending on the industry, marketers were able to produce some stunning results for quite a while. And even after your competitors arrived on the scene, you could still find, educate, and convert your audience using those digital tactics. The strategic differentiator became less about what tech you were using and more about the marketing approach to the technology.
The headwinds and tailwinds of the 2020s
Heading into the 2020s, the state of play seems to be shifting again. It’s still less about what tech you’re using and still more about how you’re able to find your audience. This time, though, the shifts are less about competitors arriving on the scene and more about the technology itself closing off old opportunities. What made old strategies work is no longer unique, and some of the underlying technology has begun to show its age.
Digital marketing faces challenging headwinds in the 2020s:
- Content has flattened: when everyone publishes content, no one’s content stands out. The open space for a unique content strategy is vanishingly small.
- Search and social ad spending is getting more expensive due to competition and less accurate due to privacy. Social audiences are worth far less because the platforms charge to access them; ad spends are becoming less efficient as throughput tracking becomes impossible.
- Privacy trends are killing the value of cheap, rented data, like what marketers used to get from third-party cookies via ad exchanges, or what they used to buy from data brokers.
- Data → Owned audiences and addressable data still paramount
- Social → Ability to create and foster community using digital tools
- Ads → Giant ad platforms may be outcompeted by nimbler, narrower upstarts
- Content → Lowering production costs may make owned content a better investment
- Channels → Email and text still the primary owned direct channels, the next evolution is to make them bidirectional
But there are strategic opportunities:
- Data: owned data has never been more valuable.
- Attention: more time is spent online than ever before.
- Tech Maturity: the huge wins of technology in the past are now table stakes.
Digital marketing strategy needs to mitigate the threats and take advantage of the opportunities. When combined with internal strengths and weaknesses, you’ll have a complete SWOT and be ready to chart a solid course.
Building a complete digital marketing strategy for 2022
These are the considerations to bring into the picture:
Here are some examples of how companies have recognized all of the above and found success.
Clearing the undergrowth: winning in organic search
Most digital marketers have a website and blog in their project list. Sometimes they redesign or launch new content, but rarely do they audit and edit. Recognizing the flattening of content and the potential value to be gained by search, one of my customers decided to actually run a content audit. They cataloged their entire website, landing pages, and blog, and identified what content actually matters for search. If a page or post existed, it needed a purpose, and most of the content was nominally for search, but hadn’t been updated or optimized in years. After the audit, they removed 2/3rds of the pages and posts, and thoroughly edited and optimized the remainder. Within 90 days of the audit, they’d doubled their search traffic. Analyzing the early results helped identify the next opportunities to win an audience with great search-oriented content.
Buying an audience: acquiring the company, not just ads
In 2021, HubSpot bought The Hustle. Why buy a media company? When the core audience is already there, you can: 1) buy its attention with ads, 2) publish competing content, 3) acquire the whole thing. HubSpot decided that the latter option actually fit its longer-term goals better. While not every company has the warchest HubSpot has, thinking about more strategic partnerships or M&A activity, rather than bought ads or built content, can be a worthy play. Several of my customers have purchased industry-specific publications or partnered with existing publications to host their content efforts. When the audience can be owned, rather than rented, your content and audience will be more valuable over time.
Launching an ad platform
As Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook launch alternatives to cookie-based ad technology, companies that have an audience and can track purchase behavior are in a unique strategic position. The demise of cookie-tracking generally means that ad platforms won’t be able to connect inventory and clicks with purchases. BCG has advised its retailers that they may be able to do just that: connect website visits with purchases, and thus they may have a unique opportunity to launch their own ad platforms. They’re calling this retail media opportunity a multi-billion dollar race.
A first entrant into this race is Kroger, who launched an online platform that allows advertisers to rent access to Kroger's 60 million loyalty card holders and to use that data to target audiences on other advertising platforms. The offering is explainer in more detail here at krogerprecisionmarketing.com. What stands out to me is the roughly equal emphasis on the completeness of Kroger's data and their attempt to guard consumer privacy. I’d expect other retail market leaders to emerge: Walmart, Target, etc. But their relative lacks of loyalty program data may make them followers. There is probably more room for smaller or niche B2C retailers who have robust loyalty program data to launch marketplaces for advertisers.
Future-Proof Digital Marketing Strategy
All of the changes to the digital landscape in the last few decades are enough to give you whiplash. Changing a strategy to reflect the latest tactics seems like an unwinnable argument: the state of play is too dynamic to constantly pivot and keep a clear strategy. It’s better to base a strategy on those underlying things that remain constant amidst all of the change. That’s why I hate seeing particular social or tech platforms named in a “strategy”: a good strategy will probably outlast the latest apps.
Staying future-proof means embracing that:
- Your business and your customers > what others are doing: copycats are easy to see through. If a new tactic pops up, think about how it could impact the relationship with an audience you already have, not just about how it could work.
- Story matters most of all: there’s never been a tactic or a hack that has outperformed solid story-telling over time.
- New and shiny may not mean useful: we’ve all wasted too much time and money learning that “new” just means “different”, not “better.”
The best digital marketers are the ones that selectively choose what to do and consistently execute on what really matters. They may not always be able to appear on a panel at a tech conference, but their leadership actually adds value for their organizations.