Ten digital marketing trends to watch in 2008

The start of a new year always suggests boundless possibilities and a wealth of opportunities. Here are ten things worth taking into consideration as you plan your digital marketing for the calendar year ahead – some are trends, some are observations, some have predictions attached to them and, yes, some are things we think are important and would dearly love to see in our ever-evolving industry.
Ten digital marketing trends for 2008 are:

  • Social media will grow up: as social media and social networks come of age, so will marketing in this realm.
  • Wise marketers will become “channel agnostic”: develop a marketing strategy with clear goals and then decide how best to achieve them.
  • Content will receive renewed focus: more digital users are connecting more often and they want something to do…
  • Mobile will move beyond the cellphone: it will permeate everything from commerce to news and messaging to maps.
  • Corporate Social Investment will remain a focus: plan it wisely and resent it well.
  • The year of analytics: measurability has never been easier – or more important
  • Open source will move beyond just software: it's time for “open source thinking”
  • Bandwidth: there will be good news, and there will be bad news.
  • Search engine marketing: it is here to stay - understand it and use it.
  • New market segments will open up: kids, “silver surfers” and tweens lead the way.

    Social media grows up

    Social networks or, more correctly, the hype around them, was all the rage in 2007. This part of the digital landscape (and, here, we include the internet, mobile and near-mobile components) has proved itself as both useful and desirable and is in no danger of disappearing. But the local market's attitude to social networks will mature: new users on social networks like Facebook, MXit and MySpace will tend towards a plateau as local growth eases from its logarithmic uptake to a more steady, linear stream. It will continue to burn, but as a steady blaze rather than a running wildfire.

    Internationally, expect the hype-tide to turn at some point in the year as some of the much trumpeted networks have slower growth – or softer returns – than some of the stellar predictions. Locally, expect the spin to continue with at least a few attempts to create “South Africa's answer to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn [here you really could insert your choice of a 2007 headline-grabbing social service]” which, frankly, will struggle to succeed if they are in direct competition with already established international services and brands.

    That said, the local web- and mobile-space can certainly expect success from carefully niched new players or offerings, where the benefits of social networking and social media are leveraged to benefit a specific target group or need.

    So, should you stay out of social networks, social bookmarking, social media and allied platforms and services? On the contrary, you should seriously consider engaging with them, but doing this with a clear understanding of what you want from this engagement, and understanding why, precisely, it is a social network that is the best channel for your goals. It is also reasonable to expect a local rise in “social network marketing”, something that may sound as foreign now as email marketing or online campaigns once did, but will probably be a standard boardroom term by year's end.

    The shift to “channel agnostic”

    Hopefully, 2008 will be the year that that the outdated fluff around “integrated” versus “specialist” will vanish once and for all, ushering in a more North American understanding of “direct” campaigns, on the one hand, and brand-building or information dissemination exercises on the other. Hopefully, too, it will see the end of outmoded local distinctions between "above", "below", "through" and "on" the line, distinctions that have become meaningless to many clients and agencies.

    A “channel agnostic” approach should be used. Rather assess the business needs and establish your strategic objectives and then choose the best way to achieve these than decide you need “a TV ad”, “a website” or “a knock-and-drop campaign” and bending your business needs to try and fit what might be the wrong mould.

    We use the term “above and below the web”, preferring to think in terms of a coherent marketing strategy that includes digital elements, rather than disparate islands of marketing spend. We also recommend thinking in terms of “continuous marketing” – creating spaces to interact with clients and customers in terms of their stories – rather than the old-fashioned (and often ineffective) style of trying to buy space to force customers to listen to your story.

    New content, new kings

    From 2005 to 2007 debate raged about whether content was truly “king” or not. 2008 should be the year that you rejoice: the king is dead, so long live the king. Expect to see a sharp rise in user-generated content, where a community of users is uploading words, pictures, videos or music for their own consumption. Expect to see a rise in “white label” content offerings to meet the need the increasing demand that brands have to provide a reason for users to interact with their web and mobile sites. Also, in tandem with both of these, expect to see the growth of new content creators, both official creative agencies and “amateur” whizzkids.

    2007 already saw the rise of what can be grouped together as “webisodes”, whether these are mainstream television-related or film-related promotions and value-adds or part of a genuine new web- and mobile-targeted genre like “Quarterlife” and Time-Warner's “Studio 2.0” releases that stepped in to up the ante in the trail blazed by “LonelyGirl15” and her YouTube / MySpace success.

    Linking these two trends – with a nod at the real-world financial success of a virtual creation like the band Gorillaz and the rise of “stars” in virtual environments like the 3D virtual environment, Second Life – it seems safe to predict the rise of the digital era's first “web stars”. Expect a new celebrity clique comprising the actors, conceptualisers and creators of these new forms.

    Mobile: beyond the cellphone

    With no real surprise, expect the continued rise of the “third screen” as it continues to augment and, in some cases and some markets, to supersede television and computer screens. The mobile ‘phone in your pocket will continue its inexorable rise to becoming as ubiquitous as your wallet, your shopping list, your instant messenger, your news-service, your map-book, your feed-reader, your ticketing service and, even, your broker and your bank.

    On the entertainment front, the distinction between devices will continue to blur: are the new music-oriented handsets ‘phones or mp3 players, are the high-resolution colour-screen devices primarily meant for making ‘phone calls, or watching movies and sharing photographs? Expect, too, to see mobile functionality added to existing “non-mobile” devices like mp3 players, gaming consoles, DVD-viewers, eBook readers and the like. Also expect an increase in location-based and location-driven mobile services – the first including things like venue-specific Bluetooth or WiFi downloads; the second revolving around using GPS co-ordinates to drive or enhance services.

    Fledgling mobile commerce already exists: consider cellphone banking, airtime purchases, ring-tones and the like, music subscriptions, ticketing and premium-rated SMS donations or payments. Consider, too, that countries to our north on the African continent already have trading sectors working almost exclusively on cellphone-based money exchanges and are moving towards full mobile-base banking. Also consider the limited success of South Africa's much trumpeted Mzansi bank accounts, on the one hand, and, on the other, the prevalence of pre-paid cellphone accounts that are tried and tested, have some kind of unique identification mechanism and some record keeping. Expect mobile-based commerce to grow.

    Corporate Social Investment: doing good is good for business

    Expect both a dip and a rise in “green” issues. On the one hand, there's what's already being dubbed “ecofatigue” overseas as consumers and businesses tire of hearing about global warming, threatened resources and sustainable living. On the other, there's the inevitable weight of evidence showing that there is, in fact, a problem brewing if we don't all get serious about… global warming, threatened resources and sustainable living. Locally, the impact of “Zumanomics” can't be ignored, with a likely shift of focus away from what is perceived – correctly or incorrectly – as something of a “first world concern”.

    Then, too, it is realistic to expect legislative changes and compliance rules, whether these relate to BBBEE requirements, overt energy-use taxes, stacking of service prices to fund poverty alleviation plans, gender equity rulings or the like. These will nudge more companies towards CSI spend, with a corresponding need to promote and explain this investment to their shareholders, stakeholders, customers and the general public.

    Analytics: measuring 2008

    It may be overly dramatic to dub 2008 “the year of analytics” before it's properly started, but the drivers are there: oil prices and US prime-lending factors influencing a slower dollar economy, circumspection in shareholder confidence, parallels being drawn between “Web 2.0” enthusiasm and the “dot bubble” which preceded the “dot bomb” crash. This should prompt more prudent marketing, a marketer focused on measurable results and with clear business goals in mind.

    It is a positive trend. Positive for clients because it trends towards proper ROI-based marketing; positive for agencies because they can insist on specified goals and outcomes; and positive for the industry because we can move towards greater measurability, and we need to all agree that this an a priori good.

    There's another driver, and this is simply that web analytics are becoming increasingly less esoteric, based largely on the growth of sophisticated results-based digital campaigns (especially long-term conversion and acquisition strategies) and the increased understanding of bid-based pay-per-click models in search engine marketing. Expect to here acronyms like PPC (pay-per-click), CPM (cost per mille) and CPA (cost per action) bandied about during creative sessions and debates about the relevance of CTR (click through rate) over CPI (cost per impression).

    But there's homework to be done, and some of it is sobering. Agencies need to base their campaign ideas on hard facts. Clients need to understand that the terrain is new and ever-shifting and that research and market-grabbing ideas require resources and budget. The industry needs to be realistic about its stats and transparent about the inevitable pitfalls inherent in statistics.

    Open sesame: open source beyond just software

    2007 saw open source systems and software grow in credibility, enjoy wider acceptance and become a viable and entrenched part of the business landscape. More subtly, “open source thinking” continues to percolate and permeate business models and user expectations. Recent debutantes at the open source ball include the OpenSocial initiative (an attempt to establish a standard for social media offerings so they can work interchangeably) and Android (a project to create a similar environment for mobile application developers, hopefully leading to interoperability of tools and services across handsets).

    “Open source thinking” is a more slippery beast. On the one hand, it can encompass a growing attitude amongst consumers that it's a right to assume that software, services and consumables will be free. The music and software industries experience the sharp end of this change – expect more headline-grabbing upheaval here as new models for creation, distribution and licence vie for simple viability – it is still to soon to speak of dominance.

    The other aspect of this thinking sees the “gifting” of information and tools. Consider the new open source based operating system that forms the basis of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, the Creative Commons “Toasters” computers set up to distribute open source software to anyone who brings along a blank CD, and the MIT “Open University” initiative.

    Bandwidth and the road to 2010

    Expect good news and bad news. The good is that you can expect local bandwidth to improve progressively throughout the year, both in terms of “last-mile” connectivity like 3G, Wireless and ADSL, and in terms of the country's total data capacity. The bad news is that there are likely to be setbacks – whether these are operational or financial hitches in rolling out last mile connections, or fluxes in political will that stymie our long-awaited Second Network Operator and new undersea cable.

    The impending data needs of the 2010 Soccer World Cup – and the fact that many South African business will wake up with a jolt to the fact that there are only two short years left to prepare – will continue to grab headlines. Behind the scenes, Nepad and other bodies will, hopefully, be successful in their lobbying efforts to ensure we get closer to bridging the digital divide.

    Search engines: welcome to the new world

    In a similar vein to how the local market will mature in its understanding of – and use of – web analytics, 2008 will also be a year which sees brands and businesses becoming more comfortable with Search Engine Marketing, understanding Search Engine Optimisation and, hopefully, mastering how to apportion online budgets across traditional web exposure (like banners), campaign-specific placements, viral elements and search engine marketing.

    There are already business success stories powered by clever use of search engine keywords – think of travel-related business attracting foreign visitors and of the job placement market. This year will see more and more businesses using industry expertise to bid for both the “high ticket” covetable keywords and the more niched “long tail” terms and will see a corresponding growth as established digital players expand their portfolios to offer such services and will, hopefully, also see the growth of start-up companies specialising in properly matured search marketing and its allied disciplines.

    Interested eyes watch eagerly as Google South Africa is set to launch early in the year. Stated plans include driving broadband growth, but the introduction of a local office for the global player will spark renewed energy and competition around local search. It seems unlikely that local players can really tackle Google at their own game, but the field remains open for niched searches and 2008 is likely to see a sprinkling of new products and service-targeted offerings, with the wiser ones also incorporating social media and/or subscription models.

    Mobile search already exists but will become more popular during a year that, as above, will see both mobile and search engine growth. It's premature to predict the penetration of mobile search-and-purchase offerings beyond a small band of techno-savvy early adopters, but do expect the early signs of inevitable trends in this direction.

    New markets, new frontiers

    Finally: new markets. Or, more correctly, long-standing market segments finally finding a digital home. There are many more segments moving online, but we will consider only three: kids, “silver surfers” and tweens.

    Kids: They are already online in droves with virtual playgrounds like ClubPenguin (costs just over US$5 per month and last year was more than five times more visited than Second Life) and Webkinz (6 million unique visitors recorded in November 2007, up more than 300% from 2006), and playing games on websites created as part of kid-targeted products like toys (think Lego), films (think “Transformers”, “Tinkerbell”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and TV series (think “Sesame Street” and our own SABC's “Hectic Nine 9”). And, of course, many of the young ones are on Facebook and MySpace – American research company eMarketer reckons there are over 8 million kids registered as users of some kind of virtual world today, and estimates 20 million by 2011.

    Silver surfers: Barriers to entry are decreasing, both those that are perceived (read: as more fellow pensioners get hooked up and experience the delight of being able to communicate with distant daughters, sons and grand-children who've forgotten how to write and post “real” letters), and actual (price of computers and bandwidth, bundled offers that include free tutorials, discount packages from service providers). There's still no thriving local equivalent of social network sites targeted at retired users like MyChumsClub.com or SagaZone in the UK (which has a national “Silver Surfers' Day”), America's Eons and the “baby boomer” targeted BOOMj.

    Also, consider “Geriatric1927”, the YouTube handle for octogenarian Peter Oakley, in the Top 50 of “Most Subscribed To” streams on the video site, and remember that key digital pioneers like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen are numbered amongst the over-50s now…

    Tweens: Most people reading this article probably went to school before the widespread local adoption of the internet and got their first cellphone only after they left school. Tweens did not. Some will even remember scoffing at email becoming a staple of business (since, think about it, how do you sign it like you can with a fax?) or pitying the poor sap who was so behoved to his or her job as to be obliged to tote around a brick-like cellular telephone “in case” (after all, who would want to be able to be contacted all the time?). Again, tweens did not grow up in that world. Rather, they have come of age in a world where connectivity was ubiquitous and there's very little distinction between the means used to achieve it (“Signing off messenger now; get me on my cell”). Arguably, as more and more of these tweens become market drivers through their purchasing trends or by entering the economy as contributors to business strategies, that's the single greatest ongoing change as the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close.

  • 7 Jan 2008 15:46


    About the author

    Evan Milton is Strategy Director at Stonewall+.