Ten digital marketing trends to watch in 2009

Increased digital spend, the rise of “causes”, the death of email and the return of content as king. Here are ten digital marketing trends for 2009 - and a prediction about a scandal that will rock the industry.
Whatever else 2008 may have heralded, it will be remembered as the year that saw the start of an apparently ever-escalating financial crisis. In tough times, it helps to have a sense of humour, even if it's a wry smile you end up smiling. So there's no way a digital strategist can't poke fun at the fact that online has always been a step ahead, and we're watching in wonder as the whole world has its version of our little "dot.bomb". The digital industry learned from its shake-up just a few short years ago, and emerged the stronger for it - and that's exactly what's going to happen across the globe in 2009. Buckle up tight for the ride, with one hand on the quick-release catch because 2009 is a year that will reward the nimble and those who respond swiftly to the changing terrain.

Here are ten things to watch in 2009. They're a collection of trends, tendencies, observations and predictions that will help you as you consider your digital activities and involvement for the year ahead. It's also a good primer for relative newcomers to online and mobile - those who are finally seeing the opportunities that the digital space offers.

  • Overall marketing spend will decrease; digital spend will hold level - or grow slightly
  • Increased demand for ROI and measurability
  • Mobile that knows where it's at
  • Yes, we can. What now for Web2.0?
  • More cause for causes
  • 2009 is the first part of the permanent change
  • “I, computer”: Is the semantic web here yet?
  • Email continues to die
  • The return of content as king, almost...
  • Last, but not least: A scandal that will rock 2009!

Overall marketing spend will decrease; digital spend will hold level - or grow slightly

A marvellous meme that started doing the rounds in the last battering days of 2008: "flat is the new up". When budgets get tighter and areas are identified to cut costs, marketing will always come under scrutiny. As businesses scrutinise their budgets, those that have dabbled in digital will be obliged by the weight of facts to consider it all the more seriously: relatively low investment (compared, say, to conceptualising, filming and then flighting a television advertisement) yields good returns. Even more importantly, digital campaigns can be tracked more accurately that most other forms of marketing, and can be tweaked much more quickly after analysing the campaign.

International predictions are that search engine marketing and email-based campaigns are likely to benefit the most from the greater interest in digital marketing channels. This is largely because clients understand these channels. Also, they are relatively easy to measure, and the measures are also (relatively) well understood. Of course, this means that this space will become more competitive and, in some cases, more cluttered. Businesses would do well to take their budgets to agencies with established track records, rather than agencies who're trying to branch into this new green pasture, which will inevitably happen as the channel gains wider appeal.

The spend on digital has been steadily increasing, and this upward trend is likely to balance out a downward pressure as overall marketing spend slows. Also, while overall marketing budgets will see some purse-tightening, some planned campaigns will be routed into the digital space because of its more palatable price-tag and more demonstrable results.

An additional factor is that the South African internet in general will receive a welcome shot in the arm when the Seacom cable is completed and higher-speed bandwidth becomes cheaper and, thus, more accessible. As users who have limited access (on a work computer, but just over the lunch hour, for example) can afford greater access, and as mobile internet access grows, there is corresponding growth in the potential market that can be reached through digital channels.

Demand for ROI and measurability

Directly tied into the slowdown and the need to make sure every marketing penny spent is an effective one, is an increased interest in - and demand for - return on investment. Digital campaigns have long been amongst the most measurable of media activities, but that does not necessarily mean they have been accurately rated in terms of true ROI. Click Through Rates, Email Conversions and Unique Users are all simple to measure, and are relatively well reported. However, tracking true return on investment from, say, banner placement through to an actual sale of a product, is not as common.

What is needed - and what clients should demand - is analysis of reports, and not merely reports themselves. In some cases - in fact, probably in most cases - the stronger demand for proper analysis will reveal that proper tracking of a campaign is only as accurate as the data that you can collect, and only as good as the full sales-cycle tracking systems that are in place. In other words, doing proper ROI measurement of digital marketing requires that systems outside of just the digital tracking need to be in place. Expect a renewed interest in Customer Relations Management and Data Mining amongst the more savvy market players.

Online Reputation Management grew in both perceived profile and actual importance in 2008, and this is likely to continue. Here again, though, what has been readily available to date has been more about creating reports than about accurately analysing those reports and making strategic decisions based on what is found. 2009 will see consumers being more cautious about spending, and taking the time to do more research before parting with their cash. Even one bad experience posted on a consumer complaint website, or one bad review on an internet forum could mean the difference between a potential customer choosing your business over a competitor's - or the other way around.

Simply put, if you don't know what people are saying about you, you can't do anything about it, and Online Reputation Management reports tell you what's being said. Businesses need analysis of these reports and strategic recommendation that will improve bottom line - and the wiser businesses will start demanding this from their suppliers.

Mobile that knows where it's at

The buzz-phrases for mobile in 2009 are around increased internet access, and the introduction of Location Based Services.

Figures on South African internet usage released late in 2008 indicate in excess of 2 million mobile internet users, with more than 200 000 of these using their mobile device as the primary means of gaining internet access. Coupled with these is the increase in brands using .mobi sites to engage with consumers and the growth in WAP-powered content services - and from there it's a small jump to full blown mobile internet use.

Even as mobile video continues to grow, the smaller screens and a different sense of perceived value, means that internet on mobile phones is different to a PC-based experience of the world wide web. Companies who need to grow traction in the mass market would do well to target campaigns via mobile and all brands are well advised to incorporate mobile elements into their digital marketing strategies. If this means breaking down the quaint South African distinction between "Above The Line" and "Below The Line" advertising, then so much the better.

Location Based Services are, admittedly, likely to be more prevalent in overseas markets where higher-end phones are more prevalent. Already in South Africa, though, there's heated competition between rival manufacturers to bundle GPS with their top-tier handsets and, on simpler devices, services like The Grid make use of the normal GSM cellphone network to enable positioning.

Suddenly, a technological advance has allowed brand interaction with customers that is based on precise location. For brands, imagine that you happen to be driving near a new branch of your favourite eatery around lunchtime and your phone beeps you a message offering an opening special. For consumers, imagine that you can tag a particular restaurant on a map shared throughout a social network - and give your friends the low-down on your experience when you last ate there.

Yes, we can. What now for Web2.0?

It helped get Barack Obama into the Whitehouse and now, hopefully, the buzz around Web2.0 will die down. In 2009, things like blogging, Facebook, social bookmarking, video and picture sharing sites, social media and social networking should, rather, be viewed just for what they are. They are components of the modern digital marketing mix, and are merely platforms or tools that can be used as avenues or vehicles for brand messages and customer interactions.

Hopefully, no client will ever ask an agency to "build me a Facebook" or, worse, no agency will suggest such a thing. Social media is here to stay and it is time to stop talking about what it is, and start delivering value based on how it works.

Expect niche social media to become a more popular avenue - whether recommended by agencies who've done proper research, or requested by progressive brands that know their markets well. The new frontiers here are social commerce, value-added vertical networks, and the proper application of crowd-sourcing and user-generated content models.

As businesses grapple with how to achieve more with less, avenues that allow targeting a narrowly-defined prospect through multiple levels of his or her sphere of influence, will become more important - and the business that triumphs in this will triumph in the tough year ahead.

Finally, there's what we've dubbed "Feedback3.0". It's a bit of a riff on Web2.0, and the fact that some corporates are blazing a trail in how to be "Corporate2.0". "Feedback3.0" means that South African companies need to recognise the fundamental changes that Web2.0 and social media have wrought on customer interactions, and need to get ahead of the curve.

Stop trying to control comments about your products - rather engage with the people who're commenting. Start tooling up to maintain a successful corporate blog. Consider providing a public platform for your customers to complain on - they're doing it anyway and, at least if it's in your space you can track it, and respond to it. Is "Listen to your customers" really such a revolutionary thing to suggest?

More cause for causes

In times of economic stress and introspection (“How did it all go wrong? What will happen next? What did I do wrong? How can we make it better?”), it is true that there is less money, but there is also more of a sense of where it goes when it is spent. Also, this comes at a time when even the most ardent denialist has been forced to recognise that there is an environmental crisis afflicting the planet. This points to a 2009 trend that is social, rather than specifically digital, but will affect our society and, therefore, the way we must market within it.

What now? Caution about excess to filter into increased interest in worthy causes. As companies consider cutting back on corporate social investment, they will interrogate where they want their spend to go and the truly meritworthy programmes and organisations stand to benefit.

Meanwhile, amidst political tumult and almost weekly shifts in the balance of power, there is the local realisation that a South African process which seemed stressful at the time - needing to fill in forms to become FICA compliant - has stood us in good stead in the face of global economic woes. Also, the Soccer World Cup that's become a favourite whipping boy is now seen as a valuable stimulus to the economy, and it's not as easy as it once was to slip off to London or Europe and get a job.

This suggests a wiser and more sober Rainbow Nation - one which knows the country's honeymoon period is over and is starting to realise that all relationships need work, and constant attention.

2009 is the first part of the permanent change

From Obama '08 through the financial restrictions of 2009 to the inevitable redefinition of the media space, 2009 is a year of change. Or, perhaps, it's more correct to say that it's a year where changes that have been looming for some time are heaved into place. In the marketing and media world radio has taken a knock, television knows it needs to change and print is so under threat that there are rumours of the possible closing of the hallowed New York Times.

Cellphones are everywhere and most companies have a website. Lawyers grapple with cases of online identity theft and how to redefine copyright laws. One the one hand, Google is trying to scan in every piece of the human written word so it's available digitally while, on the other hand, thousands of contributors to Wikipedia try to create an "open source" repository of all human knowledge.

Digital media permeates almost every aspect of our lives in some form or other, and it is better poised to adapt to the year's inevitable curveballs. More so than any other year since the popularisation of the internet, 2009 is a year that will see the media and marketing landscape changed in ways that are fundamental, and long-lasting. It's like there's a Highveld storm that's been threatening to break for ages. There may be some business casualties along the way but, on the other side of it, when the lightning and the thunder are over, the world will be a different place - and one where digital marketing has more fully come into its own.

“I, computer”: Is the semantic web here yet?

Will 2009 be the year that Sir Tim Berners-Lee's W3C vision of the web as a "transparent" and universal medium for knowledge exchange truly comes to fruition? Or, to put it another way, will the web finally get "clever" enough that computers can start finding us the perfect book, or pair of shoes, or place to eat - without us having to put in the hard work?

Sadly, not quite yet, but there are some exciting signs that lead us closer to what one science fiction author dubbed "The Gernsback Continuum" (Google or Wiki it). Small things like the rise of Open Social are making our online identities - our "virtual selves" - that little bit easier to manage. Clever interface design that uses programming advances like Ajax and XML all help to create better user experiences.

"Under the bonnet" of the web, new content publishing systems that are linked to sophisticated data mining tools help to make websites seem to do what we want them to. Perhaps most exciting, complex search engines algorithms and developments in visual search interfaces are moving closer to the ideal of being able to do a search - without needing to enter a search team.

The winners here will be businesses that invest in these technologies, and brands that use them to benefit existing consumers and get introduced to new ones.

Email continues to die

Well, of course it doesn't - hopefully what does die in 2009 is the shrieking hyperbole of so many trend-spotting headlines in 2008. "The end of advertising!" "The app to kill all killer apps!" etc. So, email won't die, but the dominance of email as the primary form of one-to-one digital communication continues to be eroded. Probably not amongst anyone reading this forecast, but certainly amongst the generation raised on SMS, Instant Messenging, social networks, MXit and networked games. Remember that your parents witnessed the shock of discovering that a fax might be considered legally binding. Today's pre-teens view email as you viewed faxes. How will they be signing business deals in a few short years?

From a digital marketing point of view, email needs to be treated with an additional caution. Most Inboxes are so bombarded with messages that even mailers that people have subscribed to are being tossed out like spam. Each and every piece of communication with a customer needs to be properly conceived and planned, and should only be sent if it forms part of a coherent digital communications strategy. Also, it should only be sent if there's a guarantee that responses can be actioned swiftly.

The return of content as king, almost...

The first time that digital content was trumpeted as king, too many web start-ups were deafened by their own fanfare and blinded by the Eldorado-dream of making a quick buck. Getting subscribers was all that mattered, and the monetisation model was something that other people would worry about later. The current interest in content, though, has more to do with differentiation and brands adding real value to reward customer loyalty.

Most print media stories are available online for free, and the same is increasingly true for radio and television content. Free music abounds - whether legal or otherwise. Movies are often available through digital back doors long before they're released locally. Also, user-generated content and more citizen journalism continue to proliferate. Many younger digital users get more of their daily information from peer-generated sources than from traditional - or even "traditional web" - sources.

The brand that can segment its market appropriately and offer them premium content that they want will be a brand that grows its market share, and retains a loyal base of followers. Simple subscription-based models will now longer gain much traction but, as the information-economy morphs ever more steadily into an attention-economy, the value of having the right content at the right time will grow. Businesses that can provide this for their customers will be rewarded.

Last, but not least: A scandal that will rock 2009!

Here's a gutsy prediction, both in terms of being one based on gut-feel, and one that's a bold statement since there aren't figures or observations to back it up...

Expect at least one analytics "scandal" during 2009. "Scandal" is, perhaps, too strong a term - this will be nothing like the measurement scandal that hit magazines in 2008, where it was discovered that there had been active deception in reporting sales figures. The 2009 internet "Analytics-gate" will be a simple consequence of more clients understanding the value of calculating digital ROI and, thus, allocating budget to professional agencies to monitor and track it.

Measuring digital campaigns is as close to an exact science as statistics can be, but analysis by agencies - and understanding by clients - is open to interpretation. With the increase of good minds being paid to focus on analytics and measurement, we predict that some inconsistency will come to light. More than likely, it will be around terms being misunderstood, misinterpreted or mis-measured. This predicted mini-scandal will raise awareness, tighten up practices and assist with setting standards. It will be a good thing for the industry, for clients and consumers.


Some years are stepping stones, and some years seem to be end points. Some are painted with a smile or coloured by disaster. Make no mistake that 2009 will be a trying year, but also a year of consolidation that rewards vision, efficiency and strategic actions. It will also be the year that changes the relationship between digital and traditional marketing forever.

3 Feb 2009 11:27


About the author

Evan Milton is Strategy Director for Stonewall Digital Marketing.

Ian Hendry
What about CRM 2.0?-
Surprised to see no mention of CRM 2.0, or the integration of CRM systems with social networks to enable customers to update their own records and also provide you information on likes and dislikes (most likely mined from networks rather than conciously entered into your CRM).

I see this being huge. Salesforce.com is already working with Facebook in this area; and SAP was a recent investor in LinkedIn. It's coming...

Ian Hendry
Posted on 3 Feb 2009 13:27
Well done!-
Beautifully written and really insightful! Thanks Evan!
Posted on 3 Feb 2009 17:31
Thanks Ian, good point.

I'm not convinced that combining Salesforce and Facebook information is the "killer app" that some might say, but it proves the point. CRM is certainly an area that will become more critical for - and more integrated into - businesses in 2009. Or, at least, in successful businesses.

It's definitely part of what I would characterise as the "permanent change" that will be heralded during 2009, and I had it high up on my 2009 Trends #11 to #20 list ;-)
Posted on 4 Feb 2009 09:30
Sam Wilson
Really good-
Gosh, great article. Thanks Evan.
Posted on 4 Feb 2009 10:05
Thanks Lize-
Glad you found it insightful.
Posted on 9 Feb 2009 16:42
Thanks Sam-
Gosh yourself :-)
Glad you found it good.
Posted on 9 Feb 2009 16:43