Is Trendy the new Traditional?

At the end of every year, we’re treated to a seemingly endless stream of articles, surveys, research papers, podcasts, etc. identifying the big marketing and technology trends for the coming year.  You might say it’s become a tradition to participate in this prediction market; one that’s further compounded by the start of the Consumer Electronics Show in January where companies and techies gather to show off semi-viable products that might be years away from market (I’m talking about you flexible cell-phone screens).

More than a few of these predictions have been made before, sometimes many times…

Of course, 2016 was no different, and the consensus seems to be that we’re poised to experience mainstream Artificial Intelligence, a personal assistant powering the connected home, complete with fridges that restock themselves — with sponsored products of course.  On perhaps a more pedestrian note, we’re also expected to see the continuous rise of video as the preferred marketing medium, ideally played on the large touch screen in your new self-driving car.

If you follow the market closely, however, you’ll note that some of these predictions have been made before, sometimes many times.  Artificial Intelligence is relatively new as a hot topic in marketing, but even mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post identified it as the hottest new tech trend back in March of 2014, noting Google’s search results and Facebook’s social graphs as key areas to expect an impact.  Likewise, the so-called “internet of things” (ie the connected home) has been promising to disrupt everything for at least the same period, if not longer.  And, video, well, it’s been a trend since before YouTube.

Where should cutting edge marketers invest their precious marketing dollars in a rapidly evolving and constantly expanding landscape?

This isn’t to suggest that amazing things haven’t developed during this period; or that these predictions aren’t valuable in their own right.  It’s always a good idea to keep your eyes on the road ahead in both the marketing and technology worlds.  At the same time, we should exercise the proper caution before funneling our budgetary dollars after the next new thing.  Many of these trends never come to fruition, or, when they do, they take a radically different form than originally imagined.

Consider wearables:  They’ve been a perennial hot topic since long before Apple launched its first watch in 2015, yet the truly market dominating sales like we’ve seen with phones and tablets have yet to materialize for any manufacturer.  As a result, they represent a potentially valuable niche, especially if you’re in fitness or healthcare services, but not something every company needs to invest in right now.

Users are beginning to congregate around their preferred communication mediums and applications while explicitly avoiding others…

The real question then becomes:  Where should cutting edge marketers invest their precious dollars in a rapidly evolving and constantly expanding landscape?  In my opinion, the answer is to continue utilizing a traditional research driven approach.  Core principles still matter regardless of the medium, and the fundamentals of identifying your target audiences and ROI objectives are even more important than ever in navigating an increasingly fractured media universe.

If the trends are any indication, fractured is probably the best way to describe it, especially when not every demographic is embracing every trend and users are beginning to congregate around their preferred communication mediums and applications while explicitly avoiding others.  For example, video and it’s hottest broadcast platforms such as Periscope and Instagram are very popular among younger, more urban demographics, but experienced consumers are likely getting their content from other sources.  Generation X and older tend to be on Facebook or YouTube, where the type and length of the message is likely to be very different.

With that in mind, I would suggest returning to a few key principles before you spend a single, hard-earned marketing dollar:

  1. Clearly identify your target audiences and the story you want to tell before worrying about the methods and mediums.  Good storytelling techniques are universal and timeless; they should remain the foundation of your campaigns, and can be adapted to meet the needs of current trends.  In others words, don’t let the medium dictate the message.
  2. Do your homework before planning your spend.  Know where your consumers are, how they are consuming media, and even when they are most receptive.  Also, remember that consumers themselves are feeling pressure from the fractured media landscape as they determine where to spend their limited attention and leisure time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Big data is susceptible to mis-interpretation, and even the best research can return false-positive results.  Therefore, it’s always a good idea to set aside a portion of your spend to try something different.  If you’re a company that prides itself on being on the bleeding edge, go ahead and build that app even if the audience isn’t as large as your social presence.  Things change fast, and its good to be prepared.
  4. Report on your results with extreme prejudice.  If there is one truism among the trends, it’s that things change faster than ever and audiences move quickly from platform to platform.  You need to carefully measure, analyze, and re-imagine your results to keep up.  Instagram isn’t even a decade old and it’s upending video marketing as we speak.  Twitter just crossed the ten year milestone and has already changed political marketing forever.

To paraphrase Ferris Bueller:  It’s true that marketing moves very fast, and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it, but that doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t remain skeptical of a new trend becoming tradition overnight.

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