Every year, as we turn a new leaf, I make a few predictions for what’s ahead. Sometimes I blog about it.
Usually my predictions are about as accurate as the “computer-watch” pictured above… where I might be technically correct, but missing the soon-to-be-obvious context of the future.
In other words: Take all of this with a grain of salt. Or a bag of it.
Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, let’s dive in…
2018: A VERY ABBREVIATED RECAP
2018 was a year of paradoxes for marketers like us.
It has never been easier to reach a huge, perfectly-targeted audience for whatever you’re selling. It has never been easier to bring back your warmest prospects with the right message at the right time – across every imaginable channel (and device).
And it’s also never been easier to bring your ideas to market, set up shop – and compete on a global scale.
We now live in the golden age of platforms.
Specifically, billion-dollar platforms that give everyone access to truly awesome capabilities; Facebook offers unprecedented targeting to its 2+ billion users, Google offers unprecedented reach across virtually all the web’s content, and platforms like Shopify & Amazon have reduced the complexity of ecommerce & fulfillment down to a few clicks.
In short, the barrier-to-entry to growing your business online has never been lower than it was in 2018.
What used to require a huge marketing budget – and staggering levels of expertise – is now entirely automated with algorithms, machine learning & predictive modelling. All running in the background, after the advertiser presses the proverbial “Go” button.
And it is for precisely this reason that I think most marketers are going to be in for a rough ride in 2019.
Because here’s the thing – the easier it becomes to acquire customers on a given platform, the more competitive that platform will become… which similarly drives up the cost of acquisition, in lock-step with the ease of acquisition.
As an example – anyone relying on Facebook as a growth channel has already watched this play out. In some of our own campaigns, seeing $50+ CPM’s as an average has become commonplace. (It was just a few years ago that $5 CPM’s would’ve been extreme).
So if anything, 2018 has clearly taught us that when marketing gets too simple and too easy… equilibrium quickly sets in, wiping out any early-adopter advantage that might have existed.
With this “easy-growth paradox” in mind, let’s now look out into what we can expect on the horizon…
A few of these might seem a bit unrelated to online marketing on the surface, but in my view they are going to be a major driving force that overlaps into our “world”… the tail that wags the marketing dog, so to speak.
1) Marketing budgets will tighten at larger firms.
To say that we’re entering a bear financial market is hardly a bold prediction, but the way in which this relates to online marketing is a little more complex.
Basically, most business analysts and investors agree that the average valuation – especially in verticals like tech & ecommerce – is fantastical; divorced from reality. And while on the surface this only seems relevant if you own shares of, say, $FB or $SHOP, the reality is that the market-rate valuations for any investor-funded business are going to determine how much capital it can raise, and therefore how much growth it can buy using brute force.
This environment has largely been propped up by historically-low interest rates, along with overly-rosy growth expectations in the tech space.
So when some dinky little startup that’s the “Tinder of whatever” can only raise money at a 5X earnings valuation (instead of a 15-20X multiplier in 2018), capital becomes a lot harder to raise, and they’re gonna make their growth-dollars count.
The net result will be smaller, or at least less-aggressive, marketing budgets and more sophisticated growth strategy.
How this impacts us: Paid channels might temporarily become more affordable as media budgets shrink. If you’re running an agency, your average project size might decrease. But there will also be renewed interest in more evergreen channels like SEO, Email, & Customer Evangelism.
2) Consumer privacy will become even more contentious, regulated and cumbersome.
Even though most of us view the Cambridge Analytica “scandal” very differently than the average Joe, the reality is that lawmakers & politicians are a lot more concerned about public sentiment than they are about our industry’s best-practices. (Or the truth, for that matter).
There will surely be some massive, Equifax-level breaches in 2019 that will invoke further knee-jerk regulation across the developed world, much like GDPR – which is only the beginning.
Some of this will be warranted, but most of it will be mandated by people who have a primitive understanding of the landscape – at best.
How this impacts us: Lead generation, ABM & Audience management will become more complex, and liabilities for data misuse will become even more serious. Policymakers will largely be targeting the “big fish” with what basically amounts to a thinly-disguised tax, but any smaller businesses who find themselves ensared by scandals large enough to warrant example-making will be decimated.
3) Ecommerce newbies will get pummeled.
Everyone and their damn dog is discovering Shopify, Amazon and the correlated push-button business models that make it oh so easy to get started; drop-shipping, POD, managed 3PL, whitelabel nutra, etc.
It’s basically what affiliate marketing was 10 years ago, but easier, and 10X more popular.
But here’s the thing – while everyone thinks they’re building an “Ecom Empire” (or whatever), what they’re actually doing is running offers on one of two networks:
- Facebook Ads, and
Yes, there are a handful of other growth channels, but the vast majority of “Bruhs” who are crushing it right now in Ecom are either using FB Ads –> Shopify, or FBA, or both.
And while the sophisticated operators are surely using things like upsells, automation & ABM – maybe even a funnel or two – let’s not mince words. We’re still talking about basically brokering cheap shit from AliExpress to distracted, selfie-posting social media users who don’t realize they’re getting hosed.
But guess who is very aware of AliExpress & related bulk suppliers? Facebook & Amazon.
Now obviously, Facebook & Amazon are happy to take your ad dollars & FBA fees – but you are near the bottom of their priority list as a glorified reseller.
At the very top of their priority list is user retention. And lately (especially for Facebook), user retention has become a real problem. For this reason, and many others, they’re now paying a lot more attention to the entire user experience – including what happens after their users purchase stuff from their advertisers. It turns out folks don’t much care for 3 month shipping delays or poorly-made products.
This is why getting even a handful of negative scores from buyer surveys and ad feedback is enough to see your ads zapped – or even seeing your Business Account outright shut down. And this is hardly a prediction, since it’s already happening to thousands of sellers.
So basically, I predict that the primary sales channels for Ecom (FB & Amazon) are going to massively clamp down on low-quality crap and low-barrier business models. And thousands of “brands” are going to either get zapped or algorithmically priced out.
This will simultaneously clear the slate for actual brands, who will see their ROAS increase… and who will likely increase ad budgets accordingly.
How this impacts us: In the short term, this should free up some ad inventory across FB, but the effect will be temporary as the real brands expand their own budgets accordingly to fill the gap. However, there will be a resurgence of newbies suddenly interested in organic channels after they’re booted from FB & Amazon, which will have interesting knock-on effects.
4) Ad-supported content will need to adapt or die.
I believe we’re approaching the critical mass of what users will tolerate as a fair exchange of enduring ads in order to access content.
Even as a hardboiled marketer, I find myself reluctant to visit “unfamiliar” neighbourhoods when I’m Googling something, because I know (and dread) that I’m about to be assaulted with a barrage of ads, push notification requests, popups, jarring loading sequences as a result of all the ads, and paywalls.
So when I see results from familiar places like Reddit, Quora, or Medium in the SERPs – I’ll always check those first.
I’m hardly alone in feeling this way, as evidenced by the sustained, meteoric rise of ad blocker usage, which now exceeds 30% of all recorded sessions.
But at the same time, I’ve worn publisher shoes in the past, and I understand the challenges of monetizing content enough to justify the effort. However, the current situation is unsustainable, since users are growing increasingly reluctant to even visit “unknown” sites, which is suppressing organic traffic both directly and indirectly (and thereby making the problem worse, as it takes more ad units to compensate for lower traffic).
Publishers will need to embrace things like native advertising, influencer services and integrated sponsorship that flow naturally into their content with minimal disruption. And if done right, direct sponsorship can even enhance UX. It’s higher-touch to be sure, but it’s also a much better experience for users and advertisers.
How this impacts us: I view this as a win/win for marketers of all stripes. As publishers across the board move towards a better UX & advertising model, ambient organic traffic levels should rise universally as users decrease their reluctance to visit independent publishers. Meanwhile ROAS should significantly bump as the native ad tech industry finally gets more intuitive.
5) The walls around the gardens will get even higher…
I mentioned at the beginning that we live in the golden age of platforms – but these are more accurately labelled as walled gardens.
The garden is a beautiful place for users. They get to stay in one place, and have 3rd parties bring them roses all day long – without ever needing to leave.
Practical examples of this include:
- Literally every Facebook ad format that isn’t an external click (Messenger Ads, Lead Ads, Engagement Ads, Event Ads…etc)
- Google My Business
- Blogging on LinkedIn or Medium instead of your own domain
And so on. Now, I should make it clear that I think walled gardens can often be a no-brainer, especially as an early adopter. For example, it’s hardly a Faustian Bargain for a local business to sign up for GMB – which is free – and literally put themselves on the map, not to mention the SERPs.
But it’s all too easy to find one’s self entirely reliant on these platforms for both growing and reaching your audience. I can clearly remember the fallout as Facebook started throttling organic reach in 2014. Prior to the hammer dropping, lots of marketers were predicting the “death of email”, etc. Obviously FB needed to free up its inventory for paid posts, earned audiences be damned. And it brought many people to zero, overnight.
The same thing will inevitably happen to Instagram, and a lot of “selfie-influencers” will be in for a rude awakening. The same risk exists for any walled garden. However, this is hardly a prediction and more of a history-repeating-itself axiom.
But where I do predict walled gardens to become even more systemic is when they start to incentivize advertisers to let them handle the entire buying experience, end-to-end. This is already possible on FB to some extent, and I can definitely see Google following suit.
So I believe in 2019 we’ll see a concerted push from the big platforms to “own” the entire customer experience – much like how Amazon works currently. In some ways, this will give brands a noticeable boost, since their conversion rates and sales will flow through a lot more easily.
But this frictionless customer experience will come at a high price: dependency.
How this impacts us: Marketers need to be careful about how much we rely on our growth channels, which as I predict, will try to grab more and more of our customer journey “real estate”. Always ask yourself if you can survive without a given channel. If the answer is “no”, take it seriously and insulate yourself accordingly.
6) Email marketing will see a resurgence – by necessity.
I feel like every other “thought leader” in our space has lost their minds about chatbots this year. Specifically, FB Messenger.
Yes, the delivery & open rates are amazing. And yes, it’s a new, shiny object that we can all talk about. But these things are also the definition of walled-garden dependence.
Even now, broadcasting to subscribers (older than 24 hours) with Messenger starts at $30 per 1,000 inboxes reached. The CPM’s will surely rise over time. If you think this sounds cheap, imagine building a relatively small list of 10,000 subscribers in MailChimp – and then having to pay $300 every time you send a broadcast.
So should you use chatbots? Sure. Rely on them? Bad idea. Build your entire business on them? Insane.
As far as I’m concerned, email remains the ultimate, evergreen audience channel. Yes, there are challenges with getting inboxed, And yes, Gmail controls about 30% of the marketshare (which is a walled garden of sorts).
But I genuinely have yet to see any measurable drop in open rates, CTRs and ROI since I started my career over a decade ago. If anything, email has actually become more powerful lately, since it’s a dedicated “moment” with your subscriber… as opposed to fighting for their goldfish-level attention span on the newsfeed.
Compelling broadcasts routinely exceed 40% open rates, and our automations & transactionals average anywhere from 25% – 70% (where obviously the crazy-high OR’s are things like password resets, etc). It’s also a critical source of repeat sales – which accounts for the majority of revenue. And as your list grows, the traffic from each broadcast actually long-tails over the entire week… not just on day one.
Oh – and did I mention that it costs VIRTUALLY NOTHING?
This is hardly news to most established marketers who’ve cut their chops on relationship marketing. But I actually think it is legitimately news to the recent wave of folks who’ve only known a world where Facebook Ads can easily turn $1 into $2, and who view email as little more than a way to prop up sales with abandoned-cart reminders.
But I believe in 2019, email will take a central, strategic role as marketing budgets shrink, CAC’s rise, and marketers collectively figure out that the majority of their growth actually hangs on what happens after the initial click, signup and sale… and this is where email, like a Porsche, has no substitute.
How this impacts us: If you’re in a consulting or agency role, specializing in Email will become a strong USP – I would leverage that. More generally, as the “new wave” of marketers eventually realize Email’s potency, we could see more aggressive media spend on account of higher LTV’s, as well as busier inboxes. However, they’ll be inexperienced and initially treat the channel like an ad platform. Authenticity will be critical in cutting through the noise.
7) SEO will increasingly be driven by user engagement… not just links and content.
There is a reason why Google’s CEO was formerly the head of their AI department.
Getting ranked is now increasingly (and obviously) being driven by behavioural signals. And with Google’s closed-loop access to users from virtually every angle: Personalized Search, Chrome, Android, etc. the days of faking it till you make it (on page 1) are largely over.
In other words – Google knows where the good content in your vertical is supposed to get shared. They know how users interact with real brands. And they know what good content “looks like” when users consume it.
And my prediction is that for 2019, behavioural signals & content consumption patterns will have more and more of an impact on where your pages ultimately land in the SERPs. So it’s got to be content that matters.
How this impacts us: The volume approach to content & links will largely be a wasted effort. It will make far more sense to focus on “skyscraper content” (deep-dive stuff that’s highly shareable), and just getting the established sites in your vertical to link to it. And you’ll probably see results with a lot less effort and time, to boot.
I’ve already alluded to some of these above, but let me clearly spell out the potential red flags I see on the horizon for 2019…
- Avoid dependence on social audiences. Especially Instagram. It’s simply a matter of time until FB decides to throttle organic reach on Instagram, and there’s a very good chance this happens in 2019. And I could see Facebook further squeezing the relative “pass” that FB Groups currently enjoy.
So if you rely on your own audiences, or influencers, take heed. View all of your social assets as something you’re merely borrowing, and prepare accordingly. This includes everything: Twitter, Pinterest, Youtube, etc.
- Prepare for your CAC to reach all-time highs with FB & Google Ads. Like I mentioned above, we are rapidly approaching a reality where acquiring customers with FB & Google will literally be as simple as pressing a button. (Anyone with a proven funnel & enough data for effective lookalike audiences already exists in this reality).
And temporary, recession-induced discounts on CPM aside, the barrier to entry will only get lower. Which means it will only get more widely-adopted… and more expensive.
- Your funnels probably need a lot more personality. This sounds pedantic, but it’s not. Most marketers treat funnels like they’re a proverbial perfume salesman at the mall kiosk – an automated sequence of hooks, catch-phrases & gimmicks designed to close the sale, and that’s it. (All that’s missing is the hipster haircut and gallons of cologne).
Instead, view your first interaction with cold prospects as an opportunity to genuinely surprise them with something truly awesome. This can be baked into a sales funnel, sure, but it’s more of a total change of tone & approach. You’ll find that all of your subsequent ads, content, and offers will be reaching people that actually want to hear from you, and your conversion rates will skyrocket. (This is critical in a world of rising CAC’s).
- Get serious about organic traffic. If you’ve neglected your search presence, and if you have yet to build an actual content strategy – I strongly suggest making this a priority in 2019. This isn’t just an extra traffic source – ranking well for brand keywords is a critical part of your customer journey (most people research your company before purchasing), and your conversion rate will suffer if you’re not visible.
Also, your investment into content is more like a mortgage payment, where paid channels are “rent”. You end up with assets that can send you traffic & leads for years. This way, you won’t be left holding the bag if your business model gets priced out of paid channels.
- Create your own growth channel. This is the big one for 2019. In fact, you can safely ignore all my other warnings if you wholeheartedly heed this one (since it basically solves them all). Consider the actual product that platforms like Facebook & Google sell: their audience.
And think about why Instagram – an app with zero revenue – was acquired for $1 Billion in 2012. That price tag was controversial at the time – but obviously it ended up being a bargain for FB. And this isn’t just limited to the ad industry. Notable other examples include UnderArmour’s acquisition of MyFitnessPal for $475M, and Intuit’s acquisition of Mint.com for $170M. In both cases, existing revenues were an afterthought in forming the 9-figure valuations.
That’s because the real players in this game understand that their audience is their business. It’s as good as cash, or in some cases, better.
For most of us though, outright acquiring growth channels is a bit out of reach. So the next best thing is to create one. And the only dependable, evergreen way to do that is to build a list of targeted email subscribers who engage with your content, respond to your offers and stay with you for years.
Practically speaking, here’s what this looks like: Your paid channels should focus on lead magnets. Your organic blog traffic should see high-value popovers that also feature your lead magnet, as well as calls to action to get it from your content. Same goes for Youtube videos, guest posts, stuff you post on Medium & LinkedIn… and, well, you get the idea.
Building a responsive email audience is what allows you to launch products (or entirely new startups), get instant feedback from thousands of people, enlist thousands of people to share your message, and in many cases – influence an entire industry… all with a simple message and a send button.
It’s also the ultimate insurance policy against digital curveballs: catastrophic ranking drops, ad accounts being shut down, social channels getting throttled, skyrocketing ad costs, unexpected downturns… etc.
Bottom line: The most valuable online asset you can own – clearly – is a responsive audience that you can reach outside of a walled-garden, and at minimal cost. Email remains the only medium where this is possible.
And since all of my warnings for 2019 involve mitigating against potentially losing access to key growth channels – if you do nothing else in 2019, make list building your main priority.
It’s not all doom & gloom, thankfully.
There’s also some very compelling opportunities this year. Here’s the ones to watch…
- Reddit. According to SimilarWeb, Reddit has more users than Bing, and it’s the # 13 most popular website in North America. (For context, Instagram is #12.).
Its community is also far more passionate & engaged than typical social media users, and I think it will continue growing as people increasingly grow weary of seeing everyone else’s “perfect life” photostream on FB & IG, as well as the endless outrage factory on Twitter. Reddit is a place where people can discover interesting things before they’re mainstream, show off their intelligence, and be a lot more authentic… and anonymous. It will never be systemic like Facebook – but it possibly has a longer shelf-life. By every measure, it has a bright future.
For both content marketing & paid traffic, Reddit represents a truly untapped opportunity. Only the savviest of early adopters are advertising on Reddit, and leveraging it as a content distribution channel requires a deft touch. It’s not “easy”… and that’s a good thing, since there’s still some barrier, and I don’t see that changing through 2019.
For paid traffic, our initial tests have been super promising. There’s a ton of traffic on tap, and it’s still basement-bargain priced… despite being quite targeted (you can target users based on which subreddits they’re part of). The smart play is, of course, list-building at a huge discount.
For content marketing, Reddit is probably one of the most powerful springboard channels to drive huge publicity, fast. Especially considering that most news sites literally get their content ideas from Reddit (eg. Buzzfeed). The process is a blog post in itself, but in a nutshell: sharing super interesting content in relevant subreddits, referencing your content while answering questions, or even starting your own subreddit – these can drive substantial, targeted traffic, and generate multiple waves of secondary publicity across your industry.
- Quora. Quora gets just under half the traffic Reddit does – but keep in mind that over 80% of its traffic also comes from search. So you’re basically tapping downstream Google traffic, which is highly commercially-intent. And like Reddit, there’s traffic on tap for both content marketers & advertisers.
For paid traffic, we’ve seen promising results by specifically targeting placements (questions) – and their ad platform actually reveals the weekly traffic range for each specific question URL.
For content marketing, it’s all about consistently answering questions and making a solid impression – mentioning your site/content in the answer naturally. Being transparent and providing value first goes a long way on this platform. Most answers will only drive a few clicks here and there, but post enough, and you will end up seeing consistent, super-targeted traffic flow build up… which can really add up if you’re in a competitive niche.
I recommend adding Quora as a content promotion channel. (Power tip: It’s a great way to re-purpose some of your existing knowledge-base & support ticket answers)
- Smart Devices. To-date, Amazon has sold roughly 100 million “Echo” smart-speakers, and Google Home doesn’t seem far behind. This number will only keep growing, and I could envision nearly half of all households in North America having some kind of smart speaker / home hub over the next 24-36 months.
This represents a huge opportunity for marketers who aren’t afraid of audio content. Particularly with Echo, building simple “Alexa Skills” that users can add to their speaker is relatively easy – and at the moment it’s a captive market, with not a whole lot to choose from at the niche level. Also, you don’t need to start a radio show or podcast by any means. Some of the most popular Alexa Skills in the marketing niche are literally a 90-second “morning news roundup” of what’s going on in the industry as a whole, followed by a quick soundbite promoting the channel creator’s actual business.
But the window of opportunity is basically right now, at least in your niche. Get there first, and keep it simple – and you could build a massive audience at virtually no cost.
- Content Integration… Not Just Promotion. Lining up guest content, getting interviewed & making deals with influencers can be exhilarating – it’s an instantaneous growth shot, and most of the action happens right on day-one.
But it’s also a roller-coaster, and the traffic (and sales) will quickly fade once the spotlight lands on something else. This is why I’m big fan of strategic, evergreen content that can seamlessly integrate into (and add value to) someone else’s ongoing business… especially considering the importance of building our own audiences this year.
For example, I recently lined up a cross-promotion deal like this in the B2B space, where we’re teaming up with a SaaS company that directly overlaps with our ideal customers – but where our product lines do not compete at all. So we’re creating a helpful tutorial for their customers that softly promotes our brand – and vice versa. And each of us is then integrating these tutorials directly into each others platforms.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to do anything this involved. You could simply pay an influencer / blogger a bit extra to additionally include an evergreen autoresponder to their newsletter, which promotes your guest content indefinitely. (This is no extra work on their end, it’s valuable for their subscribers – and it’s obviously an ongoing source of traffic for you).
This is how you can turn “influencer campaigns” into an actual partner channel… and this steady drip of growth can have a massive impact over time.
- Voice Search. ComScore estimates that 50% of all searches will be done with voice / dictation by 2020. Already, 20% of mobile searches are voice-initiated. And almost nobody is adapting their content to optimize for voice. (At least, not yet).
This is relatively easy to do, and the easiest implementation strategy is to basically add a punchy “FAQ section” that summarizes your content at the end of your article / blog post, where the questions that you answer are, of course, the conversational keyword phrases that seem the most relevant to your content.
Doing this to all of your current top-performing content, as well as any new content you add, is an easy growth-grab for 2019.
This is just a sampling of this year’s opportunities… but if I make this post any longer, it’s gonna be 2020 by the time I hit publish 😉
AND SO IT BEGINS…
Marketing shakeups aside, 2019 is going to be tumultuous for a lot of us.
We’re very likely on the edge of a recession. The political turmoil across North America & Europe is reaching a crescendo of crazy – especially with a desperate Trump administration facing an unfriendly Congress, and the Brexit deadline looming in just a few months.
I have a feeling this will be a year that goes down in infamy, so to speak. (I’ll be thrilled if I’m wrong).
But to quote the world’s best investor…
“The key [to success] is to keep your head while others are losing theirs”
~ Warren Buffet
So while this year might be another “2008” in the making, or some version of it, it’s the people who realize this in advance that can get positioned to seize the opportunity that chaos so readily creates.
And for marketers like us, that means preparing for a world where budgets are tighter, CAC’s are higher, and where we need to focus on the less-obvious growth channels to build an unshakable foundation.
But when the storm passes, the winds subside, and the dust settles… we’ll be left with a major advantage over the competitors who “got comfortable”.
We need to be zagging while the world around us zigs 😉
Oh, and… happy new year everyone!