2016 is now upon us, and for those of us in the research business, it’s a chance to pool our collective knowledge and lay out what we think will be the most important areas of focus in the new year. From the minds of Altimeter analysts Charlene Li, Susan Etlinger, Ed Terpening and Omar Akhtar, here are Altimeter’s top trends for 2016:

From Charlene Li

Agile customization of experiences becomes a priority

Advanced digital organizations will use data to drive customized experiences based not only on static transaction profiles, but on dynamic data from real time social engagement, website activity and even their social graph activity. This will require deep integration of CRM, marketing automation, content publishing, and social engagement platforms, tied together with world-class analytics. Omni-channel brands like Sephora will lead the charge, having digitized almost all aspects of the experience, including the physical retail store.

Digital governance becomes a necessity

While terribly mundane, many organizations will reach a breaking point in 2016 where the morass known as digital/social/mobile will require a wholesale review of how they work with each other and across the enterprise. Central to this effort will be the rationalization of the digital C-Suite, identifying the roles and digital responsibilities of the CEO, COO, CMO, CIO, and the need for new positions like the Chief Digital Officer and Chief Experience Officer.

Social goes paid

Despite the hope that social platforms represented a new humanization of brands and companies, most marketers will treat Facebook and Twitter like the great paid channels that they have evolved into. With ever-evolving and maturing targeting opportunities, “social” will become another piece of the bought media decision, with the traditional social engagement moving squarely into service. That will leave the social media team searching for a new purpose, potentially moving into employee engagement and brand support via community engagement.

From Ed Terpening

Rising Digital Ecosystem Complexity

Where once social media was the disruptor, organizations today are faced with an increasingly complex digital ecosystem in which social plays just a part:

  • As organizations focus on cross-channel Customer Experience, digital strategists will be challenged by where and how social experience supports broader CX goals.
  • Emerging enterprise-wide content strategies (tied to unified CX) complicate social editorial calendars and tools for managing and measuring content.
  • Growing leadership attention to Digital Transformation (in response to disruptive business models, such as the sharing economy) will mean less attention to social business as a stand-alone practice. Social is no longer the “bright shiny object”.
  • The social media management tools stack is increasing in complexity as social spreads across the organization, and functionality is overlapping marketing automation tools. Additionally, the spread of social to a wider range of employees means additional occasional users (e.g., employee advocacy, social selling, social recruiting), putting pressure on social tool vendors to create more targeted, “lite” social apps by role, in addition to focusing on the needs of a central social media hub.

Evolving Hybrid Org Models

As far back as 2005, organizations have been evolving their org structures to meet the needs of an integrated, holistic social business (e.g., Centralized vs. Hub & Spoke, etc.). Especially as social crosses more business functions and silos than ever, having a deliberate org structure—supported by a governance plan—is increasingly important, yet we continue to see companies struggle to create an effective Hub & Spoke structure that both gives autonomy to spokes and yet keeps strategy and social data aligned.

As evidenced by the flat growth of centralized, shared social hub teams, more autonomy is moving out to business functions like Sales, HR and geographies. As this spread occurs, we continue to see misalignment of strategy, data, tools and governance. In 2016, the value and role of the social hub will be an open question for many brands: what is the right balance between orchestrated and silo’d social? Does the social team belong in emerging digital teams, which are less focused on IT infrastructure and e-commerce, but rather pursuing new digital business models?

Paid Social Advertising and Social Sales Forces

Brands’ increased reliance on social ads to reach consumers as well as social commerce (“buy buttons”) and social sales force enablement will impact strategy and budget allocation. Will brands shift resources from engaging consumers through community management to paid social for reach? Will the rise of Employee Advocacy increase reach and reduce social ad spend? If that happens, how will social platforms like Facebook respond? Will social ads be managed by digital advertising teams with a more tactical, e-commerce focus or will brand teams continue their use of social at the top of the sales/marketing funnel?

From Susan Etlinger

Ethical data use and privacy will emerge as brand issues

We saw a lot of stories this year related to the explosion of digital information, multiple data breaches, pending legislation related to biometric and location data, and of course, the news that the European Court of Justice had invalidated the “safe harbor” data transfer pact between the U.S. and the European Union.  The law continues to struggle to keep up with user expectations, but my hope is that the conversation will become more productive. I will be looking at topics such as differential privacy and vendor relationship management—in which the individual, not the company, is at the center.

We will start to see analytics for the visual web

2015 was the year of the selfie stick, Caitlyn Jenner’s groundbreaking Vanity Fair cover and Jon Hamm’s final, enigmatic smile on Mad Men, but it was also the year that a single, heartbreaking image of Alan (Aylan) Kurdi, a Syrian child of Kurdish origin, reached 20 million screens around the world, poignantly conveying the impact of the refugee crisis in a way that words could never do.

Also this year, Flickr faced complaints about its auto-tagging algorithm, which mistakenly tagged photos of concentration camps as “jungle gym” and “sport,” raising the issue of how algorithms for visual content draw inferences, and what impact that may have on institutions and individuals.

As we move into 2016, it’s clear that we need mechanisms to better understand the impact and resonance of visual content on the web, and in fact companies such as Oracle, Crimson Hexagon, Tracx, Synthesio have partnered with emerging visual analytics companies such as Ditto and Piqora to that end. This is just a first step toward a discipline of interpreting and responding to the visual web; as brands, organizations and as human beings.

With artificial intelligence, the future is becoming more evenly distributed*

In 2015 the Internet of Things hit the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” on the Gartner Hype Cycle, with autonomous vehicles and neurobusiness (!) not far behind. Just this week, investors such as Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk pledged millions of dollars toward an OpenAI research center, which will “focus on improving digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole.” in 2016, AI and algorithms will enter the mainstream of business conversations as we grapple with the implications of automating thought and decision-making. On a related note, I fully expect “algorithm” to be the word of the year in 2016.

* Thanks and apologies to William Gibson.

From Omar Akhtar

The consolidated “back-bone” MarTech platform

We’ve been seeing Adobe, Salesforce, Oracle and IBM battle it out in the “marketing cloud wars” where each company claims to offer the entire range of digital marketing solutions in one integrated platform. While no company can claim to offer all the solutions, let alone complete integration between them, each vendor has made a lot of progress, to the point where it now makes sense for most companies to consolidate all their digital marketing operations in one “marketing cloud” and integrate the missing functionalities into it. Aside from giving brands a chance to coordinate all their marketing activities on a single platform, it also sets the stage for unifying the customer experience across sales, service and marketing. For more details on this concept, check out our report on The Customer Experience Cloud.

Predictive Intelligence for Content

Technology vendors have created some extremely sophisticated tools to collect customer data from disparate sources and make them accessible to content strategists. In theory, this should allow content creators to create even more engaging, personalized content since they know now what their customers look like and how they engage with branded content. However, evaluating data is a job for data scientists not content creators, and they’re in short supply. As a result, analytics programs must be able to offer some element of prediction that applies to branded content. Whether it’s thought leadership, social media posts or product offers, analytics will be able to offer not just performance numbers on different types of content, but also what creators can do to boost their chances of engagement.

IoT will power post-purchase marketing efforts

For most marketers, their job ends once the customer makes the purchase. But with the rise of the Internet of Things, there is an opportunity to engage with customers long after they’ve exited the checkout counter. Sensors attached to physical products can send the manufacturer information about how the items are being used, whether they need repairs or upgrades or if they can be automatically re-ordered. While this is especially useful for high-tech appliances such as washers, fridges or cars, it can even be applied to ordinary products such as a bottle of booze. A company called Thin Film recently partnered with Johnny Walker Blue Label to create a “smart bottle” which can track the in-store movement of the item, its consumption, and send recommendations and tips to the customer via mobile. And that’s only one of the many ways we’ll be able to reshape customer engagement via the Internet of Things. We’ll be tracking all the others throughout the year.