The past few years have shown monumental change in digital marketing and branding; businesses are embracing new strategies and techniques at incredible paces. Where digital was once reserved for the cutting-edge, now it’s mainstream and absolutely necessary for success in the modern market.

The Top 10 Digital Trends of 2018

As we look ahead at the future of digital, where do we see ourselves going? Every January, the Altimeter  analyst team predicts digital trends that will have the biggest impact on businesses across three key categories:

  • Brand and Experience
  • Culture and Innovation
  • Data and Intelligence

Here’s our take on the most important trends for 2018.

Brand and Experience Trends

1. eSports Presents New Branding Opportunities

The burgeoning eSports industry (where video gamers compete in arena-style competitions with millions watching online) is the place to see how the future of brand, marketing and advertising will develop. eSports represents one of the few “lean back” media experiences that millennials watch for hours at a time (more than even regular sports), a unique opportunity for brands to reach this ad-blocking, marketing-averse audience.

Companies  like Disney, Amazon and Facebook are joining traditional sports teams like the New York Yankees and Golden State Warriors to jump into eSports, and in the process creating a lucrative ecosystem of agencies, consultants and measurement companies. This is like the internet in the late 90’s when today’s marketing and advertising norms were developed. New companies to watch include Ader, BAMTECHRepable and Waypoint. – Charlene Li

2. The AI-ization of Everything

In 2017, we saw AI expand from recommendation, search, voice agents and robots into, well, everything. Alexa, Cortana, Siri and Google Home announced technical advancements including better natural language understanding and expanded skillsets (even the ability to master all the chess knowledge in history in a mere four hours). Meanwhile, a couple of music technology types dropped a black metal album written by an AI and Microsoft’s Xiaoice published a book of poetry.

In  2018, we’ll see more AI everywhere, but the real question will be: what will add to our lives? What needs to be intelligent? And, most importantly, what is the right balance between the human and the machine, in business, art and everyday life? – Susan Etlinger

3. Emergence of New Mobile Ads Formats

As mobile users continue to associate display ads with a negative customer experience, innovative brands are getting creative. This year, we could see the rise of custom ad formats, where brands reimagine mobile ads as interactive, immersive experiences. Timberland promoted its new flexible boots by letting users control the movements of the professional dancer who was wearing the shoes in an interactive ad. A Virgin Mobile ad accessed the phone’s camera and allowed users to control movements in the ad by just by blinking their eyes.

These  creative mobile ad formats will raise the bar for customer expectations, and force brands to compete on experience, rather than messaging or brand awareness. – Omar Akhtar

Culture and Innovation Trends

4. CHROs Partner with CIOs to Change Company Culture

With the focus on sexual harassment and toxic company culture, this will be the year that HR departments will dig deep and move from classic risk mitigation to become culture change leaders. To do this, they will need to turn to digital platforms to create not only transparency and accountability, but also to speed the pace of culture change. Move over CMOs — CHROs will be spending a lot more time with their CIO and IT leaders. See this blog post on HR’s Role in Digital Transformation. – Charlene Li

5. AI Ethics Go Mainstream

Okay, the word “ethics” makes your eyes roll back into your head. But ethics is just a set of norms for behavior, and AI is still in the toddler stage. After the many AI ethics horror stories of 2017— apps that scan your face and tell recruiters whether or not to hire you, bot armies that influence public opinion, sexism and racism in algorithms— there is increased awareness that algorithms are not, in fact, neutral. As AI continues to infuse more products, services and business models, the way companies use it will inform the brand experience. – Susan Etlinger

6. Commerce Comes to Virtual Reality

For those of us who love the convenience of online shopping but miss the hands-on experience of trying a product in-store, virtual reality shopping might be the perfect compromise. Unrestricted by physical space (or reality!) imaginative brands can create innovative shopping experiences by building virtual showrooms where customers can inspect a product, see it being used by a model or demo it themselves. It can be a far superior experience compared to boring old 2D online shopping.

However , VR is still only being used to showcase products. To buy one, you still must exit the VR experience and go to the online store. But now, companies like Payscout have built a commerce app that works within your virtual showroom, so you can view the product and buy it all within the VR experience. This might be the tech that finally makes VR an actual revenue generator, not just a nice to have marketing tool. – Omar Akhtar

Data and Intelligence Trends

7. The “Last Meter” Gets Digitized

You may be familiar with “last mile” where telecom networks struggle to deliver services from high-speed trunks to the end-user’s house. In people’s lives, the “last meter” represents the physical space between me and another person, or between me and a retail shelf that today is a digital void. This is about to change, as start-ups like Voicera use machine learning to digitize phone and in-person meetings, create verbatim notes, add a layer of analytics and automatically export to platforms like Salesforce (no more missing sales call notes).

Retailers  like Whole Foods/Amazon will tap in-store Wi-Fi data to correlate the fact that I’m standing in front of the yogurt case longer than usual, and use that information to influence my decision on the spot. Digitizing the “last meter” will challenge our notions of privacy in what was previously considered a private, analog space. – Charlene Li

8. Hidden Opportunities of the GDPR 

Whether you think of it as “the biggest change to data protection law for a generation”  or a piece of legislation that “looms on the horizon like a swarm of mutant bees bearing down on us all”,  the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)  will upend the way global companies think about and collect data from customers and consumers. The law, which was designed to “protect and empower all EU citizens’ data privacy”, goes into effect May 25, 2018.

The  first half of 2018 will see companies hurtle toward the compliance deadline, or ignore it at their peril (there are stiff fines  for non-compliance). After that date, the focus will shift to reading the legal tea-leaves on early court cases. But forward-thinking companies will see GDPR not (only) as a “Kafkaesque, bureaucratic enforcement nightmare”  but as a kind of blessing in disguise: a chance to explore data-intensive product, service and business model innovation, and, as importantly, reset trust with customers and consumers. – Susan Etlinger

9. Use of Cognitive Content Management

One of the most exciting uses of artificial intelligence is in recognizing visual content and determining the best place to use it. Cognitive content management systems like IBM’s Watson Content Hub can auto-tag images, text and video to by recognizing the content, which then makes it easier for the platform to recall and serve the content it believes will have the most impact on the customer in a given context. Not only does this save an immense amount of time for digital asset managers, it takes a lot of guesswork out of personalization strategies. – Omar Akhtar

Final Thoughts

Due to the major shifts occurring in these areas, our research throughout the course of the next year will be focused on the three categories we outlined: brand and experience, culture and innovation and data and intelligence. We’ll provide business leaders with the insight and confidence they’ll need to thrive in the face of this change. What digital trends do you think will define 2018?

Learn more about how your business should embrace the top digital trends of the year.  

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