Actionable steps to prepare for the future of marketing
Digital marketing today is complex and it’s inevitable it will get more complex in the future as new technologies and platforms emerge. Take the recent rapid adoption and interest in Instagram Threads and Open AI ChatGPT, as an example. Marketers also have to contend with the complexity of the many channels we need to track in our analytics such as organic and paid search, social media, display, and email marketing.
This visualization of the B2B customer lifecycle shows the great opportunities for harnessing different digital marketing channels to encourage lead generation, nurture, and purchase. It also highlights the challenge of managing the always-on marketing activities that need continuous focus to maximize conversion in the face of fierce competition.
Our latest research on digital marketing trends for 2023 to 2024
Each year, at Smart Insights we review current trends to highlight actions marketers should take to tap into the opportunities offered by the latest trends. You can read our previous recommendations in our previous article on digital marketing trends.
This year, we again teamed up with the organisers of the Technology for Marketing (TFM) and E-commerce Expo events to survey the latest trends in managing digital marketing and the latest technology. We had 403 respondents to our research with the majority of participants from the United Kingdom or the United States and over three quarters of respondents of manager-level.
In this post, I’ll summarize the findings this recent research surveying marketers about their marketers and give practical recommendations on actions that marketers can take to improve their digital marketing. Free Members of Smart Insights can download the full future of digital marketing trends report.
The report and this post are structured around our pillars for future success in digital marketing that Smart Insights have defined to simplify strategic priorities. In this post, you will be able to compare your use of digital marketing against:
- The digital marketing capabilities that marketers need to improve the most
- The top-performing digital media
- Applications of using marketing technology including different types of AI
- The use of Personalization and targeting to improve website effectiveness
- The use of different types of messaging
- The trends in popularity of different content formats for B2B vs B2C
Trends across the pillars of digital marketing
Given the complexity we have to grapple with, to set future strategies and plans, it helps to simplify by reviewing the main areas of marketing investment and the success factors for gaining return on this investment. In the research, we reviewed how these activities are managed by asking marketers for their views to provide a comprehensive view of the future of digital marketing that is relevant to businesses of all types.
1. Marketing and brand strategy trends
Given the current and future importance of digital marketing to all types of organizations, it’s a clear best practice to use a strategic approach, so that digital marketing activities and investments are prioritized, costed, and integrated with marketing and brand strategy.
Digital marketing doesn’t exist in a silo, so it’s important to ensure the budget going into digital marketing is aligned with and impacts business and marketing strategy. Research on marketing budget trends from Gartner suggests that insufficient budget may be a factor limiting digital marketing. Their survey revealed that in larger businesses there is a recent trend to increased budgets, but not a full recovery:
Average marketing budgets are 9.1% of total company revenue currently while this figure was 11% before the pandemic, dropping to 6.4% post-pandemic.
In our research, a simple test of whether a strategic approach is being used was to ask whether there is a defined plan for digital marketing.
Shockingly, nearly half (47%) of businesses don’t have a digital marketing strategy, but they are doing digital marketing! Over the fifteen years we have been researching adoption of planning for digital marketing, we have found the percentage of businesses without a planned approach has remained similar, suggesting there are significant barriers to integrating planning in organizations.
It’s good to see that around half of businesses do have a strategic approach. The ultimate aim should be to use an integrated approach, but it can be useful initially to have a dedicated digital strategy in larger organizations, or to plan for and make the case for more investment in digital marketing before it becomes integrated.
Recommended action: Use a strategic approach to digital marketing, reviewing all the options and prioritising the new activities which will give you the biggest ‘bang for your buck’.
We’ve developed our RACE Growth System to provide businesses with a comprehensive framework and process to create a digital marketing strategy. Download our free RACE 90-day planning system available with Free membership, which also includes a practical 15 step marketing strategy template.
2. Digital marketing strategy trends
So, we’ve seen that since digital marketing is complex and vital to future success, it requires its own plan covering aims, strategy and how to deliver them using investment in communications, people, and marketing technology. All this activity and investment is aimed at improving digital marketing capabilities, so in the research we asked where people were now with using digital marketing and where they would be in the future.
Capabilities for the seven pillars of marketing success can be reviewed for different businesses between one (low maturity) to five (maximum maturity) using the digital maturity benchmark evaluation featured in the Executive Summary of this report.
Results for businesses in our survey show that, across all pillars, more than half of businesses are rated at lower levels of 1 to 2, showing clear room for improvement. For context, for small and medium businesses with limited resources, we recommend that level 3 is a suitable aspiration to compete. For businesses that have a high digital contribution where online leads and sales are vital to their success, we recommend that levels 4 and 5 are necessary if the case for investment is made.
Next, to gauge how businesses are looking to improve their capabilities in the future, we asked respondents to repeat the analysis for 2024.
The stark contrast between the two charts suggests that many of the businesses at levels 1 and 2 are conscious that they need to improve their capabilities and are planning to invest to achieve a higher-level. In the full report, we also look at the barriers which might prevent these new capabilities being achieved.
Recommended Digital strategy action: We recommend all businesses review their digital marketing capabilities and set targets and priority initiatives to improve them.
Free members can download our Free digital marketing maturity benchmarking templates.
3. Data and insight, forecasting and evaluation.
Best practice for managing digital marketing is to define which targets are set for digital contribution to a business and how success is tracked, for example, through digital marketing dashboards. Improving the quality of customer insight and the MarTech required to collect and analyze this is also important.
Smart Insights believe in an insight-based, data-driven approach to improving digital maturity through harnessing the insights that are available through digital analytics and dedicated research into the digital experience. Our RACE Growth System involves setting targets for leads, sales and profitability based on detailed forecasts which are based on channel conversion models.
To understand the extent to which businesses are using data-driven approaches, we asked about different evaluation techniques for assessing digital media and multichannel experiences.
Just over half of businesses are using fundamental evaluation techniques such as using digital marketing dashboards, defined marketing source codes and digital experience assessment. However, this shows that around half of businesses aren’t using these core techniques and the majority are missing out on the other useful techniques mentioned such as NPS, customer panels and media attribution.
To assess the extent to which insight is used to test, learn, and improve the effectiveness of digital media, experiences, content and messaging we asked marketers to categorize their approach to testing for each. There is a similar level of testing across all four of these pillars.
The standout finding from this chart is that a continuous, structured programme of testing is relatively uncommon despite the often-touted benefits of digital media being ‘the most measurable’. Kudos to those companies that already have a continuous programme in place, and to those that at least test occasionally (around half of the businesses).
Recommended Data and Insight action: Improve your use of structured testing and review of analytics.
This year and into 2024, many businesses will be looking to improve their use of data analysis given the changes required by Google Analytics which may use third-party data visualization. For example, Smart Insights has created a RACE framework digital marketing dashboard in Google’s Looker Studio that it makes available for premium members. Free members can review our 10 essential steps for using Google Analytics 4 to grow your business to review their use of GA4.
Another major trends in this area is the move towards the ‘cookieless future’. Google has announced the latest update for its delayed Privacy Sandbox and Topics API for the web initiative – it is working towards deprecating third-party cookies in Chrome in the second half of 2024. Once this is implemented this will require new approaches to attribution to assess media effectiveness.
4. Digital Media
Digital media trends are some of the most important for businesses to think through since growing awareness is so important for customer acquisition. Overall, there is a trend to increasing digital media and advertising. The latest Digital Adspend data from the IAB UK/PwC and AA/WARC shows that:
Digital advertising’s share of the total UK ad market grew to 75% for the most recent year tracked.
In the US, the IAB Digital Ad spend research for the most recent full year showed that internet advertising revenues grew 10.8% year-over year while TV ad revenues increased by just 2% and print media declined by 6%. The breakdown of digital channels is as follows:
Video advertising showed the biggest interest while growth on social media declined with the smallest increase for 10 years.
It’s interesting to look at the ad spend of the two biggest digital media spend who spend significant amounts on traditional media as part of a balanced media mix although Google has a large investment in digital video.
In our research, we asked marketers to rate different ‘marketing channels’ into three categories of ROI to understand their effectiveness. In this analysis, we sorted the data by the channel with the highest ROI rating.
Across the businesses surveyed, organic search, Google Ads, and the closely related content marketing rate most highly, showing the need for most businesses to focus
on these where there is a high search intent for their products and services. After this, email marketing is rated fourth. Email is different from the other channels since it mainly focuses on prospect and customer communications when website visitors opt-in to receive communications, so it is more about nurture to sale. Next in effectiveness we have social media with paid and organic rating similarly. Finally, we have digital PR and display advertising, which although lowest rated, remain vital for brands serving markets where there isn’t a high level of search intent or social media engagement is challenging.
Recommended Digital media action: There are many best practices and features for all the digital marketing platforms, so a structured approach to reviewing and testing these features pays dividends.
For premium members our Digital media updates tracker summarizes the latest innovations from 12 paltforms including Facebook, Google, Instagram and LinkedIn.
At a higher level, free members can download our Free digital marketing maturity benchmarking templates which enable you to visually score your use of different channels such as organic search and social media and email.
5. Content marketing
We selected content marketing as one of our pillars of effective digital marketing since we see it as the glue that integrates and fuels all digital tactics.
We believe that content marketing requires its own dedicated plans and control processes to ensure it is effective in supporting all the modern marketing activities it fuels.
This means that it is important to have a proactive approach to managing content as a valuable resource and asset in your organization. Therefore, having sufficient resource to evaluate content effectiveness across the customer journey and prioritize and make recommendations for future content improvements is necessary. Since 62% of businesses are at level 1 or 2 in the current maturity assessment, this suggests many businesses could be more proactive in this area by creating a content marketing strategy and a control process to evaluate and improve content effectiveness.
Since many businesses are experimenting with Generative AI using large language models such as GPT for writing copy, we asked about the applications of this. The results are sorted below based on the applications with the highest percentage who have recently started using them.
Around one-sixth of businesses have been using AI for these applications for more than a year, with around one-third recently starting using AI for generating content for SEO, social media, and email marketing.
Considering more traditional types of content, the Content marketing Institute research surveys are useful for considering trends in B2C and B2B marketing. It’s useful to know the type of content asset formats being created to compare to yours. Here are the latest figures for B2C and B2B content marketing.
B2C marketing asset popularity
B2B marketing asset popularity
This research is also useful since it shows which content marketing channels are most effective. For B2B marketing, this is clearly LinkedIn.
Recommended Content marketing action: Free members can also use our Free digital marketing maturity benchmarking templates which enable you to visually score your use of content marketing.
6. Digital Experiences
The current maturity of managing websites and/or apps was rated as level 1 or 2 by more than 50% of respondents, suggesting many businesses need to improve in this area. This was reinforced by the assessment of always-on optimization which showed that around half of businesses didn’t perform any website testing.
It is perhaps surprising that web personalization rates were relatively low in the previous chart, but this could be because of the cost of the marketing technology required to deliver this. It can be useful to treat website as a channel for measurement purposes. For example, at Smart Insights, we use the conversational marketing tools Intercom and OptInMonster to engage audiences and showcase our templates for marketers. Measurement for these is integrated into Google Analytics 4 so that we can understand how interactions with these channels affected the path-to-purchase.
To gain more insight on personalization and other methods for delivering more relevant messages across customer journeys, we also asked participants to say which targeting techniques they used. This is covered in the full report
Recommended Digital experience action: Free members can also use our Free digital marketing maturity benchmarking templates which enable you to visually score your use of websites on a scale of 1 to 10.
Another aspect of trends for digital experience is website design trends of which HubSpot documents some of the main trends including:
- 3D Designs
- Broken Grids
- Organic shapes
Innovation of Mixed Reality including VR and AR is also a trend in digital experiences. When speaking on digital marketing trends I often use the Zappar showreel to showcase how brands are using Augmented Reality on Mobile. Zappar has worked with brands including Estee Lauder, Lego, Nestle, Persil and Puma. Their site includes the latest mobile techniques including Face tracking, World tracking, Mini Games and Portals.
7. Digital Messaging including defining MarTech stacks
This is using direct or ‘conversational’ communications channels such as email, mobile notifications, and chat to engage and persuade audiences is still effective. Both automated, personalized and campaign messaging also require a structured approach to improve their effectiveness.
Digital messaging techniques are powerful since brands can interact directly with individuals to deliver relevant personal communications based on insight about individuals or groups of similar people, which is typically stored in the cloud or inside a company within multiple databases.
Considering email marketing, which remains a vital channel, the Radicati Group forecasts that the total number of business and consumer emails sent each day will grow from 306 billion in 2020, to over 361 billion in 2024. They note that email is still the most pervasive form of electronic communication for both business and consumer users, so it is a key technique alongside mobile text and push notifications and other emerging formats.
The success of email marketing and other messaging techniques such as mobile push notifications are dependent on the marketing technology used to integrate different systems, such as web profiling and interactions with email tracking. The use of Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) in larger businesses shows the future importance of collecting insight about the customer journey, and how it can be used to deliver more relevant messages within the privacy constraints.
Being successful in messaging, media and digital experiences requires selecting the best marketing technology to form a MarTech stack. Our MarTech infographic summarizes potential tools available to help manage lifecycle marketing activities.
In our research, we didn’t review the specific MarTech used, instead we asked how well defined the approach to selecting MarTech was by asking about how well defined our respondents’ MarTech stack was.
The responses show that 11%, a staggeringly small proportion of businesses, have a well-defined MarTech stack. It’s perhaps not surprising when we consider the sheer number and changing options for MarTech SaaS (software as a service) available. Scott Brinker’s Martech Supergraphic catalogues over 10,000 tools. We recommend his Stackies to review visual representations of MarTech stacks.
The world of digital marketing has always been fast-paced, and as new platforms and AI tools join the market, it looks like this is not about to slow down any time soon. In order to keep your business competitive and successful, it is important to carve out the time to create a strategic approach to your marketing to ensure you are making the most of all the opportunities available to you to grow your business and meet ever-evolving customer need.
While adopting and building an effective MarTech stack can really help you deliver an omnichannel experience for customers, this survey has also highlighted how we cannot underestimate how important investment in human resource is now, and in the future, to deliver effective, optimized digital marketing.
We hope you have found this digital marketing trends post helpful in benchmarking your current marketing and identifying where you can look to invest time and resource in your business in 2024 and beyond.
At Smart Insights we have a wealth of resources to help you develop your digital marketing strategy, optimize your tactics, and grow your business. See our digital marketing resource library for all resources which are structured into 20 toolkits covering all digital marketing activities.