The 6 Biggest Marketing Storylines of 2016

Out of everything that happened in marketing this year, perhaps nothing was more symbolic than digital advertising spend overtaking TV ad spend. For more than half a century, TV had been the primary advertising medium for marketers. The internet changed all that—and we’ll look back at 2016 as the year that digital officially assumed the mantle.

marketing storylines

But it wasn’t just spending habits that dominated headlines over the last 12 months. 2016 was a landmark year for the marketing, media, advertising, and tech space. So what happened? Here are the six storylines every marketer should know.

Facebook’s controversial domination

We used to talk about social media as a group. Now, there’s Facebook, and then there’s everyone else.

Facebook’s incredible boom continued unabated this year as the company brought in record profits; broke milestones (like 1 billion daily active users); and opened up its subsidiary, Instagram, to a wave of advertising investment.

Facebook also became a key tool for marketers who increasingly use the platform to advertise and boost content because of its unique targeting features.

But Facebook still had a massive list of controversies: Fake news. Censorship. Hyper-partisan content mills. Filter bubbles. Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen. Multiple embarrassing measurement mistakes. India’s blockage of Free Basics. Its rocky Marketplace launch. The company’s absurd assertion that it “isn’t a media company.”

It’s safe to assume that 2016—despite all of the company’s financial successes—is a year founder Mark Zuckerberg would likely not want to repeat.

VR launches, but AR rules the headlines

Playstation VR, Oculus, and HTC Vive—the three big names in the virtual reality (VR) marketplace—all hit shelves this year, but they arrived with a bit of a thud. Playstation VR has done the best by far, at 745,434 projected sales, but none of the new products have exactly stormed the market.

Instead, it was a free augmented reality (AR) app that set the world ablaze: Pokémon Go.

marketing storylines

Though Pokémon has fallen far from its perch as the world’s collective obsession, there’s no dismissing the power of AR (and good old-fashioned nostalgia) after the app’s explosive success.

Snapchat, likewise, continued to expand into AR with its first hardware product—Snapchat Spectacles—and improved on its iconic lenses, which can now alter the world around you as well as your face. Other companies started using other AR gadgets like Microsoft HoloLens and Google Glass for exciting commercial applications, such as letting factory workers see diagrams and instructions while they’re working.

If 2016 was any indication, VR may end up as a niche market compared to the portability, sociability, and widespread applications of AR.

AI awakens

As a recent article in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Great AI Awakening” suggests, 2016 was the year artificial intelligence began to turn from science fiction to reality.

A number of major tech companies—from Google to Facebook to Amazon—made massive investments in AI. Google’s new smartphone, Pixel, featured the company’s cutting-edge AI, ‘Assistant.’ Facebook, meanwhile, has M, which has mostly appeared on its messaging app Messenger. Amazon’s Alexa can be found inside millions of homes. And just about every major martech company launched or greatly improved its own AI assistants this year: Adobe has Sensai, Salesforce has Einstein, and IBM has Watson, just to name a few.

It’s no exaggeration to say that AI and machine learning represent the next major leap in computing. Marketers, who are reliant on data-heavy platforms, need to pay attention.

Everyone wants to be everything

It used to be that agencies were agencies, publishers were publishers, and consultancies were consultancies. Today, however, it’s becoming harder to tell them apart.

Like most trends on this list, this story isn’t contained to 2016. But this year confirmed that the melding of traditional identities is here to stay. The Washington Post went heavy into ad tech. Accenture built a 10,000-square-foot content studio in SoHo. The New York Times T Brand Studio grew to more than 100 people and began offering a variety of services typically exclusive to agencies.

To compete in a fractured media landscape, it seems like every major firm is expanding their services to see what sticks. Don’t be surprised if 2017 brings more expansions, acquisitions, and innovations that will leave you asking, “Wait, they did that?”

Big martech flirts with big social

Speaking of surprising moves, 2016 saw two of the biggest martech players—Microsoft and Salesforce—suddenly begin to colonize social media platforms.

Microsoft fought off Salesforce in its acquisition of LinkedIn, while Salesforce was the last company standing in a battle for Twitter that ultimately ended up with no winners.

But why? The question left some tech journalists scratching their heads, but there is a simple answer: data. Every social media platform has a treasure trove of personal data on its users, which is a valuable currency in the digital age. Just ask Google and Facebook.

For Microsoft and Salesforce, which builds enterprise software, LinkedIn’s massive network of professionals made it an attractive acquisition. The same goes for Twitter, which intrigued Salesforce because of its data and customer service potential. It’s unclear whether the trend will continue next year, but it was a strange moment when two very different software worlds came together.

The regulatory crackdown

While the internet economy becomes more reliant on the free flow of personal data, regulators in the EU aren’t rolling over to tech giants.

The European parliament approved stringent privacy rules in April, which has made life difficult for global companies and tech giants. National governments have taken action as well, such as France sanctioning Facebook for violating data-collection laws and India booting Facebook’s Free Basics project out of the country.

Meanwhile, the FTC began punishing those who violated its native advertising guidelines. The most high-profile case involved a Warner Bros. influencer campaign with PewDiePie and other famous YouTubers, which led to a formal complaint from the FTC that WB hid the paid nature of the content partnership.

China also showed no signs of relenting to tech giants. Uber was forced to give up its incredibly expensive campaign to penetrate the Chinese market. And Facebook remained banned from the market even though it built suppression tools to appease the Chinese government.

For marketers relying on tools that use customer data—which at this point, is basically all of them—2016 should be a lesson that data collection can, at least for now, only go so far.

Image by Roman Gorielov /Getty

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