4 Hard Truths I Learned Covering Marketing This Year

When you spend most of your life thinking about marketing, you start to see the world differently.

Suddenly you think of everything in terms of positioning, strategy, persuasion, and accountability. You look at ads and say, “What the hell were they thinking?” to your friend who couldn’t care less. You see a post from a brand you’ve never even heard of and think, “Wow, that’s genius.”

I only really started caring about marketing (and the intersection of advertising, technology, and media) a couple years ago when I started at Contently as an intern. It’s been a never-ending crash course ever since. Digital marketing changes rapidly, and it’s only getting more complex. As soon as you think you understand the space, you realize a minute later that you’re not even close.

This year in particular, with its many shocking pieces of news and trends, has upended many assumptions I’ve held about marketing. Here are four of the most important trends that have changed the way I think about my job.

Narrative and reality are two different things

At the start of 2016, there was a ton of hype surrounding virtual reality (VR). Playstation VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus all launched this year, so marketers were gearing up for the expected revolution.

Of course, VR has since arrived, but its impact has been minimal so far with sluggish sales. As I wrote in my article about the year’s biggest marketing storylines, augmented reality (AR) seems to be the much more exciting product.

Messaging apps have gone through a similar hype-cycle as VR. For years, publications (including us) have waited for messaging apps to emerge as a big new marketing channel. Yet despite some exciting features, messaging apps aren’t on the radar of most marketers right now.

That’s not to say that VR and messaging apps are dead—far from it. It’s important to give them time to penetrate the market. Yet as we’re seeing with the crashing smartwatch market, we should be skeptical of new channels and technologies that receive breathless hype from journalists. Real change doesn’t happen because of dramatic headlines; it comes when a product actually provides value to the customer (and in our case, to the marketers hoping to reach them).

Boring but important stories are often ignored

When looking for news relevant to Contently, I see a lot of the big names over and over. Facebook. Google. Twitter. Usually, there’s a valid reason for it. Facebook and Google, in particular, dominate digital advertising, and reporting on their every step to the point of absurdity is actually not that absurd.

However, under-the-radar news often gets ignored, even when it has to do with big names. Publishers optimize for clicks, and Facebook and Google are the Kardashians of marketing. Journalists get caught up in popular narratives because they’re in a bubble or simply don’t know any better (including me). Sometimes less sexy companies aren’t good at telling their story to the press.

Publishers optimize for clicks, and Facebook and Google are the Kardashians of marketing.

Martech is a great example. It’s a massive industry—Oracle, Salesforce, IBM, Microsoft, and even Amazon are all involved in martech, but we didn’t start making an effort to cover the space until this year. Marketing Land, likewise, only launched its martech vertical, MarTech Today, in 2016.

Additionally, there are thousands of smaller players jostling for position that marketers use every day, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of deep analysis or regular coverage about them on any of the major marketing publications like Ad Age or Digiday.

Why is that? For one, it’s a relatively new space. It’s also technical. And it is certainly not sexy. As a result, it barely receives any attention.

Most of the real innovation comes from small companies

For Adweek’s 2016 “Brand Genius” awards, every single “brand genius” is from a big-name company (Airbnb, Intel, Taco Bell, etc.). While piloting the aircraft carrier that is a major Fortune 500 company is challenging, it’s rare that you see the bigger brands introduce truly innovative marketing. Instead, it almost always comes from smaller companies that have the flexibility to be different.

Take Glossier. As everyone at Contently knows, I’ve been obsessively mentioning the company at every opportunity because I think it’s upending traditional notions of marketing. Glossier originated as a fashion and beauty blog, Into the Gloss. It then transitioned into an e-commerce company that has carved out an incredible, loyal audience. As BuzzFeed News reporter Nitasha Tiku writes in her amazing profile of the company:

Glossier’s real innovation was optimizing for the internet at every step: using the tools of the social web to turn readers into followers and followers into brand evangelists, unpaid product advisers, and, maybe, something like a community, albeit one that buys things from you.

A company like Trader Joe’s is another good example—a big name, sure, but not one that’s close to Fortune 500 status. The company’s marketing strategy is completely out of line with most companies in that it doesn’t really have one. Trader Joe’s isn’t on social media and rarely advertises. Yet like Glossier, it has a cult status and great brand recognition. That’s something you’ll rarely hear about from mainstream marketing publications, which often profile the big companies following trends rather than the ones making them.

Most people are just as confused as you are

One recurring theme of almost every conversation I’ve had this year with people who work in marketing is confusion. Thousands of companies want to sell you their vision of the future at all times, which can be disorienting.

Here’s a secret: None of them know for sure if they’re right. In fact, if people try to tell you they know what marketing will look like in five years, they either have a huge ego or are trying to sell you something. The internet disrupted many traditional marketing truths, and there’s been a battle ever since. The result is a lot of marketing veterans feel more lost and stressed than ever before.

That future shock is difficult, but it’s also what makes covering and working in the space so exciting. Winners and losers change positions at seemingly every turn, new disruptions emerge before you’re done processing the last one, and you feel overwhelmed more times than not. I’m sure 2017 will be no different.

Image by Wes Vandinter / Getty

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