What’s changing in the world of digital marketing? What will stay the same. This article outlines 6 emerging (or static) trends that will shape your firm’s digital marketing efforts between 2020 – 2025.
When we think about the web and where it might be going in the next 5 years, it’s tempting to fall into the trap we’ve been in the last 5 years — martech hysteria.
Over the last 5 years, the vast majority of conversation around digital marketing has been about the tech we use and how we use it. We’ve been looking for ways to streamline our work using marketing automation tools. We’ve been “hacking” the way we sell with sales automation tools. We’ve put resources into social listening, social publishing, and social monitoring to improve our ability to broadcast our messages. We’ve invested in keyword trackers and search analyzers to improve our SERP results. We’ve invested in landing page builders, form builders, and conversion tools to help generate more leads. We’ve invested in list building software to unearth previously unknown prospects. We’ve invested in analytics, metrics and dashboards to get better at measuring what we do. And, of course, we document, present and share our “martech stacks” at industry conferences to show off the brilliance of what we’ve built and how we use it.
Now don’t get me wrong this martech journey has been insanely interesting. Some of these technologies have been hugely helpful. But others have offered big promises with little results. Through it all, when I think about digital marketing over the last 5 years the conversation has always been about us, the marketers, and the technologies we’re using or going to use to do our job better.
When I look at where digital marketing is headed in the next 5 years, I think it’s more useful to look at it from the lens of clients. How will their behavior change? How will it remain the same? What marketplace trends and technologies will change their behavior? What marketplace trends will remain unchanged? And, what does it all mean to how we approach our digital marketing efforts?
As I see it there are 6 emerging and static trends that will shape the state of professional services and B2B digital marketing from now through 2025:
- The website’s purpose remains unchanged
- Search remains vital, but is changing rapidly
- CX will be more diverse and more seamless
- Points of difference will be sharper
- We will still learn through stories
- Video keeps killing the blogger
#1 – The Website’s Purpose Remains Unchanged
While the digital media landscape has seemingly been (and will continue to be) in a state of constant change, the purpose of a firm’s website has not changed in the last 10 years and it won’t change in the next 5 either. A firm’s website has three primary roles, and they’re usually prioritized in this descending order:
- Attract and engage potential clients during the learning stage of their buying cycle.
- Enable potential clients to vet the firm and easily transition to the discussion stage of the buying cycle when the time is right.
- Enable potential talent to envision their future and take a first step towards pursuing a career at the firm.
As the rest of this article will show, how we do these things will undergo a lot of change in the next 5 years. But, these primary roles will not change in the foreseeable future. Not in 5 years. Nor in 10 years.
#2 – Search Remains Vital, But Is Changing Rapidly
Over the last 5 years I’ve repeatedly found myself saying that Google is the closest thing professional services firms have to a mass marketing medium. Generally, 50-70% of a firm’s web traffic comes from search. And, 98% of that comes from Google (hence why I call it the central node on the world’s information network). From a digital marketing perspective, organic Google search results are where you have the ability to attract the largest potential audience.
But, how we search and where we search is changing rapidly. In the 12 years since Apple released its first iPhone, penetration of smart phones has risen to 81% of the U.S. population (source: Pew Research) . As a result, 62% of Google searches are now completed on mobile devices (source: Statista). And, since 2016 Google has placed search priority on websites that provide an effective responsive experience. Over the next 5 years, mobile traffic (both search and non) will continue to comprise a higher percentage of total site traffic. Having a compelling mobile experience won’t be a nice to have, it will be a must have.
That said, mobile devices are just one piece of the story. 20 years ago we accessed the web with 10 fingers on keyboards. 10 years ago we started accessing the web with 2 thumbs on smartphones. Today, more and more of us access the web with our vocal chords. In the 5 years since Amazon released Alexa, the penetration of smart speakers has now reached 41% of US homes (source: Inside Radio) — not as fast as the adoption of smartphones, but quick nonetheless. By 2025, the majority of us will have smart speakers — both in our homes and in our workplaces — and we’ll use them regularly to query on all fronts. It’s only a matter of time before Google places priority on websites that deliver a compelling experience for users searching on a desktop, on a mobile device, or with their voice via their smart speaker (or any other device for that matter).
Finally, search is just getting more and more intelligent. Today, in presenting search findings, Google still relies heavily on many of the same cues it has used for the last 21 years — external links, page titles, URLs, H1 tags, site authority. Even image searches rely heavily on “alt tags” to render results. But, that will change rapidly in the next 5 years. AI will enable Google to present much more relevant search results for images, video clips and audio bytes — even without text-based meta data for assistance. Augmenting written content with video, images and audio content will become a critical factor to search engine success (more on that later).
#3 – CX Will Be More Diverse and More Seamless
Over the last 10 years, marketing spawned one of its stupidest “innovations” yet — the marketing funnel. If I have to sit through one more presentation or read one more eBook on TOFU, MOFU and BOFU I think I’m going to vomit. The notion of a marketing funnel is a firm-centric one that completely misunderstands how clients actually buy anything. First, it assumes that the purchase process is linear (it’s anything but). And, it implies that we can make an easy assumption about where someone is in that buying process based on how they interact with our marketing (anyone who’s ever taken a phone call from Hubspot or Marketo knows that this assumption is flawed).
Clients actually go through 4 stages of discovery on their path to making a purchase — learning, vetting, discussing and hiring. These 4 stages are loosely sequential, but buyers bounce forward and backward many times along the way. During these 4 stages clients interact with a wide range of resources to navigate themselves through their journey. They ask their peers for recommendations and referrals. They check out firms and their people on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. They scan discussion boards on Quora. They use Google to search business problems, learn about concepts, identify firm rankings, and to vet firms themselves. They attend conferences to learn from peers and industry experts. They read industry journals and other business publications to frame how they think about the world. They listen to podcasts to keep a pulse on what’s happening around them. While most potential clients won’t likely do all these things, almost no good client will only do one of them. In a highly complex B2B, consensus purchase, potential clients will probably do many of these things. Ultimately, a firm’s website and its self-published content is just one planet in this universe of resources. That’s why there’s never really just one definitive source of a new lead or opportunity.
Looking ahead, this universe of resources will continue to expand and evolve. The distinction in the minds of clients between platforms you don’t own and those you do will continue to blur. Digital-first platforms like LinkedIn and Axios will have growing influence in the early stages of the client’s journey. The few remaining arbiters of quality, like HBR, will have greater importance as well. Yet, self published platforms will be as critical as ever as the need for firms to be present in topical search results will be even more important than today. Firms will also have to show strong followings on social platforms, be speaking at the best events, and pop up when clients ask for referrals. And, chances are good clients will consult many if not all these sources in a single buying cycle.
Simultaneously, the expectation of firms to present a seamless client experience will be higher than ever. Marketing, business development and service delivery are artificial silos created by the structure and staffing of a company. For clients, the journey of discovery from learning to hiring is a seamless one. The expectation is that the topics firms are publishing about in the learning phase, will show up in the case studies they read during the vetting stage, in conversation with business development managers in the discussion stage, and ultimately be part of the solution when the account managers finally show up after the contract is signed. Today, all too often this simply doesn’t happen. Sales people aren’t even aware of the thought leadership a firm is publishing. And, the people actually delivering the work may be even further removed than anyone from the thinking that earned the firm the project in the first place.
#4 – Points of Difference Will Be Sharper
10 years ago, professional services buyers were just awakening to the implications the Internet had on what and how they bought. Prior to the Great Recession client decision-makers routinely looked for firms within defined geographic areas of where they were. In a sense, proximity often held higher sway in a purchasing decision than domain expertise.
Yet, by 2009, search had become both robust and efficient. Suddenly, finding an expert in advanced manufacturing technologies for biotech or traffic calming solutions for high volume intersections was just 50 keystrokes away — and both buyers and firms had finally figured this out. Expert firms of all shapes and sizes emerged. Healthcare only consulting and design firms. Expert supply chain advisors for retail companies. Experts in food quality consulting. You name it, small firms began declaring specializations and leveraging the Internet as a way to connect their expertise with clients hungry to find them. Today, domain expertise has come to hold higher sway in many purchasing decisions than proximity. I can’t begin to say how many clients have asked me where our agency is located — 6 months after they hired us!
But today, and increasingly by 2025, simply declaring an area of specialization is not enough. Healthcare only design firms are a dime a dozen. And, every major architecture firm has a deep and sophisticated healthcare practice. For clients, distinguishing one of these firms from the other is virtually impossible. The work all looks the same. The processes are all the same except they use different words. Even the way firms sell is largely indistinguishable.
Most firms have started to figure this out and have realized the need to carve out a distinct point-of-view (POV) on what it is that they do. A firm’s or practice’s POV is best described as a set of governing beliefs that define how it sees the market. It’s the real point of separation between those two, otherwise indistinguishable, healthcare only design firms. But, in a lot of firms these philosophical differences from their peers remain fuzzy at best.
By 2025 the need for every firm to have a distinct and sharply worded point-of-view will be well past the point of return. In the absence of a clear POV, firms will find themselves systemically passed over for new business opportunities. The absence of substantive thought leadership (published both on the firm’s web property and through many of the digital platforms previously mentioned) to back up the assertions made in the POV will leave firms equally passed over.
#5 – We Still Learn Through Stories
Over the last 10 years, with the rise of easy and inexpensive self-publishing, thought leadership marketing has gone mainstream and morphed into the content marketing monster we know today. Anyone and everyone is publishing. Yet, somewhere along the line we forgot how people actually learn things.
We don’t learn through big research reports, long-form white papers, infographics, PowerPoint presentations, or even short blogs. We definitely don’t learn through listicles (you won’t retain much of what I wrote here today). We don’t retain long lists of offices, detailed bios, or historical timelines recanting every moment of a company’s existence.
We do learn through stories. We always have. And, we always will. Stories have plots, characters, emotional highs and lows, starts and finishes. Firms have a wide range of stories that need to be told. A firm has a corporate story, each of its practices and disciplines have their own stories, every person that works there has a story, and every project the firm has ever completed has a story. Today, the pressure is on for all of us to get better at telling all of these stories that exist inside and around the firm. By 2025, the most successful firm marketers will have long ago made the leap from just publishing digital content to being master digital storytellers.
#6 – VIDEO KEEPS KILLING THE BLOGGER
Chances are you don’t want to work so hard to consume the thinking I’ve shared in this article in the format by which I’ve shared it. You don’t want to read the 3k words I just penned because it would take you 5-10 minutes to fully read it and process it. You’d be much happier if I took the time to wrap it all up in a 2-minute summary video (like this one) that just grabs the highlights and lets you lean back in your chair and be entertained. Our research backs this up — in the 7 Capabilities of Exceptional Thought Leadership Marketing we found that the most successful firms are prioritizing all forms of “lean back” over “lean in” content.
The fact of the matter is, we don’t want to have to work so hard to learn things we have to learn in our daily business lives. Whether we’re researching business problems or new marketplace concepts, learning about a firm, its history, its services or its work, we’d simply rather consume through passive media whenever possible. We’d much rather watch a video or listen to a short audio clip than trudge through 3k words of written content.
Simultaneously, we expect the content we’re interacting with to provide a compelling digital experience. We want it to be interactive, and to adapt to our device. In doing the research to write this article, I found articles on the future of B2B marketing locked up in PDFs. That’s fine if I’m looking to download an article, print it and save it for later. But, clients do that almost never. More frequently, like me, they search when they have 10 minutes at the airport, on their phone, and are just looking to squeeze in a bit of work.
By 2025, the content experience of all professional service firm websites (and the external platforms they leverage) will require predominantly video, audio, or interactive content. There are 3 basic types of video a firm should have today. But, by 2025 all aspects of content including thought leadership, firm overviews, practice descriptions, service descriptions, practice leader bios, and case studies should be served up by video. It won’t be a “nice to have” as it is now. It will be a cost of entry.
If you’re hoping to up your digital marketing game in the next 5 years, I’d say this is a pretty solid list of big opportunities you should be looking to develop within your marketing team or through partnership with an agency like ours:
- Sharpen your firm’s key points of difference at every level in the organization
- Ramp up your SEO skills and expand your optimization efforts to include mobile and voice search
- Learn to tell better stories
- Expand your ability to develop video, multimedia, audio and interactive content