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Don’t believe the hype: how to find marketing trends that are truly useful

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One of the things I truly love about digital marketing is its ever-changing nature and the opportunity and transformation that the adoption of new technologies and approaches provides. But, if you’re a marketer, a core part of your function and purpose in work – irrespective of where and for who you ply your trade – is to pay attention to trends.

If you want to excel in marketing it is your duty to work out which trends to embed in your organisation and shape into competitive difference, but more importantly, which trends to ignore. Digital marketing lore is littered with examples of those who bet the farm on a shiny new thing, only to get left out in the cold in the trough of disillusionment when the bandwagon ground to a halt. So how do we stay alert to trends that are legitimately useful to our work and steer clear of those that risk becoming a distracting waste of time? Here are a few ways to stay smart.

Remember the foundations

McCarthy’s (1960) 4Ps (product, price, promotion, and place) feels as relevant to me today – as a starting point for building effective marketing approaches – as it did when I first read about it in Kotler’s Marketing Management 20 years ago. It is incredible to think given the evolution of digital marketing – an industry built in a relatively short time period through the proliferation of trends – that the 4Ps framework can still hold weight over 60 years since first being defined. In many ways, the continued applicability of the 4Ps is the perfect metaphor for our challenge as modern marketers; the question to ask ourselves is not what are this year’s trends, but how in the face of a changing landscape do we stay relevant?

Don’t believe the hype

As someone who runs a digital marketing agency, it would be almost impossible for me to write about trends without turning it into a polemic on a loosely disguised political agenda or a cliché-ridden journey aboard the hype cycle to the peak of inflated expectations for the next nascent technology or another. So, I’m not going to do that. But the hype cycle, as proposed by Gartner, is worth a brief pause. The model, for those unfamiliar with it, sketches out the observable phases of adoption for new technologies – including the titular “hype” phase where promises about the new technologies tend to build to a crescendo and expectations far outpace the on-the-ground reality at the time.

While there’s plenty of room to critique the model (for a range of reasons including the limited empirical evidence supporting it, and its potentially misleading terminology) it certainly rings true enough for me when it comes to making sense of the proliferation of new tech trends. I am not sure it matters where in the cycle you adopt a particular technology but having an awareness of which phase its in helps make sense of how to approach testing and embedding it.

Planning for the future

As an agency with multiple service lines, we employ the closely related concept of product lifecycle to strategically plan our approach to product development. Our aims are to have a balanced portfolio of growing and mature products, and an informed view on services in relative decline that allow us to deliver excellence for our clients, profitably, now and in the future. Understanding where each of our services sit within this general framework of maturity allows us to identify where we need to consider adopting new technologies to prompt innovation or improvement in productivity.

Look for the convergence

Strategic advice provided by investors such as Luma Partners can be an invaluable reference for appreciating the complexity of our industry. One glance at their diagrams is enough to make the point that chasing each new trend will make busy fools of us all. Aside from the oft-recommended and effective approach of setting aside a proportion of budget and time to adopt, test and learn new trends with little expectation of results, one of the next best things we can do when planning which innovations to adopt is to look for where trends manifest and converge in different contexts.

For example, “You must adopt AI” has been an existentially challenging and familiar trend shouted at marketers for several years now. Devoid of context this statement is virtually meaningless for the average marketer. But as we start to see AI overlaid and embedded onto a range of our existing tools – whether perhaps in bid automation, automated content recommendation engines or predictive analysis tools – the relevance and imperative to adopt becomes clearer.

In conclusion

Marketing trends have no intrinsic strategic truth – our job, as critical thinking marketers, is to neither bury our head in the sand to their existence nor be blown in the wind with every passing fad; we must overlay the opportunity with our own organisational goals to find value in them. Even if a particular trend transforms into a feature that stands the test of time, it still needs evaluating in terms of whether it will help you achieve your goals.

Tom Jones, CEO, Three Whiskey UK.