What are the trends that will mat­ter most for CMOs and oth­er mar­ket­ing lead­ers in 2018? Though I don’t pre­tend to have a crys­tal ball or to know exact­ly what’s going on in your com­pa­ny, I can share what’s top of mind for SYKES and our brand part­ners, who rep­re­sent some of the world’s lead­ing brands.

The five themes out­lined here should sound famil­iar, as they all have some­thing to do with the inter­sec­tion of con­tent, tech­nol­o­gy and con­nect­ing with cus­tomers. Yes, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) does pop up — in hon­or of the appar­ent require­ment that AI must be men­tioned in every busi­ness trend arti­cle mov­ing for­ward — but I see AI as play­ing more of a sup­port­ing rather than star­ring role. That’s because the focus needs to be on the “why,” which is to help peo­ple one inter­ac­tion at a time, to cre­ate con­nec­tions and build trust between brands and cus­tomers.

Video’s value keeps growing with real-life storytelling.

Suc­cess­ful brands are com­bin­ing the emo­tion­al impact of video with the reach and imme­di­a­cy of social media to build deep­er rela­tion­ships with cus­tomers and prospects. Mov­ing pic­tures and sound have the pow­er to con­vey feel­ing and stim­u­late mem­o­ry in a way that writ­ten words can’t achieve. That’s what makes video “an excel­lent plat­form for edu­cat­ing view­ers on top­ics and issues direct­ly relat­ed to your busi­ness and posi­tion­ing your brand as a cred­i­ble, trust­wor­thy source of vital infor­ma­tion,” writes Jodi Har­ris at the Con­tent Mar­ket­ing Insti­tute (CMI).Whether it’s deliv­er­ing a vic­ar­i­ous behind-the-scenes expe­ri­ence at a spe­cial event or a friend­ly prod­uct tuto­r­i­al, videos play well across devices — an advan­tage that’s increas­ing­ly impor­tant in our mobile, mul­ti-device world. Video con­tent can also be designed to serve each stage of the buyer’s jour­ney, with edu­ca­tion at the begin­ning, explana­to­ry videos at the mid­dle and demos and tes­ti­mo­ni­als at the end of the sales process. As the mil­len­ni­al and Z gen­er­a­tions embrace live-stream­ing and social media plat­forms like Insta­gram and Snapchat, brands should present quick-hits and teas­er videos short­er than 30 sec­onds that start play­ing with­in the plat­form auto­mat­i­cal­ly.

Though it’s clear that brands need to devel­op more video exper­tise to cap­ture atten­tion, the CMI advis­es com­pa­nies to also devel­op a clear strat­e­gy and call-to-action to make the most of their video invest­ment.

Social media direct messaging could redefine customer experience.

As the use of social media mes­sag­ing plat­forms like Face­book Mes­sen­ger, What­sApp and WeChat grows expo­nen­tial­ly, the poten­tial for improv­ing cus­tomer expe­ri­ence also expands. Besides allow­ing cus­tomers to inter­act in a chan­nel where they feel most com­fort­able, direct mes­sag­ing enables com­pa­nies to pro­vide a high­er qual­i­ty of cus­tomer care and sup­port. For exam­ple, when a cus­tomer or prospect rais­es an issue on an open social media chan­nel, the com­pa­ny can take the con­ver­sa­tion “offline” through direct mes­sag­ing to pro­tect pri­va­cy and deal with sen­si­tive issues.

While mes­sag­ing start­ed as con­ver­sa­tions with friends and fam­i­ly, the num­ber of con­sumers now using direct mes­sag­ing to engage with brands is astound­ing. Accord­ing to Face­book sta­tis­tics, busi­ness­es now exchange more than 2 bil­lion mes­sages with con­sumers via Mes­sen­ger every month. More­over, Face­book research shows that 54.5 per­cent of US social media users pre­fer mes­sag­ing chan­nels over email, phone and online chat, and 67 per­cent plan to increase their mes­sag­ing with busi­ness­es over the next two years.

That said, it’s the com­bi­na­tion of mes­sag­ing plat­forms with chat­bots pow­ered by arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) that makes it pos­si­ble for brands to engage in more rel­e­vant, per­son­al­ized and help­ful cus­tomer con­ver­sa­tions at scale. The impor­tance of this social and con­ver­sa­tion­al com­merce hits home when you con­sid­er that dig­i­tal con­sumers now say they spend an aver­age of 2 hours and 15 min­utes a day on social net­works and mes­sag­ing — up 45 min­utes since 2012 — based on the lat­est research from Glob­al­We­bIndex.

Brands go all-in on mobile or get left behind.

The link between social and mobile is clear: 91 per­cent of social media users access social plat­forms via mobile devices, accord­ing to the “Dig­i­tal in 2017 Glob­al Overview Report” from We Are Social and Hoot­suite. Google’s own data shows that mobile search­es make up more than half of search­es on its search engine, and mobile-friend­ly sites show up high­er in search results. Fur­ther­more, vis­i­tors are five times as like­ly to leave a site that’s not mobile-friend­ly.

Con­sid­er­ing that these trends are like­ly on the rise, effec­tive mobile engage­ment strate­gies are crit­i­cal not only for social media mar­ket­ing but also for a brand’s over­all dig­i­tal expe­ri­ence; and while a major­i­ty of brands say their web­sites are “mobile respon­sive,” Google reports that many com­pa­nies are miss­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties because of poor mobile per­for­mance. Even though 53 per­cent of mobile site vis­its are aban­doned if pages take longer than three sec­onds to load, the aver­age load­ing time is 22 sec­onds, accord­ing to Think with Google.

Clear­ly, there’s more to mobile engage­ment than sim­ply mak­ing web­sites mobile respon­sive. For­tu­nate­ly, there’s plen­ty of good advice avail­able. For tech­ni­cal tips, I rec­om­mend Google’s Opti­miz­ing your web­site for mobile. For mobile con­tent, see Is Your Con­tent Ready for the Mobile Takeover? from CMI.

Customer-centric technology drives personalization and ROI.

Today, com­pa­nies are expect­ed to deliv­er high­ly tar­get­ed, per­son­al­ized con­tent at the speed of light. To achieve that, we need a 360-degree view of cus­tomer engage­ment across the entire jour­ney. Act­ing on this cus­tomer under­stand­ing is cen­tral to a suc­cess­ful dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy.

This requires cus­tomer-cen­tric ana­lyt­ics that reveal impor­tant insights about cus­tomer behav­ior. Some­times this means lis­ten­ing more and sell­ing less. Brands need to active­ly lis­ten to what buy­ers and cus­tomers are telling us across all chan­nels, from social to cus­tomer ser­vice and sales. That’s what it takes to engage with empa­thy and authen­tic­i­ty — qual­i­ties that are espe­cial­ly val­ued by younger gen­er­a­tions.

Dig­i­tal­ly mature brands are deploy­ing AI and machine learn­ing to dri­ve dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and oppor­tu­ni­ty. By using cus­tomer data such as dig­i­tal behav­ior and pur­chase his­to­ry, they’re able to make per­son­al­ized rec­om­men­da­tions. One cre­ative exam­ple cit­ed by Glob­al­We­bIndex involved an air­line that marked its 20th anniver­sary with a data-dri­ven email cam­paign high­light­ing each customer’s trav­el his­to­ry with the air­line, includ­ing sto­ries of their trav­els and ideas for where they might like to go next. By putting a per­son­al­ized focus on the cus­tomer rather than the com­pa­ny, this cam­paign drew open rates 100% high­er than their aver­age newslet­ter.

LinkedIn strengthens its position as most valuable channel for B2B.

With LinkedIn’s “all busi­ness all the time” focus, it’s the lead­ing social chan­nel for B2B mar­keters — 89 per­cent lever­age it over oth­er plat­forms, accord­ing to the 2017 State of B2B Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing report from Demand­Wave. That pref­er­ence is tied to results, with 62 per­cent using LinkedIn for lead gen­er­a­tion and 43 per­cent attribut­ing sales to the chan­nel.

Since Microsoft’s pur­chase of LinkedIn in 2016, mar­keters are see­ing stronger oppor­tu­ni­ties to reach the 40 mil­lion deci­sion mak­ers and 61 mil­lion senior-lev­el influ­encers that vis­it the site reg­u­lar­ly to find val­ued busi­ness con­tent and thought lead­er­ship. In addi­tion to plen­ty of free tools for build­ing brand aware­ness and pub­lish­ing con­tent, more mar­keters are invest­ing in LinkedIn spon­sored con­tent and InMail (LinkedIn’s direct dig­i­tal mail and mes­sag­ing plat­form), as well as dis­play and text ads. Most impor­tant, mar­keters can use LinkedIn Con­ver­sion Track­ing to mea­sure results and gain insight to guide tar­get­ing and audi­ence under­stand­ing, test­ing, con­tent strat­e­gy and more. LinkedIn also announced that in 2018 it will roll out new native video capa­bil­i­ties to all its 400 mil­lion users — a pub­lish­ing fea­ture cur­rent­ly restrict­ed to only LinkedIn influ­encers.

As I wrote in an ear­li­er post, LinkedIn is a key chan­nel as more com­pa­nies are encour­ag­ing employ­ees to advo­cate for their brands on social media. In fact, LinkedIn data shows that con­tent shared by employ­ees has two times the engage­ment rate of con­tent shared by a com­pa­ny. With this in mind, a “peo­ple-first” strat­e­gy will help dri­ve refer­ral traf­fic to a company’s con­tent and thought lead­er­ship. LinkedIn also helps sales peo­ple engage with prospects and build rela­tion­ships ear­ly on — an impor­tant fac­tor as For­rester Research indi­cates that 57 per­cent of the buyer’s jour­ney hap­pens before a sales rep is involved.

What trends do you see?

At a time of such change in social media and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, it’s tru­ly hard to stop with just five trends. What do you think? What do you see as the most impor­tant trends for your com­pa­ny? Please share your thoughts and ideas.