Digital Planning 2017: What Will and Won’t Get Prioritized Next Year

I just wrapped up a month long, focused effort to talk to smart digital marketers about what they will be prioritizing in the next year. The actual question was, “What will you be prioritizing (or investing in more) in 2017 to deliver better results for your company?”

I was looking to understand the day-to-day pressures of the folks right in the middle of the digital mix. I phrased the question in a broad way so I could see what topics came up, unprompted. I didn’t talk to corporate strategists, CEOs, CMOs, etc. I was looking for a straight shot of reality from the folks in the middle, the ones tasked with leading the company into the future while delivering results today.

Being a digital leader today is a tough gig. The C-level of most organizations have given their digital teams a clear mandate to position the companies for the future, but the reality of getting the job done today means navigating through an explosion of executional options, groupthink, hype and fear. In addition, digital leaders are doing it with with teams that are literally figuring it out as they go while using tools that are, at best, barely mature.

While the landscape keeps changing around us, the priorities of the Vice Presidents, Directors and Sr. Managers of Digital in 2017 will seem pretty familiar to anyone that’s been doing digital marketing for more than 3 years. Here’s what they’re dealing with:

  • Improving the overall user experience —These folks, almost to a person, made it clear that improving the overall user experience is the first and most important priority. So they are focusing on simplifying and streamlining interactions while providing better experiences in new and emerging channels. I heard the phrase “user journey mapping” or some variant in almost every one of the conversations.
  • The content struggle is (still) real — Almost all the marketers mentioned content as a major focus. It’s clear that content is working hard for brands. However, while the “content marketing” era is more than 5 years old, we’re still figuring out how to produce it, how to get it distributed, how to measure its effectiveness and how to make it great.
  • Data deluge — Almost all the marketers are trying to do a better job of making insights out of their data. They are challenged by the effort to collect the data, integrate it, analyze it, report it and do all that consistently and efficiently.
  • Talent — Finding and nurturing the right talent has been and will be a perennial issue. They are trying to decide what to insource, what to outsource and where to build strategic partnerships to get the talent they need.
  • Figuring out what’s really working —On one hand, the tools to measure the effectiveness of individual efforts are developing and becoming more useful and trusted. But, overall, it’s still hard to measure the effectiveness of the elements of integrated efforts. Marketing mix modeling for digital is still a challenge.
  • Influencing the Boss — Leadership is more fluent in digital than ever. That’s good news. But, they are more interested than ever in making a difference via digital and to demonstrate their leadership. So, they are trying to get their hands on the wheel. That makes it hard for the folks I talked to — Directors, VPs, Sr. Managers and agency folks — to keep everyone focused on doing the right things at the right time and, honestly, to avoid chasing “shiny objects”.

The challenges listed above are noteworthy in the sense that they are, mostly, timeless. That is, these could have been the priorities in 2012, 2015, or, for that matter, 2005. They signal how digital has now become mainstream and required to “run the business” (as opposed to “drive innovation” or “drive strategic differentiation”).

Also noteworthy was what I didn’t hear, but thought I would:

  • “We’re developing a formal experimentation plan to deliver more impact from experimentation” — No one mentioned they’d be experimenting more in 2017. Maybe it’s because the pace of innovation in the industry is forcing teams to experiment or perhaps it’s because the results for the current experimentation programs are fine, but no one called out a heavier investment in experimentation.
  • “We’re accelerating our digital transformation program” — No one mentioned any major changes in their digital transformation program. As a matter of fact, only a few people even acknowledged they’ve got a formal transformation program. Again, this result could be due to the way I lead the discussion or it might be due to the roles played by my colleagues. But, given the strategic opportunities available right now, I anticipated more of an explicit focus on each company’s transformation efforts.
  • “We’re stepping up our innovation focus” — Closely related to the experimentation topic, no one called out focused efforts at driving faster, better innovation. A few of the people I talked to recognized the fact that the leadership of the company assumed digital was the organization’s innovation effort.
  • “We’re going to figure out content, once and for all” — Given the urgency and focus my informal focus group is putting on content, I would have expected a clearer, more explicit commitment to figuring out their content program. Marketers should be developing a comprehensive program that cuts across groups, includes strategies (business, production and editorial), critical capabilities, data/tracking and distribution partnerships.

Digital marketers are in a critical position as we get ready to turn the corner into 2017. They need to deliver results today, guide their organizations through the minefield of potentially distracting new tools and tech, and still keep the senior leadership focused on longer-term strategic and innovation opportunities.

Coming soon: Some recommendations on 2017

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