The Top Marketing Trends: Automation and AI Are the “New Normal”

Marketing has always been a fast-paced industry, with the pace quickened constantly by readily available and rapidly developing technology. But the COVID-19 pandemic and its worldwide impact was, arguably, the most disruptive force that marketers have seen in a long time.

As we move beyond the pandemic, we can expect to see a continuation of some of the trends that were taking shape before COVID-19 and many more that have been fueled by COVID-19.

There is some interesting consistency in what marketing experts are seeing in the trends and technologies likely to impact their lines of business in 2020 and 2021. Topping the list are the increasing use of chatbots, a focus on voice search engine optimization (VSEO) and technologies augmented with artificial intelligence (AI). A couple of runners-up include the continued popularity of podcasts and video.

Increasing Use of Chatbots

“Conversational technologies, including business messengers and chatbots, are one of the most important technologies businesses can use during COVID-19 and beyond when it comes to supporting customers and sales and marketing efforts,” says Shane Murphy-Reuter, senior vice president of marketing at Intercom, a conversational relationship platform provider.

These tools increase the efficiency of support, sales, and marketing teams and enable businesses to connect with customers and prospects online at scale, he says. “The trend of conversational technologies will allow businesses to continue to drive sales, meet marketing goals, and deliver great customer support, all with the scale and efficiency needed in a time of economic uncertainty.”

COVID-19 has propelled businesses of all kinds to shift their operations to more of an online focus almost overnight. The need to maintain customer relationships and scale operations is critical right now and likely to remain so for some time. “Specifically for marketers, business messengers delivering personal, contextual, and real-time communication to website visitors or customers and are a key component to every marketing strategy, from website optimization to [account-based marketing],” Murphy-Reuter says.

Chatbots, of course, existed long before the pandemic began. Facebook introduced its Messenger bot platform in 2016. But after a sharp initial uptick in adoption, they’ve somewhat languished, according to research from CB Insights. They’re making a comeback now, though, as businesses frantically try to find cost-effective ways of engaging with customers and consumers with remote staff and limited operations. In addition to the COVID-19 impact, lessons learned and improving technologies are likely to drive an upsurge in both marketers’ interest and consumer use.

Focus on Voice Search Engine Optimization

Another tech-driven engagement trend over the past few years, voice search engine optimization (VSEO), also is predicted to increase, driven by consumers’ use of voice search via their smartphones and devices like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.

“The biggest trend in marketing in 2020 and beyond is definitely voice search,” says Dennis Vu, CEO and co-founder of Ringblaze, a business phone system for sales and support collaboration. “With so many people using their phones for voice searches, long-tail keywords are gaining in popularity. Businesses that optimize their content for terms used in voice search will have an upper hand in the months and years to come,” Vu says.

This is particularly important, he says, because consumers tend to use voice search to find immediate solutions to their needs—like a local shop or business. “COVID-19 has only confirmed this belief because, at the moment, it seems like e-commerce stores are one of the few industries thriving in this new business environment.”

Phil Strazzulla, CEO and founder of Select Software Reviews, agrees. “Some forward-thinking retailers have started to create fully voice-enabled marketplaces online that let customers not only search their entire catalog but place orders with voice commands as well,” he says.

As the amount of data associated with voice search grows, he predicts, “we’re also going to continue to see a high level of personalization happening in voice search.”

Growing Use of Artificial Intelligence  

Massive data will also fuel another predicted trend—growth in reliance on AI.

AI, the ability for technology to actually learn and improve or “become smarter” through machine learning, has been predicted to fuel various industries for some time now, but its promise has yet to be fully realized. In the marketing arena, experts are still predicting its increased use and potential benefit.

“With advanced analytics helping to decipher customer segments, machine learning can prescribe what to do next based on the data, look for sizable segments that warrant action, then act and improve the customer experience,” says Julie Bustos, senior vice president of marketing at the Lacek Group, a data-driven communications firm. “Numerous interaction touchpoints provide ample opportunity to aggregate and analyze existing data to ensure customer needs are at the forefront and that this is a two-way relationship built on value exchange,” she says.

AI can be used both from an analytics perspective and as a means to fuel other emerging trends, like chatbots and voice search. It holds promise to increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of both strategic and operational marketing activities.

Increase in SMS/Texting 

The rise in smartphone usage has not gone unnoticed by marketers, so it is no surprise that businesses are increasingly turning to short message service (SMS) to connect quickly with consumers. And going forward, that trend is only predicted to rise, according to experts. It has a way to go to achieve critical mass, though.

In its “The Inside Look at Mobile Marketing” report, Iterable argued that “despite texting’s integral role in consumers’ daily mobile usage, only 8 percent of all mobile messages were SMS, and 80 percent of companies did not deploy SMS messages at all.”

Interestingly, consumer use of texting is sky-high. Research from Zipwhip, a business texting solution provider, found that 77 percent of consumers use texting more than other messaging tools, and 80 percent of consumers want businesses to offer the option to text them. The coronavirus just accelerated this trend, according to Zipwhip’s chief marketing officer, Scott Heimes. “The virus is accelerating digital transformation and setting the tone for texting to become the primary method of marketing and communications for 2020 and beyond,” he says.

Heimes holds out the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services as an organization that has used text messaging effectively to connect with its audience. Alaska’s population is largely rural and very dispersed, and texts have been used to rapidly deploy surveys and to share nightly press briefings, he says.

“The pandemic has brought into focus the need for businesses to reach their customers directly, whether it is to share an emergency alert, retain a customer base that can no longer visit in person, or provide a new product or service that would be of help during these unsettling times,” Heimes says.

Podcast and Video Popularity to Continue  

Two other areas expected to see continued growth in 2020 and 2021 are podcasts and video.

“One of the hottest marketing trends, with a technology element, is the podcast,” says Kent Lewis, president and founder of Anvil, a search engine marketing agency. “This is particularly relevant in a post-COVID world, as remote working is the new norm,” he says.

Lewis, who has been producing podcasts for several years, says, “We’ve learned a good deal as we’ve built out additional podcast strategies for ourselves and our clients.” In terms of best practices, he recommends the following:

  • Start small. Basic equipment is very inexpensive and can be upgraded as marketers build audience.
  • Market aggressively. He recommends optimizing podcasts to rank in related searches, syndicating across podcast channels like iTunes, Stitcher, and Sound Cloud, and buying targeted advertising on podcast networks, Google, and social platforms.

Similarly, video will continue to resonate with consumers and marketers in 2020 and beyond, says Arti Bedi Pullins, founder and CEO of Pundit Consultantz, a healthcare innovation and creative services design agency. “Video content, which was already rising pre-COVID, will become the new email communication for marketers,” Pullins says.

Companies like Spotify, Red Lobster, Target, and P&G might have cut back on traditional advertising avenues during the pandemic, but Pullins predicts that “their trajectory into utilization of video and personalized content will see a V-shaped growth trajectory over these next nine to 36 months.”

COVID-19 is forcing marketers and others to think differently about how they operate and how they connect with key audiences. The forced experiment is both accelerating the use of newer technologies and spurring marketers to take a new look at how they might use existing technologies more effectively.

In many regards, the trends predicted by marketing experts serve to fuel a mandate for self-service as consumers turn to their devices to find answers, products, services, and support. 

What would you add to the list as 2021 looms?

(This article first appeared in destination CRM.)

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