It's been a year of memorable wins and innovation in the digital space, but struggle and malice have also tainted the scene. Here are the nine trends we'll remember from 2016.
Snapchat Came of Age
Adweek's hottest digital brand of 2016 gets 10 billion-plus daily video views and has been transforming into a TV disrupter. This summer, the company inked deals with NBC, ESPN and CNN to create shows for the app.
The app's revenue this year will reach nearly $366.7 million before skyrocketing 155 percent year over year to $935.5 million in 2017, per eMarketer's forecasts. The tremendous ad growth can be attributed to the recent implementation of its Snapchat Partners ads API, which has marketers practically salivating at the possibilities.
"Snapchat is communicating with the right person at the right time with the right message, and it has the added bonus of reach," said Brendon Rhoten, vp, head of advertising, media and digital marketing director at Wendy's.
Snapchat's initial public offering is expected in Q1 2017, and it will be fascinating to see if parent Snap Inc.'s Spectacles take off. The devices, which went on sale one month ago in a limited fashion, are souped-up sunglasses that record video, thanks to an integrated camera, from the wearer's eye-level perspective. Interestingly, the Venice, Calif.-based company so far has been selling the Spectacles solely via high-tech ending machines called SnapBots.
Everyone Looked to AI
In June, IBM announced Watson Ads that let consumers ask questions by voice or text and receive answers. That's when Big Blue's ownership of The Weather Company's digital properties came into play: Watson Ads have been appearing on Weather.com, the Weather mobile app and the company's data-driven WeatherFX platform. Campbell Soup Company, Unilever and GSK Consumer Healthcare were some of the launch brands running the ads.
The Armonk, N.Y.-based company's buzzy revelation underscored how ad-tech players across the world were suddenly touting artificial-intelligence capabilities. By 2020, the market for machine-learning applications will reach $40 billion, IDC recently estimated, and everyone had a pitch this year. Startups like Veritone, Adgorithms, Refuel4 and Omnity have been hatched to try to grab a piece of this enormous, emerging realm.
"Venture capitalists are pouring money into AI startups," KBS Ventures partner Jessica Peltz told Adweek earlier this fall. "So these are companies that are now starting to launch products, scale their sales and marketing teams and generate more meaningful revenue."
— Brian Roemmele (@BrianRoemmele) November 9, 2016
Livestreaming Was the Shiny, Bright Object
It's been a little more than a year since Facebook debuted live video, and since then everyone from Martha Stewart and Bill Nye to McDonald's and Lowe's has used the feature to push their respective messages.
The live-video movement was started by Meerkat and Twitter-owned Periscope, but nowadays there's Tumblr, AOL-owned Kanvas, YouTube Live, Ustream, YouNow, Hang w/ and Instagram. And Twitter is expected to soon debut a native livestreaming feature for its platform.
"The world is obsessed with video, especially with live video—and that's not going to end soon," remarked Chris Innes, chief monetization officer at ad-tech player SteelHouse. "What interests me is how advertisers are going to leverage vertical video for everyday advertisers. I anticipate that we'll see some interesting platforms—platforms focused on the full campaign and platforms solely focused on creative—develop over the next year."
— Firebrand Talent (@FirebrandTalent) April 29, 2016
Facebook on Fire, Under Fire
The digital media giant generated $18.5 billion during 2016's first three quarters, up from full-year 2015's $17.9 billion, making it once again one of the world's most profitable players. The company expanded features to include livestreaming for Facebook and Instagram's apps, and it's planning to use drones to bring internet service to the world's underserved regions.
Mobile Ads lift Facebook to new highs. Facebook's exploding ad revenue sends earnings soaring past estimates https://t.co/PrQq0XmL9P
— ConquistadorVentures (@conquistadorllc) July 28, 2016
But the past 12 months haven't all been a bed of roses for the network. For instance, Facebook had an ad scandal, inflating video metrics, that spiraled into a storm of questions from marketers about the data gleaned from their campaigns. The brouhaha included a request from the Association of National Advertisers in September, asking Facebook to audit and accredit its metrics. And just last week, Facebook admitted for the third time since early fall that it has misled brands—it revealed it has been miscalculating the number of likes and shares it shows for web links via its API, or application programming interface. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has also been misrepresenting the number of likes and reaction emojis marketers see for their live videos.
"Facebook is now one of the top sources [from which] consumers get their news, make purchases, and turn to for entertainment," said Rowan Kelshaw, managing director of The Luxury Network. "As a result, the platform is both on fire and under fire. It's on fire because it is the ideal place to use digital marketing to reach very targeted audiences. However, if a campaign is not executed correctly, the consumer can feel overly marketed to and be turned off from the brand."
It has also taken flack for the abundance of fake news articles piped through news feeds that favored President-elect Donald Trump during the election. "When we asked the top social media experts about the trends they expect to see next year," said Todd Grossman, CEO of Talkwalker, "the fight back against fake news was something they believed would be particularly important."
Now, We All Are Taking Hackers Seriously
The reported Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential election has dominated news this week, as the topic of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's stolen emails is still alive more than a month after GOP nominee Trump took the White House. It's been that kind of year, when cyber security has been on the front burner of American discussion.
Marketers should take note from these instances, said Kelshaw. "Imagine if hackers released information to the public regarding brand revenue, product margins, executive salaries/bonuses or trade secrets?" he proposed. "While the goal of advertising is to make the consumer feel included, the brand always wants to maintain a sense of privacy. Similarly, social media has allowed each consumer to act as their own 'hacker,' sharing whatever information they like, true or false. Brands have to be aware of how they are perceived and how their online campaigns will be perceived."
What's more, on Oct. 21, a bevy of digital platforms such as Twitter, Spotify, Pinterest, Shopify, Etsy, Reddit, Airbnb, The New York Times and The Boston Globe were hacked, causing long outages. Publishers may need to work together, in some capacity, so things don't get even worse.
Dark Side of the Meme
The movement known as the so-called "alt-right," which many of its members practice blatant racism, sexism and anti-semitism, became a political force in the election. Its members often employed memes to troll and intimidate liberals—and often folks simply perceived as liberals—while obfuscating online political narratives.
— AMERIOPA (@AMERIOPA) December 9, 2016
Their tactics include fear-mongering, name-calling, distraction and misinformation. And they use images of cuddly cats, Pepe the Frog and other meme-friendly characters to make their messages more consumable. Such content has often been seen in Breitbart.com's comments section as well as on 4chan. The movement is essentially a new strain of online bullying, which has been going on since the internet became popular in the 1990s.
"Compared to traditional media and even online media and blogs, it's much harder to stop things like bullying and abuse from spreading on social media," Grossman said. "Of course, there is a freedom-of-speech element to keep in mind, which makes it all the more difficult to police. It's a big issue for social networks, but, as it has the potential to do serious damage, we expect to see more efforts to tackle these issues next year."
Twitter's Mixed Bag
A few months ago, Twitter reportedly was in potential sell-off talks with Disney, Alphabet, Microsoft and Salesforce, but nothing came together for the micro-blogging platform and its suitors. And while the company's revenue has increased double-digit percentages year-over-year, its user rate has only grown modestly, frustrating Wall Street investors.
Periscope, Twitter's livestreaming app, seems to be losing much of its established ground to Facebook Live (though Twitter is expected to soon release its own dedicated live video feature). It also has a continuous problem with trolls that upset many of its 313 million monthly users, but it's worked at cleaning up the news feed in recent months.
— Romona Foster (@AdTechConsults) October 21, 2016
Twitter's TV partnerships, meanwhile, have provided a shining light during 2016—it's working with the National Football League, MLB Advanced Media, the National Basketball Association, Pac-12 Networks, Campus Insiders, Bloomberg News and the business news start-up Cheddar. Whether the San Francisco social company can significantly monetize such relationships will probably determine its future during the next two years.
Ad Blockers Became a Bit (Just a Bit) Less Frightening
Ad blockers scared the bejeezus out of publishers in 2015, and generally that's still the case—but there were a few rays of hope this year. In June, a high court in Germany ruled that AdBlock Plus could charge publisher Axel Spring to have its ads seen by AdBlock Plus users.
— Kathy GreenlerSexton (@KGSexton) July 22, 2016
And Facebook is successfully fighting the ad blockers by going around them, boosting the digital giant's revenues by 18 percent in the third quarter. Other publishers that are steadfastly grappling with ad blockers include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
But the melee may turn into a forever war, and it will almost certainly rear its ugly head in 2017. KPMG's recent survey of 2,000 Britons found that half of them expect to download ad blockers in the next six months.
Branded Podcasts Helped Native Ads Grow
If you are in marketing, by now you've heard of MailChimp's incredible native advertising win by sponsoring Serial's first season two years ago. Produced by WBEZ, a NPR affiliate in Chicago, the show was listened to nationally and downloaded 68 million times.
The momentum keeps on building, as NPR forecasts that podcasts will account for 35 percent of its ad sales in '16, representing a 17 percent year-over-year lift. The organization's podcasts like PlanetMoney, How I Built This, and Code Switch are attracting digital-minded marketers for brands such as Squarespace, Emma and StitchFix who then get schooled on traditional-media reach.
Meanwhile, eBay, General Electric, Netflix and State Farm started betting on audio shows as the next great opportunity for customer engagement. Are podcasts the new branded blogs? Could be.
ESPN recently announced that it would launch dedicated podcasts in the style of its award-winning "30 for 30" sports documentary franchise. And the Interactive Advertising Bureau this fall delivered a two-day upfront for podcasters—the first event of its kind.
ESPN 30 for 30 podcasts sound super lit.
— JHerTe (@JHerTe) July 8, 2016
At the same time, some ad buyers like Josh Pierry, CEO of digital marketing agency Pierry Inc., would like to see a little more evidence. From his point of view, he said, there's a problem in that "branded podcasts are just helping to [further] fragment the marketing landscape."