4 Surprising Words That Should Define Your Digital Strategy in 2017

Let's get back to putting the consumer first

Headshot of Gemma Milne

The tree-decorating selfies have inundated Instagram, you're receiving multiple festive discount emails each day, and you're already having flashbacks to office holiday parties from years past.

Gemma Milne

That's right, it's the end of the year for marketers, and that means it's time to look ahead to what trends, obstacles and issues we can expect in the coming year.

Instead of pointing you to some of the more popular acronyms of late—IOT, OTT, VR, AR, AI, etc.—I've instead boiled it down to four deceptively simple words that should help you focus your digital strategy in 2017.

1. Offline

It's safe to say we are pretty aware now of the echo chamber nature of social media. We are existing only within the communities we have built around ourselves and hearing only the side of the story that fits our own narrative.

In our post-truth Trump-Brexit world, more must be done to ensure messages are reaching the right people and going beyond the limitations of our self-imposed digital tribalism.

In 2017, brands should use digital channels to facilitate actual human interaction, and build trust away from the volatility of the web—in other words, offline. "On-the-ground" communications that foster diverse communities and conversations will ensure that real messages focusing on real issues are heard by real people.

2. Unobtrusive

The idea that consumers are fed up with marketers demanding data and invading their private spaces is nothing new. But with 2016 seeing many large-scale cyberattacks—notably the hacks of LinkedIn, Tesco Bank, Yahoo and the Dyn IOT attack (which shut down Twitter, Spotify and The New York Times, to name but a few)—cybersecurity has become a topic of conversation at the dinner table rather than a subject reserved for pundits at conferences.

Consumers do understand the need for and opportunity in data sharing, but brands would do well in 2017 to set themselves apart by opening the conversation about how they are handling their customers' data. Even better, brands could set themselves apart by not being obtrusive at all. Setting consumers' minds at ease by not collecting anything—and focusing on what you have to offer your customers rather than on what they have to offer you—could very well be the winning approach to trust.

3. Helpful

In 2016, some of the "simple" wants people have had since the dawn of the internet have finally come into being.

Here in the U.K., my home base, we saw this with the Echo Healthcare app allowing NHS prescriptions to be ordered via mobile and delivered to your door, along with startup bank Monzo being awarded a banking license allowing customers to easily manage their money, freeze their cards and spend money abroad. And we've seen Amazon Go potentially redefine one of our most basic shopping needs with its simplification of the supermarket.

In 2016, health, finance and retail finally joined the world in which digital is used to make large-scale elements of society much smoother.

In 2017, the expectation consumers will have for brands to deliver simple, helpful services will only go up. With so much talk of bots being the next big marketing trend (see here, here and here), we must be careful not to run before we can walk.

If we are only now starting to see cashierless shopping (something that surely shouldn't have taken this long), can we really expect AI-powered chat apps that allow consumers to interact directly with a brand to take off at scale? There are simpler things that people actually want, and 2017 should be the year brands focus on making them a reality and really help their consumers instead of jumping on the next "me too" trend to make PR headlines.

4. Polarizing

It's a divided world, and not every brand can please everyone in it. Now is the time to prove your brand's beliefs and take a stand on important issues, even if that opens you up to the possibility of reprisals and boycotts.

With the Sleeping Giants Twitter account calling out brands whose advertising appears on the alt-right (read: racist, sexist, every-other-ist) website Breitbart, and the Stop Funding Hate campaign successfully pressuring Lego to halt ads in the Daily Mail, accountability in media spending is becoming a hot topic for the public.

Marketers really do have the power to shape conversation through media spend, so 2017 should be the year that brands invest more strategic thinking in their channel choices. Will this be the year that placing ads in fair publications, and with those who don't flaunt such questionable morals, overtakes number of clicks on brand strategists' priority lists?

The coming year is shaping up to be one of of continued change, unexpected shifts in (or, maybe more appropriately, realizations about) consumer mindsets, and exponential technological growth. So brands would do well to keep their collective ear to the ground, re-evaluate how they act upon their  values and really take note of what role their organization will play in this brave new world.

Gemma Milne (@gkmilne1) is a London-based freelance tech journalist, former tech innovation strategist for Ogilvy & Mather and co-founder of Science: Disrupt.

@gemmamilne Gemma Milne is a science and technology writer based in London.