A tech and marketing leader who I sadly can’t reference due to her account being private made some very prescient, very on the nose predictions regarding the future of digital marketing. There’s a reason I put “digital marketing” in quotes in the context that I’m using it in, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that later.
I need to sit down and write a blog post about how digital marketing is fucked as we know it. Dead man walking. Buggy whip dead. Start retraining dead.
SEM is already fucked. Performance marketing is a scam. Social media is FUBAR. AI will kill SEO. Privacy legislation is whacking at analytics off the site. We are back to brand spend, plus content marketing for B2B. PR remains so long as relationships with media matter.
I see a lot of agencies out of business in the next few years. Like a whole lot of them.
The good news is that nothing replaces having a great product, understanding and deeply caring about the people buying it, and infinite reserves of creativity, curiosity, and adaptability.
Frankly I find the prospect incredibly exciting. The scam in ad tech and social media was a blight along with the growth hacking mentality. Returning to what matters could actually make marketing fun again.
Within change lies opportunity beyond measure. This is the silicon valley ethos at its best. Stay too long at the dying thing because you are a highly paid expert, and you are history along with it. Just ask the cell phone engineers at Motorola when Google bought them.
I cannot shake my gut feeling that everything we know about how to do marketing *on the internet* is changing and in a few years the profession will be unrecognizable to most of us.
How We Got Here
A lot of people commonly associate the rise of digital marketing as a widespread industry with the late 2000s and early 2010s as “Web 2.0” for lack of a better term effectively became the mainstream Internet, but it’s not a new phenomenon. The term was first coined in the 1990s when advertising companies sensed an opportunity to reach people using nascent genres of widespread websites. The first clickable banner ad was the “You Will” campaign by AT&T in 1994. In a curious precursor to political Internet campaigns, both the Bill Clinton and Bob Dole campaigns had official websites – a first for presidential elections.
The 2000s saw the growth of digital marketing as increasing adoption of the Internet on a mass scale and the production of laptops, tablets and smartphones laid the groundwork for the explosion to come. Further democratization of the Internet meant that people were able to build platforms without necessarily needing to know how to code. Of particular note it became far easier to use the Internet to start new companies and businesses.
The crash of 2008 obliterated job security and for many people a future, sparking an interest in entrepreneurship as people reevaluated and reconsidered their careers in an eerily similar way that COVID-19 is doing now. The time was ripe for a subsequent flood of thinkpieces that the Internet was a “great equalizer” where you didn’t need much money to start a business. While this wasn’t really true, especially if you were opening a fitness studio or a restaurant, certain types of businesses did have (and still have) a very low upfront cost. “Advice”-based businesses, including digital marketing, were absolutely one of these categories.
The 2010s saw what’s been described as an “explosion” of new digital marketing companies in the United States and across the world. And oh boy, was it ever. This wasn’t just at the enterprise-level either; many people with zero prior experience or knowledge in marketing started marketing companies at the small business or startup level. People parlayed their tangentially related experience in prior jobs as “digital marketing experience” – and why not? Most people aren’t going to question it. One of the most common strategies at the time was for young Millennials to frame their youth as something that meant they intricately understood social media marketing – which, by the way, was exactly what I did at 22.
To be blunt you could be a total moron and make a pretty comfortable living running a digital marketing firm in the 2010s. Based on my own interactions with marketing firms as a now outsider many of those people are still in the industry.
Any talented marketer, much like the one I’ve quoted, will tell you about the importance of “Having a great product, understanding and deeply caring about the people buying it, and infinite reserves of creativity, curiosity, and adaptability.”
A lot of these digital marketers barely pay attention to wisdom like this because they’re usually just thinking about how to get featured on Forbes Best Marketers lists or be invited to speaker conferences. They usually treat digital marketing as a weird pseudo-influencer career, where the emphasis isn’t actually on working as much as appearing on stages, misinterpreting Alec Baldwin’s speech in Glengarry Glen Ross writing LinkedIn posts about how you should be working 100 hour weeks, and carefully staged photo ops of your office dogs. Because relatability or something.
I’ve said in the past that marketing boils down to whether or not you can tangibly make or save money, but most of these people would never pay attention to that either. In fact, I think it would actually offend them.
Peter Shankman, another marketing luminary who I actually can reference, called this all the way back in 2011 when you could sign clients just by having “Digital Marketing” in your company name.
“It’s not about building a website anymore! It’s so much cooler! It’s about Facebook, and fans, and followers, and engagement, and influence, and…” Will you please shut up before you make me vomit on your shoes? IT’S ABOUT GENERATING REVENUE THROUGH SOLID MARKETING AND STELLAR CUSTOMER SERVICE, JUST LIKE IT’S BEEN SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME.”
The former is the mindset which is why I put “digital marketing companies” in quotes. Actually making money is often treated as something offensive or lacking vision to a lot of these people. Instead it was just about engagement, ROI, and followers! The money comes in regardless, right? Well, given the high failure of marketing agencies in general I would say the answer to that is no. Another gem from Peter’s article:
We’re making the same mistakes that we made during the dotcom era, where everyone thought that just adding the term .com to your corporate logo made you instantly credible. It didn’t. If that’s all you did, you emphasized even more strongly how pathetic your company was. You weren’t “building a new paradigm while shifting alternate ways of focusing customers on the clicks and mortar of an organizational exchange.” No, you were simply a freaking idiot who’d be out of business in six months.
The most incredible part is we’re seeing this same weirdly hilarious cycle play out in the 2020s with the rise of “Web3” and “metaverse” companies but that’s a conversation for another time.
The only thing Peter may have been inaccurate about is being out of business in six months given how long a lot of these companies have lasted despite many of them burning hot and burning out just as quickly. Except eventually clients are going to notice that they can’t tie any of the money they’re making (if they’re making money) to you. There’s a reason why a lot of marketing agencies suffered downturns during the onset of COVID-19.
A frightening number of digital marketing companies don’t really address their clients’ needs but offer a set of tools straight out of 2011 as though nothing has changed. They’re still pumping out Facebook updates that barely 10% of your audience will see and farting out cookie cutter blog posts for “SEO” that have all the substance of a wet noodle.
With the age of 2010s digital marketing firmly in the rearview mirror, markets cooling and COVID-19 having set off a scourge of cost-cutting measures, we arrive full circle to where we are now, in the forthcoming digital marketing winter the marketer I quoted earlier alluded to. So let’s analyze the specific items that marketer listed and see what their present status is when it comes to the umbrella of digital marketing.
SEM (Search Engine Marketing)
So although people often use the two terms interchangeably, SEM and SEO are two different things. SEO focuses on getting traffic from organic search while SEM focuses on getting traffic from paid search.
Part of why I spend so little time on SEM for small business clients is that it’s a complete mess right now. Most small businesses see search engine marketing as a way to draw awareness to their brand without the arduous grind that is organic search engine marketing (but don’t worry, we’ll get to that). Unless you have a very substantial budget to allocate you’re just not going to make a dent on visibility when it comes to ad spend. The irony, of course, being that a lack of money – meaning a lack of budget to allocate – is the problem with many of these businesses in the first place.
SEM is quickly becoming an environment where you need to have lots of money in order to make lots of money. So the idea that paid search is some kind of equalizer that puts smaller businesses on par with bigger companies hasn’t been true for a long time.
The weird part is that Google understands its bigger issue, namely that organic results gets hundreds of clicks for every click on advertisements. Which is why you have Google now watering down the previously unique appearance of advertisements to make them look more like organic results. Sure, they’ll backtrack and have done so before – but this is clearly testing the waters. Ad spending is a Google cash cow and they’re going to see how they can get more people to click on ads.
So on some level SEM marketing would make sense strictly from a business perspective except for the crowding, saturation and massive ad-buy in needed to make an impact.
Performance marketing is defined as advertisers paying marketing companies for achieved results, such as clicks. This one is harder to gauge for me because I don’t do much with it, but performance-based marketing is in serious trouble given how hard analytics tracking is. There’s also an incentive to fudge data in order to meet certain thresholds. In a worst case scenario marketing companies will – knowingly or not – inflate their data in order to keep hitting goals.
There’s plenty of prior for this; Facebook itself has notably been busted during the infamous “pivot to video” saga for inflating data by hundreds of percentage point. So paying based on results may work for a while until you realize you’re paying for clicks that aren’t resulting in revenue or sales.
Social Media Marketing
Let’s be real: Unless you’re a very visible brand with an established following or a highly visual and engaging business like a restaurant, dedicated social media marketing is a waste of time right now.
Logging into Facebook in 2023 is depressing. Even if it’s highly curated your timeline is a flood of dead memes, random lifestyle articles, and occasional posts by actual people. Instagram is marginally better for small businesses but risks a lot of the same issues as Instagram is quickly turning into Facebook But Photos. Facebook itself is extremely difficult to build an audience on, especially when your posts reach barely 10% of your audience and are usually buried under a flood of other posts.
Twitter, contrary to what its current CEO might think, doesn’t drive clicks. I’ve personally discontinued Twitter for all of my clients because it’s impossible to get noticed or be visible among all the noise and toxicity that the blue bird app is known for. TikTok, despite its popularity, is really only good for branding deals and videos that happen to go viral. LinkedIn can be solid for B2B companies but isn’t really where people go to connect with businesses in my experience.
The idea of social media marketing included a lot of lofty promises about how “every business has a story to tell” and “your customers want to hear from you.” The glamour on that has largely faded, because really, customers want one thing: To patronize your business. You’re a business, not their best friend. With some exceptions customer behavior just doesn’t line up with the idea that customers are interested in your “story.” At least not when that “story” involves a piss ton of work to tell and most business owners have a million other things to do.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
I’ve already given SEO a good beatdown, but hey, let’s do another one.
The fact is that small businesses are effectively being priced both in terms of time and money out of organic Google SEO campaigns. The current state of Google is one wherein you need either lots of time to personally invest in “boosting” your search engines, or lots of money to hire qualified people. No matter how successful you are a smaller company, bigger companies are always going to have more of both of those things with some very rare exceptions.
Bigger companies will always have more money and resources. They’ll almost always have more people to hire. They’ll have the more to hire people to run these campaigns effectively, they’ll have internal employees for whom it can be part of their job, and they can be the ones who coordinate with external agencies rather than business owners or other employees who always have something else on their plates.
SEO has essentially turned into a haves and have-nots systems. Yes, you can make it work, but the cost in either time or money is massive, and it’s not guaranteed to work.
I still remember the early, heady marketing days when you could see how many search keywords customers used to get to your website. Around 2013, when the Edward Snowden leaks happened, was when things started changing. These days, traffic is so heavily encrypted that it’s impossible to know where your traffic is coming from. So analytics doesn’t necessarily have the data it used to. This is definitely going to impact marketing in a way that this marketer suggested.
Before I get any angry E-mails, let me reiterate that Google Analytics is still an invaluable tool and something I personally use. That being said, Google, fix your spam problem. Spambots are rampant and unless you filter out traffic manually or using a plugin you may wind up having thousands of bot visitors from shady referral URLs.
I find myself agreeing with this marketer that despite the apparent demise of how “digital marketing” is done, it’s not even really that much of a bad thing. There will be still be plenty of ways for small businesses to promote themselves, especially in a COVID-era where customers have truly rallied together to support smaller businesses as best they can.
Because the fact is that a lot of these marketing firms were just chasing trends and then selling those trends to clients as a false bill of goods. Social media, SEO, analytics, everything I mentioned can be done either if you think it will work for your client, or just done as a trend because everyone else is doing it.
It’s why so many of these trends burn out so quickly. Companies develop these six month obsessions with mobile app marketing, the notorious pivot to video, Web3, crypto, Pinterest marketing, the list is long and I’ve detailed it many times on this very website.
Like the marketer says, the prospect is actually quite invigorating. Not just because I won’t have to warn clients about clueless companies selling something they don’t understand but also because it will let us get back to basics. To reiterate what she said:
“The good news is that nothing replaces having a great product, understanding and deeply caring about the people buying it, and infinite reserves of creativity, curiosity, and adaptability. Frankly I find the prospect incredibly exciting. The scam in ad tech and social media was a blight along with the growth hacking mentality. Returning to what matters could actually make marketing fun again. Within change lies opportunity beyond measure.”