What Will Brand Engagement Look Like in 2020?

This article was originally published on Inc.

When it comes to brand engagement, 5 years will seem like a lifetime.

If you can remember the day Steve Jobs first showed the iPad to the world you can appreciate how profoundly digital culture can change in 5 years. People entering the workforce now don’t remember a time when they could stroll to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee without the ability to tweet from the palm of their hand.

But in 2020, you’ll look back on the digital culture of today and shake your head too. We’ll especially chuckle at brands’ understanding of digital marketing in 2015, and how far it has progressed. “Did it really used to be so clunky?,” we’ll ask. “Did we really use click-throughs for KPIs?”

Consider that newly-minted college grads of 2020 are in high school now–future interns at brands, agencies and other digitally-minded companies. Digital marketing has come a long way since the mass-market Internet age began. In the ’90s, marketers thought about it the same way they had thought about billboards, or posters in train stations. Brands found an area of (supposedly) relevant traffic, and then flooded it with display ads. Since then, brands have learned that digital engagement doesn’t come from being ever-present, but from providing content that useful and valuable to the person on the receiving end. It’s a highly personal experience when a consumer receives a message on a digital platform, whether it’s on a PC or a mobile device, on the open web or in social media. For maximum impact, content needs to feel as personal and relevant as the delivery channel allows.

Digital marketing has evolved substantially to meet that challenge, but getting there still requires the people creating those messages to think differently. To date, brands and agencies have aggressively sought people who are good at storytelling–former journalists, for example–and asked them to adapt their respective crafts for marketing objectives. We’re taking great strides in reaching that point where branding and storytelling intersect in a way that feels seamless and relevant to consumers. But for the best-qualified people out there right now to achieve that goal, there’s often a learning curve.

In 2020, the best new marketers won’t need to be re-trained for the digital age. They will have grown up as digital natives, inheriting a marketing landscape where it makes perfect sense for brands to engage with consumers in meaningful ways with content of all formats and lengths. The idea that brand-powered messages within a digital channel would be intrusive and interruptive, will be as foreign to them as the sound of a dial-up modem is to the Class of 2015. Digital marketing will be in the hands of people who are unfettered by the expectations and hang-ups of the “old ways” of doing things.

There will always be a place for display advertising, the same way there will always be a place for billboards or posters in train stations, but banners alone won’t constitute a comprehensive digital strategy or program. The core asset for any brand will be through content. The idea that brands share useful, relevant, and entertaining, content with audiences will be a given, and the actions of brands who do so will feel natural. Digital culture will inspire an explosion of imaginative thinking on the part of the next generation of content creators, the young people who are just now learning about the world through digital platforms first.

If the shift portrayed here isn’t convincing enough for you, consider the impact of mobile. The way we use mobile devices now gives us some idea of where we’re going in 5 years. Digital marketing will be highly adapted to meet the habits of our daily lives, whereby brands will strive to add value to real-time conversations no matter the context.

Our devices are only becoming more integrated with our physical environments and even our bodies–brands will become more adept at short-form messaging, geared toward either contributing to or starting a conversation between the user and their friends and family. In 5 years, the idea of a “little voice in our ear” will be second nature to us. Digital marketing will develop accordingly, speaking to us in ways that matter, are helpful, and that enhance our day-to-day interactions.

If today’s 20-somethings are digital natives, the young workforce of 2020 will be flooded with inherently digitally savvy talent. These people will have the ability to create compelling digital messages on every platform we might have, and they will be unencumbered by the increasingly antiquated idea that marketing happens on the sidelines of digital culture. Today’s efforts in marketing via targeted, relevant content are only the foundation of what will be. The next generation will take it to a whole new level.


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