Marketing, media, social and cultural predictions for 2020

Trend articles can be strange beasts. Often they fall into breathless hyperbole, extreme optimism or absolute certainty that disciplines and roles will die out unless you pivot to the latest shiny tool (hint: your business probably won’t be dead in a year if you don’t have a Tik Tok strategy).

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When I first started writing thoughts for the year ahead near the start of the decade, there was a lot of optimism and excitement. It focused on social media because that was going to change the world, right? But as the years have gone on there are, if you will, two trends for trend articles.

The first is that for all the advancement in technology, it currently feels like we’re at stage where social platforms and tech advancements in and of themselves aren’t particularly exciting. Sure, Instagram Shopping will undoubtedly have an impact, and will help new brands grow, but beyond this it’s hard to get too excited about another adtech tweak or Facebook attempt to clone the latest hit feature.

The second is that trends at the moment feel more cultural than technologically driven. Smartphone ownership is plateauing, and while there’s always new approaches to problems and more efficient use of technology, we’re now at a stage where a new generation has grown up with what’s possible and is figuring out how to bend available technology to their will, while older millennials, Gen X and above are more comfortable in figuring out how to adapt to this new world, and are imposing their own values on it.

The result is a fascinating melding of cultures and attitudes. Whereas community managers have been sidelined in social for performance marketing in recent years, it’s becoming increasingly important to understand online sub-communities. The two should meet together in harmony, as qualitative meets quantitative.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a winning tactic involves lip syncing a cat to trap music. Now where did I put that Tik Tok strategy?

That aside, here’s a number of areas that it’s worth paying attention to in 2020.

Brands will be forced to choose where they stand on social issues

Brand purpose was one of 2019’s biggest buzzwords. The internet was awash with articles claiming the way to win was to give your brand a purpose and ensure you were seen to be giving back to society. Various decks and research claimed anywhere between 70% to 85% of millennials wanted a brand to have purpose. In short, a lot.

So it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and say brand purpose should be the focus of all marketers at the start of the new decade. For some brands, it may make strategic sense. But this trend is far more interesting than just positioning a breakfast cereal as the answer to child poverty. It’s a case of the strange culture war that inhabits the internet, seeps through into the media and forces a brand to make a stand whether they like it or not.

There’s a few elements to this. The first is the perception that a company fits on a particular side of a political spectrum. So, if your leadership team has a prominent supporter of right wing politics on the board, then expect criticism and boycotts from the left, and vice versa. Often the perception that a company has a different political stance is enough to attract criticism.

Secondly, are the incidentals. At the start of the year, I was working with the team responsible for the community management of a relatively popular wine brand. As with any brand, I recommended doing a crisis management session to plot our responses. “Why?” asked the account manager. “What could possibly require crisis management on this brand?” How about the leader of a far right political party pictured drinking this brand? Or the bottle being used in a sex act on reality TV?

These are extreme examples, but not completely improbable. And any response to either are potentially loaded, while saying nothing may create a vacuum. Picking the right response takes a lot of skill.

Finally, those brands attempting to jump on the brand purpose bandwagon are more likely than ever to be accused of hypocrisy. So while Gillette released an advert taking on toxic masculinity, critics were quick to point out that the company charged more for their women’s razor than the men’s version.

And while Nike won plaudits for their advert with Colin Kaepernik, they also quietly pulled their Houston Rockets merchandise from their China stores after the NBA franchise’s owner, Daryl Morey, expressed his support for the Hong Kong protests.

Just as it would be easy to talk about brand purpose, so it would be easy to take a moral high ground against all brands. But being a global business is complex and nuanced. Social media isn’t. A lot of business decisions will annoy somebody.

The big question brands need to ask is who are we comfortable with annoying and what’s the consequences if we do. Gregg’s are a good example of a brand who got their positioning spot on with the launch of their vegan sausage roll. They knew it would attract criticism from non-vegans, they didn’t waiver, their responses were well judged without necessarily pushing their stance on anybody. The result: profits increased for a third year in a row, as a result of attracting new audiences.

So what does this mean?

There’s no telling where a crisis may come from and how it could catch fire on social. Similarly, brand purpose campaigns may come from good intentions, but if the campaign’s values aren’t shared by the organisations, it may do more damage in the long term.

Ultimately, the best way to mitigate is for brands to do plenty of planning with the PR and social teams. It won’t stop a crisis brewing, but it will stress test campaigns. And brands who know where they stand on issues without necessarily putting those issues front and centre (although there’s nothing to stop them if they choose to do so) are likely to emerge in a much healthier place at the end of the year.

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The internet will retreat into communities

If there’s a companion piece to the threat brands face on social, it’s the increasing lack of civility on the platform. Zuckerberg and Facebook famously declared it their mission to connect the world. Except it seems that a lot of the world doesn’t want connecting that much.

So while Facebook, Instagram, et al still can deliver reach at scale, some of the most interesting developments come from more closed communities. Facebook and LinkedIn Groups, Slack channels, special interest YouTube and Twitch channels, subreddits, communities that congregate around relevant hashtags. It’s much more comfortable and enjoyable to hang out with people who share your interests than arguing with people who really hate what you love.

Yes, the internet in 2020 looks a lot like the internet in 2002, except with a bit more scale, where forums and LiveJournal were the order of the day. The main “chatroom” (in this case the big social platforms) may be a place where everyone can join in, but it’s not necessarily where everybody wants to be. The 1:9:90 rule of interaction is still very much alive.

This has a number of fascinating consequences, not all of them good. By seeing a retreat to safe(r) spaces online, it increases the likelihood of groupthink and intolerance to opposing viewpoints or those who don’t understand the world you inhabit.

This has always existed — think punk subculture in the 70s, for example, or almost any sports rivalry — but the internet helps amplify and reinforce these views at scale. We’ve already seen how deadly this can be with incel culture or 8Chan message boards. How culture will evolve when groups are retreating from a more public discourse will be a defining question of the next decade.

Given that this article is ostensibly about marketing, we should probably touch on the implications for marketing. On one hand, with certain platforms, the retreat to communities makes it even easier to target adverts by interest, if the data is right. That’s fine up to a point.

But, to somewhat paraphrase Byron Sharp, you’re not going to grow your brand by just getting your loyalists to buy more, assuming they can even buy more. And that will be one of the challenges in 2020. Social media is becoming more fragmented than ever. Reach is available, but communities are where your brand may well take off first.

Finding a way to balance both the power of the community at a granular level with the reach needed to grow the mental availability of a brand will be something a lot of markers will wrestle with. Many will probably waste a lot of money in the process.

Artificial intelligence will take over some copywriting (sort of)

This is a prediction that should terrify me, as a writer. The start of this decade will see an increase in AI writing copy. This has already been a growing trend over previous years, but the end of 2019 saw it become mainstream. The BBC, for example, used machine-generated journalism to publish a news story for every constituency result in the recent general election.

And when you look at companies such as Phrasee, the narrative is clear. Human copywriting is inefficient. There’s hundreds of ways to write copy. Machines eliminate the inconvenient inconsistencies that humans are prone to, will understand how to write in tone of voice, be guided by data not the gut and will increase efficiency while keeping costs down.

At this stage, if you’re a copywriter, it would be tempting to chuck your pen (or laptop) in the bin, and give it all up for a job in McDonalds, as it’s clear that’s all we’re good for. Technology beats humans yet again and marketers and agencies can high five the cost savings by putting all the expensive writers out of work.

But before we all start writing Medium articles bemoaning the lost art of copywriting, here’s why I’m optimistic (up to a point) about the rise of AI in copy.

In some respects, the likes of Phrasee are correct. Copy, in certain circumstances, is inefficient. Email subject lines, for example, are a vital piece of copy that are so often absolutely dreadful. If I had a dollar for every disagreement I’ve had over subject line copy, I’d be able to install a top of the range wine cellar.

AI copy here can be incredibly useful. It can test hundreds of variations that a human copywriter simply wouldn’t have the time, ability or inclination to crank out. It can refine performance and give valuable insights into what words resonate to increase open rates.

Or on social media, performance advert copy can be quickly optimised towards the best results. Given that social copy can often be the last thing written and clients or agencies often have no time or budget to spend on honing the writing, this is again useful.

But there’s a couple of caveats here. Firstly, the copy is functional, not creative. Secondly, somebody will have had to write the original copy that the AI learns from. Thirdly, it still needs a copy editor to review.

The BBC’s general election reporting is a good example of human and machine working well together. AI copywriting allowed the corporation to quickly write hundreds of reports that could never have been done by human writers at scale in the time needed. These reports worked well as the data points were consistent and could follow a template. The same could be said for a lot of sports reporting.

But the machine still needed an editor to check the copy. And a machine couldn’t provide a detailed analysis of why Wrexham returning a Conservative MP or Labour taking Putney from the Tories was a significant event and what this meant for the country as a whole.

And if you’re using machines to write sport reports, you could never do justice to the insanity and drama that unfolded in the recent Wolves versus Manchester City match. A computer report would note that City’s goalkeeper was sent off after 10 minutes and Matt Doherty scored the winner for Wolves late in the game to complete a comeback from 2–0 down. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

And as for creativity, a computer may come up with taglines based on data. Some of them may even work. But it’s doubtful they could have written KFC’s famous FCK apology or Wonderbra’s Hello Boys. These pieces of copy worked because there was an intimate understanding of the emotions behind the words. That will be much harder for AI to generate.

So, in summary, machines are useful for quick tasks or tasks that require a large volume of copy testing. Editors will only become more useful. And, theoretically, AI should free up copywriters to work on the more complex, in-depth, challenging pieces of work.

I say theoretically, as you’ll undoubtedly read articles about how company X sacked all their copywriters and increased efficiency by 75%. But, like so much copy written by machine, it will lack context. What does this actually mean for company X? At this stage, only a human can write that article. Don’t throw your laptop in the bin and fill out that Maccas application form just yet.

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Too many TV bundles will lead to a lot of streaming casualties

The death of TV has been a pretty consistent prediction over the past 20 years. And while TV definitely won’t die in 2020, the off-screen battles for streaming supremacy could be bloodier than Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding. What will be left, though, will look an awful lot like TV. Just… different.

In America, almost every network is launching a subscription streaming service. Across the globe, traditional broadcasters are rushing to monetise their back catalogues and capitalise on the thirst for new content. By the end of the year, there will be so many streaming options, viewers will be spoilt for choice. Not to mention overwhelmed and a little bit baffled.

The average American household subscribes to 3.5 streaming services. In Australia, it’s 1.9 (although both of those figures are pre-Disney+ launch). There are more streaming services than people are willing to pay for, or have hours in the day to watch. And the streaming services are much easier to cancel than cable TV.

That means spending more on content — whether back catalogues or originals — to get people into the service. As film producer Jonathan Tamplin told the Financial Times, “We have doubled the number of series from seven years ago and we haven’t grown the audience at all.” Streaming is probably not the most sustainable industry right now, and there will be casualties.

Take the case of Eleven Sports in the UK. The streaming service had an ambition to be the Netflix of sports, but had to relinquish expensive European football rights after failing to attract enough users. Given that it costs a lot just to keep up with all the places that offer the Premier League, there simply aren’t enough users or hours to watch the content. Eventually, people will look at what offers the best value and content and chop and change according to the release schedules.

Cable TV companies are the most vulnerable, although that in itself isn’t a new trend. And while the number of subscription TV services will continue to rise, in a few years time, the future of TV will look a lot like… TV.

If 2020 is a year of unbundling, 2021 will be a year of rebundling, as those who struggle to attract numbers will team up. And expect some form of revised electronic program guide (EPG), as if the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ have an issue, it’s finding and deciding what to watch. The user experience of traditional cable TV isn’t great, but even the personalisation of Netflix isn’t the best way of tackling the problem.

The level of cultural capital on TV shows will be interesting to assess at the end of year. The idea of shared live cultural moments has been challenged by the rise of streaming. Why wait when you can binge, although shows such as Line of Duty have proved an exception.

It’s why big sporting events are possibly one of the few bankers, and even this is facing problems — witness the NBA’s decline in overall viewership despite having one of the most engaging social media approaches of all the big sports, although expect esports to also start to creep into the category.

Ultimately, though, TV definitely won’t die in 2019. It’s still one of the few mediums that guarantees brand building reach as part of the media mix. But long-term, audiences have made it quite clear that if there’s a TV platform that doesn’t involve adverts, they’ll be very happy to pay for it. That in itself is a challenge. Perhaps 2021’s trend will be a doubling down on product placement.

Podcasts will consolidate as independents get left behind

It may have taken a decade and a half, but 2019 was the year podcasting truly crossed into the mainstream. Assorted predictions have podcasting worth $1bn or over this year. Quite who gets that billion, though, is another matter entirely.

If you look at the Australian podcast ranker, a lot of the top 30 podcasts have very familiar publishers and names: the majority of them are either radio shows or an extension of radio shows. Or have a major publisher like News Corp behind them.

As Juleyka Lantingua-Williams at Nieman Lab writes, “Podcast hobbyists will experience 2020 as a year of reckoning. While some will be happy to produce an episode whenever they can find the time, others will leave full-time jobs and risk it all in podcasting.”

In many respects, independent podcasting mirrors what has already occurred in the blogging and shortform sphere. The really good independents either get snapped up by bigger publishers or become brands in their own right. Others find life gets in the way, and retreat into doing what they can when they can.

For those in the middle, who earn a little bit but not enough to compensate them for their efforts, it’s an unpleasant place to be. Listens and downloads will probably decline as the amount of hours available to listen to podcasts will go towards the big names and celebrities. What was a hobby becomes a grind. Expect several well-loved podcasts to stop producing because the joy or time-money ratio is no longer there (the same could well apply to YouTubers).

This is a shame, because if there’s one thing the internet needs, it’s a diverse, different set of voices that stand out from the pack and don’t adhere to the same old format as everybody else, because they think that’s what podcasting should be. The really creative, interesting work will come from podcasters who either don’t need or don’t want to make money.

So expect niche series (a podcast on every Slipknot song, for example), micro-casting with short episodes no more than five minutes long, three hour long podcasts, fiction, documentaries that aren’t true crime. These will come from podcasters who are frustrated with the concept of three men shooting the breeze in the studio.

And a couple of podcasting predictions that won’t happen. Smart speakers like Google Home and Alexa won’t usher in a new wave of podcasting — discovery and playing is too complex and most episodes are too long, but microcasts may become more exclusive or popular in the platform, as it’s a condensed hit of information.

Secondly, there will not be a Netflix of podcasting. Spotify, Apple and Google will continue to dominate, and will produce some of their own shows, but many will be available on multiple platforms. Apple will get squeezed from Spotify in terms of personalisation and discovery and Google in terms of search. If Tim Cook is really interested, Apple could regain their crown as podcast kings. They probably won’t do that either though.

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Esports will take a greater slice of the marketing budget

If there’s one trend it would be nice to see the back of in 2020, it’s the continued obsession with reaching a millennial audience and lumping in generic insights about how this audience want experiences or purpose and repeating this ad naseum. But if you have identified millennials (the oldest of whom are about to turn 40 in a couple of years) and especially Gen Z as your key audience, it would also be nice if marketers would pay a little more attention to esports.

Optimistically, I’ll predict they will. This is largely because Twitch are investing heavily in client solutions and YouTube is increasingly selling gaming as part of its solution to clients. And the numbers are significant.

According to Goldman Sachs, esports raked in $869 million in revenue in 2018 and that’s set to triple by 2022. PWC identified $277 million in revenue through sponsorships. By 2022, over 557 million of us will watch esports, with 205 million of these describing themselves as esports enthusiasts.

Germany already sees the benefits — they’re offering visas for esports players as they look to establish themselves as a major European hub. It also offers advertisers a way to meld both traditional sports sponsorship and more creative ways of tackling the problem. Want to put on the world’s biggest concert? Fortnite is probably your best bet.

Not only do the likes of Fortnite offer marketing opportunities, the audiences are large and global. Up to two million tuned in for the game’s World Cup. Twitch has 15 million daily active user (although not all may stream for a significant amount of time). Here in Australia, one in four have watched esports in some form. And on occasions, Australia soccer’s E League got more terrestrial viewers than the A League, although this doesn’t take into account people who streamed both leagues.

Ironically, the one thing that could really take esports to the next level is a major TV deal, into converting casual or non-gamers to the drama of sport. But then again, as Twitch and YouTube become easier to stream at home, perhaps it doesn’t need it. Come the end of the year, living room battles could be between the football World Cup and Fortnite, FIFA or Call Of Duty.

The Internet of Things will cause a lot of issues for consumers that are all too human

From fridges to thermostats, wearables to doorbells, manufacturers have become obsessed with connecting devices to the internet and apps, regardless of whether they’re needed or not.

But as the connected home grows so does the risk of relying on connected devices, not just from hackers but from the manufacturers.

One of the biggest problems for smart home devices is that the tend to be selling a big, one-off purchases that aren’t replicated for many years. So how do they make money after the sale?

Data is one obvious area, but how comfortable are people in letting these devices know everything about your life. For example, the contents of your fridge could indicate allergies or intolerances, which would be of interest to health insurers. Is this a trade off that we’re comfortable with.

And what of the companies that can’t make money or go out of business? “Bricking” expensive devices won’t be popular with consumers but is likely to be more common as some of the more independent or lower end of market devices simply shut down, or are acquired and shuttered.

This happened with Pebble, which now has a community of enthusiasts dedicated to keeping the software and hardware alive. Expect more communities that aren’t entirely sustainable to spring up around loved but failed devices.

And what of manufacturers who simply refuse to update the white goods software, intentionally brick their machine and leave the user with an expensive home essential that serves no purpose but to take up space. Expect one or two companies to take this approach to maximise profits and to get hit with a massive backlash, especially as earlier devices get older and harder to support from a software perspective.

Ultimately, there will be two winners from the smart home market. The first is any company that heavily invests in brand trust. If this company shows signs it won’t fold anytime soon, can be trusted not to brick their own device, keeps data secure and has a strong brand presence. It sounds simple but many brands in this space will fail to pull this off.

The second is the insurance industry. Where there’s risk, failure and expense, there’s an insurance product on the horizon. As more homes get fitted with smart devices, expect to see cyber and IoT insurance becoming either an essential add-on to home insurance, or a product in its own right.

After all, if a smart oven can try to cook a non-existent chicken at 3am in the morning, what happens when the device gets confused and ends up burning down your house? Or, as John C. Havens wrote, what happens when your AI enabled robot chef cooks the family cat as it offers the most nutritious meal available in the house.

There may be well a third winner: the media. As IOT horror stories become more common, these news stories make great click bait and in-depth investigations. Maybe your smart fridge might just save journalism.

And some quick hits

A few other thoughts I’ve not got time to expand on:

  • Newspaper subscriptions won’t save the industry. Consumers won’t be willing to pay for multiple subscriptions and the cost per acquisition will be too high for many publishers. A bloodbath of those in the middle is coming.
  • Facebook will be this decade’s Yahoo. It’ll still be widely used, but only as the gateway to something else. Engagement will seriously drop on the platform, as it tries to clone every successful feature from competitors. It’ll still be an effective way to reach people, but will be more of a shell and a gateway than a site within itself.
  • Influencers will increasingly get called out on weird, inauthentic posts that only make sense to their filter bubble. The influencers who’ll continue to make money are the ones that still show a certain lifestyle, but have more of a depth to them. Expect a variation of #imperfectpost to be heavily used in 2020.
  • Bitcoin won’t change the world.
  • Climate change will affect the internet. Server heavy sites that use up a large amount of energy will be in Greta Thunberg’s sights at some point this year.

And that’s it. This decade is set to kick off in a state of flux. It promises to be interesting, never dull, and a tad pessimistic.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Marketer. Content, social, and podcasting specialist. Ill-informed occasional freelance writer. Professional tea drinker. Occasionally has an opinion.