Predicting trends is a tricky business – but, like clockwork, everyone in the marketing world becomes a trend forecaster at year-end. “Digital Marketing Trends for the coming year” content is commonplace because it’s easy to write: Just cite some industry projections and, boom, you sound like an expert.

But few people ever look back at trend pieces to verify whose predictions were correct. In the spirit of rational inquiry, we decided to do just that.

The top 2018 digital marketing trends were seen coming by many experts who were closely observing and keenly studying this ever-evolving and growing space. However, we found that the “experts” did get it wrong in some areas. Even more often, though, expert predictions didn’t go far enough. The scale of certain transformations is what many experts didn’t see coming.

Here’s where we observed. And because we’re marketers too, we couldn’t help but come up with our own projections for what’s to come in 2019.

Digital Marketing Trends 2018: Where expert predictions didn’t go far enough

‘Stories’ on social media

“Social media ‘stories’ will be impossible for marketers to ignore in the coming year,” The Drum wrote in January 2018. “It’s time to think about stories as a key part of your social marketing strategy.”

Well – yes and no. It’s true that consumers have flocked to stories since Snapchat introduced them in 2013. Instagram introduced its own stories feature 3 years later and saw its user growth skyrocket.

Just because stories are beloved by users, though, doesn’t mean they always add value for brands. Digiday noted in September 2018 that brands’ non-story Instagram posts “generate three times more reach on average compared to those that are” stories.

And Instagram owner Facebook’s revenue growth has been cleaved in half since Instagram Stories were introduced – from 59% in mid-2016 to 33% in mid-2018.

Are stories going to remain popular? Probably – but it will be incumbent on advertisers to use them effectively to deliver layered communication to consumers and verify that they’re performing well. Results may be mixed.

Expanded chatbot adoption

Chatbots are “a unique channel not to ignore,” demand-gen expert Michael Tasner wrote in Forbes in January 2018. The Drum, for its part, predicted that “it’s only a matter of time before AI assistants become the new normal.”

It’s true that chatbots are valuable for customer service: Oracle expects 80% of businesses [PDF] to have implemented AI-powered customer-service solutions by 2020.

Yet chatbots’ utility has so far proven limited in other use cases. Spiceworks, a social network for IT pros, reports that just 28% of big brands are using AI in their customer-facing marketing. And few small businesses see a need for them, Gartner research shows.

The challenge may be that, despite all the hype, chatbots aren’t yet capable of delivering the marketing experiences consumers expect. Most customer-care queries are semantically similar, which plays to bots’ strengths. But marketing has to be personable – a heavy lift for an algorithm.

Search engines in the buyer journey

Did you know that Google underwent more algorithm updates in 2018 than it did in the last 3 years? Google knows the value of its flagship search product and is investing in making it even better.

One trend that accelerated in 2018 was Google’s providing answers on the SERP instead of rewarding content creators. For sports scores, news, weather, product pricing and more, Google wants to keep users in its ecosystem.

Some experts did note last year that the search channel would continue to grow. Entrepreneur Jayson DeMers, for example, wrote in Forbes, that Google would invest big in its Knowledge Graph (correct) and that voice searches would explode (also correct).

Outside the SEO world, though, not many people saw search for what it has evolved into over the years: a valuable consumer tool that captures better than any other platform, the intent of what people want to know, do and buy.

Connected TV

Television has long been on the frontier of digitalization. Both Apple TV and Android-powered set-top boxes have been in the marketplace for years, but neither has really managed to gain a lot of traction.

Now, the tide finally appears to be turning. The cord-cutting trend is accelerating – pay TV saw its largest-ever quarterly subscriber loss last year – and broadcasters and advertisers are waking up.

As Google reported in late 2018 [PDF], broadcasters “are increasingly investing in technology … modernizing internal infrastructure to support convergence and exploring technology and programmatic partnerships.”

With streaming options like Netflix and Hulu continuing to post strong user growth, digital is simply too much of a juggernaut for the pay TV industry to ignore. New models of convergence, like AT&T acquiring DirecTV or Comcast launching its own wireless network, should continue to proliferate – with the ultimate goal of driving better digital experiences for customers.

Digital Marketing Trends 2019: What we see developing this year

AI, for real this time

Yes, AI is a red-hot trend in the digital marketing space (and has been for some time). But 2019 may be the year where AI really breaks out and becomes visible in consumers’ everyday lives.

One leading indicator is the AI-powered suggestion feature that was added to Gmail last year. Google calls it “Smart Compose,” noting in a May 2018 blog post that it trained the feature on “billions of phrases and sentences.”

Expect these kinds of innovations to become more commonplace this year, especially in the digital marketing realm. Voice search, which began to pick up steam in 2018, is powered by powerful neural networks. Programmatic technology (which is, increasingly the standard means of publishing digital ads), is also heavily dependent on AI.

We at iQuanti are also exploring the role that AI can play in our own products. The modeling in our enterprise SEO tool ALPS, is much more AI-driven now than it was a year ago. That means better, more accurate SEO performance simulations for our clients.

We’ll continue to invest heavily in AI in 2019, and we expect other tech companies to do the same.

Privacy as a feature

Another trend to watch this year in the tech world: Brands touting their privacy credentials.

Apple’s marketing message at this month’s CES 2019 was illustrative. “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone,” the company’s Las Vegas billboard read.

Mozilla has also reoriented its Firefox web browser around privacy. Firefox now blocks third-party trackers by default and will one day prevent fingerprinting (a more advanced form of tracking).

The truth is, there’s more user appetite for privacy today than at any point since the consumer internet debuted. DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search engine, saw 9 billion searches last year, up from 4 billion in 2016.

Will we in the U.S. see privacy legislation similar to Europe’s GDPR? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. Brands may soon have to switch to an “opt-in” standard for data sharing, which would require them to really prove how they add value to consumers’ lives.

Do you agree with our conclusions? Do you have digital marketing trends predictions of your own for 2019? Let us know here.