The Future of Marketing
Seven Data-Backed Predictions
The Future of Marketing — Seven Data-Backed Predictions
One sleepy morning in the spring of 1848, a small Californian village came alive with the sound of labored breath and pounding feet. A shaggy haired man with broad shoulders and fiery eyes was barrelling down the uneven dirt road that sloped toward the village center.
The cool haze of dawn probably did very little to dampen his deep, booming voice:
“Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”
The village that this man was thundering toward went by the name of San Francisco, and he himself was known as Samuel Brannan. He was whirling one of his arms toward the sky as he ran—causing flecks of sunrise to refract through a tiny bottle of gold dust clutched in his sweaty hand.
California’s deep reservoirs of gold had remained a well-kept secret ever since they were discovered in January earlier that same year. Well, Brannan and his bottle were about to make short work of that.
When he’d noticed a sharp uptick in customers paying with gold in his Sacramento general store just a few days prior, he set off to investigate. His suspicions were quickly confirmed upon seeing the gold-laced river banks for himself.
But Brannan could see something even more exciting sparkling there in the mud that day. Something all others had missed:
Many who had stood in his position began digging right away. Instead, Brannan stocked his store with as many picks, shovels, and other equipment useful to miners that he could lay his hands on, and then set off to spread the word.
Following Brannan’s publicity stunt, nearly the entire population of San Francisco abandoned their homes in a frenzied search for gold. In fact, some say there were only seven men left in the entire village by nightfall.
Word soon spread across the country and then around the world. Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life journeyed to California in search of their fortune. But Brannan—who owned the only general store in the area—was raking in far more than anyone. He was making up to $5,000 a day selling his picks and shovels to hopeful fortune hunters.
A number that’s equivalent to just shy of $200,000 in 2022.
It wasn’t long before Samuel Brannan’s name was etched into the history books as California’s first ever millionaire.
“When everybody is digging for gold, it's good to be in the pick and shovel business.”
During his time, Brannan was described as a merchant, a manipulator, and a speculator. Today, academic researchers would describe him as “entrepreneurially alert.” Entrepreneurial alertness has been defined as: a capability to sense and detect marketplace ignorance which is relevant for the identification of opportunities for action.
In simpler terms, it’s an ability to see opportunities that others have largely overlooked, missed, or underexploited. Brannan spotted the coming gold frenzy before anyone else and then put himself in a position to ride the waves. Whether it’s a gold rush or a crypto boom—recognizing these trends early can yield sizable profits.
Which is why I was so excited to interview Julia Janks.
Julia is a professional trend hunter. She’s part of an elite team of business analysts who work for an aptly named community of entrepreneurs called Trends. They sift through the rivers of the internet looking for gold and then compile their findings into data driven reports.
Entrepreneurial alertness is essentially Julia’s day job.
When I saw that she’d compiled Seven Data-Backed Predictions For The Future of Marketing, I knew I had to reach out and learn more.
The landscape of marketing is shifting rapidly and once healthy margins are being washed away. Rising ad costs following the landmark iOS 14 update were the most obvious bellwether. Throw economic uncertainty into the mix and we can all agree that businesses need to find new ways of reaching customers whilst still making the numbers add up.
Fortunately, the seven trends Julia shared with me are in the perfect sweet spot of being backed up by solid data, rising in popularity, and yet have largely still been ignored or overlooked by the masses.
They also all follow the three rules that the team has for what defines a trend:
- It needs to be surprising: if you’re in a room of ten people, at least eight of them should not have heard about this trend. And if it’s not necessarily the trend itself, it could be something very specific within a larger trend.
- It has to be data backed: it has to be provable now. “So we have to be able to say people are searching for this more or people are spending money on this.”
- It has to be linked to a business opportunity: the team makes sure that for whatever trend they spot, someone could start a business based on it, or an existing operator can leverage it in their business.
Not every strategy will apply to you, and I can’t promise you’ll amass the personal wealth of Samuel Brannan, but this should at least spark some inspiration for getting in front of customers in cheaper and more innovative ways.
What follows is my attempt to break down each of the team’s data points and seven strategies based on a combination of Julia’s slides and what we discussed in our conversation together. All of the quotes are Julia’s.
Let’s dig in to find out what the future holds in store for us...
Trend #1 — The Gift That Keeps On Giving
The Trend: Businesses around the world have been spending more on gifts for their clients since the pandemic.
Global corporate gift spending more than doubled during the pandemic.
The US Corporate Gifting Market was $125 billion in 2018 and is projected to balloon to $306 billion by 2024:
Why So Generous?
Businesses have learned that it pays to #BeKind. Literally.
Smart companies are turning to gifting as a new and effective customer retention strategy. Julia’s data shows that customers and clients who receive gifts from you are more likely to send referrals your way and are more likely to do business with you again:
- Gifts can produce a 28% ROI on lapsed customers.
- Nineteen percent of customers return within 90 days of gifting.
- One gifting campaign can result in a 36% increase in referral rates.
You can maximize effectiveness by rewarding customers when they hit a certain milestone or even at the point when they are most likely to churn.
Companies traditionally achieved these goals with loyalty programs, but awarding transaction-based points is old news. Over 90% of companies now have one of these loyalty programs and we’ve reached the stage where a massive 77% of them fail in the first two years. In fact, 23% of customers even have a negative or apathetic reaction to loyalty efforts.
“It’s so hard now with such a saturated market in almost any industry for companies to keep our attention.”
As a generous alternative, gifting feels more meaningful and is better at sparking joy and novelty when it's done well. Gift-giving also helps to satisfy our need for connection in our increasingly online and remote world.
It also appeals to one of our most powerful psychological forces: reciprocity. When we feel as though someone has made an effort to do something nice for us, we feel inclined to return the favor.
What’s In The Box?
To get a sense of what gifts are being given, we can turn to some new startups which have sprung up in the space.
Take “&open” who recently raised $33 million to provide better gifting at scale for “businesses that care.” They’re helping savvy marketers boost engagement, conversion, retention, and revenue with a simplistic yet tasteful lineup of products:
- comfortable cotton tees,
- hand-poured candles,
- lambswool blankets,
- flower arrangements,
- craft cocktails,
- digital subscriptions, and even
- Airbnb stays.
Most spending falls within the $75-100 range but you can achieve positive results with much smaller purchases.
It’s worth noting that there’s also plenty of business potential here. Billions of dollars are set to be pumped into this industry over the next two years and beyond—so any startup that helps spread the corporate cheer could be kindly rewarded.
D2C companies may also want to consider putting together a corporate gifting package. Make it easy for businesses to gift your product! You could open up a whole new segment that’s even more willing to spend big.
“We actually had a trends member who during the pandemic started a gifting business which put together these gift bags that were all about sourcing local artisanal products so it would be a gift bag of—one thing would be your candle, one thing would be some peanut brittle—but it would all be specific to your area.”
A final observation is that large companies are turning to gifting in response to the great resignation. Wellbox is a new platform that made over $4 million of revenue in its first year by helping businesses send gifts to their employees.
It’ll likely take more than snack boxes and candles to convince people to stay but gift packages could replace some of the pre-pandemic in-office perks for companies who transition to hybrid or go fully remote.
Trend #2 — Knock knock, it’s direct mail… again.
The Trend: Direct mail marketing campaigns are on the rise as D2C marketers up their investment.
As Facebook and Google’s advertising models rose to dominance, you can understand why marketers turned away from physical advertising. Digital ads were cheaper, easier, and made physical mail advertisements look outdated.
Fast forward to today and the postbox is starting to look a lot more appealing. Not only has Apple’s privacy offensive sent acquisition costs soaring, consumers are just getting a bit fed up with all these on-screen ads.
We’re at the point where 75% of us feel as though the sheer volume of digital ads has become overwhelming. The reverse sentiment is true for snail mail with consumers becoming more receptive than ever:
- Response rates to “digital interactive” ads—physical mail that drives readers online—are roughly double what they were five years ago.
“Maybe the reason this is such an interesting space right now and maybe why it won’t be forever is that it’s such a novelty.”
Using physical-digital (or “phygital”) funnels also makes attribution and the monitoring of effectiveness a lot easier. Marketing departments are just starting to catch on:
- Direct mail volumes are up 34% this year from 2020.
- Spending increased 191% just from 2020 to 2021 alone.
Why? Because it’s working:
- 84% of marketers agree direct mail dramatically increases digital campaign performance.
It turns out that direct mail response rates are between 5% and 9%. Compare that with the average email click-through-rate of <2% and you can start to see the appeal.
Direct mail is perceived as more personal by 70% of consumers than any online channel which ultimately leads to an ROI of around 30% for the average direct mail campaign.
Even Google has caught on and whipped up the most ironic physical ad of them all:
Postcards like this one are the most popular format right now. They’re fast to read and recent research shows that less is more when it comes to direct mail word count. In fact, Postcard Mania, a full-service direct mail company focusing on postcards, reportedly made around $84 million in revenue last year (a 30% YoY increase from 2020).
Not all businesses will benefit from direct mail of course, the only way to find out is to lick some stamps and get testing. But with the advent of QR codes, consumers are more comfortable than ever moving into a digital sales funnel in response to a physical ad.
Next up is another blast from the past that’s making a comeback…
Trend #3 — Return of the Retro
The Trend: Retro search terms are going wild on Amazon and retro aesthetics are flaring up in branding and design styles.
Old school is the new cool and Julia has some groovy stats to prove it:
- In the past year she observed a 290% increase in weekly searches for “retro home decor.”
- The number of subscribers to the 80sDesign Subreddit more than tripled from 25,000 pre-pandemic to more than 90,000 today.
And this search intent is powering on through to the checkout with Amazon seeing 90-day US volume increases for items including:
- “Retro games” +103%
- “Retro mini fridge” +96%
- “Retro kitchen” +56%
Throughout the pandemic there was also a spike in searches for old-school cameras, gaming systems, and retro experiences like roller rinks and arcades:
What’s driving all the nostalgia?
“So why now? I think the answer that the data points to is that millennials are now moving towards their middle age and so their nostalgia is at an all time high, and their spending power is just increasing and increasing.”
It seems the primary culprits driving this trend are Millennials and Gen Zers. Large numbers of these generations are experiencing a hunger and a longing for simpler, pre-social media times.
This deep need combined with their increasing spending power is fuelling what Julia calls “The Nostalgia Economy.” The primary manifestation of this trend can be seen in the messaging and design targeted at younger consumers:
As you can see, it’s soft and minimalistic. It draws your attention because it doesn’t attempt to grab ahold of it. There are no flashy colors or bombastic headlines. It’s clean and simple—evoking a feeling that is in stark contrast to the frazzledness you might feel after back-to-back zoom meetings or a scroll through TikTok.
A few brands have started to tap into these desires with their messaging to profitable effect.
“I’m solidly millennial and I find this very nostalgic.”
The takeaway here is pretty simple. If you’re targeting the younger generations, you may benefit from running a few experiments based on this nostalgic design style. Furthermore, there may be opportunities to spin up new products and brands that meet the growing demand for retro items and experiences.
And by this point you may have noticed a wider theme emerging. The thing that unites gifting, direct mail, and retro vibes is that they’re all a callback to simpler times and older ways. It’s almost as if these are rebellious offshoots to the larger everything-is-digital mega trend that reached a fever pitch during the pandemic and still pervades today.
It’s worth considering what other unmet needs consumers may be crying out with in response to the always-on world we’re now living in.
Trend #4 — Tuning Into The Audio Revolution
The Trend: Audio content growth is rising so fast that it’s outpacing the original growth rate of the early internet. Audio is increasingly becoming the preferred content format for consumers ahead of visual media.
Listen up. Audio production is skyrocketing with no sign of slowing down. Any marketing efforts over the next few years should not only consider how to leverage audio channels, but also keep tabs on the new innovations in the space which can help to amplify your message.
As fortune has it, Julia shared some compelling data that hints at the scope of opportunity, points to some creative examples of successful strategies that businesses are already using to capitalize on audio, and unearthed some innovative new apps which are giving brands louder voices.
First up, data:
When ex-Google and ex-Spotify execs founded Sounder.fm in 2019 (more on this in a moment), there were reportedly around 400,000 active podcasts. But it seems nothing inspires people to launch podcasts quite like a global pandemic. The number of active podcasts has since more than tripled to over 1.4 million!
And listeners like what they’re hearing:
- 56% of listeners are more likely to purchase from audio ads than visual.
- Audio ads convert 2-4x more often than display ads and they’re particularly effective at keeping businesses top of mind and generating brand awareness.
The fact that businesses are already seeing healthy profits from their audio efforts is made especially impressive given that 65% of people who have never listened to a podcast say the biggest reason is that they don’t know where to start.
That’s probably because there are now more than 60 million podcast episodes and the ability to sort through them has drastically lagged behind.
But not for long.
Innovations and dollars are pouring into the audio SEO space in an effort to make audio content more discoverable and more searchable. The Audio SEO industry is set to follow in the footsteps of traditional SEO which has now grown into an $80 billion dollar space.
While businesses have exerted considerable effort in having their written content surface to the top of Google’s rankings, it seems like the next arms race will be to get audio content in front of searching consumers.
“There are whole teams designed to get your written content to the top of google so why wouldn’t you put as much effort into getting audio content related to the problem that your company solves to the top? Especially when audio is the preferred consumption medium for many people.”
Innovation Is Underway
Fathom.fm is an audio search engine that’s raised close to $15 million to do for audio what Google did for text. Type a question like “how can I improve my focus?” into fathom’s AI powered search bar and you’ll be presented with a list of short clips from popular podcasts offering advice.
It’s clearly still early days but it did bring up Cal Newport explaining the process he uses to help high performers sustain their focus for longer. This content was otherwise lost in a sea of old episodes. Pretty cool.
Meanwhile, sounder.fm mentioned at the beginning is looking to make it easier for businesses to find suitable shows in which to place their ads and to make the process more dynamic. You no longer have to pitch podcasts individually and go through the often-clunky manual process of getting your ad placement into an episode. Just upload your ad and it’ll be dynamically placed into relevant episodes across a range of shows.
Finally, Adori Labs have created a podcast player which makes the listening experience more interactive. Think of it as having the show notes of a podcast episode surface on screen as you listen. It will also present a link during an audio ad to the product—a super simple innovation that will no doubt become commonplace across all of the platforms and ultimately increase audio click through rates.
Audio ads are not as saturated as display ads and given that all of these innovations are about to improve the efficiency of the entire process, now could be a great opportunity to see positive ROIs.
And ads aren’t the only way to hop aboard the audio train. Brands are creating their own audio content with some even going as far as Hubspot and spinning up an entire podcast network. Reportedly the fastest growing newsletter on Substack is using podcast appearances as their main driver of new subscriptions.
The takeaway here is really just not to be asleep at the wheel when it comes to the audio space. The rapid growth combined with the undergoing innovations in discoverability can only mean good things for marketing budgets.
Trend #5 — The Next NFT Use Case: Marketing
The Trend: The NFT market is large and growing despite its recent setback, plus big brands are investing heavily in NFT marketing use cases.
Sure, NFT activity on OpenSea is down 99% from May, but Julia’s data suggests that this is just a speed bump on the road to mass NFT adoption:
- According to a June 2022 study, the global NFT market size is expected to grow 680% from $16 billion in 2021 to $122 billion in 2028.
- A survey of 1,500 U.S. participants aged 16-54 found that 6% of them already opened an NFT—but 38% want to own one in future.
- This current level of desire alone is estimated to create a 533% rise in ownership to 65 million future individual NFT holders.
You might think of art and gated-access communities when you think of NFTs. But if you actually ask people why they own NFTs, a surprisingly different picture emerges. Only 37% of owners said that “access” was the reason for purchasing an NFT, the least common reason for ownership.
The most popular reason (tied in first place alongside profit) cited by 63% of owners was “pride.” People have always loved a good opportunity to “flex” their purchases, whether it’s with coffee, technology, or fashion, long before the invention of NFTs.
It’s possible that the biggest consumer use case of NFTs is… showing off.
“I think that’s why we originally framed these as digital status symbols, because whether or not they’re worth anything, it’s a way to do what we do with physical products which is to show brand loyalty.”
When brands create NFT programs that allow customers to lean into this innate desire to celebrate their affiliation, they can turn NFT owners into even fiercer brand advocates, generate a ton of hype and PR, and create healthy profits in the process.
Examples — Past & Present
That’s why those three magical letters are increasingly being used inside marketing departments. Starbucks recently posted a letter announcing plans to reinvent their famous and highly successful rewards program through the use of NFTs. It’s no coincidence that the person to publish the letter was Chief Marketing Officer, Brady Brewer.
Update: as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, Starbucks announced early details of the program—“Odyssey.”
They revealed that members of its reward program will be able to earn, purchase, and trade NFTs that will unlock new “experiential” benefits that you can’t find anywhere else.
This could range from a virtual espresso martini-making class, to unique merchandise, exclusive events at Starbucks Reserve Roasteries or even trips to Starbucks’ coffee farms in Costa Rica.
The program will also involve community, seeking to connect rewards members with each other other for the first time.
CEO Howard Schultz believes that a web3-based loyalty program will attract younger consumers in particular to the brand. Starbucks has an excellent track record of innovation and as of 2021 there was a total unspent balance of $1.63 billion on the company’s reward & gift cards and so it’ll be interesting to see how their NFT gambit pans out.
No doubt they’re hoping to build on the success of the many existing examples of businesses who have effectively executed this strategy.
McDonald’s commissioned 10 NFTs to celebrate the return of the McRib back in late 2021. All you had to do to be in with a chance of winning one was retweet the brand’s invitation tweet. Over 90,000 people took part and spread the word.
You may also remember when a total of 30,000 Adidas Originals NFTs sold out within minutes of launch. Owners are able to flex a range of exclusive physical merchandise only available to them.
The space is still young and there are many years of growth ahead. But it’s time to start looking around at the NFT experiments being conducted by other businesses and learn from their successes and failures.
Now might not be the right moment for you to dabble with these new fangled JPEGs, but as consumer adoption grows, and technological innovations make the technology more accessible (like Etherium’s recent Merge dropping energy consumption by 99.98%), it might become the perfect strategy to engage with your customers.
Trend #6 — Virtual Pop Up Stores Are Popping Off
The Trend: Virtual pop-up stores are gaining popularity as an alternative to in-person temporary retail experiences.
When national lockdowns were in place, search traffic for virtual pop-up stores popped off more than tenfold. They offered a novel alternative to the real thing.
After a dip in 2021, interest is peaking to its highest levels once again:
A pop-up store is anything that creates a unique time-bound online shopping experience for your customers. The simplest version of this is an online event or a landing page for a new product or offering.
Dunkin’ Donuts entered the e-commerce space with a holiday themed virtual pop-up at the end of 2019. Their lineup included limited edition branded onesies and novelty wrapping paper, with many items selling out immediately after their announcement.
Scarcity is hardly a new concept for marketers, obviously, but the insight here is that consumers are actively searching for more unique online shopping experiences. Virtual pop-up stores give brands a way of tapping into this desire while simultaneously garnering more attention and running experiments for new offerings.
With that said, there’s another rapidly growing trend which is taking the concept of the virtual store to the next level. VR is now and will continue to be the fastest growing content segment in the media and entertainment industry.
- As of this year, 32% of survey respondents own an AR or VR device, and another 15 percent are looking to buy a device in the next 12 months.
- As of 2020, there were 52 million people using the technology at least once per month in the US.
- Worldwide, adoption is expected to rise at a compounded annual growth rate of 18% from now until 2028:
Unsurprisingly, the most common reason for stepping into VR is to watch TV shows and play games. But the third most common reason may just raise your eyebrow—to purchase products.
One-third of VR users said they’d fired up their VR device to experience a retail environment, and one-third also reported purchasing digital products after testing them or browsing stores in VR. Two in ten even used VR to purchase luxury goods.
Shopping is already a gigantic use case for early VR adopters.
Companies like Adidas, Gucci, Samsung, and JPMorgan have taken note and are buying up permanent retail space in the Metaverse. Others boldly went right to the edges of the marketing frontier by jumping on both trends simultaneously when they set up virtual pop-up stores… in virtual reality. Hogan set up a pop-up store during Decentraland’s Fashion Week, and Pandora created their own virtual island in the popular game Animal Crossing New Horizons.
Obviously many companies do not have the resources to go this far and nor would it make sense to just yet. But it seems as though the decline of real-world retail traffic combined with mass adoption of VR (predicted to occur within the next five years) will only mean we spend more time browsing virtual shelves. It will also allow digital products to have a “physical” representation—imagine browsing a newspaper stand of your favorite online newsletters.
The basic fact here is that the retail experience as we know it is quietly being reinvented in the Metaverse. It’s already allowing users to cash in on the best of both worlds: the fun and immersion of physical shopping, plus the convenience of browsing from home.
Trend #7 — The Rise of the B2B Influencer
The Trend: B2B influencer marketing is on fire as brands plan to up their spending and early adopters enjoy huge success.
Influencer marketing has traditionally been reserved for consumer brands, but now LinkedInflueners and BizTokers are getting involved and, well, they mean business:
- An astonishing 96% of B2B marketers that have used influencers considered their programs to be a success.
“The most surprising thing was how successful these campaigns are and how popular they are amongst people who’ve used them.”
And where results show, money flows:
- 80% of B2B brands are maintaining or upping their influencer spending (42%/38%, respectively).
So, where is all that money going? A big chunk is going to TikTok, with 58% of B2B marketers putting more dollars into the platform, which is even more than the 49% of B2C brands planning to do the same.
“Whenever we interview our trends members, one of the questions we always ask is: what has been one of the most surprising marketing hacks? And almost every single one—we had someone who launched a book, people who have physical products—almost all of them will say TikTok.”
Shopify, Canva, and Adobe are just a handful of examples of companies who have figured out how to amass millions of views with their TikToks.
(I can attest to this personally. I've managed to get hundreds of thousands of views for Super Self and Every within a few months on TikTok. These views have converted surprisingly well, driving several hundred new subscribers so far)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, LinkedIn has also positioned itself to take part in the creator economy. The Hustle recently reported some interesting stats:
- 11 million members have turned on “creator mode,” which lets users identify themselves as subject matter experts.
- There are 144k+ members with “creator” in their job title in 2021, up 16% YoY.
- 18k+ writers publishing newsletters on LinkedIn, including Ariana Huffington and Richard Branson.
They even note that Mr. Beast, the world’s most influential YouTuber, made an account earlier this year.
Influencers in Residence
An incredibly important insight is that marketers who use “always-on” programs are 12x more successful than those who only use periodic campaigns.
Julia found that 60% of businesses who employ influencers on an ongoing basis are “very successful” but that number falls to just 5% for those who use one-off campaigns.
It seems as though we’re heading toward a world where many B2B businesses will house their own personal content creators and thought leaders.
“People don’t want to see perfectly curated content, it needs to look authentic. And it’s short form and it’s video and I think that’s probably what’s special about it— people are craving that kind of content.”
As with most of these Trends, there are also auxiliary opportunities. Despite their growing interest, 60% of B2B marketers feel as though they don’t have the right skills in-house to take advantage. This opens up opportunities for creating B2B influencer agencies and to create tools to help businesses cash in on the influential B2B boom.
The Final Word
So there you have it, seven data-backed marketing strategies that are moving up and to the right:
- Corporate gift-giving
- Phygital mail campaigns
- Retro vibes and experiences
- The booming audio space & its new innovations
- Pop-up virtual stores
- B2B Influencing
Hopefully you found some inspiration for spreading your message in a novel and profitable way or at the very least enjoyed taking a tour of what the future of marketing is moving toward.
Before I let Julia go, I asked if there were any other major macro trends that she’s been investigating. She didn’t disappoint, and so here’s one final nugget for the road:
“If you look at funding for HR tech, it is exponential since the pandemic, since 2020 VC funding is doubling in this space. This industry has always been ready for disruption and we’re finally at a point where tools like AI are now in the right place to be utilized in an effective way. I think in the next ten years we might look back and think—I can’t believe for the longest time the only way to get a job was with a resume and a cover letter.”
You heard it here first.
Note: This blog, Super Self, is where I usually write about the science of personal growth. It keeps readers up to date with the latest and most rigorous studies relevant to topics like health, motivation, relationships, and anything that helps you lead a better life. You can sign up for free using the form below. You can also access the content I've written about new science relevant to business and entrepreneurship by heading over to Every.
And, of course, say hi to Julia and make sure you're not missing out on the latest Trends.