Digital Marketing Predictions for the Next 5 Years

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Did you learn anything about marketing in college that helps you with your job today?

I was talking with a friend the other day about the marketing classes we took back in college and we remarked on how none of the things we were taught were applicable at any point during our careers.

Zilch.

Case in point, I remember being taught crucial marketing concepts such as “How billboard advertising works,” and the importance of “Direct mail advertising.”

Dinosaurs roamed the earth when these tactics were hot stuff!

And sure enough, my very first task as an intern out of college was writing meta descriptions and doing keyword research for our website, which I didn’t know a damned thing about.

And the following 10 years went about the same.

So I wondered, what do people—and colleges in particular—think marketing is today?

I dug around to find the textbook currently used for introduction to marketing courses, which seems to be “The Principles of Marketing,” version 18 (available for the low-low price of $244.99 – don’t get me started on that!)

After checking out the chapter list, I counted 1 chapter that discusses digital marketing.

And that chapter has to share with direct marketing!

So there’s a half-chapter of the most relevant stuff you could learn.

So, who cares?

Backing things up, you might be thinking, “So what? What do future generations of marketers with non-applicable skill sets have to do with content marketing in 2021?”

Everything! It has everything to do with marketing in 2021!

Sure, billboards still exist. Sure, people still get mail. And some people still choose to suffer through cable television commercials.

But look… and I don’t owe anyone the use of kid gloves… All of these concepts classically thought of as “Marketing” are KIA, or are at least in their death throes.

We need to start thinking of marketing as it exists in its current and future form:

“Marketing” IS “Digital Marketing” now. And it will remain that way deep into the future.

Long gone are the days of the Mad Men-esque sexy branding jobs that everyone assumes is “Marketing.” And even those jobs that still exist in that vein likely involve a heavy or predominantly digital component.

Marketing IS Digital Marketing

You can’t argue with the numbers: digital marketing is kicking traditional marketing’s ass. Here’s the change of yearly spend for both digital and traditional over the past 9 years:

Source: Statista

Every year, digital marketing spend has increased by nearly double digits, while traditional marketing spend has declined or remained flat.

And in terms of total spend, the gap is widening dramatically in favor of digital.

Source: Emarketer.com

So, is digital marketing more effective than traditional marketing?

Increasingly, yes.

But, it completely depends on the situation and the target demographic. And it’s really the target demographic that explains these drastic changes.

Traditional marketing is much more effective with older audiences than younger. And inversely, younger audiences are more easily reached online.

With the younger generations being replenished with increasingly more tech-savvy ranks, the way of traditional marketing will eventually be phased out completely once the older target demographic is no longer around to market to.

So that means… The future is digital marketing.

The future of digital marketing

If we can agree that the future is digital marketing, then where is it going? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can look at trends and apply some intuition to predict what might happen.

SEO predictions

At the risk of sounding cocky, all it takes is passive observation of current trends of search experience to make reasonable guesses about where SEO is going in the near future.

If something about your searching and browsing experience is thematically terrible, it’s probably going to disappear in the near future.

Here are a few examples of that happening in the past:

Trend Pain Experience Result
Low-quality content Searchers can’t find anything of value Thin content devalued
Slow websites Searchers wait an eternity for sites to load Slow sites devalued
Pop-up ads Shutting endless windows in anger Interstitial ad penalty
Link farming Low-quality websites take traffic Penguin penalty

So really, you just need to think about where the pain experiences are, and assume they are going to get fixed.

Prediction 1: Pages become more important than websites

In the past Google was very reliant on domain-level indicators to determine the value of an individual page.

In other words, the individual pages on a strong domain were more likely to perform well than the individual pages on a weak domain, with little regard to the quality of the actual pages in question.

It’s like having a big brother that fights all your enemies for you, and gives you all the credit.

Increasingly, Google is looking at the quality of individual pages more than the strength of the underlying domain.

Here’s a good example: We rank in position 1 for the keyword “content marketing services” in the UK.

From a traditional SEO perspective, we have no right to be beating our competition. Our Domain Authority is much weaker than any of the Page 1 competitors, and even our page-level link metrics are weaker than any of our competitors.

That means we are winning out on the quality of our content alone.

To prove this point, by using MarketMuse, I can clearly see that our content covers the depth of the topic better than any of our competitors.

This isn’t an outlier; it happens all the time.

As Google is ever-increasingly in the business of delivering the most satisfying results, and as they are getting proportionately skilled at determining how to measure that information, they will reward quality of pages rather than strength of domain.

Prediction 2: Ads are going to kill your rankings

I’m shocked this hasn’t been addressed a long time ago.

Have you ever been on a site that loaded halfway only to crash once it tried to load 13 ads, an autoplay video and a newsletter pop-up?

(Ahem, Forbes.)

Playing whack-a-mole on your device is infuriating beyond all other negative online experiences. I’ll argue that websites like Forbes not only deliver a poor experience, they deliver an intentionally frustrating and burdensome experience.

This is a situation where webmasters are consciously making the user experience unenjoyable for the purpose of profit. If Google truly is in the business of making the user experience as beneficial as possible, then these types of experiences will be penalized in the future.

If they don’t, then Google must have motives we don’t yet understand.

Prediction 3: Technical SEO will be automated

As an SEO professional, this type of statement should get me burned at the stake for high treason.

Yet … Anyone who has spent enough time in the world of search engine optimization will tell you that technical SEO, at its core, is simply a huge diagnostic checklist and decision tree.

Example:

Page doesn’t index → Check Search Console → Robots.txt disallows → Modify tag → Re-index

As much as I would love to tell you that technical SEO is an art, I’d be lying to you and myself.

While you may argue that there is an intuition inherent in strong SEO professionals, I would argue that they simply have a knack for understanding and memorizing diagnostic checklists through time and experience.

Decision trees. Memorization. Diagnostics.

Sound like something a computer can do?

Sure does to me. Even I’m building a basic model, and any developer worth their salt could convert it into a tool that could make anyone an “SEO expert.”

The real art of SEO is going to be on the content creation side of the table.

Prediction 4: Google won’t stop siphoning clicks until it’s forced to

Google has been taking clicks away from content creators for years.

Google SERPs have evolved from intelligent contextual resource aggregators to a one-stop oracle, curated from user-generated content.

In other words, you write content and Google uses it to make its oracle more intelligent, with little reason for searchers to actually go to your website.

Case in point, in 2020 nearly ⅔ of searches resulted in no organic clicks.

Source: Rand Fishkin of SparkToro alongside SimilarWeb

Further, they were literally caught red handed scraping data into SERPs, and Google had the nerve to ignore and deny the blatant offense.

So as Google continues to siphon clicks from hard-working content creators, we will be left holding the bag. As long as they have a monopoly on search, and nobody holds them accountable, there is no reason to think anything will change.

Content marketing predictions

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the days of easy content wins are long-gone. Companies used to be able to pump out massive volumes of drivel, intended only for the likes of Google crawlers, and reap the benefits of favorable rankings.

Following a sweeping market correction, weak content has become a thing of the past, giving way to an enormous wave of “quality content.”

But what is quality content?

Prediction 1: Everyone will start using TF-IDF tools

TF-IDF stands for Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency. It’s a technique used to determine how often a term is used in a document. The logic is that the more frequently it’s used, the more important the particular term is deemed.

At the risk of oversimplifying a particularly complex concept, TF-IDF tools crawl through the links of the top 10 or 20 results for a keyword and tell you which topics you need to discuss to write a more thorough piece of content.

This technique is a godsend for creating sustained organic traffic growth and keyword ownership. Take a look at the Page 1 keyword growth we’ve experienced since implementing this strategy in 2018:

After more than 6 years of flat results, our traffic has 10x-ed since utilizing TF-IDF tools.

The result of TF-IDF tools is a net positive: Websites are producing higher quality content that better satisfies the intent of the searcher, and they get rewarded with more traffic.

But the secret is out…

The early movers (like Brafton) were able to take a competitive advantage over their competitors. But TF-IDF is no longer a secret, as dozens of software companies have jumped on the bandwagon, creating TF-IDF tools of their own.

So while there is still a performance gulf between TF-IDF content producers and traditional content creators, that gap will shrink rapidly. And once that happens, there will be little to distinguish between nearly equally qualified pieces of content.

At that point, Google will need to use (or create) alternative signals to separate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps they will lean more heavily on pillar pages and topical authority …

Prediction 2: Pillar pages will dominate

Pillar pages are authoritative landing pages on a specific topic, which then link out to additional on-site pages that are highly related to the pillar page.

For example, we have a pillar page called “What is a Newsletter?”, which links out to 10 authoritative pieces of content related to the topic. Think of the “What is a newsletter” page as a tower, and each of the 10 authoritative pieces of content are support structures, each strengthening the core of the page.

By creating a pillar page, you essentially create a master resource center on a topic. It’s like creating a Wikipedia page.

Oh and by the way, check out the results we’ve seen after just a few months of the “What is a newsletter” page going live:

We are currently battling it out for the Featured Snippet and Position 1 with Wikipedia, which is a damn good problem to have. But one thing is clear—and equally logical—pillar pages provide immense value to searchers and will be a major key to SEO success in the future.

Prediction 3: Content writers will become SEO strategists

Or vice versa. Anyone who writes content for websites will need to be well-versed in TF-IDF tools, pillar pages and all types of SEO-related content writing techniques for both of the reasons above.

In other words, SEO is increasingly turning into data-driven content strategy. And likewise, content writing is increasingly doing the same. The two worlds are merging rapidly.

Therefore, both content writers and SEO experts alike will be meeting in the middle to create the best content in the world.

Or, they won’t meet, and the companies they work for will experience digital marketing stagnation.

General digital marketing predictions

Bringing us around full circle is the all-encompassing “digital marketing” which touches everything we do on a daily basis.

Prediction 1: Privacy rules will become more stringent

Anyone can see this one coming a mile away: People care about privacy and have been aghast by how little they are getting. Full stop.

If nothing else, the last few years have given us visibility into the lack of visibility we’ve experienced across every aspect of the web, and it’s making users very uncomfortable.

We’re going to see a number of things happen:

1. Increased data portability and deletion

People want to know exactly what types of information apps and websites have collected on them. We’re starting to see requirements for data exports and deletion, but it’s still a bit convoluted and slow (it can take weeks for some platforms to send you the data they’ve collected on you).

Further, some platforms are still choosey about which data they allow you to delete, and how quickly it’s done. People won’t stand for it anymore, and we will start to see more user-friendly deletion capabilities and transparency.

2. Fair expectations of privacy

It’s not enough for companies to list how they will use your data on page 67 of their privacy policy and expect you to read and understand their legalese. Further, it’s not enough to give users an “accept or don’t use our services” ultimatum.

Imagine a future scenario where your default privacy rights and data usage are written in plain language, with the capability to control exactly the data you want to share.

Expect more user capabilities to gain control of the types of data that they share and a gradual sunsetting of blanket privacy acceptance ultimatums.

3. More and increased notifications

Are you tired of cookie consent banners, GDPR and CCPA notifications popping up on every site you go to? Tough, they are here to stay, and they are there for your (and every other users’) benefit.

In the spirit of a sharp demand for increased privacy, expect mandatory cookie and tracking notifications to proliferate.

Perhaps the only scenario in which these pop-up notifications die down is a universal browser setting that auto-notifies websites of a user’s preferred settings and applies them automatically without the need for a pop-up. (That would be a good idea for a clever developer.)

4. Some marketers will struggle

Good marketers use data in every aspect of their job. Just look at the number of ways we use data on a daily basis:

  • Web analytics and clickstream data.
  • Retargeting.
  • Lookalike audiences.
  • CRM cookies.
  • Email segmentation.
  • Social ads.
  • SEO and keyword research.

All of these activities require tools that aggregate this data so that we can segment, analyze, target and make crucial decisions about how to invest our efforts. And every one of these tools is at risk of being ripped away, or severely limited at any moment if deemed a privacy concern.

As we move in the direction of increased privacy, new guidelines will continue to roll out, and some of these tools will most certainly be casualties of a losing (or winning?) battle with privacy concerns.

Marketers who lean heavily on those tools will need to diversify their skillsets, and find other routes to reach their target audiences.

Prediction 2: Colleges will continue sending out underprepared students

Bringing things around full-circle to college, I can’t see any reason colleges will change their curriculum to better align with the real world.

There are a couple issues that are keeping college marketing (and many others) programs deep in the dark ages:

1. Older generations:

My parents and grandparents still believe in the value of a degree. And sure, that little piece of paper can make the difference between getting an internship and being shown the door, however, it’s not nearly what it used to be.

The problem is that everyone has a degree nowadays. What used to be a distinguishing feature between candidates is now as commonplace as having a driver’s license. And with that, we now have a supply and demand problem where supply far outweighs demand.

So the net result is that parents and grandparents (often footing tuition bills) still see the value in college degrees, while the rest of the hiring world is flooded with supply. And, because older generations still see the value, they will pay whatever price is attached to that value.

2. Professors don’t do what they teach:

Professors are professors by trade, they are not marketers. That means they are going to teach like professors, out of textbooks, rather than like marketers. This will result in a circular reinforcement system where the same textbooks keep getting “updated” with revisions of the same antiquated material, rather than jumping into the 2020s.

If marketing courses were taught by actual marketers, they would be throwing these textbooks out the window. They would be requiring every student to create their own website, register a domain, create graphics, write metadata, craft blog content, install and understand Google Analytics and Search Console, and do keyword research.

Why have students do all of these things? Because it’s exactly what they will be doing when they get out of college.

Conclusion

The upcoming 5 years of “marketing” will be marked by a consistent march towards “digital marketing” as the norm, with an inverse decline in “traditional marketing.” And anyone participating in the new frontier of digital will need to be a content expert, with a high proficiency of content strategy, SEO, understanding of TF-IDF and web analytics tools.

Expect Google to continue addressing pain points in searcher experience, SEO experts to freak out, and new tools and strategies to address the correction. Thanks to Facebook, Google and others, you can also expect a massive correction to data privacy issues, which every one of us marketers will feel.

The next 5 years will be volatile, exciting and challenging to even the most skilled marketers. The days of easy wins are long in the past, and it will take a new type of cunning to strike paydirt in the near future.