• Natalie Adler Skarzynski

A Decade in Digital: Looking Back at What's Changed (and What Hasn't)

2021 marks a decade since I started my career as a marketer. This realization has prompted a quick walk down memory lane.


In 2011...

  • Prince William married Kate Middleton

  • Steve Jobs lost his battle with cancer

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final movie in the series, came out

  • Adele's Rolling in the Deep and Someone Like You topped the pop charts

  • Google released its ill-fated social network, Google+ (remember that?)

  • I was obsessed with replacing all PowerPoint presentations with Prezis

2011 was also the year of my first real foray into the marketing world, when I landed an internship on the Search Marketing team at a local agency. (I'm getting motion sickness just thinking back to all the Prezis I built).


A lot has changed since then, but a lot hasn't.


What's Changed in Digital Marketing in the Past 10 Years


Rise of mobile and social experiences


In 2011, what many marketers today think of as the four core social networks were still relatively new. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn had each been on the scene for only a handful of years. Instagram wouldn't even make its debut until 2012.


And as it often still is today with emerging social channels, companies tended to lean heavily on their youngest employees to "figure out" the newfangled social thing. I remember being tasked with this very initiative at my first post-graduation gig -- "hey you, new kid, can you tweet?" -- and I am now the one asking the twenty-somethings to explain TikTok and Clubhouse. Oh, how the turn tables.


So, 10 years ago, as social was taking off, so too was the mobile web. With the release of the first iPhone in 2007, mobile experiences started to matter. At that agency job in 2011, we certainly weren't building web experiences with a mobile-first or responsive mindset, but that was soon to change.


Mobile and social have each undoubtedly transformed digital marketing, but it was the confluence of these trends that formed today's landscape.


Fragmentation of decision journeys


Many marketers, myself included, still find it helpful to frame marketing and sales as a funnel. But the truth is, this framework no longer accurately reflects the extreme fragmentation of buyer journeys. With more channels come more permutations of how a target customer might progress from awareness to action.


This is challenging in few different ways. For one, it renders all my funnel graphics from old slides useless. For another, the funnel is an easy-to-understand way to think about the buyer journey, and there isn't a neat, simple framework to replace it. Without such a framework, it can be difficult to plan and socialize Marketing's activities.


As attribution models and forecasting methods have gotten more sophisticated, marketers can begin to identify similarities between successful journeys and plan future campaigns based on those trends. At least, this is the enlightened state we all seem to be trying to reach!


Privacy push-back


As a consumer, I love consumer privacy laws. As a marketer, I'll admit they can be challenging to work with. A decade ago, GDPR was but a twinkle in an EU regulator's eye, and was as marketers were still exploring all the things we could do with cookies -- not imagining a world without them.


At odds with consumers (rightly) pushing back to take more ownership of their data, there is the continuing pressure to personalize, personalize, personalize. This will only become more complex as we have fewer data points to work with. (If I write another post like this in 10 years, I wonder where we as a marketing profession will have landed?)


AI and automation


Let's go even further back into the past for a moment -- remember SmarterChild? This was an artificial intelligence-driven chatbot for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) released in the year 2000, and it was definitely on my Buddy List. It was designed to answer questions in a conversational format, things like the weather, random factoids, stock prices, and so on.


However, for myself and every other nineties kid, it was a game to try to make this bot angry. We cursed at it, insulted it, and just generally had a good time thinking up more and more outrageous things to type into the chat window. That poor bot.


Needless to say, how we engage with artificial intelligence and automation -- and the usefulness of those technologies -- has come a long way since then. Starting my career as a marketer in 2011, there was almost no discussion of AI might help us with our day-to-day work, and marketing automation was still a relatively new concept. (After all, Marketo was only five years old at the time.)


Now, automation is core to our workflows, and applications of narrow AI are beginning to be useful. A couple of examples from the SEO world are AI-based internal linking and content auditing. Am I concerned an AI will put me out of a job? For now, only the jobs that are too tedious for a human to do.


What Hasn't Changed: Solid Foundations Still Matter


Customer understanding


The best marketing is rooted in a deep understanding of your customer. When developing this understanding, there is just no substitute for firsthand experience -- actually talking with your customers, not getting insights secondhand from other members of your team.


This isn't necessarily easy or scalable or quick, which is why I see so many marketers skip it. But failure to cultivate this understanding is a common theme I see in failed marketing strategies.


Of the best demand generation campaigns I've run in the past, they all have at least one thing in common: the content was inspired from direct insight from customer conversations. For example, after hearing from customers that they struggled with their departments being seen solely as a cost center, we created a guide to positioning their team more strategically, with practical tips for getting a seat at the table.


Great content


Speaking of content, that's another constant. As algorithms and platforms and strategies change over time, they are all still centered on creating and delivering high-performing content.


What has changed to a certain extent is the quality of content that is needed to cut through an extremely cluttered environment -- not just in inboxes and social feeds, but in search as well. A generic, 300-word blog post that any intern could crank out just doesn't cut it anymore. And what could someone who isn't truly a subject matter expert, and has no access to such an expert, really tell the target audience that they don't already know?


But high-quality content doesn't have to over-engineered or expensive to create. As long as it's unique and useful to your customer.


Data-driven decisions


With more access to data than ever, it still surprises me how many business decisions I see take place with statements such as, "I feel like..." or "My gut tells me..."


That's not to say that I don't also do this. Sometimes our inclinations towards certain courses of action are rooted in past experience or in instinct, which doesn't make them wrong. But it's important to "inspect what we expect" while staying open-minded to the possibility that our instinct may have been wrong.


Marketers must challenge themselves to be less in the business of guessing and more in the business of knowing. Not only does this lead to better decision-making, it makes it so much easier to gain buy-in from leadership and from sales when you have real numbers to back up what you are saying.


Long-term thinking


When the average CMO tenure is only 41 months, it's no wonder many are forced to think short-term. (After all, that pipeline isn't going to generate itself.) But by focusing narrowly on this month's or this quarter's MQL number at the expense of other longer-term brand-building and marketing innovation-focused projects, we do our future selves a disservice.


With pressure to make this quarter's number, it can be difficult to focus on building engagement and consideration with next quarter's potential leads, let alone next year's. But the discipline and courage to think long-term can put us two or three steps of our competition and set up our future success.


Wow, a lot has happened in the past 10 years -- in the world of digital marketing as well as my professional and personal life. Here's to seeing what the next 10 years will bring!

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