It's been a roller coaster year for all types of business, and marketers have the job of understanding what consumers want among the noise of the fun fair. Here's what experts suggest marketing teams focus on in 2018.
Close the gap between what a brand promises and what it delivers
Digital businesses such as Amazon and Tesla have a laser-focus on what customers want, says Nigel Vaz, CEO of agency Publicis.Sapient, but that's not the case for all companies. "What you are starting to see is a dissonance between a company that is customer-focused and one that isn't (and) the gap keeps widening," he told CNBC.
The explosion in digital and data technology is bringing about "a fundamental transformation about the way marketing happens," according to Vaz, and CEOs are working to reimagine their businesses as a result. McDonald's, for example, has hired Publicis.Sapient and Capgemini to "transform the restaurant experience," according to an online statement. Consultancy Forrester also predicts that ad sales will be flat in 2018 with marketers instead investing in technology to improve the experience someone has of a brand.
Embrace diverse thinking in all its forms
A 2015 Credit Suisse report found that companies with women in a higher proportion of decision-making roles generated higher return on equity. And those where there were more women than men did even better. Yet in 2017, women still only made up 15 percent of board seats in 64 countries surveyed by Deloitte.
Sue Unerman, chief strategic officer at agency MediaCom, says unconscious bias needs to be tackled to help women get promoted to the highest levels. "We all have a tendency to want to employ and promote people that are like us," she told CNBC.
"If I say to you 'I've got a promotion in store for you but I need you to find someone who can do your job,' you are naturally inclined to think, I'm very good at my job, if I can find someone who is as much like me as possible then I can really impress them, so you get this constant perpetuation. It may be that men and women do that. Men are in the positions of power, so it perpetuates itself."
Diversity does not just mean equality between men and women, it encompasses age, sexuality, ability and race. "Ensure that you create the environment for talent to shine, rather than employ the same old types and then expect a different outcome," Unerman advises in her book "The Glass Wall: Success strategies for women at work — and businesses that mean business."
Work out your voice strategy
While voice technology may not reach critical mass in 2018, it will pay to work out how brands fit in. In the U.K., 37 percent of people with smartphones use voice at least once a month, according to research by agencies J Walter Thompson (JWT) and Mindshare, and many of those (63 percent) use it to search for something online.
"Algorithm optimization" will become the new search engine optimization, according to Mindshare Futures Director Jeremy Pounder and JWT Director Elizabeth Cherian. "Understanding the criteria through which assistants will choose recommendations will be vital. In this context, the power of endorsements may grow, and being able to generate content … will be increasingly important," they write in their "Speak Easy" report.
Make sure people experience a brand in the same way on all devices
How people buy goods is no longer simply a case of going to one website and ordering it with around 40 percent of transactions taking place across different devices, be that mobile, tablet or PC, according to marketing technology company Criteo.
Being able to track how people move from one to the other will help with return on marketing investment, says its Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Opdyke. Marketers are concerned about data confidentiality, however, with 65 percent citing it as a top concern in research the company did with 500 retail marketing executives globally. The "right to be forgotten" rule will be implemented as part of GDPR next year, also posing a challenge when linking up experiences across devices.
Get your Amazon or Alibaba ad strategy right
Amazon is set to become the third-largest platform by ad spend in the U.S. and Europe, suggests Opdkye. Amazon would be after Facebook and Google, with a combination of sponsored listings and videos, as well as ads directing people to a brand's own e-commerce site.
Service companies such as telecom brands will also be buying ads based on Amazon data, and the site itself is said to be in talks to improve its video ad product so it can compete more directly with YouTube. Meanwhile Alibaba is expanding from China into southeast Asian markets and took around $11 billion in mobile ad dollars alone in 2016, according to eMarketer.
Sort out the fakes
This year, marketers had a job on their hands to tackle ad fraud, where bots rather than people "click" on online adverts. Publishers have also had to deal with "domain spoofing" where fake versions of their websites are created, complete with adverts that no-one has seen. Facebook has had a hate speech and fake news problem and brands are increasingly focusing on the context of their ads. A survey by the U.S.'s Association of National Advertisers published in December found that 78 percent of senior U.S. marketers were concerned about their ads appearing next to inappropriate content due to automated placement, and it urged advertisers to make sure internal staff have expertise with programmatic advertising.
This is also a problem for the e-commerce world. In the hospitality sector, scam websites are taking guests' money for hotel rooms, according to Marina Macdonald, chief marketing officer at U.S. budget hotel chain Red Roof. Its "Type Don't Click" ad campaign encouraged people to book direct rather than via search engines. "While our efforts are making inroads, we need to continue to aggressively educate, as hotel booking scams have increased 250 percent over the past two years," she told CNBC by email.
Think out of the content box
For many brands, advertising is not the only way to encourage people to buy something. "Consumers are not interested in ads. They want uninterrupted experiences. The fact that there are 225 million consumers who are active users of ad block(ers) tells you that they're saying 'no I don't want your ads,'" Mastercard's Chief Marketing Officer Raja Rajamannar told CNBC's Carolin Roth in March. Mastercard uses its Priceless website to give card members prizes and experiences.
Going live is also going to be a focus for Time Out in 2018, says group CEO Julio Bruno: the group's first food market in Lisbon had 3.1 million visitors this year and is set to open in Miami in 2018 and Chicago in 2019. Meanwhile, Disney is set to open a "Star Wars" hotel in 2019. "This rush to experiences — and the new revenues they can bring — comes against the backdrop of uncertainty about the film industry's existing model," according to Lucie Greene, director of innovation at JWT, in her "Future 100" report.
Telling a good story will be crucial in 2018, according to Paul Zak at Claremont Graduate University. "Narrative arcs" get oxytocin going in the brain, the chemical responsible for empathy, according to Kantar Millward Brown's "Media and Digital Predictions 2018."