How martech vendors jockeyed for position in 2018
From responding to regulation to paving the way for new partnerships and technological possibilities, here's a look at the big moves marketing technology vendors made this year.
In many movies, there’s a point where all the characters have been introduced, the key plot conflicts have been laid out and the real story begins.
That basically describes where we are with marketing technology in 2018.
After years of buildup about the coming of artificial intelligence, blockchains, ubiquitous high-speed connections, augmented reality and online TV, these technologies and others became part of the regular landscape this past year. Now, the story is no longer that these technologies are coming, but how they are now being used in marketing.
Regulation and the battle over consumer data
The European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) launch on May 25 was certainly one of the biggest events of 2018 for marketers and advertisers, since it raised requirements for specific-use consent by any company that markets to European Union citizens, wherever they are.
To help publishers and advertisers deal with the new regulations, IAB Europe unveiled in March its GDPR Transparency & Consent Framework, only a few weeks before GDPR launched. The Framework has now also been adopted by the U.S. IAB Tech Lab. By October, the Tech Lab launched a blockchain-based proposal for a PrivacyChain that could solve one of the biggest criticisms of the new Framework — how it tracks the sharing of user consent records.
In support of GDPR-compliant advertising, anti-ad blocking provider PageFair announced a context-focused and GDPR-compliant ad initiative in March.
Yet, the year closes with some indications that GDPR compliance may not be as onerous as originally suspected. Quantcast, for instance, reported in August that 90 percent of visitors to the EU web domains of its clients granted GDPR consent, while online publisher Purch said in July that it was receiving 70 percent consent rates by visitors for use of their personal data.
As the dust settles on GDPR’s impact and marketers wait for it to be stirred up again with the EU’s to-be-settled ePrivacy Regulation, California stepped into the data protection arena with the California Consumer Privacy Act. As an attempted pushback, the Internet Association — a trade group of top tech firms — began asking for federal action that would override individual states and GDPR.
Even as GDPR and similar regulations complicate the use of consumer data, two major marketing platforms showed how central this kind of info is to their operations. In October, Oracle launched a “Customer Data Platform-plus” for its clouds, while Salesforce offered a single-view-of-the-B2C customer with Customer 360 in September.
Fits and starts for reality-plus
This year illustrated the challenges of getting augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to take off in a major way with consumers. There were numerous efforts to propel the uses cases into the mainstream. Shopify launched AR capabilities for stores, Nike had a hit AR experiment and USA Today employed VR to promote a podcast series. Retailers are also getting in the game, such as Walmart’s purchase this past year of a VR company intent on inventing “contextual commerce.”
There were also a variety of efforts this past year to set up AR/VR marketing ecosystems. Questions of viable business models remain however. In November, AR/VR agency Vertebrae launched a web-based AR platform that any online retailer can use. Much-hyped Blippar announced an AR-based indoor visual positioning system — before the company collapsed mid-December. Adverty launched what it called the “first programmatic platform” for AR/VR in-app ads, and National Geographic programmatically placed its ads for the “Mars” series inside VR environments.
In movie theaters, a natural space for pre-show enhancements, National Cinemedia offered the first in-theater AR game for a movie.
Push toward transparency, new surfaces in digital advertising
Meanwhile, conventional ads are making some headway in dealing with their pending issues, propelled by such incentives as Unilever’s threat to pull its massive online ad budget unless there are improvements in transparency, brand safety in automated ad placements and other matters.
A new Data Transparency Label was launched in October by the IAB Tech Lab, now offering a kind of “ingredients” breakdown for audience segment data. Google allowed advertisers to programmatically buy ads.text authorized inventory, and Facebook — facing a truckload of issues about its handling of user data — said it would longer provide access to third-party data brokers within its ad system. And the Advertiser ID Consortium agreed to integrate with its possible competitor, IAB Tech Lab’s DigiTrust ID.
Digital ads also extended onto new surfaces. Ads are now available inside Google’s AMP stories, Viant’s updated TV platform can now immediately retarget your mobile devices with the same ad as on the TV and SMPTE’s new TAXI Complete standards could make multiscreen ads or even multiscreen content commonplace.
In September, video platform Innovid announced what it said was the first video ad composing tool that can create a single ad for display on every Over-the-Top (OTT) TV application.
New technologies: foldable screens, conversational ads
While AR and VR technologies are settling in for long careers in marketing, several new technologies emerged this year. They’re not yet in leading roles, but show enough promise that they could soon become stars.
One is the foldable screen. Android announced last month it now supports screens that bend or even unwrap from smaller pocket-sized versions.
Another is conversational ads, which intelligently interact with the user via text, voice or other means. A key step forward to creating an ecosystem for conversational ads was Google’s launch this year of its AdLingo conversational marketing platform.
AI plays its part
One area where marketers have a real need for AI is in customer service, which often struggles to provide personal attention at scale.
In 2018, Google showed some possible directions, unveiling a Contact Center AI solution built around its Dialogflow development suite for conversational agents. Call center tech provider Genesys became the first customer service provider to offer what it called the first “fully integrated” use of the new Google solution.
To be useful, AI engines need to be trained, a process that is rapidly becoming one of the most important within digital marketing. In April, a Singapore-based startup called Bottos announced a blockchain-based Data Marketplace that offers various kinds of support for AI applications, including off-the-shelf sets of data, audio files or other material, all of which can be used to train AI-powered models for tasks such as voice recognition.
Blockchain solutions came to market
This past year, IBM and Mediaocean became the latest to announce a blockchain-based solution to ad tech’s problems.
Location data provider Mobiquity unveiled a blockchain layer in support of its platform, social referral marketing platform Grabbr is now using blockchain to lock-record its social sharing and Aivon is employing blockchain to create what it called “the first decentralized video search engine.”
Meanwhile, Internet of Things platform Evrythng launched a blockchain-utilizing orchestration hub to track product origins, unique product identities and user rewards. Estonia-based startup Lightstreams said it could solve a key blockchain vulnerability of being too public, by offering decentralized storage.
Acquisitions that changed the landscape
This year was also notable for a variety of corporate acquisitions — and occasional spinoffs — that affected their competitive spaces.
Adobe picked up Marketo in September, essentially resetting the marketing automation platform space by boosting Adobe’s B2B marketing. This followed Adobe’s May acquisition of open source e-commerce platform Magento, similarly resetting its capabilities in that space.
Also in May, Marketo bought performance management software provider Bizible in its largest acquisition to date, adding greater attribution capabilities to its platform.
In June, AT&T bought ad exchange AppNexus, adding major programmatic ad muscle to complement its previous purchase of Time Warner — and allowing it to compete against Verizon, which ditched the Oath brand in favor of the newly minted Verizon Media Group.
Last month, SAP boosted its audience research capability with the purchase of survey provider Qualtrics.
Research firm Forrester expanded its core capabilities with several acquisitions. Its purchase in November of B2B research and advisory firm SiriusDecisions adds operational methodology to its big-picture research reports. In July, the firm announced it was turning its CX (customer experience) Index into a real-time CX Cloud, powered by its acquisition of CX feedback provider FeedbackNow and AI-driven analytics engine Glimpzit.
In October, research firm Ipsos expanded its social listening capabilities with the purchase of Synthesio.
Amazon, InMobi, Salesforce
Amazon improved its market position in home systems with the purchase in February of home security firm Ring. This follows the giant retailer’s acquisition in late 2017 of home security vendor Blink and the financing via an Amazon venture fund of smart thermostat maker Ecobee.
Mobile ad network InMobi had a busy buying spree in 2018. In January, it scooped up mobile video supply side and mediation platform AerServ, creating what the companies said was the largest programmatic video ad platform.
And, in October, InMobi became Sprint’s exclusive in-app and connected TV ad platform by buying Pinsight Media, which had been the telco’s ad firm.
Microsoft’s purchase of Semantic Machines in May indicated the tech giant’s continued interest in conversational AI. Twilio added email provider SendGrid in October, enhancing that channel on Twilio’s communications platform.
In March, Salesforce bought data integration vendor MuleSoft to power a new Integration Cloud. In May, its acquisition of CloudCraze added a B2B side to its Commerce Cloud, and its purchase of marketing intelligence and analytics provider Datorama in July enhanced its ability to present insights from multiple data streams.
Former rivals teamed up
Some firms that essentially did the same thing got together, giving them a combined, bigger competitive muscle.
In February, for instance, digital asset management firm (DAM) Bynder bought Shutterstock’s Webdam DAM, creating a double-DAM powerhouse.
In a similar vein but a different marketing space, social community/customer care provider Lithium merged with social management platform Spredfast in September. In that same sector, social intelligence firms Brandwatch and Crimson Hexagon merged, a move the companies said would allow them to integrate the former’s scale with the latter’s extensive capabilities for AI.
And, last month, Blockthrough acquired PageFair, merging two leading anti-adblocking platforms.
In late April, B2B predictive lead scoring firms Radius and Leadspace combined, a move that the companies said helped them better prepare for the sector’s transformation into B2B data intelligence.
Selloffs and sunsets
In several notable transactions, vendors subtracted parts of themselves.
In September, for instance, deep linking provider Branch added mobile attribution when it picked up that capability from mobile platform Tune, leaving Tune with its performance marketing solution, HasOffers.
And, in July, data provider Acxiom sold off its Marketing Solutions division — and its name — to global marketing agency holding company the Interpublic Group. This left Acxiom’s identity resolution service LiveRamp as a standalone company.
Social community provider Lithium announced in May that it was sunsetting its Klout online reputation service, which it had acquired in 2014 for a reported $200 million.
The way it used to be
But T-Mobile may have won the race to please customers.
Faced with consumer frustration over wait times, phone menu options, AI-powered voice bots that sometimes don’t understand what you’re saying and other drawbacks of modern call centers, the telco announced it would offer customer service the way it used to be.
That is, with humans.