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2016: The Year in Martech (What a year it was!)
So many potentially game-changing marketing technologies emerged this year that it feels like the future has finally begun.
Looking back, 2016 offered real-world implementations of technologies that have been incubating in labs for years, even decades.
After this past year, we can now talk about artificial intelligence, smart agents/bots, ads that react to emotion or that think, augmented reality, virtual reality, and a sensing physical world as present-day products and experiences, not some far-off dreams.
The 21st century started 15 years ago on the calendar, but this year it finally feels like we’re living in the future.
Google’s Glass project may be somewhat in limbo, but others are picking up the cause that plain reality needs another layer.
The sensation of Pokémon Go represented a turning point where augmented reality became a huge grassroots and marketing event. Other signs of layered reality this year included Lenovo’s launch of the first space-sensing Google Tango phone, Snap, Inc.’s (i.e,, Snapchat’s) spectacles and VROOM’s use of virtual reality as a remote front-end for an actual showroom.
Since its beginning as a mass medium in the 1990s, the web’s low obstacles to publishing have meant that users need to be wary about sources for online information. But now that weakness has been weaponized, with organized efforts by propagandists to do everything they can to push damaging content by pretending it comes from a credible source.
This Orwellian wave is not only a threat to democracy, but it can make suspect all content on the web. And if that continues, brands will have to join scientists and politicians in resource-wasting efforts to counter the damage.
Fortunately, by year’s end some of the biggest players on the web — Facebook and Google among them — have started the effort to rescue reality. It could become an arms race, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. The outcome will determine if free, online information can be credible.
Acquisitions that changed their buyer
Companies sometimes buy other companies for their people or to squash the competition. But 2016 was characterized by at least 10 marketing/ad acquisitions that changed the parent company into something a bit new.
Verizon bolstered its position as a major search, content and ad business with its purchase of Yahoo, and Time Inc. got a giant people-based marketing engine in Viant. Adobe added a major in-house tool for user-generated content when it picked up Livefyre, and it also boosted its video ad capability by buying TubeMogul.
Salesforce added a major Commerce Cloud after it acquired the Demandware platform, and it sparked its data-heavy capabilities — including its first cross-device graph — with its acquisition of data management platform Krux.
With Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple deep into the game of intelligent agents, Samsung decided to catch up by buying Viv, which could become a superstar. Microsoft took an unusual step by picking up professional social network LinkedIn, which raises all kinds of possible synergies.
Walmart bought online commerce player Jet, although it remains to be seen if the two very different companies will merge into something new.
Intelligent helpers arrive
Sure, chatbots are one-trick ponies compared to their smarter cousins, intelligent agents. But for the average consumer, they’re all part of the new layer of helpers. Given 2016’s banner year for chatbots and intelligent agents, science fiction writers had better recalibrate their future goggles, since intelligent interfaces are becoming the norm.
The biggest agent event was Facebook’s launch of its Messenger platform that enables chatbot-building. After this announcement, every chatbot in the world sat up a bit prouder.
There was the launch of Google Assistant, Microsoft’s strategy of propagating Cortana via an SDK, the appearance of a new agent called Ozlo, and the rollouts of a variety of roll-your-own chatbot platforms from Imperson, Pullstring and others.
In fact, intelligent bots and agents are proliferating so quickly that you shouldn’t be surprised to find that some December, one of their brethren will write this year-end summary, chuckling to itself as it references the days when we did this by hand.
AI has been a part of our modern culture for so long, it’s difficult to remember when it was necessary to describe that the initials stood for artificial intelligence.
Over the last few years, there have certainly been AI inroads into marketing tech, notably through machine learning and predictive marketing — although there are some who don’t consider those technologies to be “real” AI.
2016 has seen AI — of a kind that most agree is the real stuff — emerge as a fundamental layer of many tools. At the top of the mountain, Salesforce added the appropriately-labeled Einstein layer, followed by Adobe’s Sensei. A wide variety of smaller platforms also touted their embedded AI, including Grey Jean’s personalization platform, YesPath’s Account Based Marketing platform, Optimove’s self-optimizing campaigns, Emarsys’ relaunched platform and what Adgorithms described as “the world’s first self-driven marketing platform.”
But the biggest impact will probably come from the AI-as-a-service offerings that emerged this past year, notably from Amazon and Google, plus IBM’s growing batch of services. By itself, IBM’s Watson is generating a forest of applications that builds on his cognitive talents in expert recommendations, marketing platforms, shopping assistants and many other roles.
With so much intelligent processing available anywhere on a metered basis, we’re almost at the point when the response to an AI layer will resemble how we now react to a tool being cloud-based.
In other words: of course.
Sentient ads arrive
While we don’t yet have the alert, hyper-personalized ads of the movie “Minority Report,” all of the necessary pieces are moving into place.
Emotional analytics of ads has become a standard tool at some agencies, and some advertisers — like the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Expedia travel service — are even employing the perceived emotions of the viewer to recommend content. IBM’s Watson not only helps ads to think, but is learning enough about emotion to pull shots for a horror movie trailer.
A smarter physical world
After this year, it’s difficult to see electronic highway billboards and bus shelter signs as anything other than large displays that are becoming part of the growing ecosystem of programmatic ads.
Billboards are also emerging as yet one more sensing object in the real world, where message displays can be triggered by passing traffic speeds or specific car models. Meanwhile, the Internet of Things is going beyond new kinds of beacons into a broader colonization of physical stores, sports arenas, grocery stores and urban maps.
TV gets closer to the programmatic ad ecosystem
Step by step, the granddaddy of media channels — television — is coming around to the programmatic ad ecosystem in which its younger relatives, websites and apps, reside.
Data management platform (DMP) Lotame, for instance, has launched what it calls the first TV DMP; over-the-top (OTT) TV measurement firm Tru Optik and consumer data provider Experian have partnered to share their data; and video ad platform Videology is using Nielsen data to help guide a combined TV/online targeting. Adobe recently came out with a TV ad planning/forecasting platform that starts with IP-delivered TV programs and will eventually include addressable, linear TV.
Groundbreaking stories are great, but the year was also populated by news that, while not ushering in a new era like augmented reality, did add a new chapter or two to continuing stories.
In what may be a first major step in the US toward privacy policies that rely on active consumer consent (such as Europe’s upcoming GDPR), the Federal Communications Commission ruled that internet service providers cannot utilize their customers’ browsing data without consent.
Google expanded on its strength in web analytics to launch an entire Analytics 360 suite of tools in 2016, while Oracle — a key player in marketing platforms’ competition for more and better data — launched what it described as the largest B2B audience data marketplace.
Publishers are taking back control of their advertising pricing, through their growing adoption of header bidding. A variety of ad tech platforms now support header bidding, including one giant not commonly considered ad tech: Amazon. Meanwhile, Google — whose cascading ad bidding system is the major driver behind the rise in header bidding — is taking steps to counter the trend.
This past year, Google also introduced AMP into mobile search results as a way to serve mobile pages so quickly that users will hopefully begin to abandon their ad blockers.
2017 may have a lot up its sleeve, but it will definitely have to be at the top of its game to outshine this year in marketing tech.