Next Year in Marketing, PR and Buzz Generation

Originally posted on Forbes.com.

[This is the fifth in a series of six posts about trend sightings for 2015 and beyond.]

Communications, businesses and expectations today shift at lightning speed. If we want to succeed—marketers especially, but anyone in any industry—we have to constantly rewrite our best practices. We also need to be aware of what we’re doing now and what to expect for the future.

A lot of it in our industry will revolve around new technologies, according to Chick Foxgrover, chief digital officer at the 4A’s (American Association of Advertising Agencies, a client of my agency, Havas PR). In Ad Age earlier today, he said that a “micro trend” among some agencies is hiring hardware engineers well versed in development, product design and 3-D printing, for “prototyping products so that a creative idea may now be given some physical form.” He added: “We don’t know what to make of that yet, but it’s interesting that agencies are starting to consider the melding of the digital and physical seriously.”

Here are a few trends I see when I turn a mirror on my own industry:

Pumped-Up Perks
Management experts encourage companies to consider how they engage with millennials, who will soon make up the largest segment of the workforce. Flexible hours and dress codes, frequent feedback, an emphasis on social responsibility and a collaborative company culture are all on the increasingly standard list. And they’re all good ideas. But when creative companies take it further—sometimes by a lot—they aren’t just attracting and retaining top talent, or increasing productivity. All those free yoga classes, laundry services, manicures, climbing walls, dog-friendly office spaces, tuition reimbursements and company gyms are tools for burnishing companies’ brand halos, for getting the rest of us talking about what cool companies they’d be to work for (and, by subconscious extension, buy something from). Apple and Facebook made headlines this fall when they added egg freezing to the list of benefits offered to employees. Staff at brand consultancy BBMG are given $500 toward inspiration and another $500 for professional development, which they can decide how to use. According to Business News Daily, Patagonia encourages employees to take regular surf breaks, while Weebly pays for housecleaning and errand running. One company, FullContact, even pays employees $7,500 to go on vacation (on top of their paid vacation days) because it believes in the importance of disconnecting.

Hackathon Hysteria
Between 2005 and 2009, the term hackathon appeared four times on TechCrunch. By 2014, it was showing up in dozens upon dozens of posts. These “hacking marathons” of rapid-fire collaboration are now everywhere. In November in New York, there was a Time Inc. hackathon to generate digital ideas for the magazine industry, a New York University hackathon to reimagine technology used by students and an AT&T hackathon to create mobile apps. TechCrunch now puts on its own hackathons at its signature Disrupt conferences. Major League Hacking directs its events toward students, to tap into the tech-savvy future workforce and to encourage the coding movement at universities. Diageo sponsored a hackathon to create digital tools to help with responsible drinking, while MIT hosted a hackathon to try and build a better breast pump. Indeed, hackathons are moving out of the tech realm and into other areas, such as lifesaving medicine. Yes, the events prompt innovation, but they’re also a means of generating PR buzz for a relatively small investment of time and resources, and we haven’t seen the end of them.

Reality Advertising Is Here to Stay
Earlier this year, Ad Age reported on global brands like Coca-Cola and Nissan adopting virtual-reality campaigns in which people wear VR goggles and motion sensors to have immersive experiences like playing soccer in the World Cup or diving off a plank. For now the technology is cumbersome—marketers have to provide the hardware—but the article pointed toward investment in better VR and stated: “Virtual reality could be transformative for the ad industry. Instead of interrupting people with ads, marketers could sponsor virtual experiences people actually seek out.” With virtuality and reality blurring, no wonder I am constantly confused: Did I just …? Are we …?

Enough About Me; Let’s Talk More About Me
Not that long ago, few people had heard of online reputation managers. But now, the industry is booming. (Last year, a Forbes contributor valued it at $5 billion, describing it as an industry “comprising hundreds of companies devoted to monitoring, repairing, improving and policing the reputation of individuals and businesses online.”)

Yet as online reputation management has exploded, it has also become commoditized. So many companies offer these services that it’s hard to differentiate one from another, and this past summer, following a ruling by the Luxembourg-based European Union Court of Justice, Google launched an online form giving European users a chance to get personal information about themselves removed from search results. Should Google and other search engines begin more readily allowing individuals to easily manage their own search results, online reputation management services will become obsolete.

But online reputation management doesn’t seem to be enough anymore anyway. For CEOs and others aspiring to top-dog status, the search is on for services that will not only control their online reputations, but also shape and promote their online profiles. To meet that demand, a nascent new breed of personal brand consultants does everything from managing SEO results for a client’s name and drafting tweets to producing YouTube videos and building LinkedIn profiles.

“CEOs realize the importance of branding and publicity more than ever,” says Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, founder of PR technology platform AirPR, who says he has suddenly starting getting several calls a week from C-level executives looking to hire personal brand consultants. “They all want to increase their personal brand because of the general realization that any increase benefits the value of the business in terms of revenue and recruiting [and also benefits them as individuals]. With the focus on content, now is the ideal time for top execs to strengthen their personal brands in a subtle yet effective manner.” And for companies—from PR agencies to traditional online reputation management consultants—to evolve to offer these enhanced services.

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