Digital advertising and social media evolve faster every year. For marketers, it can be hard to keep up with the changes. And as we saw last month, for people outside the marketing space -- like members of Congress -- it can be even harder.

When Mark Zuckerberg testified about the Cambridge Analytica data scandal a few weeks ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah asked him, "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" Zuckerberg replied with a smile: "Senator, we run ads."

That may be true, but today's successful digital marketers know that a few ads on Facebook are only one part of an effective distribution strategy.

Digital Marketing Is Changing

Free content marketing tools make it easy to create content. Better analytics and tools like chatbots now empower marketers to deliver more personal content and measure its performance. Social listening allows companies to track the conversations around their brands across social media. But not all changes are making life easier for marketers.

Take dark social shares, for instance. Marketers have historically tracked public shares on their content, but 65 percent of shares today go through messages -- and that makes it pretty difficult for marketers to gauge the reach of their content.

Google Chrome's big update blocks ads on websites that fail to comply with some new rules, forcing websites that once to relied on full-page interstitial ads and volume-cranking interruptions (which were poor marketing to begin with) to find new ways to attract eyeballs.

No one has a crystal ball to see what changes will affect digital marketers next, but those who pay attention to the current developments can get a good idea of what's to come. The following three trends could predict the next big changes to hit digital marketing this year:

1. Organic reach is way down.

Social media is still important to content distribution, but passive posting is no longer enough. Organic reach is declining on Facebook and Instagram, with no promising signs of picking back up.

Instagram dropped real-time updates in favor of a curated feed. So, rather than show users the latest posts from people they follow, it prioritizes posts based on what it thinks users will like. That won't save all brands' reach on the platform, but it does reinforce the trend that great content is more important than ever.

Marketers need to consistently post high-quality content to remain top of mind on Instagram (and other sites), because new algorithms make it harder to get discovered if audiences don't have an existing relationship with your brand.

2. Ad spend is going up.

With organic reach spiraling, paid ads are filling in the gaps. Advertisers will devote $40 billion more to internet ads than TV ads in 2018, and they expect those ads to deliver traceable, positive results for their companies.

Paid advertising doesn't limit itself to sponsored content or banner ads, though. Influencer marketing makes up a big chunk of that spending gap, with 39 percent of marketers planning to increase influencer spend in 2018. This boost will have the most impact on Instagram, where brands and influencers play the nicest, but the focus on influencers will extend across the web.

3. Subscription models are on the rise.

Services that used to be one-time buys, from music to video to software, now come in set-and-forget subscription formats. Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, The New York Times, and many other content channels all depend on consistent subscribers to consume their content and keep their businesses growing.

People want to see content they trust and know will be good, and they don't want to be interrupted in the process. Hulu offers its commercial-free option, Netflix doesn't advertise at all, and news sites often eliminate some or all ads for paying subscribers.

One new social media platform, Vero, hopes to take a bite of Instagram's market without using ads at all. Vero intends to charge a small subscription fee to provide an ad-free, chronological experience for users tired of Instagram's format, making it a social platform marketers should keep an eye on in 2018.

Does all this mean social media is out, that no one reads content anymore, or that ads are a thing of the past? Not even close. People will continue to consume content and engage on social media, but these trends show us that audiences are taking more control over what, when, and how they engage. To navigate this new landscape, marketers will need to respect that new dynamic and provide valuable content that meets the needs of more selective users.

Published on: May 9, 2018