Five years is roughly the amount of time it takes to see if "business predictions" actually come true. Will virtual reality finally go mainstream? Will Amazon eventually claim brick and mortar market share as it did the digital space? Perhaps most importantly, will Kylie Jenner - with her 126 million Instagram followers - become the most influential business woman in the world?

Only time will tell.

When I was the founding Chief Strategy Officer at content marketing and analytics company AirPR Software, we made several predictions in 2013 about the future of PR and marketing communications. This included the fact that brands would begin to view themselves as "media companies," publishing as much (if not more) content than mainstream publishers and news media. While we clearly had a future-pulse on the industry, the truth is that if you're paying attention to the world around you, predictions are typically nothing more than a logical extension of the current environment.

Having said that, the marketing and communication industries have continued to undergo a dramatic transformation over the past several years as the entire media and technology landscape has shape-shifted to accommodate for budget allocation changes, new infrastructure requirements, and overall innovation. Today, brands are increasingly focused on outcomes, and the days of merely hoping that a campaign will boost market penetration and capture mindshare are over. From increasingly sophisticated data analysis tools - often powered by artificial intelligence to attribution technology (of which AirPR was the first) that can measure the effectiveness of a campaign or a piece of content with pinpoint precision - we have entered the era of rigorous, data-driven marketing and communication. However, human relationships and creativity are still the key driver of the initial inputs.

With all of these variables, those of us whose livelihoods depend on staying ahead of the changes are best served to understand what's next. In doing so, we can continue to be part of the solution: for our clients, the brands we represent, and the industry in general.

#1- Communications, advertising, and marketing departments will keep converging

According to a recent Salesforce report, "The majority of companies (59 percent) now share common digital ad and marketing budgets, and use the same teams to build campaigns." Ben Rogers is the head of content at Qualtrics, and he points out that this trend toward integration includes communications professionals as well: "Effective leaders no longer think of marketing, advertising, and PR as separate work streams, but instead they work to ensure thought leadership is leveraged across all channels to reach their target audience."

Integration is a natural consequence of the emphasis on outcomes in marketing and advertising. Brands increasingly expect everyone in the communications, marketing, and advertising departments to be working toward the same goals: brand lift, the cultivation of consumer trust and loyalty, and greater market share. By closely monitoring attribution and analyzing consumer data, brands will be able to keep the focus on these goals and facilitate cooperation between departments. This will drive down the cost of campaigns and ensure that marketing, advertising, and communication platforms are operating as efficiently as possible.

#2- Media will continue to be democratized

Top-down communication between brands and their customers is no longer the norm in our industry - the explosion of social media, blogs, niche publications, and other individualized communication platforms has permanently seen to that. Marketers and communications professionals need to understand the implications of this shift: from the emergence of micro-influencers as trusted resources in purchasing decisions to the decreasing influence of legacy publications and traditional media outlets.

Paul Wilke is the CEO of Upright Position Communications, and he thinks consumers are beginning to trust individuals more than established media institutions: "A reporter's brand and recognition will be as important, if not more important than the outlet they write for. As the line blurs between paid content and true editorial/news content, readers will rely on the names of the reporters they trust to get accurate, reliable, and insightful information." This is yet another reminder that the media environment is only going to become more fragmented, personalized, and democratized in the coming years.

Need more proof? AirPR's Global Media Report says all of that and more - including the fact that Medium and LinkedIn Pulse are among the top 10 publishers in the world, ahead of CNN and The New York Times.

#3- Evidence-based, outcome-oriented communications will become the norm

Marketers and communication professionals have never been under more pressure to demonstrate that their efforts are having a substantial, measurable impact. As Gartner's most recent CMO Spend Survey explains: "CMOs must appease the often-skeptical chief financial officer's (CFO's) expectations for return on investment (ROI) to justify future budgetary commitments." This is why it's no surprise that, according to Nielsen, 79 percent of CMOs "expect to invest more in marketing analytics and attribution over the next year."

But what about the communications industry? Gini Dietrich is the CEO Arment Dietrich and the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and she doesn't think PR professionals are keeping up with their colleagues in marketing departments: "We are getting our butts kicked by marketing professionals and SEO specialists. And, while we should spearhead the content distribution strategy, advertisers are beating us to it."

What does this mean? Well, quite candidly, PR and comms professionals need to push for analytics and evidence-based programs so they can help inform the overall marketing strategy, as opposed to remaining only on the tactical side of the equation. Here's one way to start: insist on an attribution platform that tracks everything from social media amplification and website visitors to share of voice and power of voice. Leave impressions out if you like, as they are about as useful for understanding future strategy as news releases (sent out over the wire) are for impactful storytelling.

#4- Communications technology will receive a larger share of corporate spending

"As marketing and communications departments become increasingly data-driven and accountable for securing concrete business outcomes, companies are investing in the tools that will help them get the job done," says AirPR's recently appointed CEO, Dan Beltramo. He co-founded a digital media measurement firm (Vizu) that pioneered real time brand lift measurement and was subsequently bought by Nielsen in 2012. He's been at the forefront of industry changes - both from a media and technology standpoint - for over a decade.

To his point, Gartner's CMO Spend Survey found that the largest share of marketing budgets is being allocated toward MarTech - a proportion that jumped from 22 percent in 2017 to 29 percent last year. Gartner also reports that digital marketing analytics platforms are among the top MarTech investments. Marketers understand that the ability to track a campaign's reach, its effect on customer acquisition and retention, and other crucial indicators of success is perhaps the most fundamental part of their job. Adds Beltramo: "Communications professionals are in the exact same position, and they will increasingly work with companies like ours (which invented PR attribution) to measure the impact of their content."

#5- Artificial intelligence (AI) will help brands tell better stories

AI doesn't just give brands access to an unprecedented amount of consumer data - it provides the analytical tools that can extract meaning from that data.

For example, machine learning (ML) algorithms can track the effectiveness of a campaign over time by determining how different consumers react to it in different contexts. ML doesn't have to be manually updated as new information comes in - it just "remembers" what it has already discovered and builds on that knowledge base. According to a recent report by MIT Technology Review, 68 percent of marketing leaders say ML will "give their companies a competitive edge."

AI has also given brands a suite of new resources for communicating with customers. Deirdre Breakenridge is the CEO of Pure Performance Communications (as well as the host of the Women Worldwide podcast), and she explains that her industry needs to "lead the charge in AI ethics in communication. From chatbots and streamlining customer support to programmatic ad buying and offering product recommendations, PR will help companies to be transparent and truthful and to always place the interest of the consumer first when it comes to their brand experiences with AI." Communications professionals have to be part of the conversation.

As we move into 2019, the list of challenges for marketers and communication professionals is long. The ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of their campaigns has become a stringent requirement, the media environment is becoming more fractured and complex every day, and new technologies are constantly being released and refined. But there's another way to read that list: marketers and communicators now have an opportunity to prove their value, develop unique campaigns with trustworthy collaborators, and leverage powerful new technologies to learn about customers and engage with them like never before.

Published on: Feb 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.