Talking about the future of digital can quickly turn into pontificating on the promising future of emerging innovations. But in 2014, digital seems to be anchored in keeping perspective. Yes, online work allows for more measurement, but which metrics do CEOs and CFOs ultimately care about when assessing expenses? Does every organization need a seasoned data scientist -- or simply someone comfortable existing in the realm of numbers? These were among the questions raised as part of this year's digital forecast. 

1. Measure for the CEO

The tenor around measurement is changing. It used to be all about mapping back to business objectives, but now, the holy grail is ensuring the CEO can decipher the KPIs. “Digital and online work can deliver results that impact further down the ‘sales and marketing’ funnel,” says Giles Fraser co-founder of the UK-based tech shop Brands2Life. “If we can do this it will significantly increase the perceived value of our work and widen the depth and breadth of our influence.”

Mark Stouse, VP of Global Connect for BMC Software, advocates for communicators to “join the rest of the business in answering the top questions CEOs really care about:  are you performing well? Are you getting the most from the resources you have, and are you actively contributing to the growth and profitability of our business? Non-financial answers to these questions are no longer enough...Not just awareness and demand generation, but influencing the trust factors that drive or retard deal expansion and sales velocity. True ROI.”

2. The Rebound Curve Brands that have earned their place inside people’s personal digital world can reasonably expect forgiveness for unpopular redesigns or changes. Twitter, Google and Facebook all saw this first-hand in 2013 (and prior) to varying degrees. For instance in Twitter’s case, the company reversed an unpopular policy change and didn’t take much of a hit on reputation. But even without reversing course, digital companies should pay more attention to how quickly disgruntled users return to the platform than to the initial backlash, says Facebook’s VP of communications Michael Buckley. At the In2 Innovation Summit in San Francisco he told the crowd: “Every time we make a substantive change, our net sentiment score drops. That could create panic, but because we’ve made changes [to the platform] so many times, we now see a very predictable curve. While the sentiment initially drops for 30 to 60 days, it then ascends after users become accustomed to the change. It’s about how quickly the upward curve comes back.”

3. Ambiguity Around Data Privacy Typically, without external mandates, digital marketers push privacy limits until they’re met with a critical mass of consumer opposition. This approach, says Facebook’s Buckley, is helping to mold consumer standards around data privacy. “I do think people’s own standards are changing,” Buckley said at the In2 Summit, citing the privacy concerns that surfaced around the introduction of caller ID. “The bullish outlook is, [consumer expectations] will eventually get there. The bear outlook is, if we looked at the user agreements of websites that we trust, we would be scared.”

Notably, this fear, has prompted a class-action lawsuit against Facebook and an investigation against Google in the Netherlands, points out Jessica Payne, director for digital strategy and marketing at PAN Communications. “This proves privacy infringement has taken an ugly turn to involving masses upon masses of people – entire countries and more. And then there’s what Forbes calls Target’s ‘nightmare’ data breach,” she says. “The last twelve months have been horrible for consumer confidence in social media and online privacy in general.”

Buoying on the first prediction, Payne adds, “the public is hungry for strong, personalized relationships with brands; responsive customer service and less infringement. Mistakes will be made but when addressed quickly and transparently, the public is surprisingly forgiving.”

Singapore-based Simon Kemp, managing director for We Are Social, takes a counter position and forecasts a balance of power shift “as individuals realise the value of their personal data, and take control of who they share it, and where and when they do so. As a result, a big 'facilitation player' emerges, allowing people to collect, update and maintain control of their data, licensing specific elements of that data to brands and organisations in return for a fee or reward relative to the value that data has.”

4. Perspective The emergence of big data caused the industry to oversell the necessity for quantitative skills to thrive in a data-rich environments. Cisco’s senior director of communications David McCulloch pointed out that “we overthink” these skills and often neglect the ultimate objective -- being able to distill data into the bigger picture.

“I really like to get away from the idea that data is always a spreadsheet,” said GinzaMetrics’ COO Erin O’Brien, also at the In2 Summit. “It could be a conversation with someone I see on the street, that’s a data point. The idea that data is just spreadsheet and numbers does the industry a disservice.”

As part of this shifting perspective, some brands may also scale back the fervor at which they’ve dived into the content marketing realm as real numbers on ROI trickle in and force brands to consider how robust the audience for their branded content really is.

5. The Internet of Everywhere Connectivity is expanding beyond our devices to more physical objects as the “Internet of everything” becomes a reality. Matthew Iliffe, partner at Beyond, says the acceleration of the “Internet of everything” in 2014 is “not just a place for hardware companies to play, but a playground for brands of all sizes to innovate. As the cost of prototyping hardware becomes cheaper and more accessible, the scope of opportunity is becoming broader. In-store installations, wearables, low-energy Bluetooth, sensors, and Arduino boards all give creators a broader canvas to innovate.”

Marc Landsberg, CEO of SocialDeviant, says in the marketing realm we’ll see this with more  brands looking to social media to drive activation. For instance, activating an offline campaign via a request for information, a registration, or an actual purchase; or referral networks that help brands create and manage their ambassador and referral marketing efforts via social channels; or social campaigns like Oreo's #sendmeanoreo which ran during the Grammy's.

“Primarily a Twitter campaign, this effort utilized the social ecommerce tool Chirpify to enable consumers to engage and purchase via the hashtag,” says Landberg. “A terrific sampling program that enabled Oreo to introduce a few new products during the Grammy awards, capturing build-in audiences and activating them via a smart social offer.”

Client Perspective: “Embrace speed, disruptive innovation, and a completely new way of working, or face a steady slide into irrelevance…”, says Ashley Brown, Global group director of digital comms and social media at Coca-Cola

[caption id="attachment_1499" align="alignright" width="150"]Ashley Brown Ashley Brown[/caption]

“2014 will be the year where media begins to truly converge, and communications teams are reshaped to look like digital newsrooms. Content isn't a campaign, and communications teams will begin to prioritize and produce high-quality brand content at scale to power owned media sites, social media, and real-time communications efforts. Paid media will break out of the marketing silo, and be leveraged by other groups throughout the business, especially communications.

Social media will mature as an effective content syndication engine, but marketers and communicators will also rediscover the importance of search as social amplification becomes increasingly costly. I think a major brand will finally appoint a global head of communications who hails from a digital background, and that will become the norm as the business realizes that hearts and minds will now be won or lost online. Finally, communications leaders will be faced with a stark choice: embrace speed, disruptive innovation, and a completely new way of working, or face a steady slide into irrelevance.”