Time to invest

Social media will start to take centre stage amid an explosion of digital activity this year, exploited by fmcg and media brands – and politicians, too – yet client expenditure is forecast to dip. Mike Exon looks behind the figures

Looking back, 2009 was another rollercoaster year for digitalists. As digital media helped deliver a US president in January, uncovered evidence of G20 police brutality in April and put the spotlight on suppressed Iranian election protests in June, the world held its breath.

Online, the power-bases shifted. Google lost Yahoo to Microsoft. Facebook’s traffic challenged Google’s, while Twitter subscriptions went bananas – up 1400 per cent in February alone. Design delivered us the mobile Internet, the handsets to use it and the 100 000th iPhone app. There were mobile apps everywhere, on Windows Mobile, Android, Blackberry and Palm Pre.

In the UK, online spending overtook TV advertising, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. As design organisations set up social networking groups, we elected All of Us founder and digitalist Simon Sankarayya to be D&AD president. Over the networks, the 200 events of the London Design Festival found a new sense of common purpose. Things have been busy in digital and indications are the pace isn’t going to slow this year.

This will be the year that Web surfing, social networking and gaming – ‘on the move’ – hit critical mass. Research company Gartner predicts global mobile Internet revenues will increase 13-fold between now and 2013. Good news for mobile phone brands, product designers and content-makers.

In the fmcg world, brands will increasingly test and launch products using social media. Marmite has announced its new ‘extra strong’ variant will hit the market this way, calling on Marmite-lovers to feed back on the new recipe. Branding and packaging consultancies may need to brush up on their digital.

The strategic use of social media communications will come into its own in 2010 as consultancies realise its potential for reaching consumers, not as a sales channel, but as a research tool. At the same time, design groups will see the value of using social media to demonstrate their own opinions, thinking and creativity.

Corporate and consumer brands will invest in more ‘live’ or ‘real time’ websites, not just so they can talk to their customers directly over Twitter feeds and blogs, but to build communities. The progressive brands will behave more and more like publishers, thinking through editorial strategies, responding to live events and dealing with communications issues as they happen. First Direct has a ‘feelings’ barometer on its live site, while the fashion site Asos publishes customer reviews.

In 2010, designers will be asked to make the Internet smarter, using predictive searching and more helpful search engine interfaces. Advertisers will try to persuade us that behavioural targeting online is good for the economy, while consumer groups will insist monitoring our movements online is an invasion of privacy. We’ll be able to browse shelves of low-cost e-books and make micropayments for online articles. If Continental Research’s findings are anything to go by, these will cost just a couple of pence.

The bun fight over paid and free online content will continue, as private media owners struggle to compete with free news services online. News publishers that can, like the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, will roll out paid mobile news services, while there will be a final showdown between News International and the BBC.

Over the first half of the year, politicians will turn to technology to fight the first major ‘digital’ General Election. Design groups should benefit from their electioneering work, even if the long term outlook for public sector spending is gloomy.

If it gets ratified before the General Election, the Digital Economy Bill promises to ‘provide essential support for the creative industries’. In practice, the support is minimal: a review of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act to penalise illegal downloads; improved bandwidth for mobile broadband; support for the switchover to digital radio; and a landline tax to pay for high-speed broadband.

Client spending on digital is forecast to dip again this year, after falling for the first time since 2001 last year. Zenith Optimedia reversed its online growth forecast at the end of 2009, as clients tightened their belts and digital media groups cut costs and staff. Zenith expects UK online spends to drop by 1.1 per cent, with the first signs of growth coming in 2011.

There’s plenty to be excited about in 2010, before we even get to the launch of the Apple iTablet. Client spending on digital has a long way to grow within the marketing mix, even if budgets don’t go up. WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell says digital activity should account for 20 per cent of the marketing budget, but is presently only 13 per cent.

Even when spending is tight we need to be buying the right things. Budgets may be locked down, but there’s still every reason to invest in digital.

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