Writing is the key to thinking and learning for me – even more than reading.
Last year I started to write down the greater trends I’m seeing in Growth. I set up 11 predictions for Growth in 2018 with the goal to review at the end of 2018 and make new predictions for 2019.
So, no surprise, this is what this article is about. I will also take the time to review how my personal site and my weekly Email Tech Bound did in 2018.
Tech Bound in 2018
Tech Bound grew nice and steady in 2018, mostly because of two things:
- I doubled down by publishing one episode every week
- I promoted the Email at speaking gigs, in articles, interviews, and podcasts (organically, no paid ads)
The open and click-rate is okay but it could be better.
What do I want to do better moving forward?
- Keep a narrow topical focus. I wrote about too many things, but I will narrow down on Growth in the future.
- Improve design and layout.
- Bring back the interviews.
My personal site did well in 2018. I got close to 40,000 unique visitors, mostly from the US but also from the UK, Germany, India, and Spain.
The top 5 articles in terms of page views are:
- Early adopter marketing - how startups get their first users
- User intent mapping on steroids
- Creating an SEO strategy from scratch
- The 10 ranking factors we know to be true
- A better approach to keyword research
I have a nice diversity of traffic channels but want to increase the share of organic traffic a good bit.
That leads me to what I want to do with the site going forward:
- Improve layout and design
- Create more keyword-targeted content
- Bring more diversity into the length of articles (almost all of them are 2,000 words and up)
Evaluating my predictions for Growth in 2018
The idea here is to look at my predictions from last year and rate them so I can hopefully get better at predicting trends over time. If I get a bad score, I have to change the way I look at trends. If it’s good, I know I’m on the right track.
Here’s the point system:
+2 points for being correct
+1 point for a slightly correct prediction but not to the right degree
-1 point for a being off
-2 points for being dead wrong
A bad score would be getting 1 or fewer points for 50% of the predictions. For example, I made 11 predictions for 2018. So, a bad score would be 6 or lower (11 x .5). A good score would be at least one point per prediction. So, 11 in this example.
Now let’s get to it!
Last year, I made 11 predictions:
- Most publishers and companies will retreat from Social organic as a marketing channel
- SEO will become more important for Growth
- SEO will get much harder
- Niche communities will be discovered as a great channel for growth
- App push notifications will die as a retention tactic
- E-Mail marketing will return
- User testing will become easier and cheaper
- Podcasts will become a stable advertisement channel
- B2B marketing will become a lot like B2C
- Smart speakers will become a viable user-acquisition channel in 2018
- B2B businesses and marketers will go all in on LinkedIn
#1 Most publishers and companies will retreat from Social organic as a marketing channel
I think I wasn’t right on the spot but also not completely off here.
Reason 1: Social network traffic has been surpassed by direct mobile traffic:
“We know that the majority of readers arrive on a site directly via desktop. However, for as long as we can remember, this behavior has been different on mobile devices; mobile readers = social readers, where someone on mobile most likely found your content from Facebook. Our latest data shows that’s no longer the case. Now, mobile readers are arriving to a site (website or app) directly to the homepage or section front more often than from attributed social platforms, namely Facebook.”
Chartbeat, emphasis mine
As clearly visible in the chart below, direct mobile traffic has surpassed Facebook total traffic. Direct mobile was steady at first and then increased when Facebook total traffic decreased in November 2018.
The following chart from Parse.lyfits perfectly to the one above from Chartbeat and also occurred in last year’s article.
Here’s the same chart without Google search and Facebook.
YoY referrer traffic changes:
- ⬆️Google search: 44% to 49%
- ⬆️Facebook: 22% to 26%
- ⬆️Google News: 0.54% to 2.5%
- ⬆️Pinterest: 0.69% to 2.1%
- ⬇️Twitter: 2.8% to 1.8%
- ⬆️Bing: 1.2% to 1.3%
That raises a couple of questions.
- How come Facebook increased by 4% points? I’m not sure. Maybe Instagram is included?
- Why did Google News increase so much? More News integrations in search results and on the Android app.
- Why did Pinterest traffic increase? Platform growth and image search rankings.
- What happened to Twitter? I don’t know! I use it more than ever, but I guess I’m biased. The spiking skepticism towards social networks could have cost Twitter engagement.
Reason 2: Decreased usage of social media.
A report from Edison Research (n=2000) found that social media usage has decreased from 80% to 77% while increasing 3-7% points YoY the years prior (since 2010). Facebook usage dropped by 5% points, especially in the age group 12-34.
For this year, I think +1 point is fair. I was right on publishers retreating from social media. However, the decline in traffic to publishers is probably a mix of decreased reach and less activity.
Verdict: +1 point
#2 SEO will become more important for Growth
This one holds very much true.
Reason 1: More organic traffic.
We’ve already established that traffic from Google search surpassed Facebook in September with data from the Chartbeat article linked in the previous point.
Reason 2: Lower ROI from ads.
We also know that paid social and search is becoming trickier because ROAS (return on ad spend) is decreasing over time, as Mary Meeker’s annual tech roundhouse kick shows.
In the report, Meeker also shows that CAC (customer acquisition cost) is increasing over time (slide 76).
The rising challenges of organic social paired with the prevalence of Google and organic search led me to give myself two points here.
Verdict: +2 points
#3 SEO will get much harder
There is no shortage of reasons to support my claim here. 2018 was no easy year for SEOs and I don't see that change any time soon.
Reason 1: Voice search is slowly starting to affect SEO.
Not yet to the degree where it becomes worrisome but noticeable:
“Search marketers should, in my opinion, breathe a sigh of relief at the relatively slow growth of no-click searches. It’s bad, it’s getting worse, but it’s not yet cannibalized so much as to make anyone in SEO or paid search worry about their jobs.” from https://sparktoro.com/blog/google-ctr-in-2018-paid-organic-no-click-searches/
Reason 2: Google is transforming from search to answer machine.
Instead of passing traffic on to other sites, Google answer more and more searches directly with shopping results, map results, featured snippets, direct answers, and knowledge graph integrations.
I outlined possible counter-actions in a post on Openview titled “The time to take SEO beyond Google is now”.
Even Hubspot has been struggling with that.
Reason 3: Content is more important and saturated than ever.
As a BuzzSumo analysis shows, there are more articles per topic and fewer shares than ever.
I think the verdict is clear: SEO is getting harder, though more fruitful when you can beat the competition.
Verdict: +2 points
#4 Niche communities will be discovered as a great channel for growth
I think I called this one too early.
My thought process was that since ROAS is decreasing across the board, SEO becomes tougher, and social organic has dropped into the void, more companies would leverage niche communities. I saw Slack channel and sites like growthhackers.com and indiehackers.com bloom. But in the end, I haven’t found much data to prove my thesis.
Verdict: -1 point
#5 App push notifications will die as a retention tactic
I did a poor job in phrasing this prediction. It should have been much more precise because what does “die” even mean?
However, I’m not completely off. Notifications have a sour flavor in 2018, especially from apps that should make us more productive. I’m looking at you, Stride and Slack! To be fair, though, many apps have worked on muting features that allow users to take a break. I know we certainly have with Stride.
Reason 1: The degree to which networks like Facebook and Linkedin use push-notifications for no valuable reason is maxed out.
Using push-notifications to retain users is a desperate method. It should be a product feature, not a notification that retains users. The only exception I see is E-commerce, in which offer notifications can re-activate users.
Growth in 2018/2019 means to understand that users are constantly overwhelmed because everyone is fighting for their attention. In that sense, every app competes with each other. Notifications don't really help to overcome this information overload - they add to it.
Reason 2: Notifications don't drive retention.
A report from Leanplum on the App Annie blog shows that retention with behavior-based push notifications is hardly higher than without.
The data isn’t perfect because it doesn’t show a negative effect of push notifications on retention, just that there isn’t a positive one.
Generally, the sentiment towards push notifications is negative. I started my own, unscientific poll on Twitter and saw a clear result: 81% find them annoying.
However, I do feel that I’m on the right track here. There’s hardly an app or SaaS solution out there that’s not replaceable nowadays. Thus, bombardments of app notifications often lead to resentment, not engagement. I do think they’re not completely useless but, at the same time, not a viable retention tactic.
#6 E-Mail marketing will return
I came to this prediction because I realized that I’m reading way more newsletters than before. We’re not talking about exclusive offers or sales. We’re talking about curated newsletters from thought leaders or magazines. After all, that’s why I started Tech Bound.
Reason 1: There are actually good curated newsletters out there.
Pretty much every publisher has one and many have several ones, from the New York Times to Business Insider and Forbes. They fit into a greater strategy I described in “Building a triple-looped Growth model for newspapers”.
Reason 2: Since more companies use messengers like Slack, Stride, and others for work, more inboxes a free.
People are still used to checking their inboxes but since they receive much less work-related emails personal ones get more attention.
Reason 3: We can all agree that the internet has become increasingly overwhelming.
For the first time in history, we have access to almost all knowledge available to man. The internet also allows news to spread globally within minutes. All that leads to constant attention-grabbing and draining. Newsletters are different because they’re focused, short, and curated.
A survey by Adobe found that the time for checking personal Email is up +17% YoY. Not only that, checking personal Email happens all the time.
“Ninety percent of respondents check personal email during work. Eighty-five percent check it before they get to work, and nearly a quarter take a look before they even get out of bed in the morning. People even check personal email while watching TV (60%), using the bathroom (40%), talking on the phone (35%), working out (16%), and even driving (14%).”
One of the main reasons Email is still prevalent, even though many companies try to get rid of it, is that it’s manageable and we know what we’re getting.
I allow myself a full hit for this prediction.
Verdict: +2 point
#7 User testing will become easier and cheaper
Welp, that one is a clear miss.
My thought process was that user testing would become so much more prevalent that the cost would significantly drop. I guess I expected way too much here. I couldn’t find much (any?) evidence for this claim. Also, I should have been more precise and used the wording “a/b testing”, as user testing is actually something different.
Verdict: -2 points
#8 Podcasts will become a staple advertisement channel
Once again, I should have phrased this smarter. “staple” could mean lots of things. That being said, I was right here.
Reason 1: More ad revenue in podcasting.
The sub-headline says it all: “Podcast ad revenues grew 86 percent in 2017”. Ad revenue has risen from $169m to $314m in 2017 and is supposed to hit $659m in 2020.
One of the reasons Podcast ad revenue is so attractive is that listeners tend to not skip ads. “On average, according to Midroll’s data, podcast listeners are making it through about 90 percent of a given episode, and relatively few are skipping through ads.” (Wired).
Listeners consume podcasts during times when they are during things like driving a car, doing the laundry, or cooking. That leaves enough attention to be aware of ads.
Of course, podcast ad revenue is not yet comparable to TV or other ad formats. It’s challenging to build a scalable, programmatic ad network. However, big players and platforms such as Apple or Stitcher could solve that.
Reason 2: More listeners
The share of people who have listened to a podcast is at its peak (44%) and growing. It’s up 4% points from 2017, according to the Edison study I already mentioned under #1.
I’ll give myself a point here because, even though ad revenue from podcasts is significantly growing, “staple” could mean that podcast ad revenue is comparable to other ad formats and that’s simply not the case yet.
Verdict: +1 point
#9 B2B marketing will become a lot like B2C
I feel good about this prediction and, to be fair, I had lots of insights working at Atlassian.
Reason 1: Successful B2B products have consumer features.
Luckily, Mary Meeker summarized exactly what I said in her Internet Report this year. B2B solutions, whether self-serve or enterprise SaaS, have much more of a consumer app-like touch and feel to them.
B2B solutions should leverage in-product virality, such as Slack, Dropbox, Jira, and others do. Inviting colleagues is a key driver of growth, which has become even more important as the ROI of marketing channels such as organic search and paid media is decreasing.
Verdict: +2 points
#10 Smart speakers will become a viable user-acquisition channel in 2018
I called this one too early as well.
Reason 1: Smart speaker ownership is up from 7% to 18% YoY, according to the Edison study mentioned earlier. However, smart speakers and voice assistants are not the user acquisition channels I sought they could be. They are for Amazon and Google, but not for 3rd parties.
My thought was they would be marketplaces on which 3rd parties could release apps and features that would lead to user growth, similar to mobile apps. Even though that is kind of the case, it hasn’t reached critical mass, yet.
That is partly due to the level voice assistants are at. They serve some features well but are still very “answer-tree-like”, meaning they can also give an answer to a precise question but don’t “understand” language, yet. But it’s also partly due to adoption. 18% is much more than 7% but not critical mass, yet.
Yes, smart speaker ownership is increasing and so are skills. But they're not yet the user-acquisition channel I thought it would be.
Verdict: -1 point
#11 B2B businesses and marketers will go all in on LinkedIn
Reason 1: As the Buzzsumo Content Trends Report 2018 shows, Linkedin shares are on the rise.
On top of that, a Linkedin representative stated on Digiday that likes and shares are up +60% and engagement has increased 4x in the last two years.
Verdict: +2 points
I think it went okay for the first year doing this. I have to improve the accuracy of my predictions but apart from that, I seem to be on the right track.
Bottom line: 9 points
On to predictions for 2019!
Predictions for Growth in 2019
#1 Audio and video will gain significant importance for organic search
Because regular organic search, paid media, and social are delivering fewer returns, companies will double down on formats like audio and video. I think that will happen especially in the B2B space as a continuation of an ongoing trend, which is the emergence between B2C and B2B marketing.
Reason 1: The rise of smart speakers and voice assistants.
Farhad Manjoo eloquently wrote that we’re “peak screen”.
“So tech giants are building the beginning of something new: a less insistently visual tech world, a digital landscape that relies on voice assistants, headphones, watches and other wearables to take some pressure off our eyes.”New York Times
Reason 2: Google shows more videos in organic search.
Video thumbnails were replaced by video carousels for the most part, which attract more clicks.
Reason 3: Video is a more popular format.
A Hubspot study shows that there are generational differences in format-preference, but across the board, video remains one of the most sought-after content types.
Reason 4: Google might show podcast snippets in organic search.
As Pacific Content explained in an article-series in April, Google might have big plans for making snippets of podcasts available in organic search.
“Podcasts will show up in Google Search as a “first-class citizen” alongside the text, image, and video results you are used to seeing.
Your podcast listening experience will be seamless across devices and contexts thanks to Google AssistantGoogle’s speech and language understanding will open doors to bring futuristic features to life (more specifics throughout the week).”
#2 B2B and B2C companies will invest more in building a brand (for SEO, ads, and viral growth, of course)
Everybody wants a strong brand but in 2019, I see companies invest more in actually building a brand.
Reason 1: Direct traffic, conversions, and referrals are just a few benefits of strong brands. Granted, that's nothing new, but more important when other marketing channels start breaking away.
The challenge is to understand how to build a brand. I’ve extensively written about the topic. Often, it just means going the extra mile. An example is Pitchbox’ Halloween special “Tales of Halloween: Zombie Link Building Techniques”, which includes illustrations of contributors.
Brand building campaigns demand higher effort, but they stand out and people remember. It reminds me a lot on link building in the old days when you had to provide something special. Asking was not enough. The same mentality applies to building a brand and I think this is something we’ll see more of next year.
#3 Viral product growth will become more important for SaaS
In-product virality is simple: build a product feature that's based on collaboration and help users invite their colleagues. Jira is a good example. It doesn’t make sense to use Jira by yourself. You need to invite your colleagues. Other successful SaaS companies work just like that: Dropbox, Slack, Google Docs, etc.
The less you can rely on marketing channels and sales to bring in users, the more you need to focus inwards. I mentioned enough examples and trends in this article that show how it's getting more difficult to "buy" and attract users. But product network effects are mighty.
I expect more SaaS companies to build out collaborative features in their products, even if they’re not collaborative from scratch next year.
#4 Blogs will become more important for thought leadership
This is a prediction I’m personally excited about: blogs will gain back importance. I explicitly look for greater readerships and more direct traffic to personal blogs.
Reason 1: Pre-Facebook, blogs had a real uprising. Everyone was excited about the Web 2.0. Then social media came and took over. Now, however, endless scandals and overwhelm have led to “social media fatigue”. I think this might draw more people to write and consume personal blogs again.
Reason 2: I spoke to a couple of friends in the industry in the last months and many agree that writing great content on blogs and sites brings in more leads than presentations at conferences and the like. There was a time when that dipped
I also think the rise of Email goes hand in hand with people reading more blogs. I'm excited to see how this plays out.
#5 Tech will have a peak year with major B2B and B2C startups going public
I think next year will be a peak year for tech.
Reason 1: As I wrote in Tech Bound episode #60, a lot of startups intend to go public in 2019.
A big wave of IPOs often means that the startup industry as a whole peaks because a lot of talent that would have started a startup works at incumbents instead.
Reason 2: The economy could turn around in 2019/2020.
The economy can't always run at a maximum and the last "correction" was 10 years ago. An economic down turn isn't always bad for startups. Actually, it's often good because resources like office space and people are cheaper. Many of the big tech incumbents were started around 2008, in the last economic downturn.
#6 Startups will seek other business models than ads
2018 is the first year in which we truly question ad-based business models and I think 2019 will be the year in which we’ll see more startups being creative in how they monetize their products.
Reason 1: Facebook is tumbling.
There are really only two big digital marketplaces for ads: Google and Facebook. Amazon is on the way up but it still only rakes in about $4b, compared to Facebook’s $23 billion and Google’s $42 billion (Variety).
Now that the number two, Facebook, is collapsing under its business model, we’re starting to see its dark side. Users being afraid of being manipulated and doubtful about how their personal data is used. Countless law-suits around the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook is even blamed for 100% of the outcome of the 2016 presidential vote. That will make founders think twice about choosing the right business model.
Reason 2: There are creative alternatives to ads.
Eric Feng wrote a good piece on alternatives to ad-based business models. It seems that, once again, video games show how to be creative: shared-value transactions. In many free-to-play games, a fraction of players buy lots of items, which creates the return that lets all players enjoy the product for “free”.
Connie Chan from a16z has a great presentation about China’s creative ways to avoid ad-based business models. Companies like Tencent or Bytedance show that ads are not the only way.
#7 Social media fatigue will continue
As mentioned in #4, more people will feel social media fatigue and I expect more users to jump off of social networks.
Reason 1: Data scandals around Facebook and other social networks.
Reason 2: New realizations and data on the negative impact of social media.
We already saw studies on social media and mental health make the rounds in 2017:
“We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction."Source: Research Gate
I think that discussion will continue but not in a good way for Facebook, Twitter, & Co.
Reason 3: Digital overwhelm.
We’re realizing that it’s harder for us to focus. The habits we adopted from the digital world are not all good. But most of all, we can blame ourselves. We’re really bad at self-control. However, when you can’t control yourself, you can avoid something. That’s why think more people will abandon social media all together instead of trying to limit themselves. An article by TechCrunch about "Tech Fatigue" explains what I mean in further detail.
I know more and more people who delete all social networks from their phone – even Instagram. The enthusiastic gold rush days are over, especially for endless experiences without a goal.
#8 More social features in Google search
Google might have killed Google+, but it doesn’t seem to let go of social features. I think we’ll see more of that in 2019 and Google search will get closer to what Youtube already is today: a hybrid of social network and search engine.
Reason 1: I recently saw Google displaying stories in search results for celebrity names.
This seems to an AMP feature, introduced in February 2018. I didn't expect Google to roll this out so quickly but it could be successful and I can see many publishers jump on this train, just like some are doing Instagram stories very well.
Reason 2: This year, Google killed its Facebook defense and biggest attempt at creating a social network so far, Google +. I wrote a lengthy article about how Google+ was meant to die before it was born.
This prediction sits in contrast to #7, social media fatigue. However, I get the notion that Google is not done yet and will push more social features.
I think Growth in 2019 will be driven by audio + video, emphasized in-product virality, an industry peak, social platform weakness, and convergence between B2C and B2B tactics.