2016 was a year less of personality-driven change, and more a year of big sea changes across industries. It was the year a lot of new B2B tech that has been hyped for years (analytics, B2B FinTech, MarTech) got real, the year big data got a little less big and the Internet of things exploded (not always in a good way). To use some well known Gartner terms, a lot of tech moved from the hype cycle to the trough of disillusionment, when the real work of applying and integrating these technologies got underway.
In other words, it was a year of maturing trends. Of course no year is complete without its new tech objects of infatuation, and this year the early infatuation with all things AI turned into a full-blown love affair. This is not a surprising development; it’s a natural evolution when you think about all that data platforms have been gathering. AI is really the next stage, the application of big data through new ways of turning that data into intelligence, artificial and otherwise. Past that, looking at 2018 and beyond, there’s a looming convergence of many of these technologies: AI, big data, IOT on the consumer side, that is starting to look either like a ST:NG future or 1984.
On the B2B side, we’re largely there. Industries are already being less visibly impacted by AI, automation and tech, with societal and political consequences that manifested this year, both profound and shocking. If you love change, you’ll love the years ahead. This list represents a world of B2B that sits in the middle of convulsive, fragmented change.
2016’s Top Trends
Who foresaw the impact Satya Nadella would have on Microsoft? He has taken on, and with incredible rapidity succeeded in, effecting the biggest brand perception evolution in its history. It’s a brand evolution from within, with substance, reshaping the company in a way, and to an extent, that definitively marks the post-Gates era, and the way it is rolling out, organically and carried by customer sentiment, is also new for Microsoft. Words like “innovative” and “interesting” are being used about the company (and, tellingly, disappearing from discussions about Apple, now firmly entrenched in its Ballmer years) to an unprecedented extent. By all accounts morale is skyrocketing and initiatives like Surface are evolving the company from its reliance on software revenue. What to watch for this year? The Nadella magic touch on Azure, and insight into the company’s plans for its biggest acquisition of last year, the property with the most underdeveloped potential on the web, LinkedIn.
The blockchain hype normalized a bit this year as the mystique of its origins and the drama of bitcoin faded into real questions about practical uses for the ledger system, and its limitations. It’s nice Ethelred the most important new foundational technology since IP, but those of us who remember the late 90s hype around PKI infrastructure and unified communications (and remember graphene?) know that next-big-thing-that-will-change-the-world hype often takes a long, long time to take hold and pay off. Nonetheless, it is still one of the most influential enterprise technologies in decades. It may yet change the world; 2017 will tell us much about how far and widespread blockchain tech will go.
The Startup Industry Reaches a Kind of Maturity
Strange to talk about a business segment becoming mature, but in 2016 startups evolved from a way to build a company to a maturing social trend affecting employment, intellectual property, innovation, and economics. At times it feels a bit like the late 90s: wary bankers and corporate executives with long memories of Webvan, George Shaheen and the realities of transitioning from corporate to startup are nonetheless starting to move into newly forming companies in droves. A big part of this trend is corporatization of the historical agents of business innovation: will this change how startups are managed or push corporations toward risk? The reality is change is not slowing down, and partnerships between large companies and startups enable organizations to stave off missing the next wave completely and becoming the next Blockbuster, a forever punchline about failure). The jury is still out on how much of an impact the business around startups (incubators, accelerators, and corporate partnerships) actually spur adoption of new technologies. If we look at blockchain, dozens of startups have as yet not moved the needle too far. The right balance between innovation and status quo still eludes most organizations.
AI, Analytics, Automation and the Algorithm
It’s affecting your life already: if you use Facebook, if you shop at Amazon, if you shop at a grocery store. AI is the new data gold rush, but it’s still a mirage in the desert. There’s an important distinction between automation and AI, points on the same continuum. We are barely enmeshed in the automation stage, let alone ready to move on to an AI governed B2B universe. Its future is almost immediate, in applications involved making relatively straightforward use of masses of data; case law for example. But will AI be writing major legal decisions anytime soon? Very unlikely. However, AI will make one major contribution to business intelligence: automating analytics. Data fatigue is setting in, and a data layer to classify and surface the most important information is something drowning marketers and analysts need desperately.
AdTech/MarTech and Enterprise Application Niche-ification
In many ways the fate of these two industries is where B2B is going overall. There are an incredible, overwhelming number of new AdTech/MarTech platforms in market, nearly 5000 on Scott Brinker’s 2016 march landscape, but few of them are being consolidated, and few are going away. Why? We are in a new era of B2B niches so large that subniches can now sustain entire product suites. It’s no longer a focus on ERP vendors, it’s a focus on ERP vendors for financial services firms. There are still very few B2B breakouts. Are niches now big enough to sustain businesses long term or should we expect to see consolidation start? Its very possible that 99% of the set of investments made in MarTech 1.0 will become obsolete and replaced by AI-driven platforms before the initial investments start to pay out. Where will that leave MarTech VCs and platform providers? Facing the same kind of reckoning that has hit other industries over the past decade. The reality is that the MarTech and AdTech environments are too complex, solutions lead to too few real results, and an increasing number of customers are waiting on the sidelines vs. investing in the next big thing. We predict that the next big thing will be driven by in house teams and implementations. Much of the trust given to MarTech vendors, agencies and consultants is starting to dissipate as complexity increases and solution utility starts to diminish. CMOs are less at the mercy of vendors than they have been in a decade, and an “everything new is old again” mentality is starting to settle in.
Things (as in Internet of)
IOT had a rough year in many ways, mainstreaming years often are. It is clear however, despite some bad PR that IOT is here to stay. It looks increasingly like an industrial tool vs. a consumer convenience that will efficientize our lives, Willy Wonka style, by detecting that the refrigerator is out of eggs. Security and data security as major liabilities became serious issues for IoT vendors to confront and manage in 2016. But the potential impact on supply chain economics and just-in-time manufacturing is enormous. Expect IoT to focus increasingly on security, data policies, and industrial applications in 2017.
ABM (Account Based Marketing)
The waves of innovation continue to hit B2B marketing and the latest trend is ABM, account-based marketing, consisting of targeting right-fit prospects with a targeted and deep understanding of organization, needs, with a strong focus on value sale. ABM may be the model of simplicity and control many CMOs and enterprise marketers seek. Our prediction: the focus and simplicity of ABM will continue to appeal and investment in ABM will increase, but the approach is really ideally suited to enterprises, and small and medium B2B marketers will still be very dependent on lead generation programs. It’s not going away in the enterprise either.
Shifting B2B Media Business Models
B2B journalism and the trade industry is now going through a period of transformation as significant as consumer media, and in some cases more so. The tech adoption continuum for B2B is much wider than that of B2C, with some companies innovating their B2B offerings rapidly through native advertising, hybrid online/offline event series, and a focus on data and lead generation. Annex Business Media is an example of a company riding the waves of this shift successfully: the Canadian B2B publisher now has nearly 50 titles in various industries, having grown rapidly through acquisition over the past few years. Other trade publications are leaning heavily on partnerships, events and community outreach as a part of their business models, with the role of digital still widely varying from organization to organization. B2BNN will take an in-depth look at the business of being in the trades in the US, UK and Canada later this year.
When Amazon made its first drone drop delivery earlier this month, the courier industry suffered, then started placing orders. The business of delivering paper and packages in B2B is enormous and still growing, with revenue projections of about $2.4 trillion by 2018 and the increasing interplay between digital commerce, real world fulfillment and delivery tech is one to watch. And with today’s announcement of a new patent for flying warehouses, the (ahem) sky is literally the limit.
We’ve come a long, long way since Second Life. This Christmas season was the year VR (and drones) went mainstream, and it’s increasingly clear how useful VR will be to B2B marketers and communicators. If you haven’t gotten your hands on a headset yet, do so, and think about how immersive digital experiences, guided tours through analytics or an annotated trade show exhibit floor will change how marketers and business communicators work. The applications for VR and AR are so far primarily focused on consumers, but there are a number of startups working now on applications for B2B, especially focused on architecture and construction at the moment.
The Resurgence of Community and its role in Digital Transformation
Community is once again coming back to the enterprise, thanks in part to the need for a unified approach to digital and social platforms, and in my upcoming book I talk about how harnessed community can form an exoskeleton structure for the enterprise, a potential check and balance dimension of external influence that could change how enterprises evaluate their initiatives and investment, produce content, and conduct research. The most interesting thinker in this space at the moment is Dion Hinchcliffe, an indefatigable proponent of digital transformation with community at its core.
Jack Dorsey, Brexit and Donald Trump
Jack Dorsey begat Twitter, and this year, Twitter begat President Trump. The influence of Trump and Brexit on trade, procurement and the stability of the overall business environment should not be underestimated. Macroeconomic business factors have been so stable and government in dominant North America, Europe and Asia economies has been so reliably pro business for so long, it’s hard to remember a time when the climate was this unstable. The extent of Trump’s unpredictable interventionism and the Brexit after effects remain to be seen, but the impact on trade will, one way or another, likely be substantial.
Well-intentioned but overreaching and consequently terrible legislation that is impeding the growth of B2B in Canada, partly because no one understands what compliance really looks like. Businesses are hurting. New consultations are needed. The community needs to open dialogue with the CRTC on an update ASAP.
Thanks to all of you for your feedback, attention, likes and comments. 2016 was a big year for the B2B News Network team, and we’re grateful for your support and look forward to bringing you more news and analysis in 2017. Who are the people who will shape B2B in 2017? We invite you to nominate someone who you think will influence or change the B2B world in 2017: Nominations Open for B2BNN’s “People to Watch” in 2017
IoT image courtesy: Nordic Semi
Feature image source: Markus Spiske