The drum | ‘A worldlier, smarter internet’: Are marketers facing a new breed of online user?

For The Drum’s Predictions Deep Dive, we assembled a panel of marketing leaders in the digital and social space. Their prediction? That as audiences mature, the rules of engagement online will continue to change.

We are now ankle deep in The Drum’s prediction week. But when we gathered agency leaders in the social and digital spaces to look into the proverbial crystal ball, their first priority was to tell us that security is a rare commodity in their world.

“Especially in social, you can’t predict,” says Kyma Media CEO Hannah Anderson. “The social platforms change their minds every two weeks. If we make a prediction at the start of the year, we are setting ourselves up for failure. If you had asked me three years ago if TikTok (then Musically) would win, I would have said no. At the time, long form content was king and Facebook was going to be the new Netflix. Predictions as a whole are all potentially futile.”

Well, there’s your pinch of salt. But leaving grand visions of the future aside, there’s plenty our panel can agree on. Not least that we are currently witnessing a shift in the hearts and minds of the online audience.


According to at least one of our panelists, a long-term wave is coming: “we’re looking at a suddenly more worldly, smart Internet,” says digital agency Croud’s director of data strategy Kevin Joyner.

Joyner continues: with audiences growing “skepticism and distrust of the media, people are more comfortable with automation; with the power of AI to create things; with fake content and cybercrime; with questions around privacy. Their expectations are rising. Much of what is important in the coming year has to do with responding to these mundane, wise concerns. This means using creativity to promote trust, safety and authenticity. When you talk to someone who is mature, who has been through a lot, talks you to them with greater respect. Advertising is moving in that direction.”

In other words, marketers are now dealing with generations of Internet-savvy users who are all too familiar with the rules of the game online, and especially who sells what to whom. “People are more aware that there is an exchange of value online,” says iCrossing’s paid social director James Mortimer, “and that they often is the value exchange.”

Some elements of this psychological paradigm manifest as a kind of online armor: people are more aware of how data about them is collected and acted upon; they are better at sniffing out falsehood; they are increasingly bored with lazy re-targeting for products they have already purchased; and their subconscious is adept at sorting out all the noise from unimaginative ads (manifesting as increasingly strong banner blindness).

But, our panel says, it would be a mistake to write off this ‘smarter’ generation as simply resistant to online advertising. As AgencyUK’s head of digital Adam Connett says, “they don’t mind being advertised to if it’s relevant”. In fact, as we become more aware of the digital economy, says Connett, we are in some cases more receptive to ads than ever. For example, deepening parasocial relationships between online creators and their fan bases, watching an ad for its entire duration, or clicking on it, or using a creator’s discount code can increasingly “feel like a kind of advocacy; it is a true exchange of value”.

From this battery of observations, our panel drew a number of conclusions: that creativity in digital advertising is more important than ever; that community and advocacy will only grow in importance; and that while concerns about privacy and data sharing are real, they will not shut down the digital economy. As VMLY&R’s US social director Liz Cole puts it: “people want to laugh; they want to be entertained; they want to be cool; they want to feel like they belong. It’s all very basic. That stuff often supersedes some of the more philosophical considerations”.

The digital-cultural singularity

“We’ve crossed the threshold where so-called Internet culture and mainstream culture are no longer distinct,” says Cole. It’s not hard to conjure up examples to prove that digital culture has indeed broken this threshold: Reddit users influencing the stock market; movies made from viral threads; America’s first meme president.

It’s important for brands and marketers alike to be aware of this cultural shift, says Cole. “We need to move from what used to be a very channel- and format-led approach to planning content and ideas and campaigns to one that is much more consumer and culture-led, using these platforms as a palette of different ways. to tell a story and hope that it’s going to resonate far beyond the people who actually interact with it on the original platform.”

All of this speaks to another shift: a shift in power toward communities, creators, and consumers, whose agendas and interests marketers would do well to keep tabs on. It will be hard to predict them, but being aware shouldn’t be.

For more predictions for the coming year by and about marketing agencies, check out our agency predictions hub.

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