It's safe to say that 2016 will go down in history as one of the strangest in modern times: Trump, Brexit, Leicester City's winning the Premier League, and the death of so many iconic artists.

Fortunately for marketers, it was a great year for marketing automation (MA).

Some of the highlights of 2016: approximately 55% of B2B companies are now using marketing automation; 91% of the most successful users agree that marketing automation is "very important" to the overall success of their marketing across channels; and the Pardot Engagement Studio and the Eloqua Program Canvas were released, leading to the next generation of MA.

What can we expect to see in 2017? If 2016 was anything to go by, we marketers should be excited about marketing automation in the year ahead...

1. It's the year of the customer, and retention is key

Technology has become the world's biggest business enabler, and it's made it easier for new companies to emerge and established companies to expand. The resulting competition is fierce, but it's great for users and consumers, because the available options are vast.

2017 is going to be a huge year for customer retention as companies fight for attention in an increasingly crowded market. Users and consumers are going to have a lot of choice, and they know it.

Companies will need to improve their customer service and tailor their marketing efforts so that they offer personalized experiences. Mobile phone providers have been doing it for years, and they're good at it. Have you ever tried to switch providers? They'll slam-dunk a ridiculous deal right in front of you just to keep you. More and more industries/sectors will be resorting to similar approaches.

And companies will realize that marketing automation is a fundamental part of their broader marketing strategies. Adoption of marketing automation best-practices will increase and budgets will be geared toward improving their current MA setup. In the context of the customer journey, marketing spend will be spread out over time, increasing toward the tail end of the customer journey—focusing on customer retention, upsell, and advocacy.

2. Customer advocacy is the long-term goal

It's one thing to retain customers, but converting them into evangelists makes them much more profitable. If you can build a strong community of customers who love talking about your brand, you'll do well. Apple has absolutely nailed this one. Why do people get so excited to tell friends about the new iPhones that's coming out? The company has earned advocacy, and because of that it's dominant in the market.

3. A new type of marketing team is arriving

Hiring specialists make sense. You need an SEO specialist to help you rank on Google, content specialists to maintain your position as a thought leader, email marketers to enhance deliverability, and so on.

However, that might not always be the optimal approach. You'll often find that your designers, for example, will need to understand not only the more technical aspects of marketing, such as responsive design, UX/UI, video, and even dynamic content, but also the reasons they're doing it and how they tie in with overall marketing automation strategy and best-practices.

A marketing team that thinks more strategically and is mindful of the customer journey is a team that will succeed. What stage of the buying cycle is the prospect/customer that you're targeting? How does that affect what you're doing? What systems are involved with each interaction? Should you be changing your approach to suit your current automation setup or vice versa? Those are the questions that will be commonplace in 2017.

You'll also see more technically minded people in your marketing teams. As marketing automation platforms evolve and allow you to develop more intelligent marketing programs and campaigns, to implement your ideas, you'll need to either outsource or hire people with the necessary skillset. They are the people who fully understand how your systems interlink and can integrate them.

4. Marketing automation best-practices are all about integration

Communication is key for all teams, no matter what department you work in. The same goes for your systems. Your CRM needs to talk to your marketing automation platform, which needs to know what's going on with your paid ads, organic content, social media, and webinar platforms, and all that needs to link back to your reporting so you can track ROI. Reporting and forecasting will become much easier when all your systems are talking to one another.

5. Marketing campaigns are perpetual

It will soon become the norm for companies to identify the key areas in which they can develop frameworks and multichannel campaigns that are constantly running. Campaigns can be built for your product guide downloads, newsletter signups, contact-us requests... and they can be left turned on. Email will be a powerful and cost effective tool in this respect, and prospects will be able to join, switch, and leave campaigns at will.

6. Nurture prospects through storytelling

A compelling and engaging story is guaranteed to engage your target audience. If you've read Jonah Berger's book Contagious, you'll be familiar with STEPPS (Stories, Triggers, Emotion, Practical value, Public and Social currency). More and more companies are becoming familiar with Berger's methodology, and it will become the norm for high-performing marketing teams.

Nurture programs can and, where possible, should be built with stories in mind, and in 2017 marketing automation will be working in synergy with stories.

7. Optimize for mobile (and maybe for virtual reality)

We're aware of how smartphones seem to have taken over the world: 34% of people actually check their phone in the middle of the night... according to Deloitte. That doesn't mean they're all checking for emails, of course; they're probably just checking the time. But the point stands: People have grown reliant on their mobile devices.

Optimizing email, websites, landing pages, PDFs, and other assets for mobile has never been so important. Google is actually splitting its index so that it can evaluate mobile sites differently, essentially creating two versions of the Internet. For best-practices in marketing automation, we will want to know who is looking at what page on what device. If we realize that half of our customers are on mobile and half are on desktop, we can market to each segment differently. Let's get the mobile half to download our app and the other can download our comprehensive PDF.

But that's not all. I received a virtual reality headset this Christmas, and after playing a quick driving game I had a realization: If VR takes off, marketing will have to evolve to keep up. Why shouldn't people send each other VR messages or links to VR-optimized Web pages where they can view interactive infographics or pages that essentially market your brand?

If it's made easy, people will do it. What we would then see is an extra layer of insight on our marketing automation platforms that would help us segment the VR users and target them in new ways. The opportunities are endless, and I'm really hoping we see VR take off in 2017...

More Resources on Marketing Automation Best-Practices

Seven Crucial Marketing Automation Workflows You Need for Building Campaigns 

How Marketers Can Drive Revenue and Business Growth With Technology and Automation 

Three Tips to Automate Your Content and Campaigns but Not Alienate Customers and Brand Fans

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image of Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan is digital director at UK-based MarCloud Consulting, which specializes in Pardot marketing automation implementation and ongoing campaign management.

Twitter: @trryan16

LinkedIn: Tom Ryan