Eighteen is the age of adulthood, so perhaps it's fitting that in 2018 some major emerging trends in B2B marketing will start to show signs of maturation.

Like 18-year-olds (who are still teenagers, after all), some of these trends will still be developing—but will also get on track to shape or influence the future of marketing.

In the new year, a combination of technology advances, organizational cultural shifts and buyer-behavior changes will pull B2B marketing in new directions.

Here are four trends that will begin to mature in 2018.

1. Individualization will become the new personalization

Machine-learning algorithms are becoming more sophisticated, opening new possibilities for marketers to gain insights into customer behavior and the courses of action that are most likely to resonate with the buyer.

Such capabilities have become essential as B2B audiences increasingly self-educate on a company's products before they ever talk to a salesperson, which has raised the bar on Marketing's need to deliver the right content at the right time.

This example from the Marketing AI Institute paints the picture: Let's say there are 10,000 downloads of a company's e-book across five personas, originating from multiple channels and requiring personalized emails and website experiences based on the users' history.

"Humans are unable to conceive of the optimal set of instructions to guide the machine on how to personalize experiences at this scale," the institute says. "This is where artificial intelligence excels. It takes data-driven, complex tasks and makes them look easy. But artificial intelligence doesn't stop at setting up the initial rules to maximize performance, it uses machine learning to constantly evolve its actions. In other words, it learns, it gets smarter, and it creates its own algorithms."

Rising AI adoption will drive a growing shift from personalization to individualization in 2018. Delivering more personalized experiences has been marketers' goal for years, but it has essentially remained a mass-communication exercise, based on buyer personas or market segment analyses—a template of what a buyer's behavior is believed to be.

AI allows marketers to take personalization to the next level by using marketing automation to track buyer behaviors, and machine-learning to identify optimal windows to then engage each individual.

That is a tectonic change, and in 2018 individualization will start to become a benchmark for successful marketing.

2. The companies that win will have cultivated an audience-centric mindset

It seems so obvious: Businesses need to put the customer first. But, in reality, companies can become so bogged down in the individual pieces of acquiring, retaining, and serving customers that they lose track of the holistic view and process.

In the digital age, having a keen focus on the customer and the end-to-end experience they have with the brand is critical to a company's competitiveness. Good prices and quality products put a business on a path to success, but nailing the customer relationship is a powerful and important differentiator.

It will be a necessity in 2018 for companies to examine everything in their operation that involves the customer journey, from the first pre-sale interaction to post-sale care, and make sure they have the strategy and execution to put themselves in the shoes of customers and focus on their overall experience rather than isolated components.

3. GDPR will be one of the most talked-about acronyms of the year

May 25, 2018. That's when the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—tough new rules that require companies to be more transparent about the information they collect on individuals and the ways they use that information—becomes enforceable, with fines of up to 4% of a company's annual worldwide revenue or €20 million, whichever is greater.

The GDPR institutes new obligations on matters such as data-use consent, data anonymization, breach notification, trans-border data transfers, and appointment of data protection officers. Its impact reaches beyond Europe because it covers any company with data about European Union citizens on company servers.

Under the GDPR, organizations must obtain explicit consent—"freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous"—to keep information that can be used to directly or indirectly identify a person: a name, a photo, an email address, posts on social networking sites, etc. The GDPR heavily affects all marketing functions because marketing is the primary owner of customer data in the digital era.

Although the GDPR can be seen as a huge regulatory burden—and it is—at a brand level, it can also be an opportunity for competitive differentiation. A vendor can show that it can be trusted with data. The regulation's consent rules could also serve as a driving force for businesses to get more creative with how they engage with customers, since that will be more challenging post-GDPR.

How companies respond to the GDPR will be a big deal in 2018.

4. The CMO's role will continue to evolve

2018 will be a year of self-reflection for many CMOs as they contemplate their ever-changing role inside organizations and the possible ways they can act as true business leaders, not just heads of marketing.

As Antonio Lucio, chief marketing and communications officer at HP, put it in a Forbes article: "As a modern-day CMO, I have to be a business person first and marketing artisan second. The CMO must drive revenue and provide real and tangible ROI. We need to consistently earn that seat at the business table, or the function will indeed become irrelevant."

Jerry Wind, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, explained in a Q&A that today's business environment calls for a new kind of chief marketer, one who follows a more cooperative approach to management: "Co-creation and collaboration define the new C-suite leadership model," he said.

Considering CMOs' growing roles as stewards of the customer experience, it will be critical in the new year for CMOs to partner across the organization. The CMO must actively engage with Sales, IT, and other leaders, such as the new data protection officer mandated by the GDPR.

* * *

The penultimate year of the decade is upon us. It's a very exciting time as marketing game-changers take flight.

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Four B2B Marketing Trends That Will Define 2018

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Melissa Tatham is director of integrated marketing at Act-On Software, a marketing automation provider.

LinkedIn: Melissa Tatham