In the nitro-fueled, hyper-paced modern world, digital marketers have to be able to upshift quickly, change lanes without hesitation, and recognize the traffic patterns ahead to avoid delays and setbacks. Because the name of the game in 2017 and beyond is masterful maneuvering, as evidenced by the multiple obstacles, road hazards, and fast-lane opportunities that characterized the digital marketing route many traveled this past year.

Digital marketing today means more than simply advertising and promotion experienced materially through pixels, says Adam Weinroth, CMO of OneSpot, who believes that digital marketing has moved past its adolescence into young adulthood. “The definition has rapidly expanded beyond websites and email to social, immersive experiences, and mobile,” he says, noting that 65% of all digital media time is now spent on mobile, according to comScore’s “U.S Cross-Platform Future in Focus 2016” report. “Now, digital marketing can be anything from an online banner ad to a sponsored Instagram post to long-form content marketing to augmented reality. Digital also is now overtaking linear TV expenditure and rapidly becoming a given, if not central, pillar [of] any marketing strategy.”

In fact, total digital ad spending next year is expected to exceed $77 billion (more than 38% of total ad spending) versus $72 billion for TV ad spending (35.8%), per eMarketer’s quarterly ad spending forecast.

Nowadays, digital marketing is focused more on personal, one-on-one interactions, “a departure from the days of a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Ajay Khanna, VP of product marketing for Reltio. Social media has come to dominate a large portion of digital marketing efforts too.

“Social has become so much more than a discovery tool for consumers,” says Sandra Rand, director of marketing for OrionCKB. “The social channels’ improved algorithms and ad units have been developed to directly underscore advertisers’ need to drive results—this is true bottom-of-the-funnel impact and not just branding and awareness.”

For Christine Rochelle, director of digital marketing and operations for the marketing communications agency Lotus823, “conversion” is the current keyword of significance in this space. “Digital marketers have put such a strong focus on content marketing, visibility, and engagement,” says Rochelle. “Now, the focus has moved to conversions, because digital marketing is no longer the elephant in the room. It is a skill that nearly all marketers must have under their belts in some fashion, from SEO to social media to content.”

The Year in Review

Developments that commanded attention from digital marketers over the past year included a rapid rise and use of chatbots and virtual personal assistants such as Siri, IBM Watson, Bot Engine for Messenger, Cortana, and the recently announced Allo and Google Assistant; the launch of Google’s new Shop the Look AdWords mobile feature; the spread of ad blocking technology; the proliferation of auto-play silent videos; and a greater infusion of Buy buttons and shopping carts within digital ads and content.

Other major developments that shaped 2016 included better integration of brand and lead generation, improved cross-device measurement, and enhanced targeting/addressability. “The ability within and outside of platforms to target lookalikes and connect cookies to identify users is driving significant opportunities for digital marketers,” says Jim Hamilton, managing director at Jellyfish.

Video advertising to achieve direct response goals—not just on Facebook, but across social channels and in search—was a big deal in 2016. “Video has become a staple in most of our clients’ ad strategies. We saw this coming late last year and started pushing for more of it [in] first quarter 2016, and it paid off in spades,” Rand says. In 2016, Facebook reasserted itself as the top digital marketing platform. “It’s the most effective digital advertising tool for nearly every brand and has the most advanced analytics outside of Google Analytics,” Rochelle says.

The increased use of voice search via Google, Cortana, Siri, and Alexa in 2016 also presented problems and possibilities for digital marketers. “Professionals have to adapt and understand this new search capability as it becomes a more prominent fixture within the digital marketing environment,” says Simon Schnieders, founder of Blue Array, who notes that 55% of teens and 41% of adults use voice search on a daily basis, according to Google. “But one key consideration that hasn’t been voiced by publishers is how they can monetize voice search via these devices when the click is essentially removed.”

For Weinroth, three major digital marketing hurdles proved to be particularly problematic during the last 12 months: measuring and proving ROI for digital marketing programs, coping with the real-time pace of digital innovation and deciding which new channels and capabilities to experiment with or invest in more heavily, and keeping his team and organization educated and aligned with the fast-paced cadence of innovation required to be successful.

A Look Ahead

In the coming months, digital marketers will rely more heavily on data to improve ROI and to try to understand what makes customers tick. “Expect more collaborative curation of data across sales, marketing, and support teams, with hyper-personalization driving customer interactions across business functions and reliable customer data being paramount for such engagement,” Khanna says.

A major challenge heading into 2017 is the pace at which consumers expect to interact with companies. “For a brand with a corporate organizational setup, it is very difficult to adjust strategies in real time,” says Rochelle, citing Red Lobster’s slow response to its brand mention in Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year as an example. “The solutions that have been emerging are small but mighty: Twitter allows brands to set customer service times on profiles—Facebook can have an instant direct message response to customer service inquiries, and Google Analytics has been expanding solutions to help businesses understand real-time engagement.”

Many believe artificial intelligence (AI) and personalization are two key marketing technology areas that will improve next year. “With AI and machine learning, automation technologies can be made more dynamic, adaptive, and flexible. And when you consider that 35% of Amazon purchases result from its personalized product recommendations and that 75% of titles watched on Netflix come from personalization algorithms, it’s clear that this area of innovation offers significant potential for improved marketing,” Weinroth says.

Schnieders is convinced that major progress in voice search is coming in 2017 and beyond. “But I have genuine concerns with Google and Amazon racing to a future without clear consideration as to how this can also scale for web content producers that often feed answers to these voice search queries,” he says.

In the coming months, Hamilton anticipates a number of enhancements and innovations that will make things easier for digital marketers. “These include integrated attribution modeling built into digital platforms, offline and online integration of B2B and retail, and better cross-channel storytelling,” he says.

Lastly, some anticipate that fans and brands will cut back on the number of digital channels they’re engaging with in 2017. “I’m already developing digital marketing strategies where we focus more on niche fan bases rather than developing a viral story,” says Rochelle.