making a presentation at a conference
While conference season may feel like running a marathon, meeting peers and learning about upcoming technology makes it worthwhile PHOTO: Teemu Paananen on unsplash

Every fall, we in the marketing technology world enter an endurance marathon as we move from conference to conference, shuffling through crowds to visit marketing technology vendor booths and making our way to the next session about the latest in technology trends. 

By this time each year I'm exhausted. Tired of putting a lanyard around my neck, fighting my way through the luncheon buffet line, eating too much at evening networking events and plagued by anxiety dreams about not being able to find the room where I'm presenting my session.

What I never tire of is having the opportunity to listen to fellow marketers speak about how they've solved their biggest marketing challenges or learning about the new technology heading our way. One of the key advantages of having so many conferences back to back is that key themes and trends tend to emerge. This year was no exception.

MarTech Trends From the Conference Circuit

Artificial Intelligence Everywhere

From a technology perspective, it's no surprise artificial intelligence (AI) continues to be a hot topic, but this year it jumped from an overhyped bullet on the backdrop of every exhibitor booth into presentations describing how it will add value in marketing. Over time I think we'll see AI as an enabling technology throughout every element of the user journey but some of the first places it will add value are:

  • In identifying new micro-prospect segments and then recommending the content, channels and touch points to deliver the best possible customer experience and business outcome.
  • In powering and humanizing chat bots
  • Transforming Intelligent Agents (e.g. Alexa) into effective marketing channels
  • Transforming analytics into actionable insights

Augmented and Virtual Reality for Marketing

Like AI, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are starting to appear in marketing programs. Most early applications are leveraging AR and VR to drive and reinforce brand awareness via fun, additions of cartoon characters into video and the development of brand-centric VR experiences. My sense is that these are obvious, easy and within the norm uses of AR and VR, and that true innovation still lies ahead. The next few years are going to be really exciting as the technology evolves and becomes more accessible through innovation in headsets and glasses. This is definitely a “stay tuned” technology.

Brush Up on Blockchain

The new hot technology topic this year is blockchain and quite honestly, it makes my head hurt trying to understand the basics and how blockchain applies to marketing

Blockchain has the potential to fundamentally change many aspects of how we do marketing. One of the initial applications is disrupting how ads are purchased and placed by making it easy for marketers to place and manage ads directly. It also has the potential to change how a company acquires and manages prospect data by putting control of personal data back in the hands of the consumer. 

I’m as far from an expert in this technology as you can get, but every marketer should understand the basics and the potential impact of blockchain. Jeffrey Epstein of Never Stop Marketing is one of the leading blockchain voices in the marketing industry. If you are new to blockchain, I recommend downloading his e-book “The CMO Primer for the Blockchain World.”


The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is scheduled to go into effect in May 2018, and it came up at every conference I attended. 

Essentially GDPR governs how you market to prospects (very specific opt-ins), what you must communicate to prospects about how you are using their data, the rights that prospects and customers have to ask for detail about what personal data you are storing and how you use it, and what you need to do if a prospect asks you to delete all data related to them. If you or your company market to prospects in the EU, then you need to have a plan to address GDPR requirements. The fines for non-compliance are hefty. 

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to many marketers and marketing vendors about how they are approaching these regulations. Some companies have made GDPR compliance a full-time job for one or more individuals. Other companies are creating teams with representatives from IT, Marketing, Sales and Legal to create comprehensive policies and procedures. Companies are also looking to their vendors to provide written explanations of how they are addressing GDPR requirements.

Digital Transformation Moves From Theory to Practice

From a strategy perspective, digital transformation continues to be a hot topic. And, somewhat like AI, it’s moved from theory to practice. Companies are starting to talk about the progress they’ve made leveraging technology to improve and unify the customer experience. Digital transformation eschews a “one size fits all” approach, so companies are taking many different approaches to creating a process (Swat teams, agile marketing, multi-functional working groups) and building tech stacks to support their efforts. 

One consistent theme related to technology and digital transformation was the need to have a single source of “customer truth.” But like everything else, companies are approaching it in different ways. Some companies are creating a central database or anointing one platform (e.g. CRM) as the source of customer truth, others are maintaining separate data silos and then using overlay platforms to normalize and integrate information and often enhancing that data with second and third party data. The many presentations I attended on this topic made one thing clear: those companies in advanced stages of digital transformation had all begun their processes with clearly defined business and strategy objectives and had invested significant time in understanding the customers they were trying to serve.

The Importance of Being Human

By far, the most intriguing theme of this year’s marketing technology conferences was the importance of demonstrating empathy and being human. As we look to AI and other enabling technologies to help us engage prospects, it becomes even more important to remind ourselves we are marketing and selling products to human beings and not fictitious personas. Technology can help us target, connect and nurture, but what we want is a lasting relationship with another human being — and that requires empathy and a continued focus on who it is we are selling to.

During the final day of the last conference I experienced a brilliant example of “being human.” Just prior to the conference a young marketing associate, Susan Xie, from ABM technology provider Triblio, asked if I would be willing to stop by their booth for a brief 15 minute interview. Going into the meeting I was suspicious that this was a “trick meeting” to get me to listen to a sales pitch, but I was wrong.

Xie is a recent college graduate and new to marketing. Since she was working the booth for Triblio and couldn’t attend the sessions, she reached out to a number of speakers to see if they would come and speak on tape about their perspectives on the conference and ABM. And even though the idea for these sessions may have come from someone more senior at Triblio and these taped conversations may ultimately become marketing collateral, it was a wonderfully human experience. Xie was charming and up front about how new she was to her job, her questions were relevant and conversational — no script involved, no subtle or not-so-subtle sales pitch. Xie asked about ABM, but also for advice in advancing her career. 

My advice to Xie as a marketer and in thinking about ABM was “build the relationship first and only then go for the sale — if you focus on that as a marketer you can’t go wrong.” It was a great experience and as I walked away, I realized whether intentional or not it was one of the best marketing connections I’d ever experienced and perfectly encapsulated what it means to be human and have empathy as a marketer. If Xie reaches out again, you can be sure I will pick up the phone and answer her email. When all is said and done, isn’t that what we are all trying to achieve?

Time to Hang Up the Lanyard (for now)

When the conference season comes to end in November, it will be time to hang up the lanyards, download the very best presentations, reach out to new connections and revisit our own marketing plan and technology strategy to ensure we incorporate all the new lessons learned into next year's plan.

The spring will bring a new wave of conferences. If you are traveling on that circuit and see me in a crowded hallway in search of decaf coffee, say hello and let’s make a real connection.