Online marketing is no longer optional for brands who are serious about pushing their businesses forward. Digital marketing often feels like a moving target that’s impossible to hit, yet despite the frequent guesswork, there are some clear trends that will be defining the industry in 2015. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a digital novice, these 15 key trends should be on your radar over the next year.

1. More User-Generated Content

If 2014 was the year “Content Is King” became a reality, 2015 will be all about sourcing content from the kingdom at large. The onus will always be on publishers to produce high-quality (and expensive) content, but brand followers are willing, and expecting, to contribute to the conversation. Whether you tap a small handful of ambassadors to create meaningful posts on a corporate blog or promote a branded hashtag that allows the public to share content on your site, take advantage of this engagement opportunity early and often.

2. Death of Free Social Reach

Over the course of the last 12 months, rumors of brands being slighted on social media whipped marketers into a frenzy. While some companies appear to be unscathed, retaining their organic reach, others are forced to increase their social ad spends. Whatever may, or may not, have happened in 2014, Facebook has confirmed that it will be cracking down on overly “promotional” posts from brands in its newsfeed.

3. Advancements in Social Advertising

Social media advertising illustration by MPFphotography

With organic social reach potentially in peril, brands are increasing their social advertising efforts to maintain their presence. Luckily for advertisers, social ad platforms are also improving their offerings. In 2013, Facebook took on some of the ad-creation legwork for its advertisers by partnering with Shutterstock to offer access to millions of free images that can be used by brands. Over the next year, Facebook will continue to innovate on its ad platform with a stronger emphasis on autoplay video ads.

Twitter is also rolling out new features that will allow advertisers to tailor ads based on mobile app data. New players to the social ad space, including Instagram and Snapchat, stand to gain the most ground in 2015 as they unlock access to rapidly growing audiences.

4. Make-or-Break Native Advertising

Few marketing trends stirred as much debate and controversy in 2014 as native advertising. Following this year’s big splash, native ads will face their reckoning in 2015 and either rise to the occasion, or flounder into the archives. While the benefits and potential of native ads are obvious to marketers, they’re also up against some stiff threats. Most notably, possible interference from the Federal Trade Commission could stop native advertising in its tracks if the industry doesn’t self-regulate before a ruling comes down.

5. Mobile Optimization

2014 was the first time that mobile web traffic outnumbered desktop traffic, shattering any last doubts that smartphones and tablets are the go-to browsing device for most users. In the marketing sphere, this also cements the notion of mobile-first products, designed and produced for an optimal experience on smaller screens. However, with the lightening-fast release schedule for new devices, marketers (and developers for that matter) will behoove themselves to invest in a responsive design that won’t render the website obsolete as soon as the next big thing comes out.

Young girl with tablet on the train by sergey causelove

6. Focus on Content Marketing

BuzzFeed VP of Agency Strategy Jonathan Perelman was the first to coin the phrase, “Content is king, but distribution is queen, and she wears the pants.” While some marketers still have their pants on backwards when it comes to content marketing, 2015 is a prime time to refocus efforts in this area. With so much quality being created by big brands, finding new, quality distribution methods will be the key to success. Most notably, brands (yes, even the small ones) will need to embrace paid content distribution to bolster the reach of their owned channels.

7. Intelligent Marketing Automation

Until recently, marketing automation was reserved for enterprise-size companies who could afford hefty software licensing fees and had substantial volumes of traffic. With rapid innovations in the space, new marketing automation vendors are offering similar features at prices that won’t scare off small B2B companies. Over the next year, advancements in marketing-automation algorithms will become more complex, as software interfaces become more intuitive. Ultimately, this means greater performance for a greater number of marketers — big and small.

8. In-Store Mobile Campaigns

A 2013 study from the Google Shopper Marketing Agency Council and M/A/R/C Research revealed that 84% of smartphone owners use their phones while shopping in a physical store. Over the course of the last year, many retailers, including Macy’s and Urban Outfitters, launched significant initiatives aimed at in-store mobile users. With advancements in beacon technology, the potential to create meaningful in-store experiences is ripe for the taking. In 2015, more marketers will start latching on to the idea of in-store mobile campaigns, taking advantage of the opportunity to use mobile as a sale-closer instead of a distraction.

9. Micro-Targeting

Traditionally, marketers have been tasked with developing programs that convert customers, and delivering those programs at-scale to a mass audience. However, with the rise in big data, 2015 will be all about segmenting those mass audiences down to the individual components and speaking to consumers using messaging that resonates. Micro-targeted campaigns can be implemented most easily across email and paid-content distribution channels, where access is controlled. Finding ways to replicate this intimate, targeted conversation on social and owned content channels will be the challenge facing marketers in the next year.

10. SEO Becomes Even Harder

Flat vector illustration of web analytics by Max Griboedov

It’s been a good many years since SEO was “easy,” and the challenge in gaining and maintaining online positioning will continue to be an uphill battle in 2015. Sites that aren’t optimized for mobile in the upcoming year may face ranking hits across the board, and the cloud of link-building protocol (Should I guest post? Should I nofollow?) will become even murkier. With the end of the Google+ Authorship pilot, social signals from Facebook and Twitter are likely to carry even more ranking weight. The most significant move in 2015 will be the shift away from dedicated SEO resources (or outsourced firms) to broader marketing efforts that blend SEO with social media, content marketing, and more.

11. Increase in Video Production

Study after study has revealed that online videos are the key to driving brand awareness, audience engagement, and even purchases. 2015 will be the year that companies, beyond the big players, finally dedicate resources to integrate video into their ongoing marketing strategies. But while smaller brands are taking their first leap into video efforts, big brands will be advancing video usage, working video into their marketing automation, paid campaigns, and mobile promotions.

12. Actionable Analytics

The idea of “Big Data” has been floating around for some time now, but 2015 may be the first time that most marketers are able to actually harness the power of this data and put it to use. Early steps forward for most companies will include creating re-marketing and customized paid campaigns based on user data they’ve captured and analyzed. More sophisticated brands will begin merging their vast online data with offline data for the first time, presenting a 360-degree look at their customers’ behavior.

13. Emphasis on A/B Testing

With all of the data available, it’s simply silly for any marketer to make a decision based on intuition. Marketing winners in 2015 will be those who set out with a structured approach to A/B or multivariate testing, and are relentless in finding new ways to gain more traction from existing assets. The availability of A/B testing tools is making it easier and more accessible for marketers to tackle this work with minimal investment needed from design or development resources.

14. Wearable Technology

Wearable technology vector by JMicic

One of the hottest markets to be in right now is wearable tech: Internet-connected devices strapped to our arms, legs, and eyes. This space will continue to see explosive growth in 2015, and marketers who are ready to pounce on early promotion opportunities are poised for massive reach and impact.

15. Embracing the Top of the Funnel

With so much effort placed on closing sales, deals, and contracts, it’s easy for marketers to forget that these decisions have an initiation point that occurred hours, weeks, or months earlier. While advancements in A/B testing and in-store mobile campaigns solidify the bottom of the funnel purchasing decision, and marketing automation pushes users through the middle of the funnel consideration phase, it’s critical for marketers to optimize how the actual conversation begins. Attracting new audiences with the right messaging and content provides more fuel for a well-oiled marketing machine to churn into a hefty bottom line for your business.

What marketing trends are you anticipating in 2015? Leave your predictions in the comments below!

Top image: Multitasking man using laptop in a cafe by Eugenio Marongiu