As 2016 has now drawn to a close, it comes time for us to reflect on the past and look forward to the future… and as digital professionals, publish a heck load of articles and whitepapers about “The State of ________ in 2017” (Fill in the blank with something related to digital).

I’m normally not fond of prediction articles like these, unless they’re well researched, but I’m finally taking a shot at making my own. Because I feel it’s important for me to write something like this especially in the year in which I transitioned from being a mere college student and hobbyist online content creator to being a full-time professional digital marketer.

I know, I know. 6 months on the job is barely enough experience to really know an industry. But hear me out when I say that us Digital Marketing professionals are going to fare better in the long run by investing in some form of niche because face it, digital is going mainstream and we’re not going to continue being experts if we don’t up our game.

Death of Generalists?

At first glance, this whole we-need-to-be-specialists thing seems to contradict the notion that Digital Marketing thrives on generalists, which is not what I am saying here at all. Today’s marketing ecosystem is dependent on multiple areas working together to create an integrated campaign that pushes consumers through the sales funnel. As such, I do believe there is certainly a need to understand and know how to execute within multiple portions of that same funnel.

So… keep those generalist hats on. By no means should you just throw away your life’s work because some millennial on the Internet is telling you to get a niche. (Psh, who would take a millennial seriously? Am I right?)

No, the world still needs you to be holistic.

What is going on in Digital right now?

So why is it that I’m saying that the future needs digital marketers with niches? To answer that, I want us to look at the what’s currently happening in the Digital Marketing industry as a whole, how it’s progressed and why it going mainstream calls for more specialization.

1. The Digital Marketing Identity Crisis

In an article on Forbes, Ian Dodson, co-founder and director of the Digital Marketing Institute, asked ‘Is Digital Marketing Experiencing an Identity Crisis?

Ask six digital marketing managers what an SEO professional should be able to do and you’ll a myriad of different answers. Turn to the big digital players like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and all you’ll get by way of education is market activation programs so that people spend more with them.

Rely on the digital natives for bringing skills into our marketing departments and you’ll soon realize that while millennials know how to use Facebook socially, they score the lowest in terms of how to use these tools for business.

It seems nowadays, people do recognize the need to go into digital but they don’t know how to go about it because they simply don’t know what “Digital Marketing” means and the many things that come with it. We have yet to reach enough of a consensus on the techniques and theories of best practices. I’ve touched upon this in a previous post.

But though this is true, as more and more companies (including the ones we consider big shots) take on digital as a norm in their overall business strategy, I believe Digital Marketing is going to be held up to much higher and more well-defined standards quite soon — and hopefully by institutions that aren’t making them just to make a quick buck, like the big digital players that Ian mentions in the quote above.

And with more well-defined standards in place, I predict that Digital Marketing professionals are inevitably going to face executives who know what to expect and are able to better detect the flaws in your digital campaign’s rationales. You’ll really be needing a team of different specialists to create tightly-knit campaigns.

2. Over-saturation of Digital Marketing “Experts”

In the 6 months of meeting people within the industry locally, of hearing about digital agencies that don’t seem to have in-depth knowledge of digital, and browsing through various “expert’s” websites/personal profiles, I’ve started to realize just how easy it is to claim that you’re an expert within Digital Marketing.

Not completely surprising given the youth of the industry and how it formed from people of different fields. In addition to that, the barrier for entry is very low — with a small amount of money (or even NONE in some cases), it isn’t hard to setup your own website, start online ad campaigns, have your own content production mill, etc.

Therein lies the issue: the industry has way too many so-called experts now and many of them are spouting the same thing or spouting insights with actually limited knowledge on the subject matter. And for a while, such people are able to easily make their clients think that their campaigns have been “successful”, because in an industry so young it’s easy to create a definition of success without being held accountable for it.

But as Digital Marketing goes mainstream, even layman are going to have more concrete idea of what they want from their campaigns. And eventually, they’re going to notice when you’re talking-the-talk but not actually walking-the-walk. You’re really going to need to know what you’re talking about and you’ll need to specialize to stand out from the crowd.

3. Digital Marketing Education Becoming Serious Business

Talking to people at networking events, workshops and at my former college here in Hong Kong, I keep hearing time and time again of employers willing to invest in sending employees to take Digital Marketing classes — even if it means spending upwards of HK$15,000 to do so. I’ve also had peers tell me that they’d be interested in taking one for themselves as well.

And look at the Digital Marketing education market today: there are tons of classes and workshops you can take online or attend in-person. People of all ages and levels are taking them too! (I’ve met some senior executives in the Digital Marketing class that I personally took.)

What many Digital Marketing “experts” know now may soon be what every Marketer knows in the future. By that time, it’s much more unlikely that people will turn to you for advice. Companies will simply have their own team of “experts” in-house.

Additionally, even the ever-so-traditional tertiary education system is seeing an increasing number of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs and courses related to the Digital Marketing field — many of which really go in-depth into strategic analysis and calculated campaigns; or specialize within one area (e.g. communications, big data, web design).

Would you really still be an “expert” once more of these kinds of graduates are out there in the field?

What are YOU going to do about it?

Going into a niche is no easy task. And whichever area you choose to go in, it’s going to undeniably going to take investment, effort and time.

I’ve personally decided to try going into UX after talking to those close to me who’ve taken into consideration my knack for research and my high interest in human behavior. Based on this, I’ve already started following Twitter accounts that post content on UX and web development, and I’ve started looking up possible courses I can take in the future. I’m also applying for a Master’s in Psychology in the coming months too.

The ball’s now in your court. Do you agree with my predictions? If so, are you going to do something about it in your own career this 2017?