For the last 10 years I’ve picked out the digital and marketing trends and developments which I believe will shape the industry and digital/marketing planning and thinking in the year ahead.
I recommend you also look through Econsultancy’s Trends Hub for our experts’ predictions around digital marketing disciplines like data and analytics, customer experience, ecommerce, digital advertising, search, social media and B2B.
And you can join me on January 26th at 3pm GMT for a discussion of what 2021 has in store, featuring a panel of brand marketers. Register here.
Here are my ten trends for 2021:
- Doubling-down on Digital Transformation
- The Year of Reconnection
- Decentralisation is Back
- Tech Gets Regulated
- The Learning Imperative
- The Augmented Marketer
- Experiencing Fast, Experiencing Slow
- Live Commerce
- Digital Bothism
- Digital’s Inconvenient Truth
Digital transformation is a mega trend that I’ve covered in previous years and, indeed, a term Econsultancy can lay claim to popularising, if not inventing, almost a decade ago. Whilst far from new, the Coronavirus pandemic has given the need for digital transformation a new urgency that, for many businesses, is existential.
The pandemic has accelerated digital trends that we were already underway by five to ten years. A Twilio study of 2,569 companies published last summer found that, on average, COVID-19 accelerated their digital communication strategy by six years. McKinsey shared data that showed that in three months of 2020, US ecommerce penetration grew as much as it had in the past ten years, and in the UK ecommerce’s share of retail, excluding groceries, surged to 40% leapfrogging five years of predicted growth.
2020 saw digital transformation in the enforced switch to digital ways of working. This had an impact on culture and process also. Many companies, particularly large ones, perhaps surprised themselves in their ability to adapt when forced to and this may give them confidence to drive through changes yet to come in 2021 and beyond.
Investment in technology, digital infrastructure, and digital marketing, will, of course, continue in 2021 but the biggest investments in digital transformation this year will be in capabilities, particularly people and skills, that can deliver a new operating (and often, business) model. As I wrote in 2013, digital transformation is really business transformation. Whole industries will be busy transforming their go-to-market offerings over 2021:
- Retailers, and others, will be going all in on ecommerce.
- Brands and manufacturers, including B2B, will also prioritise direct-to-customer digital and ecommerce routes to market.
- Media businesses will be accelerating away from physical media and ad-funded models towards digital and subscription/membership offerings.
- Events, training, education… will all be moving to ‘hybrid’ digital/physical propositions.
In last year’s trends I talked about a decade-long effort from brands to rebuild trust that research confirms has been eroded: “To build trusted brands, then, we must be careful not to rely too much on machines, data and automation, but seek to (re)connect on a more human level.”
As it turned out, 2020 was the year of distancing, alienation and disconnection. As a result, 2021 will be even more focused on connection, belonging and coming together. ‘Community’ was one of the 3Cs of the dotcom book in the late 1990s, along with Content and Commerce, but 2021 will see community make a comeback. Even Harry and Meghan are getting in on this with their Spotify deal to produce podcasts “that build community through shared experiences, narratives and values.”
We will see a resurgence of ‘community’ in digital forms as a way for brands and businesses to connect and engage with prospects and customers in a more personal, human and empathetic way. 2020 saw mass distancing but it also saw a revival of some communities, notably local communities. The digital communities of 2021 will also be more ‘protective’ than in the past: more curated, more quality-controlled, more private, more intimate and smaller than the public social media of the last decades.
The teams at VOLUME and VIDA recently coined the phrase the “Direct to Community Economy” which highlights the long-term drivers and recent accelerants of community-based business models. ‘Direct to Community’ often sits alongside ‘Direct to Consumer’ which has been a trend in recent years.
In B2C, for example, Beauty Pie Addicts is a Facebook group for cosmetics enthusiasts and fans of the Beauty Pie brand. But it is a small, closed group and the joining questionnaire seeks to prioritise quality more than quantity.
In B2B, 2021 will see a rise not only in more focused, industry-specific, marketplaces to connect buyers and sellers but also private professional communities to share, learn, support, and do business with each other in trusted spaces. For example, Digital Boost’s “Good Growth” community, run on Guild, which supports female-led businesses and entrepreneurs.
2021 will see more branded digital communities like these which focus on deeper, higher quality connection and engagement between members. The marketing objective is not about scale or reach but about meaningful connections and customer intimacy.
This process of reconnection over 2021 is also likely to be easier if buoyed by optimism, entertainment, joy, fun, and even humour as an antidote to what has gone before. Whilst marketers need to tread carefully here, this offers creative opportunities to cut through, as evidenced by The AA’s excellent “Love that feeling?” ad.
Over the decades the paradigm for how technology is used has shifted from centralised (e.g. mainframe computers) to decentralised (PCs) back to centralised (web servers with ‘thin clients’). Power has centralised over the last decade to the platforms of ‘Big Tech’. But 2021 is a tipping point for the forces of decentralisation to make a comeback.
The effects of decentralisation will be felt in many ways over 2021. Most obviously, we will continue to work remotely, even if not all the time. The future of work will be a hybrid of digital and physical. But COVID-19 has shattered the hegemony of the office HQ, not just as a central place of work but as a way of working that was often bound by geography or office working hours. Work has been decentralised: dispersed and atomised to almost anywhere and anytime. Remote work, remote health, remote education… centralised and rigid structures will start to be more rapidly unbundled in 2021.
We will also see data movingly increasingly to the edge of networks and away from the centre. This is enabled by the increasing power of mobile phones, the accelerated move to the cloud and ever higher speeds of wireless broadband including 5G. This will impact the apps, products and services we create for our customers and allow for increasingly sophisticated localisation, personalisation, peer-to-peer services and realtime responsiveness. Mobile will dominate.
In social media, Mark Zuckerberg heralded this shift back towards less centralised and public experiences in his 2019 Vision for Social Networking: “Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”
But this trend also threatens the likes of Facebook as it is a centralised platform. Media owners in 2021 will further question their reliance on third parties like Facebook and Google. Future plc and Vox Media both recently announced their own first-party data platforms with the latter stating they will soon be “making more money from first-party audience targeting than from third-party targeting mechanisms.” The Washington Post recently became the first publisher to confirm that it will adopt The Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0 framework in a further sign of rebellion against the centralising power of ‘Big Tech’.
As marketers we will, of course, be impacted by the decentralisation of work along with everyone else. But the evolution of marketing technology is also towards decentralisation with ‘no code’ tools enabling increasing self-service capabilities to marketing teams. And the move to decentralisation is analogous to the shift away from generic experiences to more customised and personalised ones that we have been working towards in digital for a while. It is also germane to the ongoing move towards agile ways of working in marketing.
Finally, this trend towards the ‘edges’, and away from centralisation, should be good news in supporting efforts towards greater diversity, not just in our teams but in the range of ideas and inputs that we can bring to marketing. It will also benefit the degree to which learning and decision-making can be more widely distributed and devolved.
2020 saw the regulatory heat really turned up on GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) including the Congressional hearing with the four CEOs, the “emperors of the online economy.” The House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee told them they have “too much power”, are censoring political speech, spreading fake news and “killing” the engines of the American economy. The New York Times referred to this as tech’s “Big Tobacco moment.”
But this was only the beginning and 2021 will see many battles begin to play out that will have a big impact on digital and marketing globally:
- Google is facing an antitrust case by a group of US states led by Texas accusing the company of overcharging publishers and abusing its power in advertising. Google stands accused of colluding with Facebook in a series of deals to consolidate their market power illegally. Separately another group of US states has filed against Google for its dominant position in search. Just over a year ago YouTube paid a $170m fine to settle FTC allegations it collected children’s personal data without their parents’ consent.
- Facebook is being sued by the US government’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Competition which is calling for its breakup. “Our aim is to roll back Facebook’s anticompetitive conduct and restore competition so that innovation and free competition can thrive.”
- The EU has two new laws proposed to limit the power of Big Tech: the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. ‘Gatekeepers’ and ‘entrenched’ services, aka GAFA, get special scrutiny including yearly checks on how they are tackling illegal and harmful content and increased monitoring for anti-competitive behaviour. Penalties are up to 10% of their European turnover.
- The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority is creating the Digital Markets Unit to set customised rules for Big Tech and penalise them up to 10% of global turnover if they fail to obey. This was in response to the CMA’s own damning market study on online platforms and digital advertising.
- China has also been actively curbing the power of their own tech giants. In November, Chinese regulators forced Alibaba-owned fintech company Ant Group to pull their flotation and, in December, brought in new regulations for Tencent and ByteDance, in an effort to create a “healthy” internet economy.
As if government regulatory attacks were not enough, Big Tech is also turning on itself. Facebook took out a series of full-page newspaper ads attacking Apple for their upcoming changes to iOS 14 whereby they will enforce their App Tracking Transparency (ATT) framework which asks users to opt-in to tracking. The Facebook ads claimed that they were standing up for the small businesses who use their services and who will be negatively affected. A follow-up set of ads then focused on how Apple’s new features “will change the internet as we know it” forcing websites and blogs “to start charging you subscription fees.” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, hit back:
We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used. Facebook can continue to track users across apps and websites as before, App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 will just require that they ask for your permission first. pic.twitter.com/UnnAONZ61I
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) December 17, 2020
For most of us mere mortals we can but stand back and watch the Titans of Tech slug it out with regulators and each other. This will drag on for years and there will be vigorous lobbying over 2021 and valid arguments on all sides.
However, there are implications for us all in 2021.
On a practical note, if you have an iOS app then you’ll need to comply with Apple’s new standardised privacy labelling in the app store to explain at a glance what information you are collecting from users. Early in 2021 you will also need to use the AppTrackingTransparency Framework to request permission to track the user and access the device’s advertising identifier. Once this is enforced then you will also need to review your ad targeting approaches to see if they need refining and updating in the wake of reduced data from Apple.
Following Brexit, the UK still hopes the EU will issue a ‘data adequacy’ decision recognising the UK’s data protection rules as equivalent to their own, including GDPR. This will make compliance across the UK and EU zones much easier but nothing has yet been agreed. For now, from the 1 Jan 2021 there are four months, extendable by a further two months, in which data can be exchanged in the way it is now, as long as the UK makes no changes to its data protection rules. The clock is ticking and this is one to watch.
The bigger question here, and one as brands and marketers that we need to take a stance on in 2021, is about privacy. Facebook is championing the use of personal data to improve marketing effectiveness and help business. Is this something you believe as a marketer that you should have a right to? Or does your brand stand for a level of privacy that you are prepared to protect even if it damages your marketing return on investment? It’s 2021 and time to take sides.
2020 certainly taught us to adapt, whether we wanted it or not. The pace of change in marketing had already been fierce. It is perhaps not surprising that ‘ability to embrace change’ was rated by 90% of marketers as important to success in a marketing career in Econsultancy’s Skills of the Modern Marketer research.
The harsh economic climate of 2021 has mixed implications for learning and skills development in marketing. On the one hand, investment in training by organisations may be de-prioritised to save money. On the other, given budget cuts, hiring freezes and redundancies, there is pressure on businesses to reward and incentivise remaining marketing talent with investment in their careers through training and development.
In practice, from an organisation’s point of view, 2021 will see the winners in the economy investing strongly in learning and talent and this will see them pull even further ahead of the laggards in the mid and long term. The same is true for investment in media and brand marketing more generally.
However, given the tough and competitive environment for jobs, it is imperative in 2021 to invest in learning and self-development from a personal point of view as a marketer.
At Econsultancy we have seen a big surge in demand from ‘winning’ corporates eager to capitalise on the opportunity and turbocharge their digital capabilities. But we have seen just as big an uplift in individuals prepared to invest in their own marketing education via our sister brand Marketing Week’s Mini MBA in Marketing and a 54% year on year increase in individuals benchmarking their digital marketing knowledge’s strengths and weaknesses via our Digital Skills Index.
The digital marketing skills most in demand include: data (including analytics, marketing ops, martech, process orchestration etc.), customer experience (journeys, mapping, measurement and optimisation etc.), product marketing, agile marketing, content marketing, and improving ROI (measurement, effectiveness etc).
But it isn’t just about skills. Mindset is just as important. Indeed, Econsultancy’s research data for The Fundamentals of Marketing Mindset showed that 73% of marketing VPs believe mindset is more important to success than experience or specific expertise. A modern marketing mindset is characterised by:
- Having the ability to embrace change.
- Being open to new learning.
- Being able to think critically and creatively.
- Being open and able to work and collaborate via cross-functional teams.
- Having ethical values aligned with those of the organisation.
There is a natural connection between adaptability and the appetite for learning. As Econsultancy’s How Marketers Learn Best Practice Guide describes: “To succeed in an increasingly complex environment, marketers have no choice but to master the ability to adapt, learn and apply new lessons.”
In 2021, marketers and digital professionals must invest more than ever in learning and self-development. If you are lucky you will get this from your employer, but if you don’t you will need to take the initiative yourself.
Part of the learning and self-development opportunity for marketers and digital professionals in 2021 will be to ‘augment’ themselves using new powers made possible by emerging tools and technologies.
Artificial intelligence has been a buzzword for many years, of course, but we are starting to see ‘applied AI’ become a more meaningful part of what is possible in marketing. Over 2021 it will become increasingly ‘business as usual’ particularly in our Martech (marketing technology) tools and platforms.
Scott Brinker heralds the “Decade of the Augmented Marketer” including the growth of ‘no code’ marketing where we are increasingly empowered: “In martech, many marketers have adopted marketing automation and customer journey orchestration products without even realizing that architecting such sophisticated customer experiences would have required a team of software engineers to implement not too many years ago. Now it’s drag-and-drop.”
In many ways this is the fruition of a trend I coined in 2014 as “Marketing-as-a-Service (MaaS)”: “if we can create the right building blocks, including data, content assets, rules and logic, then we can create ‘composable’ marketing that is unique in discrete executions, yet more scalable, efficient and quicker to execute.”
With the moves towards decentralisation, and more agile ways of working, it makes sense for marketing to become more self-service. Marketing experiences and execution will become applications within a wider platform. However, empowering as this prospect is, we will need “freedom within boundaries” i.e. frameworks, processes and guardrails to ensure quality and consistency do not suffer as part of this marketing liberation.
Examples of AI-driven tools to empower marketers in 2021 include: Snazzy.ai for automatically generating copy, Beautiful.ai for creating presentations, and Obviously.ai for data analysis and machine learning.
In future years we will move beyond applied practical use cases in marketing towards modelling the future and using AI to assist in marketing decision making. As Scott says, “Simulation will become increasingly common as a strategy tool, with marketers looking to understand different scenarios and gain insight into future actions. […] In future we’ll use simulations with synthetic agents first, to test drive our brand and marketing creative, content, and communications. […] With the increase in computing power, millions of scenarios can be simulated to provide directional insight into what might happen in the real world with increasing levels of granularity.”
Customer experience, along with data and digital transformation, is a mega trend that has been playing out for years already and will endure for years to come. But it seems increasingly clear that for experiences to be successful they either need to speed up and become realtime or consciously slow down to be more immersive and considered.
This trend became apparent back in 2014 with the ‘Quartz Curve’. Then Editor-in-chief Kevin Delany said “the place between 500 and 800 words is the place you don’t want to be because it’s not short and fast and focused and shareable, but it’s not long enough to be a real pay-off for readers.”
At the time this acted as guidance for the length of articles written for digital consumption. However, we have since seen the rise of new media brands such as Delayed Gratification and Tortoise Media whose entire proposition is about ‘slow journalism’ which does not compete on speed but on depth, reflection, consideration, analysis. We have seen the emergence of other ‘slow’ movements too like cooking, fashion and travel.
However, we also know that experiences need to be fast, on demand, instant, seamless, and every extra click or tap can cost us customers. At this year’s Festival of Marketing Facebook emphasised the importance of having five taps or less to get from product discovery to checkout in social/mobile commerce.
Indeed, the end game of faster experiences is not just realtime but predictive. We are entering an era of “zero-click living”. As Professor Scott Galloway said, also speaking at our Festival of Marketing, “choice is a tax on our brains”. Voice assistants already remove the need for any clicks or taps. But technology can go a step further and proactively recommend to us what to do, or buy, based on what it knows about us.
We are already happy to have the likes of Spotify, Amazon, Netflix and Google Maps recommend to us. Amazon already has ‘just walk out’ zero-interaction payment experiences in their stores. Amazon Halo knows our biometrics and the built-in Tone feature can analyse how we feel by analysing our voice. And our Echo can speak to us. How long before it suggests actions to us rather than us having to initiate them?
You may also have noticed the move towards giving users greater control over the speed of their experience? Songs are being played slowed down, but podcasts, audio books and videos can be sped up.
For 2021, then, we should be thinking hard about the nature of the marketing and experiences we are delivering in the context of this increased polarisation between fast and slow. When should you be aiming for instant and when indulgent? And could you give your customers greater control over how they experience your brand?
If you really want to see the future of technology adoption then China is the place to look. We wrote about China’s ‘live commerce’ trend a year ago. Live commerce is a combination of ecommerce and live streaming: hosts, often influencers or celebrities (called ‘Key Opinion Leaders’ in China), demonstrate a product and answer questions from a digital audience in realtime and viewers can immediately tap or click to buy the items.
Alibaba launched Taobao Live in 2016 but now Tmall, Pinduoduo and Douyin are all offering ‘live commerce’ – an industry estimated to be worth around $170bn in 2020, almost twice the value of the global movie business.
In 2021 live commerce is set to come West:
- Ecommerce behemoth Amazon already offers livestreaming and video. Its new ‘Amazon Explore’ service is “an interactive livestreaming service that allows you to learn, shop, and discover new places right from your computer.”
- Shopify, the booming ecommerce platform has done partnerships with Facebook/Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok.
- Facebook announced it is working with Anne Klein as one of its partner brands that will debut Facebook Shop’s live in-app shopping. Anne Klein will host a four-part series of live shopping events where the items can be purchased in-app on Facebook during the live stream.
- Google announced ‘Shoploop’, an “entertaining new way to shop online”, that is clearly inspired by TikTok’s short-form video, as is Facebook’s Reels in Instagram. As yet Shoploop only allows you to save items for purchase via the merchant rather than directly in the app.
Messaging, one of my trends from last year, will also be an integral part of the live commerce experience and the West will be aping China’s super apps like WeChat here also. Facebook Shop will let you message a brand through WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, get support and track deliveries. Purchases within chat will follow.
Live commerce brings together many trends in one: social media, video, ecommerce, ‘shopatainment’, real time, messaging… expect plenty of experimentation and innovation over 2021.
A few months ago, Mark Ritson wrote about the need for ‘Marketing Bothism’ in his column for our sister brand Marketing Week. You can hear him explain the thinking in his Ogilvy Lecture for The Marketing Society.
In essence, all the evidence for marketing effectiveness (notably Binet & Field’s “The Long and the Short of It”) points towards being able to balance both long term brand building AND short-term sales-activation focused marketing.
Mark goes further to argue that successful marketers need to embrace a bothist approach and mindset more widely. Qual AND quant; strategy AND creative; segmentation/targeting AND mass marketing; listening AND leading change.
This is particularly pertinent for 2021. Balancing the long and short term was one of the main challenges that came up in Econsultancy’s recent Future of Marketing survey. Respondents expressed concerns around needing to drive sales in the short term to survive but at the cost of the longer-term vision or brand-focused activity.
Digital marketing typically gets treated as ‘short’: a short-term, measurable, set of marketing tactics. Digital should be well-suited, then, to a tough economic climate where short-term sales and measurable ROI are prized. Indeed, WARC’s forecast for where marketing dollars will be going in 2021 vs 2020 shows digital marketing dominating the growth:
But, as with marketing in 2021 more generally, the opportunity in digital is bothist. In fact, I believe it always has been, and to treat digital only as a short-term tactic is misguided. Consider the following ‘long term digital’ approaches:
- SEO: beyond some technical aspects, SEO is largely about reputation, quality, credibility, authority. SEO is a long-term investment, much like building brand equity. SEO takes continued effort over time: it is hard to build value, and can be quick to destroy it, but it is absolutely worth it in the long run. Link equity, domain authority, SERPS coverage…these are not short-term sales activation goals.
- Email Sender Reputation. Building your email sender reputation is also a long-term investment. You have to earn your reputation with quality over time. But the business case, for even percentage points of additional email deliverability, is clear.
- Data – digital has forced us all to get better with data. There are tactical aspects to this but also long-term strategic benefits. As we’re forced to create metadata, taxonomies, schemas and other information architecture scaffolding we are actually codifying the DNA of our businesses and customers. Thus ‘digital’ takes us beyond marketing to the very heart, and future competitiveness, of our businesses.
- SaaS mindset. I’ve written before about why every business should think like a SaaS business, the crux of which is that the metrics that drive these businesses are fundamentally long term, despite their acknowledged digital prowess. Great ‘digital’ businesses, like Amazon, take the long view.
Digital can also embrace the contrarianism of marketing Bothism:
- Why choose between mass marketing vs targeting? With digital you can segment and target but also deliver scale e.g. ABM (account based marketing) but augmented with intent data to expand reach; using lookalike audiences or expanded search terms to deliver ‘mass niche’.
- Do we need to decide between differentiation and distinctiveness? With dynamic personalisation in digital we can differentiate the experience at an individual customer level but still use our brand codes to be distinctive.
- Paid search marketing is the quintessential ‘performance marketing’ tactic that can be very short term and yet, as Ritson argues in It’s time for ‘share of search’ to replace ‘share of voice’, it should also be considered as strategic.
- Digital marketing is both to humans AND machines. We market to machines with the data we feed to search engine bots, comparison sites and aggregators, the location data we feed to mapping services, the ratings and reviews, the product data feeds etc.
It remains to be seen if businesses and marketers are brave enough to do the right thing and be bothist in 2021 rather than only short term. But do not forget that digital is bothist too. Of course, there should not really be a distinction between ‘digital’ and ‘classic’ marketing – that was the bothist impetus behind their fusion in our Modern Marketing Model (M3).
Reducing our impact on the environment, and creating more sustainable businesses, is another mega trend. It is tempting to believe that digital and ecommerce are a positive step forwards but there is mounting evidence to show that digital means of doing business is also damaging. 2021 will see increasing efforts to try and mitigate this negative impact, despite the pressures of tough economic times.
Even a year ago around a billion trees needed to be cut down just to provide the e-commerce packaging for the US. Thirty percent of the solid rubbish the US generated came from the packaging of home-delivered products and the packaging for Christmas returns alone emitted an additional 15 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Whilst the pandemic has given the planet some reprieve in other areas, these figures will only have gone up in 2020.
In ecommerce most efforts are directed at reducing packaging waste (e.g. compact by design) and reducing emissions in the supply chain and delivery process. The products themselves are also under scrutiny with an emphasis on sustainable traceability, recycle and reuse, and the ‘right to repair’.
But ‘digital’ is more than just ecommerce. Gerry McGovern’s recent “World Wide Waste” book is cause for alarm. Part of the problem is physical digital devices: in 10yrs global e–waste from these will be 120 million metric tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to 3X the weight of all the commercial aircraft ever built. But we must also consider the data we create, transfer and consume:
- 6 billion trees would have to be planted to offset the pollution caused by email spam.
- 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google.
- 80% of all digital data is never accessed or used again after it is stored.
On the one hand we can celebrate the huge ecommerce numbers around Black Friday, or 11.11 (Singles Day) in China, but more brands are subverting this consumerism with support for the environment instead. Patagonia has been doing so on Black Friday for nearly a decade, and in 2020 marked the day by launching used product alongside new on its website. The retailer claims that buying a used garment “extends its life on average by 2.2 years, which reduces its carbon, waste and water footprint by 73 percent.”
The inconvenient truth we need to face in digital is that it is the very same effortless, instantly-gratifying customer experiences that we strive to deliver that are also driving an ecommerce revolution that is damaging the planet we’re trying to protect.
Coronavirus has benefited ecommerce and the environment in the short term. Ecommerce will win in the long term also but can it avoid doing so at the expense of the environment?