Econsultancy’s key digital marketing trends for 2021
Predicting the key digital marketing trends for 2021 might seem especially challenging, but Ashley Friedlein is well-practised in holding a finger to the industry headwinds. Since 2011, the Econsultancy founder has given his forecast of which themes and developments will shape the coming year — accurately pinpointing digital shopping and transformation for 2020.
So, what does Friedlein expect for the next 12 months?
To mark the 10th anniversary of Friedlein’s annual projections, 10 top picks were debuted live in last week’s “Marketing & Digital Trends for 2021 and Beyond” webinar. The full session can be accessed here; our summary of the highlights can be found below:
1. Transformation leads the digital marketing trends
After the profound shift to online-first living and working last year, it’s no surprise digital transformation is still front and centre. Estimates of how far the pandemic has pushed global digitisation ahead of schedule vary — averaging at five or six years — but the wider consensus is that changes are escalating faster than anticipated pre-pandemic.
On the consumer side, this is especially clear in the rise of ecommerce: with McKinsey finding US online shopping grew more in three months during 2020 than the previous decade. For organisations, transformation has been most acute in the remote working switch; and given that 76% of employees want to keep working from home, it looks as though new working dynamics are here to stay, at least in some form.
But as Friedlein notes, digital transformation goes much deeper than simply increasing use of digital technologies and tools; it’s also about overall business transformation. In 2021, we will see companies across sectors reconfiguring their processes and offerings for the digital era. Not only will retailers go “all-in” on ecommerce, but brands and manufactures will also prioritise digital routes to market; both for direct-to-consumer and business-to-business sales.
2. Community reconnection is in full swing
Greater emphasis on community isn’t new. Back in 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg observed users were increasingly craving digital spaces that feel like private living rooms, not town squares. COVID-19, however, has sent this trend into overdrive. Existing concerns about social media toxicity have combined with information overload and heightened isolation to drive demand for curated digital environments where individuals can build personal, one-to-one bonds. Or as Friedlein summarises: “small is the new big”.
At both a consumer and B2B level, community is making a comeback — and this universal desire for meaningful connection is set to fuel significant changes in how companies engage with their audiences online and offline. In fact, Friedlein believes we are witnessing the dawn of a new industry phenomenon, community-based marketing (CBM), and that businesses across all industries must embrace the budding direct-to-community economy if they want to thrive. As well as integrating CBM with overall digital marketing strategy, companies should create secure online spaces for their customers and focus on building close ties with each individual.
3.Moving back to decentralisation, again
The nucleus of digital power is variable, frequently moving from the centre to the edges. For example, the early days of computing brought a swing from vast centralised mainframes to decentralised PCs, before power was concentrated again as the internet increased reliance on fixed servers. Now, we are experiencing another transition of power that Friedlein feels is once more headed towards decentralisation, in multiple ways.
Remote working is an obvious example; with cloud-based platforms enabling employees to operate efficiently from anywhere, not just main offices. But companies should also be keeping watch on many other trends. Agile marketing is providing more scope for devolved and autonomous teams to make fast decisions — instead of always being led by centralised management. Similarly, the ’no code’ movement is creating new possibilities for marketing professionals by allowing them to complete tasks without developers, while ever-more sophisticated devices and localised sensors enhance data-handling capacity at the fringes of the network.
4. The tech regulation march continues
Scrutiny of the tech sector reached new heights in 2020 and all digital players should be ready for the spotlight to remain in place. For Friedlein, the congressional US hearing that brought together the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook — referred to as tech’s “Big tobacco moment” — was only the beginning of increased determination across global governments and regulators to enhance fairness and transparency in the digital ecosystem.
With a diverse array of initiatives on the horizon, it seems this prediction will be realised imminently. Following its industry-wide investigation, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is creating a dedicated Digital Markets Unit focused on setting new rules of conduct for tech companies. This step is mirrored by proposed regulation from the European Commission, which will introduce deep annual checks for tech giants, as well as consistent monitoring. Meanwhile, antitrust lawsuits filed against Facebook and Google in the US are still ongoing.
5. Investing in learning drives digital success
There is great wisdom in continuing vital marketing investment through crisis. As highlighted in other GingerMay blogs, many past examples prove the companies that emerged in the best position after periods of turbulence were those who opted to maintain or increase — rather than rein in — their marketing and advertising activity. From Friedlein’s point of view, much the same now also applies to investment in digital capability.
After rapid pandemic-fuelled advances, adaptability has become critical to business success. Enhancing employee capacity to effectively wield the latest digital innovations will be a key part of that; and for companies, this means there is an urgent need to start allocating more resources to learning. Of course, digital up-skilling covers a very long list, but there are several key essentials every company should aim for; particularly data-driven analysis, process orchestration, and customer journey mapping.
6. The (almost) augmented marketer arrives
Last year, Brinker and Baldwin’s Martech 2030 report shared their vision for the augmented future; including exciting new opportunities for marketers to harness artificial intelligence (AI) as a means of testing creative and content on simulated audiences. Although that dream is still some way off, Friedlein does foresee AI making its way into more day-to-day marketing practice this year. Thanks to ‘no code’ progression, marketers will be able to leverage an array of smart self-service tech to super-charge their performance and output; harnessing tools such as Snazzy AI and Obviously AI to autonomically produce ad copy and plough through massive data sets.
7. Recognising the need for fast and slow experiences
The long-rolling mega-trend of customer experience is undergoing an evolution. For years, marketing attention has largely focused on adapting experiences to what individuals want and human thought processes — as with the ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ model — but there is also a rising need to consider pace. Before COVID-19, the Quartz Curve demonstrated online content performs best when either long or short, not in between. Today, this range of opposite preferences has expanded to cover multiple media formats from bite-sized audio to long-form written journalism, which makes it paramount for marketers to adjust their speed settings.
Development in this direction is already well under way, especially in terms of faster interaction; see the zero-click living enabled by voice search and Amazon’s ‘Just walk out’ payment service. But Friedlein warns that marketers must be careful not to aim for speed alone; high-quality experiences require greater tailoring. Catering successfully to varied audiences means pinpointing which kind of content marketing will create the right user experience; slow and indulgent or streamlined and hyper-efficient.
8. Finally tapping the live commerce boom
China often serves as the barometer of where tech trends and consumer behaviour will go next, and its flourishing live commerce market is no exception. First introduced by Alibaba to bolster Singles’ Day sales over seven years ago, this potent blend of online streaming and shoppable interactive content has proved extremely popular and profitable: driving revenues equal to $170 billion. But despite this huge potential, the trend has failed to garner wider global interest or uptake. That is, until the e-commerce boom. Recent months have brought many forays into live commerce from major players — Shopify, Google and Facebook to name a few — and it’s highly likely that the rest of the Western digital market won’t be far behind.
9. Making room for digital ‘bothism’
Friedlein agrees with Mark Ritson’s recent prediction that this will be the year traditionally polarised elements of marketing are embraced and used in tandem via ‘bothism’. Just as marketing is at its most effective when long-term building and short-term sales activation are combined, there is also room for other conventionally siloed elements to work simultaneously, such as precise targeting and mass marketing, or creativity and strategy. Although marketers have typically viewed digital as a short-term approach — mostly due to its high measurability and accountability — they will begin to harness its ‘bothist’ opportunities for long-term gains. With so much of our everyday working processes and culture now dominated by digital, it’s time to start tapping into the long and the short of it.
10. Tackling digital’s inconvenient truth
Last but not least is acknowledging — and minimising — digital’s frequently underestimated environmental impact. Pointing to research cited in Gerry McGovern’s new book — World Wide Waste — Friedlein argues the industry is not as clean as it seems: with email marketing spam alone generating so much carbon each year that offsetting it would mean planting 1.6 billion trees.
Fortunately, there are many positive efforts being made to increase the sustainability of marketing and the actions it inspires, such as online shopping. Unilever, for instance, has committed to significantly reducing the volume of new plastic in its packaging. Last year’s Black Friday also saw multiple brands take a leaf out of outdoor brand Patagonia’s book by urging consumers to buy second-hand clothing and limit over-consumption. In the year ahead, there are encouraging signs more brands, advertisers, publishers and vendors will join the mission to make digital greener.
Concluding Econsultancy’s key digital marketing trends for 2021
Digital marketing has proven it is not only resilient and adaptable enough to face the numerous challenges posed by COVID-19, but that it has its sights set on building a more efficient, meaningful, fairer and greener future. By prioritising consumer relationships and investing in the skills needed to roll with the digital tide, the industry will be well equipped for success in 2021.