Updated: Feb 1, 2021
At the beginning of every year, we turn our sight towards the future. Each year predictions fly left and right about what will be the next big thing, sparking a brand new wave of FOMO. After the hype dies down a bit, we’re often left underwhelmed, but by that time, the wheel is spinning again with a new set of trends and predictions.
With 1 part honest professional curiosity and 1 part cynicism, I’ve decided to take a look at “2021 Digital marketing trends" to see what they are and whether it’s worth following such things at all. How did I do that? Let’s take a look at my very simple methodology.
I started where everyone starts when they want to know something - at the front page of Google. After adventurously entering the phrase “Digital Marketing Trends 2021”, I’ve read and analyzed what Google’s algorithm considers to be the best-compiled treatises on the subject.
I read through legitimate articles, SEO pieces, and “toot my own horn” posts written by marketing gurus and made notes of what trends were mentioned. Below is a curated list of the trends mentioned most often, accompanied by my humble opinion.
Personalization & Segmentation
In the first place, mentioned 12 times across 20 different publications, is Personalization & Segmentation. The concepts of segmenting your customer base and personalizing your messaging to given segments is nothing new.
Quite the opposite actually, it’s become expected, with 72% of customers reporting to only engage with personalized marketing messages. Furthermore, 63% of consumers report being highly annoyed with being continuously blasted by generic advertising. What changes is the granularity into which you can go when segmenting your customers.
A game-changer seems to be AI-based segmentation, which should be able to create and update microsegments at a pace you could never match manually. The claim here is, that manual segmentation will be obsolete, but I feel this is an overstatement.
Another interesting use of AI in personalization is using predictive analytics to find the best times to engage customers by looking at data like when they subscribed to you, or when did they make their last purchase.
While AI segmentation & personalization may work great for businesses with tons of data about their customers (say hi to your Alexa), the very data-hungry nature of AI will make it less useful for others. SMEs struggling to collect first-party data as well as startups with a number of customers in tens or hundreds will often lack the raw amount of data to create a truly reliable model for the AI to follow and will do better with a little human touch.
Another factor limiting your implementation of these technologies might be language. While AI-generated text tends to work fairly well in English nowadays, there are still billions of people who use a different native language in their day-to-day communication. I’m from Slovakia, where the language makes it very hard to introduce any form of AI-powered customization.
This one surprised me a bit. I fully expected voice search to make an appearance during my research, but I’d never guess it would be the 2nd most often mentioned prediction.
I get it, smart speakers have become all the rage in the past few years. I myself am an avid user of Google Home and I have several strategically placed around my apartment. The reason why I think this might be a bit overblown is that very little changes for your SEO. You still need to rank high, preferably at the coveted SERP position 0, since that’s the result your speaker usually reads out loud. To do that, you still need to do your keyword research, match the searcher's intent and optimize your content.
With that being said, if your main business is selling products via Amazon, I might give voice more thought. Phrases like “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list” are quickly becoming more common than writing things down the old fashioned way. According to Google, 72% of people who own voice-activated speakers say that their devices are used as part of their daily routines.
Another important niche might be local services. If you’re dependent on the local market, you might want to look into voice search as a means of being discovered by potential customers in your location. The language will be a limiting factor here as well though. For example, I’d love to use my Google Home more for things like transport directions, but there is no way for me to pronounce Slovak street names while speaking English to my Google Home. I’ve been banging my head against the same brick wall with Siri when trying to voice dial some of my friends...It’s just one of the struggles of being from Europe I guess.
When studying marketing I was always taught, to avoid polarizing subjects that might antagonize parts of the customer base. Back in my NGO days we even prized ourselves on being 100% apolitical, expressing no opinion towards the current government, its policies, or any of its predecessors.
What we see more and more are brands, that are not afraid to take a stand even to the dismay of some of their customers. After 2 decades of being bombarded by online advertisements wherever you go, customers crave an authentic connection with brands. And that’s something you can’t have with someone afraid to stand up for their values.
The social turmoil of 2020 with events like the outbreak of COVID19, 2020 presidential elections in the US, or the black lives matter movement make it clear that playing it safe will no longer cut it.
Instead of trying not to offend anyone, you should make sure that every ad, post, or any marketing activity you do serves to connect you with the portion of your customer-base that already shares your values. And what about the rest? Well, sometimes you just need to let go. Would you like to be in the company of people who stand for the opposite of what you believe in? Didn’t think so.
A great example of value-based campaign is AirBnB’s #WeAccept campaign from 2017. Following a U.S. government announcement of a travel ban on several countries with muslim majority, AirBnB started their campaign to combat misconceptions and communicate their company’s values of inclusiveness and acceptance.
It’s my honest opinion, that out of all the trends discussed in this article, this one is the most important moving forward.
Instagram unveiled their Checkout functionality in March 2019, but the so-called “shoppable posts” really became a thing during last year. Millions of people ended in quarantine during lockdowns and with little to do to pass their time, many turned to online shopping.
Today you can see social commerce features available on most major social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Pinterest. And for good reason, too. 87% of e-commerce shoppers believe social media helps them make a shopping decision. And even before the pandemics, 30% of consumers said they would make purchases directly through social media platforms. As of 2021, Instagram reports 1 billion users, with 90% of whom already follow shopping brands.
Shoppable content makes it easy for customers to go from discovery to purchase, without ever having to leave the platform, resulting in a superb customer experience.
While this trend remains pretty much useless for me as a SaaS marketer, I would definitely pay close attention to it if I was working in the B2C space. One thing that businesses should keep in mind is that as soon as you start selling directly via social media, you are relinquishing a certain level of control to the platform. It’s very similar to selling on Amazon. Once a large chunk of your revenues comes from social commerce, you will no longer have the choice and you will have to carefully follow every change and update, or risk non-compliance.
Marketing cloud & automation
It’s “trends” like these that prompted me to write this article. Generic, vague, and dated. Despite being mentioned in 7 out of 20 top search results, little is actually said in most of them. Most either list some examples of automation, without any guidance on how to proceed or simply pick one aspect, such as automated bidding and completely ignore the rest.
The cloud movement has started 2 decades ago and marketing automation has been around for at least 1. Both are immensely broad terms that in my opinion don’t make for good trends because of how hard it is to follow something so vague. It’s very similar to “digital transformation” or “big data”. Reminds me of a great quote by Dan Ariely: “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”.
I’m not saying automation can’t make your business more effective...I’m just saying that if you’re just considering it now, the latest digital marketing trends should be the least of your worries.
I’m going to be honest here - I feel very torn about the whole influencer wave. On one hand, I really don’t like social media. This may be caused by my professional deformation as a marketer, and understanding that if you don’t pay, you’re the product (yes, I’ve felt this way even before watching The Social Dilemma). Then again it might just be me being an introverted personality.
From a professional point of view, however, I can’t ignore how efficient a strategy it can be. Just ponder these stats from Edelman:
63% of consumers trust influencers’ opinions of products much more than what brands say about themselves
58% of people have bought a new product in the past six months because of an influencer’s recommendation
It’s clear from these numbers, that is perceived as more authentic, than traditional corporate advertising.
While the more old-fashioned form of influencer marketing relying on premiere influencers like celebrities may not be accessible to everyone, the rising trend of micro (<100k followers) and nano influencers (<25k followers) is something most brands should be able to look into. The lower number of followers is definitely nothing to scoff at, as micro and nano influencers can boast the highest engagement rates.
Even I managed to see some minor successes from cooperating on content production and distribution with small influencers in our field. And we’re a B2B SaaS company...not really the first thing one thinks of when speaking of influencers.
Influencer marketing also shows great synergy with Social commerce via shoppable posts and even shoppable live-streams via Amazon or TikTok.
If you aren’t already working with influencers, I’d definitely give it a try in a B2C space and I’d consider it with a B2B product as well. Just make sure you define your target audience well. Mis-matched partnerships tend to be detrimental for both, the influencer and the advertiser.
At first, I scoffed when I read about Video being a trend for 2021. I’ve been seeing video listed as the next big thing for the past 10 years. The true trend here is short-form video content specifically.
TikTok’s rapid growth last year caused this format to skyrocket. TikTok is now the platform of choice for Gen Z and it’s not surprising. Their short-form content is engaging, easily digestible, memorable, and perfectly suited to Gen Z’s 8-second attention span. Other platforms soon came to follow with Snapchat going through a major redesign and Facebook implementing Instagram reels to get on the bandwagon. TikTok is also set to expand its advertising options in 2021, setting this format for another round of massive growth.
Traditional long-form video content still has its place for several reasons. The first being SEO. According to a study by Forrester, a video is 50x more likely to rank, than a plain text result. This is not solely due to the video as this stat would have you believe, but more due to the page engagement metrics measured by Google. Nonetheless, video is a great way to boost these metrics. Another great reason to use video is how easily it lends itself to content repurposing. One recorded video, can be turned into:
Blog post via transcribing it
Native video on different platforms (either long-form or cut into shorter clips)
Podcast, by removing the video and leaving only the audio
Blog post via rewriting the content a bit
And these are just the examples that are the easiest to do.
I’m already convinced to look more into video this year, but if you’re not, there’s one last interesting stat to consider: According to Cisco, video will constitute more than 82% of all consumer internet traffic by 2022.
After conquering the world of text, search engines turn their ever-watchful eye to the world of images and videos. The leaps happening in this field in the past few years are truly exciting.
The two biggest players right now are Pinterest and Google. Google’s original visual search allowed you to look for similar images by uploading an image of your own. While you can still do this, there is so much more customers can do nowadays. Using the Google Lens app, you can:
Find similar apparel and home goods and where to buy them.
Scan a barcode to find information about a product.
Save the information off of a business card.
Get a book summary and reviews by taking a picture of the cover.
Add an event to your calendar by taking a picture of the flyer.
See historical facts about a landmark.
Read about an author of a painting.
Pinterest is another strong player in the visual search game. After taking a photo using their Lens feature, customers can see where to buy it online, discover similar products and view pinboards of related items. It now recognizes 2.5 billion home and fashion objects and processes over 600 million visual searches a month.
Microsoft’s Bing search engine is also making a name for itself, for its ability to search for a particular detail in a picture, like a coffee table in a picture of a living room.
Users and millennials seem to love these new advances, with research from ViSenze suggesting that 62% of millennials want to have visual search capabilities.
Capitalizing on this trend will be the job for your SEOs, who will have to step up their optimization for image search. While this may not be a top priority for me with a B2B SaaS product at Nicereply, I’d definitely advise anyone who’s selling a physical product online to:
Make sure all your images are in high-resolution
Create a dedicated image sitemap
Create descriptive file names of your images
Always include alt texts and image descriptions
After all, Retail Customer Experience estimates that by 2021: "Early adopters that redesign their websites to support visual and voice search will increase their digital commerce revenue by 30%.”
Data privacy has been a hot topic for the last couple of years, fueled by regulations such as Europe’s GDPR from 2018, or California's CCPA coming into effect this year. I sometimes miss the simple days when TOS meant Star Trek: The Original Series and not Terms of Service.
Despite 72% of shoppers only being willing to engage with personalized marketing and 61 % of consumers being willing to trade online privacy for relevant offers, the trend seems to be going in the direction of increasing privacy control.
Among the biggest proponents of these trends are Apple, Google, and Mozilla. Apple is already allowing its users to avoid tracking when using their Safari browser, and Google effectively signed a death sentence to third-party cookies. Yeah, that’s right. Chrome, the world’s most popular browser will no longer support third party cookies by 2022.
So what’s left? First-party data. That means data you collect. And you’ll have to earn those.
Personally, I’m not excited. I already lived through getting a business GDPR ready and it wasn’t much fun. We’ve reduced our mailing lists by 90% and missed out on a lot of leads by playing it safe at Nicereply. Despite this, my personal email is flooded by crap I either unsubscribed from years ago or never even subscribed to in the first place.
But it’s just one of those things you have to do. So if you’re not already educating your customers about why is it a good thing for them to provide you with their data, you should start thinking about it now.
So should you be following marketing trends?
I had a lot of fun doing this exercise. I started a bit skeptical, but even after years of experience, it’s always a good idea to check in with the latest developments in the field. Do I agree with all these predictions? No, I think I’ve made that perfectly clear in some cases.
Should you base your strategy on trends like these? Again, I don’t think chasing trends is your job as a marketer. At the end of the day, each business is different and it’s up to you to weigh the up and coming trends against the priorities of your business.
Not sure what to do, or just want a second opinion? Write me on LinkedIn and we’ll figure something out.
This was my first stab at producing content of this kind solely to share expertise. If you have some feedback, I’d love to hear it. You can reach out to me at jakub.slamka [at] gmail.com. If you’d like to read more stuff by me in the future, I’d be happy if you joined my mailing list below.