Every marketer and their mother wants to know: What will the industry look like in 2021?
As the pandemic drags on, some bets are safe: Digital channels will be crowded. Most marketing events will continue to be held virtually. But other marketing trends aren't so obvious.
So what do marketing experts see coming? Here’s what I’m hearing from my network:
1. Personalization Will Put Buyers in Control
Until recently, marketing personalization has been a bit gimmicky. In 2021, companies will use personalization not just to craft better email subject lines, but to make the buyer’s journey more individualized. "This change in dynamic requires a highly personalized customer experience that aligns to how buyers now want to do business," explained observIQ CMO Carol Volk.
Volk pointed to product delivery as a hotspot for personalization. Customers want access to digital products wherever they have an internet connection. For physical products, they want to choose not just between in-store and online shopping, but between curbside pickup and delivery. And they want every option at a time that works for them.
2. Alignment Will Require all Hands on Deck
Pipeline challenges will continue well into 2021. To keep demand high, marketers will need to keep lines of communication strong with their sales and customer service teams. Collaboration and transparency will be key.
"Pipeline comes from many sources, and marketing can never provide 100% of the needed demand generation," warned Terminus CMO Daniel Incandela. "Without these relationships, you don’t stand a chance."
Incandela suggests prioritizing trust. Build bridges that make it possible to hold yourself and your colleagues accountable.
3. Content Will Continue to Focus on Current Events
Relevant content gets clicks. In 2020, many marketers pivoted from their regularly scheduled programming to the year’s crises.
"Great marketers have always been flexible," said TripleLift CMO Jordan Bitterman. "It’s far more effective to communicate with messages related to current events than it is to stay rigid with the going-in plan."
Never be afraid to scrap an intro, topic, or even an entire marketing strategy if current events call for it. You probably did it in 2020. You can do it again in 2021.
4. Conferences Will Remain Remote
Conferences are big in the marketing industry. The events of 2020 drove almost all of them online, and the same is likely to be true in 2021.
Don’t forget altogether about continuing education, but don’t expect to spend a lot of money on it, either. Choose a few online conferences, and sign each member of your marketing team up for at least one of them.
"Unfortunately, it seems clear that in-person events and meetings will still be risky in 2021," said Sue Childs, CMO of ComplySci. "Even with a vaccine, I think a return to large gatherings is unlikely until late 2021 at best."
5. Consumer Spending Will Explode
Consumer spending dried up in 2020 as many Americans lost jobs and others prioritized saving. As the economy recovers, some marketing experts foresee an explosion in consumer spending.
"We think there will be a huge burst in spending," said MoneyLion CMO Bill Davaris. "Luxury items, travel, clothes, gifts, homes, tech, and cars — consumers are going to splurge on all the things they put on hold in 2020."
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Do realize, however, that getting consumers to open their wallets will likely be easier in 2021 than it was in 2020.
6. Streaming Will Take Center Stage
"We will see brands shift their media investments to streaming and gaming platforms in a more meaningful way," predicted Brad Wilson, WarnerMedia executive vice president of growth and media.
Many brands dipped their toes in platforms like Twitch in 2020. Next year, they’re likely to double down on streaming campaigns. Wilson also predicts partnerships with gaming influencers will become common.
7. The Emergence of Nostalgia for In-Store Shopping
As consumers spend more time and money online, some experts foresee a snapback to in-store shopping. Consumers who don’t feel safe in stores will try to relive the experience digitally.
“The consumer will be hyper-focused on trying to emulate the cross-shopping brick-and-mortar experience they really miss, believe it or not,” said Bruce Hershey, Digital Hands CMO and former CMO of Men’s Wearhouse. “They will be more likely to use apps that create an experience that they miss and want.”
8. Brands Will Cater to Consumers’ Anxieties
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that 2020 has been stressful. Brands will continue to speak to that common experience in 2021.
“Consumers are exhausted, anxious, and shaken to their core,” said Alma Derricks, REV founder and managing partner. “In 2021, brands should continue to focus on practical features and benefits, personal well being, and healing while avoiding cruel and insensitive displays of privilege.”
Although some consumers made it through 2020 just fine, many others lost jobs and even family members. Marketers must be sensitive to those losses.
9. Brand-to-Brand Collaborations Will Be Big
Brands are accustomed to competing with each other. In 2021, some marketing experts predict they’ll give collaboration a go.
In a recent AdWeek article, SkyZone CMO Josh Cole pointed to McDonald’s wildly successful partnership with Travis Scott and Adidas’ partnerships with Lego and Allbirds. “Unexpected partnerships between corporate brands capture media attention, generate buzz and allow for cross marketing to customer bases,” Cole noted, “without celebrity endorsement fees, all of which plays well in an era of hard-to-capture consumer attention and tightened budgets.”
10. Political Divides Will Create Ongoing Challenges
The divisive political climate of 2020 isn’t going away in 2021, marketing experts warn. “I predict an ever-increasing divide across the US as a number of brands continue to take very public positions on controversial political issues and push specific social and cultural agendas,” said Kent Huffman, Fractional CMO.
Marketers are likely to find themselves walking increasingly fine political lines. When in doubt, don’t drag your brand into hot-button issues.
11. All-Remote Marketing Teams Will Become Common
“Believe it or not, even more marketers will be working from home in 2021,” said Michele Barbone, former CMO of Lenox. The result will be ongoing workflow and alignment challenges.
Don’t wait until a miscommunication blows up to address it, Barbone continued. The better team members understand each other and the team’s wider goals, the better.
12. Sales-Marketing Alignment Will Be Mission-Critical
Friction between the sales and marketing teams is nothing new. But as revenue becomes more difficult to come by and remote work more common, aligning the two teams will be more important than ever.
“Marketing will have to fully jump the chasm and embrace the responsibility to service sales and directly affect revenue,” argued former Oracle CCO Jeb Dasteel. “Don’t get me wrong — sales has to adapt as well — but it’s really up to marketing to figure out how to create and nurture that critical connection between the CMO’s team and sales function.”
13. Zoom Burnout Will Be Universal
Are you sick of videoconferencing yet? If not, you will be by the end of 2021, marketing experts predict.
“Zoom isn’t new but has never been used to the degree it is today,” said Pearle Vision CMO Doug Zarkin. “As for the future, I think it’ll become increasingly clear that people are burned out. They long for phone calls and face-to-face conversations.”
Zoom isn’t going away, to be sure. But other communication channels may come back into vogue as marketers move away from videoconferencing.
14. Thought Leadership Is the New Demand Gen
Alexandria Symos, Vice President, Go-To-Market Center of Excellence at Edison Partners acknowledges that companies have always bought in to the importance of thought leadership in building of a successful brand.
But she believes there is a clear difference between those who just provide lip service versus those who deliver on the promise of true thought leadership. “Those that are most knowledgeable about their markets and buyers will invest more in content creation as a means to communicate advice and expertise to their customers,” she said. “Up front delivery of value-based information will become greens fees for securing meetings and mindshare with buyers.”
About the Author
Currently serving as a communications director for Oracle, Steve Olenski is a true unicorn in that he has the unique ability to combine real-world marketing experience with a highly impressive journalistic background. A regular contributor to Forbes for 10 years, his work has also appeared in other leading publications including Ad Age, Adweek, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Marketing Land, MarTech Today, ESPN among many others.