Predictions: 10 technology trends in marketing for 2021

What technology will define and reshape marketing in 2021? CMO asks the experts

While 2020 might have been the year of accelerated digital transformation, marketers will have a host of other technologies on their radar in 2021.

From artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT to mixed reality (MR) and robotic process automation, it's clear marketing leaders will need to increasingly tap technology to make informed, responsive decisions with tightened budgets and changing consumer behaviour.  

“Consumers’ expectations have gone digital, and there’s no turning back. Businesses need to adopt digital solutions to keep customers satisfied and continue growing their businesses," says CEO and co-founder of Moxtra plus former CEO, chairman and cofounder of WebEx, Subrah Iyar. "This implies shifting customer engagement experiences to a ‘Pull' model from a ‘Push' model - for doing business where customers are able to pull services on-demand than having businesses push their services onto a customer.”

Here, we pick 10 technologies that will provide both the driving force and toolkit for such engagement.

 1. AR, VR and XR

Once distinct, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and the catch-all of extended reality (XR) will play a larger role in marketing in 2021 as mixed reality as brands look to move into new realms to connection with customers. 

IDTechEx predicted in its recent market research report that virtual reality technology will grow to US$8 billion by 2030, and be a key technology of the next decade, while the combined augmented and virtual reality market will grow to over $30bn in this time.

 “Being able to use a third dimension to engage your audience through showing how a product may look in their physical location, helping visualise complex data or getting them up close to a beloved character, will allow businesses to easily connect to their audiences in a whole new way,” Verizon Media head of strategic solutions - RYOT Studio, Julia Edwards, says. 

2. Artificial intelligence and machine learning


It’s not possible to talk about marketing in 2021 without discussing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which are opening up further possibilities for delivery and service. Many are in fact proclaiming 2021 will be the year of AI in marketing.

“Where humans once intervened in a process in order to complete it, AI and ML can be used to remove the human from the equation. That way, the human is free to work on more pressing, strategic objectives versus something a machine can do," said Conexiom CEO, Ray Grady.

"Organisations need to focus exclusively on solutions that deliver touchless outcomes and those without human intervention. Because, if an AI/ML solution only delivers an improvement in a process or workflow instead of a touchless outcome, it’s the wrong solution for your business ".

AI and ML will also prove their worth in helping manage the data overload challenge a lot of marketers face. “The adoption of AI and machine learning in marketing will help narrow the scope of marketers’ data and help them focus on things that consumers are actually engaging with and are more likely to engage with in the future,” says Litmus CMO, Melissa Sargeant.  

Forrester principal analyst, Jay Pattisall, predicts AI and automation will also help fill the gaps in the shrinking agency workplace. The analyst firm predicts nearly all agency functions will identify repetitive tasks that machines can assist or take over by 2021, ramping up the experimentation and application of intelligent automation.

“Exacerbating the situation is industry layoffs claiming between 5 and 10 per cent of agency positions globally. It leaves significant gaps in talent that tech platforms will augment while the industry weathers another year of reduced marketing spend,” says Pattisall.

"We are fast approaching a world in which every organisation uses AI, regardless of industry. In a telling indication that this shift is already in full swing, our recent survey revealed nearly half of organisations are already using it and a third plan to incorporate it into their business models in the future."

Tealium VP and GM APJ, Will Griffith, sees AI and ML becoming democratised as no-code solutions emerge. "With AI taking on much of the heavy lifting in 2021, an evolution of skills will undoubtedly follow. Organisations are increasingly looking for creative problem solvers and those with the soft skills that technology does not yet have the capabilities to take over,” he says.

While some commentators have warned against the potential deployment of AI in cyberattacks, the value of machine learning in combating cyber risks will also become evident in 2021, according to Exigent global director of client innovation, Rico Burnett.

“Threat detection and system vulnerability analysis will be supported by ML to improve progressively. The feedback loops and data analysis possible as a result of the integration of AI into a company’s cyber security regime will make this is key field of focus going into next year,” he says.

3. Martech consolidation

As marketing technology stacks mature, many are predicting 2021 will see further moves towards martech consolidation and optimisation.

“This year has stripped marketing budgets to the bone, and one of the tools bearing the brunt of this is martech," says Silverbullet MD APAC, Tim Beard. "Organisations will need to consolidate and optimise use of their existing martech investment before thinking about the ‘next shiny thing’. In 2021, marketers will review existing blueprints or roadmaps, or develop them for the first time, to re-align with business objectives." 

Several also see the days of off-the-shelf martech solutions being numbered, with a shift from one-size-fits-all to customised solutions. A necessary focus will be on finding functional integration of the various tools that will form a marketer’s everyday toolkit, Forbury marketing manager, Rebecca Emslie, says.

“Marketers will increasingly turn to custom software providers for tools which are specialised for a particular task or an individual business need," she says. “Targeting will be taken to levels not seen before. We could consider this as an emergence of hyper-targeted marketing as segments are drilled down into at an even more granular level."

Enabling this is more and more customer data being available. Emslie believes the ability is coming for even smaller businesses to utilise technology to identify, track and tailor messages for delivery to a smaller than before customer segment, even down to the level of specific individual. This can be yet another way to reach customers in a personal, genuine way, she said.

Sargeant agrees brands are going to be cutting down their marketing tech stacks because of budget cuts and overlapping technologies in 2021. “Of all of the martech out there, tech that uses automation and enables ABM and will be prioritised. Facilitating highly-personalised and segmented experiences will be table stakes,” she said.   

4. 5G


The advent of 5G technologies holds incredible economic potential for businesses and individuals as the next-generation networking infrastructure becomes mainstream.

"We have witnessed first-hand the impact of new technologies to make life easier and safer, but they often require tremendous data transfer speeds in order to deliver real-time results," RMIT Online CEO, Helen Souness, says.  

GSMA has forecast 5G will inject $2.2 trillion into the global economy by 2034. "Privacy-enhancing computation has also been highlighted by Gartner as a leading tech trend for 2021, with 50 per cent of large organisations expected to implement this to ease the processing of data in untrusted environments," Souness adds.

“In the future, after 5G is more readily available, it’ll change the way customers, businesses and even cities themselves communicate forever,” according to SlickText CEO, Matt Baglia. “Increased technology capabilities mean better, near-instant messages and more advanced communication channels powered by automation and AI.

“Businesses will be able to expand network capacity in order to facilitate online sharing and better support remote work environments. Cities and municipalities would then offer increased connectivity between its citizens and its organisations, helping drastically improve the daily lives of its residents."

5. Data tools


Data is another area ripe for further innovation. One prediction Sisense chief product and marketing officer, Ashley Kramer, is making for 2021 is dynamic data stories replacing static dashboards.

“The world is moving from the static, rigid experience to the data, insight and personalisation-driven assistant that knows how you want specific analytics to be served. To make that work, it will require embedded interfaces coming together with pretrained analytics services and training pipeline - the vehicle to facilitate the data model creation, and the right visualisation and narration to make the results digestible, trustable and learning,” Kramer says.

“Data storytelling forms a compelling narrative by putting data in context to show the challenges, insights and solutions of a specific business problem. It normally highlights a series of changes or trends over time through linked visualisations that combine to tell a story. Dashboards and visualisations are integral parts of data storytelling, but they’re not the end of the story. A story should include a solid narrative and a context to successfully create your story."

The explosion of digital interactions will also see an increased reliance on data. While Covid lockdowns triggered more digital conversations between businesses and consumers that were extremely challenging for many businesses, it has accelerated the opportunity for businesses to understand customers better through the data they are now able to capture.  

“2021 will see an even bigger emphasis on data as brands realise they’re now able to deliver more personalised, customised experiences to their customers at scale," Twilio country director A/NZ, Kristen Pimpin, says. "A one-size-fits-all approach will no longer work and brands will begin delivering truly new and creative ways of interacting with their customers to drive loyalty to replicate the in-person experience most can no longer deliver. Retail and financial services are particularly ripe for disruption."

As MuleSoft CMO, Lindsey Irvine, put it: “2021 will be the year that data separates organisations from their competitors and customers – the ability to unlock, analyse and act on data will become foundational to growth.”

Up next: 5 more technology in marketing predictions for 2021

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