Predictions: 14 digital marketing predictions for 2021

From the demise of third-party cookies and privacy-first marketing, to the reinvention of email and the reign of content, CMO asks the experts about what digital marketing will hold in 2021

In 2021 savvy marketers will continue to embrace creative ways of connecting with consumers to build awareness and drive demand through online touchpoints and digital insights in their campaigns. And with the absence of large events and in-person gatherings, restricted, by year’s end we could have smaller events with much richer digital integrations based on the learnings from 2020, says Cohesity CMO, Lynn Lucas.

In everything, digital must be the channel, according to Capacity Digital CEO, David Karandish. “The traditional workplace is dead. We can’t assume business will be done in person, in the same location anymore. The definition of ‘availability’ is also shifting and people are unplugging from the matrix a bit,” says Karandish.

This makes adaptability a key factor yet again in 2021. "Things will continue to be in a constant state of flux and, as leaders, we need to focus on how marketing can be a catalyst for change to maintain growth,” Showpad chief growth officer, Marissa Aydlett, tells CMO

Based on these imperatives, we explore the major ingredients that will help drive digital marketing success in the New Year.

1. First-party data

Ogilvy head of experience technology, Jason Davey, sees digital marketing strategies shifting to prioritise first-party data as the looming cookie crisis gets real (despite some delays). It's for this reason he sees customer data platform (CDP) vendors enjoying a meteoric rise as multi-channel data collection, attribution, curation and decisioning becomes more accessible and affordable.  

“As a result of lots of effort in integrating data across digital channels in 2020, we will see a further increase in the use of virtual agents by brands, assisting customers in a conversational shop assistant-like interaction to traverse the complexities of modern life from changing phone plans to buying your next car," Davey predicts. "This will, in turn, put more emphasis on CMOs to determine the ‘tone of conversation’ for their brand.

“All this data will continue to drive the hyper-personalisation trend, with more interest in predictive data analysis. Digital twin computing will become the standard way to predict real-world data impacts in a virtual world simulation."
Also expecting a shift to first-party data is BlackLine CMO, Andres Botero. “With Google Chrome ending its support of third-party cookies in 2021, digital marketers will need to shift from reliance on third-party data for audience targeting and campaign measurement to a new model - improving the way they collect, manage, and activate their first-party data," he says.

"In addition, marketers will want to partner with publishers that have obtained first-party data through legitimate and privacy-centric collection methods. Publishers have an opportunity to prove the value of their first-party data to brands while figuring out how to scale through programmatic advertising."

The marketing chief notes brands are getting excited about the ability to unify first-party data sources into a single customer view in a CDP, although the platforms don't necessarily do everything a marketer expects them to do.

“The collection, management and activation of first-party data can be facilitated with current marketing technology, for example, CRM, marketing automation and identity resolution platforms for reaching people across email, the open Web and CTV. The opportunity to improve how first-party data is used may reside with the existing tools in a marketer's stack rather than by implementing new tech,” Botero says. 

HubSpot head of marketing A/NZ, Kat Warboys, believes the demise of cookies, as well as the challenges COVID has brought with it this year, has made it imperative marketers find a new approach. The key is being able to adapt the way they advertise to how consumers like to buy.

“We’re seeing a shift in strategy, with marketers using first-party data and contextual advertising to create personalised and relevant content for consumers,” Warboys says.
“In 2021, the secret to delivering better advertising lies in marketers’ ability to unlock the data at their disposal and leverage it to deliver hyper-relevant messaging and a unified buying experience. At HubSpot, we call it ‘CRM-powered advertising’."

As well as enabling marketers to create more relevant, engaging ads for prospects by providing them with up-to-date customer data, this approach is about automating ads based on live CRM data and accessing reliable reporting based on holistic customer data.

“Relevant and timely messaging is the key to grabbing consumers’ attention, engaging them, and guiding them throughout the entire buyer’s journey,” Warboys says.

GoDaddy senior marketing director Australia, Suzanne Michell, has seen how the past 12 months have been the catalyst for huge insights-driven changes in the digital marketing landscape. “It’s a trend I expect to continue in 2021,” she says.

“Mass adoption of CRM systems this year will enable platform businesses to enhance their targeting and user experience capabilities in the months and years ahead. Deeper insights into customers increases targeting abilities to provide greater accuracy and more personalised customer engagement. This can help to drive smarter marketing, increased growth and better overall user experiences."

2. Privacy will disrupt adtech 

A year ago, a privacy prediction might have been more focused on regulation. Today, we are seeing the tech giants taking the lead on privacy by limiting cross-site tracking - Apple through its strengthening ITP and Google with the promised sunsetting of third-party cookies.

“Once these measures are in place, regulation can almost stand down completely because the tech will make it near impossible to violate related regulations," claims TrafficGuard COO and cofounder, Luke Taylor. "For adtech, this means disruption. Some businesses that rely on tracking mechanisms to provide services and data to advertisers such as retargeting companies, data companies and maybe even some DSPs, won’t be able to operate.”

Taylor also sees new types of tech evolving to help marketers measure performance and this could see them even shift the ways they measure success. “If they haven’t started yet, marketers need to be testing these new tools and measures while they can still track and attribute conversions to verify effectiveness in this current, trackable environment,” he says.

In terms of advertising, marketers will need to gain a better understanding of context to guide their future strategies and put more emphasis on creativity to cut through when their audiences aren’t as targeted as they once were. “Advertising will need to work harder when it's not as targeted,” Taylor continues.  

For Adswerve president and CEO, Clint Tasset, embracing a privacy-first culture will be an executive priority. “We can expect to see the ad industry follow the footsteps of Big Tech’s self-guided push to become more privacy-focused, especially in light of progressive consumer data privacy regulations like the GDPR and CPRA. The momentum around greater consumer privacy in the public and private sectors is reaching critical mass.   It’s no longer a question of ‘if’ an industry-wide privacy framework will arise, but ‘when’,” says Tasset.

“Businesses need to ask themselves if they want to ride the wave or let it take them under. To prepare, they’ll likely need to restructure their organisations and rethink their existing processes to embrace a privacy-first culture."

Rising privacy requirements will bring about the renaissance of contextual targeting, according to Integral Ad Science country manager A/NZ, Jessica Miles. “The usefulness of data will be limited by the death of cookies. If you have all this data about the individual but no way to activate that data in digital environments you might be better off not having it at all,” she says.

“There will be an increasing reliance on contextual targeting as a proxy for the audience. However, contextual targeting in 2021 will be more sophisticated than ever before. With cutting edge technology, we can now ascertain the sentiment and emotion of an article, interpreting the content the way a human would. With these increased capabilities, we’ll see more advertisers take advantage of both context targeting and avoidance to drive additional value and greater alignment in their digital marketing."

Off the back of this, advertisers will start to substitute that audience data with contextual intelligence rather than having to support all the data management and privacy regulations that go along with capturing and leaving personally identifiable information,” Miles adds.

Criteo A/NZ commercial director, Colin Barnard, agrees one of the paramount initiatives for the advertising industry is the development and adoption of a future-proofed solution for online identity that isn’t reliant on cookies or large tech players with vested interests.

“This affects the entire industry – advertisers, publishers, adtech partners and consumers, so everyone is invested. In 2021, we’ll see more industry collaboration towards new identity solutions,” says Barnard. 

Index Exchange regional MD, Adele Wieser, says while personalisation is nothing new to the industry, the way it continues to deliver personalised marketing will require a pivot with the impending deprecation of third-party cookies next year. “Though challenging in the short-term, the death of the third-party cookie is an opportunity for marketers to build closer, more meaningful relationships with consumers as well as publishing partners,” Wieser says.

“Working in tandem, trusted marketers and publishers can utilise first-party data to provide scalable, addressable advertising opportunities, underpinned by consent and control. As a result, brands will be able to engage with the right audiences, at the right time."

3. Consumers will own their data

We live in a world today where data is king. "The holy grail for every organisation is to have a single customer view - a platform where they can store millions of different data points about their customers that can be viewed in one place,” says Cheetah Digital VP go-to-market APAC, Billy Loizou.

However, Loizou questions if the industry got it wrong, with trust at an all-time low and consumer data security issues at an all-time high following data breaches and new regulations. He imagines a world where the consumer owns their data and has a single brand view, where they can store all the different data points brands have about them in one place.

“You control and manage a profile of all your information and decide what data can be used for marketing and targeting purposes," he explains. This model changes how businesses start paying for advertising, instead of paying media agencies and social giants they pay the customer.

SlickText CRO, Brian Wilson, sees this leading to permission-based campaigns becoming more normalised throughout all marketing channels. “You know customers actually want those notifications and touchpoints because they opt in for them, creating a greater marketing ROI while connecting you with your core audience, says Wilson.

“It will also become increasingly important to keep lists as up to date as possible to maximize ROI and adhere to compliance mandates. Blasting as many people with non-personalised messaging just doesn’t work anymore. Brands are smarter and using smarter, more intelligent channels, like SMS,” he says.   

4. The reinvention of email

Email is a foundational aspect of marketing and a primary channel for communicating new offerings, promotions and perspectives designed to entice potential customers into engaging. And it's been even more critical during this past year.

“Since the beginning of COVID, there has been a shrinkage of channels due to the shutdown of face-to-face events, phones going unanswered in empty offices as employees are now working from home, and commuters no longer listening to advertising or seeing billboards designed to steer our desires. This change steered marketers to email at an intensity that has never been seen before,” says Attivo Networks CMO, Carolyn Crandall. "Even the historically sacred LinkedIn has become an overused tool for solicitation as vendors fill our message boxes."

2021 shows no sign this will change any time in the first half of the year, related to marketing’s dependency on email and online marketing - potentially even longer as people’s interest in safety outweighs the benefits of in-person activities.

“In 2020, savvy marketers either had or quickly began investing in the right tools for obtaining and managing a viable database, a marketing automation system, the right content and the ability to make sure all of their hard work actually hit their target’s inbox,” Crandall says.

“Assuming these tools are in now in place for tracking and ROI analysis, marketing needs to look more closely at the buyer’s journey and experience. This will include a hard look at the prospect’s experience based on what they engage with and when."

This should then lead to an assessment of content and a plan that provides fresh and relevant information and perspectives so optouts don’t occur, Crandall says. "Integrated channel plans will also need to go beyond email and include search, website, social media and other third-party advertising and content syndication sources," she continues.

"Having hyperawareness on an engaging buyer’s experience will be critical because with one opt out, it becomes game over for proactive email outreach and you may be left with only a phone option that rings straight to voicemail."

With the rise in reliance on email will come a greater imperative to ensure security and adopting a zero-trust approach to email security. In particular, multi-factor authentication will be a must for 2021, according to Valimail vice-president of standards and new technologies, Seth Blank.

“This means all parties must first confirm their identities through email and then a second time through texts to their phones or preferably with codes from an authentication app or hardware security token,” Blank says.

“Currently, only some of the biggest companies that send the most emails have multi-factor authentication in place. But these extra levels of security should be built in from day one. If they aren’t, people don’t want to go back and do extra work to protect themselves and their companies from risk. Security as a whole is a hard thing to talk about because most people don’t care about the implications until it is too late and a data breach or phishing attack is upon them."

5. Connected channels

Modern marketing know incorporating multiple channels within campaigns is much more effective than simply putting all your resources into one channel - even a versatile channel like SMS, says SlickText CMO, Meg Scales. The marketing chief predicts we’ll see channels and varying tactics continue to cross-integrate in the coming year.

“For example, channels will adopt services like loyalty programs to better connect brands with customers through a variety of strategies within just one platform. Also, a customer interaction in one channel could trigger a personalised, automated sequence in another, creating data- and behaviour-driven campaigns many are unable to produce currently due to a lack of time, money and expertise,” she says. 

This increased connectivity across tech, especially related to shared data, has provided a new way for businesses to meet and exceed customer expectations, according to SevenRooms senior VP, Marybeth Sheppard. “In 2021, it’s no longer enough to offer customers multiple disparate touchpoints. Instead, to capture and retain loyal customers, businesses must offer streamlined, personalised and meaningful experiences across all channels,” says Sheppard.
“For businesses in 2021, we’ll see a more fully connected experience across the customer lifecycle - whether tailored to a consumer or business customer, or new or existing clientele. There will be a greater need for connectivity, fluidity and balance between professional and personal. The businesses who will be most successful will have a balanced blend of empathy, authenticity and social responsibility, which will be communicated through all aspects of their communications."

With digital advertising becoming increasingly competitive, Code3 executive VP of commerce, Greg Wolny, sees an urgent need for brands to leverage demand-side platforms (DSPs) to move up the funnel and engage with customers as they are in the research phase. “It's no longer enough to only have Amazon Sponsored Product Ads, for instance, to get in front of shoppers before they purchase,” says Wolny.

“In today's landscape, brands need to invest earlier in the shopper journey to educate them on why their product is superior. Brands are also responding to increased competition by expanding to social media and other marketplaces. Doing so improves efficiencies and insight into consumer behaviour beyond a specific channel."

6. Experimentation vs. certainty

“Optimisation isn’t just perfecting what you’re already doing, it’s constantly refining the whole process, including personalisation, experimentation, CMS and ecommerce, and introducing new elements based on what you’ve learned,” says Episerver CMO, Kirsten Allegri Williams. The marketing predicts experimentation will come to the fore in 2021 as part of an ongoing process of optimisation.

“Keep the preferences of consumers in sight during all these processes, retail executives are relying more and more on agile platforms – and that’s where an optimisation-led mindset comes in,” says Williams. “Adjusting to today’s environment means continuously building new experiences that can meet the expectations not only for consumers as they are today, but as they will be tomorrow. Moving fast has its benefits, but it can’t yield long-term results without dedicated optimisation."

In 2021, we’ll also see digital marketing move from ‘certainty’ to ‘probability’. “Driven by the increasing drive towards protecting consumer privacy, there is an upheaval underway that is changing the entire data infrastructure of digital marketing,” says MiQ Digital COO, Paul Silver. "This is shifting us away from traditional deterministic solutions that rely on identifiable consumer data towards more probabilistic methods, that use aggregated - and, thus, anonymous - datasets.

“The big players are all making moves in this direction. Chrome’s privacy sandbox, Apple’s SKAdNetwork, the emergence of clean rooms such as Ads Data Hub, Amazon Marketing Cloud and the arrival of open web platforms such as Infosum. All of this points to one conclusion: Marketers should get comfortable with aggregation rather than precision." 

Silver sees this having big implications for how we plan and buy. "The view of a single customer or event will inevitably start to be more fuzzy. But there are also major opportunities for agile companies to rethink the notion of data-driven marketing, by working with partners who can provide the behavioural analytics and activations needed to thrive in this new era of data,” he argues.  

7. Content’s reign isn’t over 

If content is King, in 2021 context will be Queen, says Cheetah Digital CMO, Richard Jones. “Having a more detailed understanding of your customer, from zero-party-based interests to a more detailed view on customer interactions makes next-generation personalisation all the rage," he says.

"Applying machine learning and analytics to your personalisation strategy will allow marketers to drive efficiency, effectiveness, automation and optimisation." 

Content marketing will remain a key priority in 2021, but there will be a sharper focus on storytelling, for both B2B and B2C organisations, predicts Nintex head of marketing, APAC, Eileen Tan. “2020 has been a turbulent and disruptive year for many, and the amount of digital content has exploded exponentially since the world went into lockdown, and still remain in various stages of home isolation around the globe," she says.

"We have been absolutely inundated with information, and compelling content will be critical to cut through the noise in the market. Storytelling marketing will allow organisations to connect and engage more effectively with customers and prospective clients. Customers are looking for a personal and emotional connection when making their purchasing decisions, and a story that resonates strongly with them will help organisations establish that initial connection."

The marketer expects to see marketers developing more customer stories that will be heavily utilised, with more supporting ‘bite-sized' content that can be easily consumed, such as quotes, short videos, blog posts and more. “Compelling storytelling should also underpin all other marketing activities for a seamless end-user experience, from building personas for solution marketing through to personalised content for ABM campaigns. Good storytelling never goes out of fashion and I believe it will be more important than ever in the new year.,” she says.

In complement to this, Forrester analyst, Stephanie Liu, expects to see a significant an increase in loyalty and retention marketing.

“Consumers have already seen an uptick in messages meant to reassure them on how brands are protecting customers and employees amid a pandemic. In 2021, these reassuring messages will continue as brands vie to remain top of mind (and top of wallet) for customers, many of whom will be more selective in their spending as economies slowly recover from COVID-19 impacts,” says Liu.

Up next: 7 more digital marketing predictions for 2021

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