Marketers are community-minded people. We collaborate across multiple departments in our own companies, while keeping track of competitive players and ensuring we're deeply connected to the needs and goals of our customers.
So, to better understand what to expect or pay close attention to in 2021, I've connected with 20 marketing experts for their perspective.
While there is significant diversity of ideas and visions presented below, I love the common theme of how we're working toward a better future together, which is why my prediction is this: Marketing in 2021 will be more empathetic than ever.
I continue to believe in my mantra that marketing is powerful and must be used for good, not evil. That might sound overly simplistic, but I do believe it's paramount that marketers understand their influence and what a wonderful positive power it can be.
We are humans, serving humans. Whether B2B or B2C, customers are looking for brands they can trust to meet their needs and make their lives easier or more delightful. If we treat each person with loving kindness and respect, we'll be making the positive impact I know we can while building a stronger, more loyal base.
Here's what else 2021 has in store based on the predictions of this fabulous group of marketing leaders.
1. Marketers will plan asynchronous events that plug into the funnel.
Latané Conant, Chief Market Officer at 6sense, predicts: "This year saw an explosion of virtual events as marketers adapted to a changing world. While I suspect a lot of us are feeling some virtual burnout right now, there will still be a place for these kinds of events, even after we resume in-person ones. Imagine a virtual event running 24/7."
"Your prospects get triggered into the event as they proceed to the right steps in your funnel, and they engage with this event through multiple means, like Netflix meets Slack. There's video content they watch on-demand, there's a live stream playing on-site and there's a community of users and fans who create a unique and engaging place to be. Prospects learn about your solutions and then, after watching videos and chatting with others, they get directed immediately to your product team. Now that sounds like a virtual event worth attending!"
2. Community marketing will replace event-based marketing.
Adam Masur, VP of Marketing at Credly, told me: "The era of anchoring marketing around a big, industry event is coming to a close. We've all seen the annual conference go virtual due to the impact of COVID-19. But I expect hosts to find that their audience's appetite for the singular virtual gathering will wane, as well."
"Look for more intimate, and more topical online get-togethers in 2021. Experts with verified digital credentials and a willingness to share will be highly valued virtual community leaders and influencers."
"Companies should be ready to be active contributors and bring practical value to the conversation."
3. Businesses will find new ways to encourage online connections.
Kevin Alansky, Chief Marketing Officer at Higher Logic, says: "The virtual and digital-first world will continue in 2021 and possibly beyond. Many organizations have shifted their annual event and tradeshow to a virtual one. Many organizations have not succeeded, however, because they tried to replicate the experience on an outdated model. This has led to a flood in the number of virtual events and many people facing 'Zoom fatigue.'"
"Organizations are now wondering how to fight this overcrowded market and stand out against the rest. The answer is online communities — how do you engage before, during, and after your event? We need to find ways to better engage our audiences and build meaningful connections between our organizations and our customers. We are seeing the demand for engagement already this year and this will continue to be a big trend through 2021."
4. The interactivity that's been promised for decades is now a necessity for 2021.
Jake Milstein, CMO at CI Security, told me: "When the pandemic hit, there was a huge spike in registrations and attendance in virtual events that attempted to mimic in-person events. Attendance at those events lasted a month or two and then dropped off quickly. People are looking for more human interactions — something out of the norm. Webinars just don't do it anymore."
"People are now interested in discussions and panels in which they can ask questions, they can be part of the action, they can offer their own expertise. That's not something you could do when watching someone on-stage, but we all know it's something you can do online. The interactivity that's been promised for decades is now a necessity for 2021."
5. Customer-centricity will propel brands forward.
Natalie Severino, VP, Marketing at Chorus.ai, predicts: "Throughout the many challenges of 2020, revenue teams have been able to weather the storms and thrive by putting the customer at the center of every decision. This is only made possible through total alignment between sales, marketing, and customer teams, as all must rely on using the actual voice, pain points, and goals to create a winning partnership."
"While conventional methods of relationship building, like in-person meetings, may not be possible today (or simply don't scale quickly enough), entering 2021 provides us a paradigm shift for bringing relationships and shared business goals to the forefront of every opportunity."
6. Brands will navigate an increasingly polarized social and political climate.
"One of the biggest trends to watch in 2021 will be how brands navigate an increasingly polarized social and political climate. Presidential politics, the response to navigating the global pandemic, and an increasingly siloed media and social media landscape is forcing brands to make hard decisions about how and where they align with their customers."
"Every ad dollar spent, every choice of channel and platform, every social post, every inch of shelf space, and every conference or trade show will be evaluated through the lens of what a brand's marketing decisions say about who they are and what they stand for," says Tim Linberg, Chief Experience Officer at Verndale.
Revenue and Budget
7. A/B Testing will become a waste of time and budget.
R. J. Talyor, CEO and Founder at Pattern89, says: "The next decade will see the end of A/B testing. Marketers have long relied on validating their intuition with A/B tests to guide creative advertising and marketing decisions — however, the rise of AI makes this not only obsolete, but wasteful."
"Once machine learning predicts the trends before they happen and provides clear guidance for marketers, why waste money to A/B test something that wouldn't work as well? Soon, marketers will be able to go all-in on what will work best without having to test the theory."
8. Digital marketing spend will continue to grow.
Bridget Perry, CMO at Contentful, predicts: "We've found a digital innovation gap between what customers demand and what brands are currently capable of delivering. That's why digital leaders across industries tell us they plan to spend, on average, 25% more on digital in 2021. And 25% is just the average — some plan to spend significantly more. CMOs who aren't scaling up their digital spending will soon be outpaced by competitors."
9. Tech spending levels will return to normal over 2021 — but not all categories will benefit.
"Some companies will remain remote, others will move to hybrid offices, and some will — eventually — go back to business as usual. In 2020 we saw user searches jump on TrustRadius for software categories like e-signature, collaboration, video conferencing, endpoint security, antivirus, and of course telemedicine. Those categories will stay strong in 2021 and beyond, reflecting the new workplace. Other categories — event management and facilities management, for example — will radically reinvent themselves," says Russ Somers, VP Marketing, TrustRadius.
10. Content marketing will start with conversations.
"The content marketing playbook we've been using is at least two decades old. Marketers are still focusing on keyword-heavy blog posts as the main tactic to captivate their audience. But it's a strategy made for Google, not for people."
"Today, your audience wants to have an authentic experience with your brand and the best way to do that is by leading with conversations."
"As marketers aim to create a more human-centric experience, we will see more content pulled from actual conversations with people in the industry who can provide that genuine interaction today's consumers are looking for," Lindsay Tjepkema, CEO of Casted, told me.
11. Many companies will decrease their marketing budgets.
Melissa Sargeant, CMO of Litmus, says: "In the coming year, marketers will experience budget cuts and even smaller teams. But, by doing this, companies are setting themselves up for failure. During an economic downturn, companies that pull back and starve marketing efforts, do not perform well. And, when our consumerism-driven environment re-engages, those brands will be further behind than they were when they made those budget-conscious decisions."
"Ultimately, the pandemic has accelerated trends in business. Look at digital transformation and work from home initiatives, for example. But, if there were cracks within a business's model beforehand, the pandemic brought those to light so now is the time for them to fix it, not bury it. Businesses have to position themselves the best they can now in order to come out even stronger in the end. And, it requires a mature, advanced multi-channel strategy with experienced marketers."
Teams and Collaboration
12. In 2021, it's all about people, people, people.
Caroline Tien-Spalding, CMO at Aptology, says: "Marketing's north star will be evolving in 2021. Marketing has always been about understanding people and acting on that knowledge. A key difference in 2021 is that marketers are able to know more than ever. It's the rise of the psychologist, and the rise of the digital marketer."
13. Many companies will implement a new Web Operations team.
Christy Marble, CMO at Pantheon Systems, predicts: "Marketers will require technology to enable real-time responsiveness to customer needs that span the customer lifecycle and each customer touchpoint. The events of 2020 taught us that we must demand the agility to transform on a moment's notice to respond to customer needs. This forced an end to the era of lengthy multi-year brand and website re-builds."
"In 2021 those will be figments of the past, replaced by cross-functional teams that collaborate through technology-enabled workflows to continuously test, learn, and evolve their digital customer experience. These WebOps teams will have a distinct advantage — especially those supported by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation."
"The pace of change has accelerated, but one thing will remain constant: Marketers who focus on people — on customer experience — will be the ones who will keep pace with change. Focus your team on improving personalization, advancing your customer journey, and creating a truly authentic web experience that meets your customers where they are."
14. Brands will unlock the key to orchestration.
Andrea Lechner-Becker, CMO at LeadMD, told me: "Data should be on every marketer's mind as we enter 2021, but not in the way it usually is. B2B marketers must realize they're generally strong with orchestrating their own data, but weak with third-party data — which must be a top area of focus. They can't afford to depend on marketing automation or CRM platforms for this, but will need to strongly consider creating their own system, something along the lines of a CDP. If they do that? They've unlocked the key to orchestration and success with data in 2021."
15. The 'panic pivot' will turn into more purposeful reinvention.
Laliv Hadar, VP Marketing, InVision Communications, says: "In 2020, out of pandemic-induced necessity, marketers have rapidly transformed face-to-face events into virtual ones, and developed innovative ways of connecting with audiences digitally. In 2021, this reactionary 'panic pivot' will turn to more purposeful reinvention of the ways we engage our core audiences. That reinvention will manifest in hybrid audience experiences that are wholly connected across the communications ecosystem. This integrated brand approach will be built on the premise that our audiences comprise real human beings, whose brand perceptions are shaped by their experiences, and now, more than ever, crave professional empathy and connection."
Because while quarantines, social distancing and remote work will play a critical role in our eventual emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, they also have had a significant side effect: Disengagement. 2021 will see marketers tapping into the human need for just the opposite: engagement."
16. Brands will capitalize on change.
John Graff, Chief Marketing Officer at Sonim, predicts: "I believe 2021 will be a year that will provide significant opportunities for companies to grow/expand market share. Why? Because many companies will fall into the trap that there will be a post-2020 'return to normal.' Marketing has already been experiencing constant change and evolution the last decade, and just because many people are ready to get past COVID times, does not mean the change will stop. In fact, for best of breed, it very much will accelerate. Everything has been changed, whether it's work-from-home, education, online retail, and more."
"The best marketers will look to capitalize further on those changes in 2021, while others unfortunately revert to the old pre-COVID playbooks. It's a great time for marketers to further embrace change, and be the stewards of helping their companies grow and gain share in 2021!"
17. Marketers will continue to incorporate real, true personalization.
"Marketing automation should not be confused with personalization. Oftentimes, it's just quicker batching and blasting. When marketers use intent data and data-based insights to fuel their automated communications, they can create remarkable brand experiences sophisticated consumers rely upon. In the year ahead, marketers will better incorporate real, true personalization." says Nick Runyon, CMO of PFL.
18. Marketers will rely on deep data insights and machine learning to deliver value to prospects.
Richard Jones, CMO of Cheetah Digital, predicts: "The next generation of personalization is not about cookies or third-party data, it's not about merchandising, and it's not about guesswork. The next generation of personalization is about relying on deep data insights, first and zero-party data and using machine learning to derive not only the right content, not only the right offer, not only the right channel but, the right sequence of events that leads to an automated path to conversion."
"The next generation of personalization is about providing a value exchange for consumers in the 'moment' when you have them on your mobile app, on your site, in your store. How can you provide them something that will generate trust and affinity with the brand?"
19. Cross-channel integrations will continue to grow.
Meg Scales, CMO of SlickText, told me: "Incorporating multiple channels within campaigns is much more effective than simply putting all your resources into one channel — even a versatile channel like SMS. It's why 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 personalized, automated sequence in another, creating data- and behavior-driven campaigns many are unable to produce currently due to a lack of time, money and expertise."
20. We'll see an acceleration with the digital-first shift.
Auseh Britt, VP, Growth Marketing at Terminus "We saw an acceleration in the shift to digital in 2020, mainly due to the gap left by live events. Substitutes like virtual conferences lacked the ability to really engage audiences, making them glorified webinars, exacerbating the 'Zoom' fatigue."
"I see this trend continuing in 2021 as we look for more creative ways to engage customers and prospects through hyper-personalized outreach, high impact direct mail, intimate and interactive virtual experiences, and relevant educational content."