Predictions usually include some element of aspiration. It’s not just what we think will happen, but also a reflection in some way, shape or form, of what we hope will happen. If there’s a common theme to this year’s annual list of predictions, is that we’re all hopeful about 2021.
I’ve grouped all predictions this year into categories, which is an effort to make it easier to read. There is not an order of merit to the placement – and you’ll find my own prediction at the very bottom.
“Time to focus on blocking and tackling. Too often marketers become enamored with the latest trends and tools. They lose sight of the day-to-day execution needed to build a productive and efficient machine that contributes to their company’s bottom line.
It may not sound sexy, but a marketing leader must focus on the actions that get the job done. Make sure the C-Suite sees and understands the contribution your team makes every day.
Establish KPIs and making them accessible to everyone
Drilldown to see marketing’s direct and indirect contribution to the sales pipeline; and
Make your team members track everything that matters within your marketing department – blog views, cost per lead, conversion rates at every stage, webinar attendance rate, paid search efficiency… and report their own KPIs up to you.
“More focus on crowd-sourcing. More and more prospects are seeking counsel of friends and peers in making buying decisions for software and other products. Getting unbiased, raw opinions from product users before buying is as important in the buying decision as website content, logos, case studies and demos. I look for more industries to get involved with crowd-sourced 3rd party reviews than ever before.”
“Predictability is dead – 2020 killed it. Rather than having year-long editorial calendars for opportunities and content, marketing and communications professionals are will have to work in a much more agile, phased approach: creating evergreen content per quarter and making room for ‘rapid-response’ type communications based on what 2021 might throw at us. It’s a different approach for those that live and die by long-term planning, but it’s a must-needed approach to be relevant to your key audiences in 2021 and beyond.
“We are going to get back to basics. Many companies turned off their marketing in March when the pandemic hit our shores. They’ve been treading water ever since. I think we are going to see these companies emerge with a desire to start telling their story again, but it’s going to take some time. I liken it to trying to turn an oil tanker on the ocean: it takes time. But we’ll get there.”
“Digital matters now more than ever. If your company’s digital presence is lacking, now is the time to address that. Is your website up to date? Are you active on social media (at least the top one or two platforms where your audience spends time)? Do you blog regularly? Do you have a PR strategy?
The importance of these marketing elements is only going to grow. A study found that B2B buyers spend 83% of their time during their buying journey not engaging with vendors. This underscores the need for a robust digital presence. Yet, according to research conducted in 2019, 40% of small businesses still don’t have a website.
With more people than ever researching, shopping and buying online, now is the time to ensure your business is meeting buyers where they are.”
“Trust and relatability really come to the forefront for me when thing about marketing and communications in 2021. Likely see more brand-to-brand and brand-to-influencer collaborations. Core to our strategy (which will only increase in 2021) is partnering with key brands and influencers in our space to not only earn immediate trust of the customer but ongoing awareness given the brand/influencer’s reach.”
“Many brands have already embraced the genius of user-generated content (UGC) – videos, memes or other works which seem to come more from a place of genuine excitement rather than schlocky, paid placement – to sell their products or services. Given the fact that so many people are now working from home (or elsewhere) due to COVID-19, this is year we’ll see at least one major brand or more fully leverage UGC to outright replace a more traditional campaign in an effort to connect, innovate and humanize their organization.”
The pandemic and its endless stream of Zoom calls have taxed our ability to take in information via video and webinar. For many of us, when it comes to electronic information, our visual cortex is tapped out.
This creates renewed opportunities for marketers who communicate via podcasts. Spotify reported in mid-2020 that overall podcast consumption had more than doubled. 2021 will see an increase in podcasts, with more brands and institutions harnessing the power of this very intimate form of communication as some consumers attempt to ration their screen time.
Podcasts are great for the delivery of credible information and analysis, and storytelling. Two examples of podcast prowess stand out: medical institutions and racial justice organizations. Medical centers and universities latched on to podcasts to explain, in digestible chunks, the varied ramifications of the pandemic. On the racial justice front, advocates enticed listeners to adopt an anti-racist mindset by sharing individual stories—what others experience and the toll it takes on them and their communities.
Finally, families are turning to podcasts to provide entertainment and education without adding screen time. Forward-thinking brands and organizations can tap into the screen-cautious with community stories that support the values they espouse.
This trend will impact all publishers. Those with video-heavy or text-heavy distribution channels will want to look at how to add podcasts to their content strategy, as well as using podcasts to repurpose material into different languages, such as Spanish and Mandarin, to broaden their reach.
9. The robots are already here
“The robots aren’t coming… they’ve taken over. 2020 accelerated the invasion, and in 2021, every technology in your marketing stack will be powered by AI on some level.
Many platforms are already leveraging machine learning in a meaningful way, and our own work with hyper-personalization and advanced recommendation engines (think Amazon suggesting similar products when you shop) has exploded.
What’s changing is that many of these bleeding-edge AI technologies are becoming far less expensive to acquire as services, allowing organizations to harness personalization, natural language processing, voice search, and other capabilities in new and exciting ways.
With access to copious amounts of data, the ability to automatically predict and surface more relevant content will scale the reach of every marketing initiative and improve customer experience. So get cozy with your algorithms… they’re driving the future of your marketing.”
“After a year like 2020 – it is hard to even think it might finally be over. After a slow start, Spring of 2021 will be like emerging from a long winter’s nap. We will first have a weird period of exuberance and frivolousness on one side and fear and PTSD on the other. Brands will need to be sensitive and attuned to both realities.
The one clear message of 2020 is consumers are highly critical of the messages being put out by brands and companies, but they are also watching their actions closely as well. I think consumers expect and are demanding the brands they support to have a position, and this can be uncharted territory for some brands.
We will also see a change in consumer behaviors and habits enabled by the pandemic – we have found, for example that maybe we didn’t need shopping malls, movie theaters and actually going to a grocery store in person as much as we thought we did.
I think on the flip we have also recognized things we did miss, and I would expect some types of travel, entertainment, family-focused activities and experiences that let us enjoy time with those we love to come roaring back. Marketers need to be ready to pivot their businesses (and there messaging) when as the COVID cocoon comes to an end.”
11. Virtual is here to stay
“From broadcast news to press conferences, the pandemic has forced all organizations to consider other ways to connect with stakeholders. They found out, ‘Hey, virtual isn’t half bad.’ What was once unconventional is now less expensive, less taxing, and helps brands connect with an audience like never before. In 2021, PR and marketing collateral with virtual and digital elements – and brevity – will have more reach and engagement.”
“2020 was a year of massive upheaval and change for marketing and PR pros. 2021 should bring a return to ‘normal’ though there’s no way to know how quickly that will happen or quite what ‘normal’ will look like after the pandemic.
Some of the behavioral shifts are likely to stay with us. One area likely to see such permanent change is the events space, and how organizations use events for marketing and publicity. Many types of events will go back to being live, and they’ll address the pent-up demand for getting out and getting together in person.
But others will remain virtual: we’ve all grown accustomed to online gatherings, the technology for producing them has improved dramatically, and organizations have realized they can reach a far larger audience at a far lower cost online.
Marketing and PR pros will play a pivotal role in determining which conferences, forums, and other events should remain online; how to optimize attendance and the participant experience; and how to make best use of the data collected. They’ll also have to figure out how to spend all the money they save on branded pens, flash drives, and other swag-bag fillers.”
“Independent PR practitioners are more commonly hired. With the barriers to work from home falling and the realization across the board that productivity still happens in home offices, it’s going to be more common to see solo public relations and marketing professionals hired. Stressed corporate teams can hire extra PR and marketing muscle to supplement themselves, often without committing to long-term benefits and employment packages. Teams can be assembled based on their skills and expertise, not necessarily their locations.”
“How we define a ‘media placement’ will continue to evolve as mergers and acquisitions and economics continue to change the media’s staff structure. We’re seeing former full-time staff reporters start their own newsletters and podcasts. Also, media outlets like Forbes are expanding their contributor network. Consequently, PR and marketing teams will have more flexibility to justify pursuing a coverage opportunity with these contacts, as there’s less full-time staffers to accommodate pitches.
“The pandemic boosted webinars, lives, online training, lectures, and the like. What used to happen in controlled environments, has often become open and accessible to everyone. As a result, employees at different levels, automatically and without any pretension, became spokespeople.
Media training used to only be for c-suite executives, board directors, and other leaders. It turns out that the high demand for professionals to talk about a certain subject, in multiple sessions, opened doors for middle management employees to speak on behalf of the company.
This showed not only their talents, but also the opportunities for brand alignment in the face of the camera, the audience, the narrative skill and the preparation to convey strategic key messages.
It is essential that companies start training their employees so that they have a strategic performance in the communication process. Theory and techniques of media training can be shared at all levels, we must democratize the competence of public speaking.”
“Communications will find itself in a post-lockdown world in which some things will revert back to ‘normal’ pretty quickly, other things will evolve back to pre-COVID19 times gradually and some changes will prove to have hit a point of no return.
Take remote work for example. The office team might not have turned into a complete virtual team for good, but will it ever be anything else again than at least a partially distributed team? How can companies build a strong purposeful culture when there are no more on-site water cooler conversations taking place?
Another example are trade shows – the B2B buyer journey has shifted completely to digital in the last nine months – will trade shows and big conferences take back their prominent pre-COVID19 role anytime soon?
2021 will be a year in which both internal and external (corporate and PR) communications will have to continue to rethink and reinvent how they set to accomplish their goals.”
“2021 will be the year of communicating creatively with employees – Zoom fatigue is real and it’s not going away any time soon. As we enter 2021 without a clear sight of when the pandemic will be resolved, it is now imperative for companies to start developing a deeper strategy for meaningful engagement with employees who work remotely.
Employee relations and internal communications leaders will need to rethink how they effectively communicate with employees and keep the company culture alive without physical connection.
From providing guidance on effective meeting management (I’m personally a big proponent of 45-minute meetings and Amazon’s 6-page memo approach to make meetings more productive and engaging), to segmenting employee communication to ensure personalization, to setting up all hands company meetings in multiple time zones to facilitate direct engagement with executives across the globe, 2021 is going to be the year of communicating creatively with employees.”
“We will see widespread adoption of transparency as the key value of communications in 2021. We will see organizational strategies and cultures shift as teams begin to build communications plans around truth, facts, and education, especially in the public sector where misinformation is damaging many organizations.
“More ‘PR ROI’ scrutiny. Discussions surrounding PR measurement and return on investment continue to dominate PR value conversations. While the industry as a whole has gotten more vocal and transparent on delivering ROI, many companies will lose their way in terms of justifying external PR spend.
Conversations are shifting from seeking PR value through thought leadership, brand and influencer building to ‘how can your PR effort help me convert leads and feed new business’? Be aware of this transition to traditional, linear ROI thinking and go out of your way to help PR clients connect the dots, however scattered and faint, between PR and company value…and long-term success.”
“First, marketing and communications tactics will continue to innovate as a result of the 2020 lockdowns. Given the rush to make operations fully digital, we’ll see more new ideas and tools for customer and employee communications – things like digital livestreaming of meetings and events, podcasting, real-time chat, and ‘hybrid’ event marketing that attracts both physical and virtual participants.
With remote work and fully digital programming the norm, corporate communications will be challenged to involve and engage employees, with an emphasis on mental health and wellness, team-building, and creativity. This will also take new technology tools, but more importantly, unprecedented involvement on a strategic level by corporate communications pros.
Within large companies there has traditionally been some tension between marketing and PR or communications departments. This is in part because they compete for budget, but also because marketing is seen as more proactive because its mission is to drive growth, while comms is (inaccurately) considered more reactive or defensive due to its link to crisis and reputation management. Smart businesses will ensure that the two work in tandem to meet the expectations for customers who increasingly want to see personalized and values-based marketing and comms from brands.
Finally, the stakes for employee engagement will be very high, and for most brands, a demonstrable commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) will be a non-negotiable condition for success.
“It has been a tough year, with much pain, loss and anxiety. 2020 has also proved how tough the prognostication business is.
The pandemic started to loom last year this time, yet no one pegged its impact on PR and the world, as far as I can tell. And political pollsters misfired once again.
We can talk shop, about industry evolution, the latest and greatest tech tools and strategies, but I think what all of us in the field want more than anything is a return to some degree of normalcy, where we are not bunkered down, whipsawed by media mistrust, polarization and constant doom and gloom news.
I think things will settle down in the second half of the year. We won’t have Trump to kick around, or obsess over, take your pick, letting some air back in the room for other topics. COVID should be winding down.
As this starts to happen, what will the new PR normal look like? The tools that are evolving during this time, in remote collaboration, virtual events and video will continue to be part of the arsenal.
Some of the battles that have come to a head in this election year, about content moderation and social media misinformation – and antitrust efforts aimed at big tech – will start to have an impact and restore some of the trust that’s been lost in online news.
“Every company has needed to enable remote work, and many are surprised to find productivity has increased. There’s no going back, people will demand more flexibility to work from home even when offices reopen.
Not being tied to a physical location will also be essential to have a resilient business. This means PR teams need to keep their collective knowledge in the cloud, using technology to track their relationships with journalists, podcasters, bloggers and newsletter writers.
Teams that continue to work across a mix of static spreadsheets, documents, and notes to manage relationships will be bogged down with inefficiencies and manual work and step on each other’s toes during outreach. Remote work is here to stay, and this will be the year we all get really good at it.”
“No one is more excited for the return to normal than brands. By the second half of next year, look for them to act as if the pandemic never happened. Masks, PPE, thank you’s to heroes will all cease to exist in advertising imagery, as brands push people to get back to business. Look for an explosion of in-person events as businesses try to get back on track. I also think TikTok will maintain its grip as the place where culture is happening.
“I predict more focus by marketing and communications teams on messaging resonance with the public and press for both their company and competitors. There will be more use of data to assess what has and has not been successful messaging before spokesperson media trainings. This specificity will help savvy teams to drive more awareness, consideration, conversion, and market differentiation.”
“I predict that 2021 will usher in a new era of augmented business decision-making, where platforms and companies will transform decision making itself. This will help communications and PR professionals positively impact board level decisions. We call it decision augmentation. You’re going to see the biggest, best and most-cutting edge firms harnessing the power of AI to augment their decision making.”
As I wrote for the Content Marketing Institute, we’ve all had a chance to conduct the Great Coronavirus content marketing experiment. The budget earmarked for events was reallocated to content marketing. If virus concerns ease around events in 2021, we’ll see who truly capitalized on the opportunity to build an audience – and who just went through the motions.
I’d add this is important because the regulators are coming for third-party data. In the near future, it’s going to be a lot harder to buy or rent data (in the case of advertising). Marketing has to own their data. The only way to do that is to trade knowledge, utility or entertainment for trust.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on Sword and the Script.