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Digital Marketing

These 13 Marketing Trends Will Define 2021, Experts Say

February 16, 2021
Kate Talbot

Experts see these growing trends — like augmented reality ads and emails designed for dark mode — taking over the marketing mainstream in 2021. But which one is right for you?

Table of Contents

In 2020, the market shifted in unprecedented ways. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explained in his April 2020 earnings call, "We've seen two years' worth of digital transformation in two months." 

In our new reality, digital marketing dominates our strategies, execution means Zoom meetings, and the safest thing to do is try out new marketing tactics.

But which ones?

Short answer: It depends. No online marketing trend is a one-size-fits-all solution. As former Potbelly CMO Brandon Rhoten pointed out, even social media marketing — a field that made him famous, and has transcended the “trend” category — isn’t for everyone.

“Your problem might not be that you need to reach a group of people that spend time on a social platform,” he told MarketerHire.

As a marketer, you can’t (and shouldn’t!) do everything, especially if you have a small team. You have to think strategically about which trends will grow your audience, build brand awareness and boost conversion rates. 

In other words, you have to prioritize which marketing tactics your team will take on, and which you will ignore. 

Below, we’ve rounded up 13 digital marketing trends you might want to consider this year. They’ll continue to evolve as social media platforms change and the pandemic buffets the economy — but we see them headed for the mainstream.

Stories will be ubiquitous. 

It’s official: Stories, or content that disappears after 24 hours, have reached standard status across the social media sphere.

Originally launched on Snapchat back in 2013, stories can now be found... basically everywhere. There are Facebook stories, Instagram stories, LinkedIn stories, and even, as of November, Twitter stories — though those are technically called “Fleets.”

Source: Instagram on Facebook

Marketing teams can make the most of stories by:

  • Posting organic stories to their brand accounts
  • Buying social ads that appear between other users’ organic stories
  • Buying placement in influencers’ organic stories — already a staple of influencer marketing on Instagram 

Brands can only make a splash on stories if they post quality content, though. 

"Just because stories are short-lived doesn't mean value should be compromised,” Brianne Fleming, host of podcast Making the Brand and a marketing instructor at the University of Florida, told MarketerHire. “Always create content with intention. No matter the platform, use Stories to entertain, educate, inspire, or engage.”

Digital marketers who don’t master stories could get left in the dust on social media at large. Even on Facebook, known for its news feed, stories could soon become the most common form of social sharing, Mark Zuckerberg has said.

Text message marketing will take off... 

Mobile commerce, or “m-commerce,” is on the rise. In 2019, mobile purchases accounted for 25% of the e-commerce market, and in 2020, Business Insider forecasted that they would reach 45% of all e-commerce. 

That’s a lot — and it makes text message marketing a powerful tool. Text inboxes aren't saturated with ads yet, and unlike, say, linear TV ads, SMS messaging allows marketers to reach their audience on the same device they shop on. 

Consumers seem to appreciate that convenience. In October of 2020, G2 forecasted that by the end of the year, 48.7 million consumers would have opted-in to receiving SMS communications from brands.

In October of 2020, G2 forecasted that by the end of the year, 48.7 million consumers would have opted-in to receiving SMS communications from brands.

Brands love SMS marketing, too. Exhibit A: Celebrities like Amy Schumer and Gary Vaynerchuk — brands in their own right — have already flocked to apps like Community, which allows them to text their fans directly, without the interference of social media algorithms. 

“This is the most powerful sh*t I’ve seen since early email,” Gary Vee exclaims on Community’s website. “From somebody who has hundreds of thousands of people on text, I’m getting 98% open and 90% engagement.”

That’s hard to ignore.

...but it won’t replace email marketing.

“Email is not going anywhere,” email marketer Karina Vitale of VitalEmail Marketing told MarketerHire. “It’s just getting better and better.”

We observed the same thing this holiday season. During Black Friday weekend, when CPMs and CAC spiked across paid advertising platforms, companies like men’s skincare brand Black Wolf used email marketing campaigns to promote flash sales and product launches to existing subscribers.

In fact, Black Wolf used email and SMS marketing for its Black Friday outreach — suggesting that owned channels reinforce each other, instead of competing.

In 2021, Vitale sees an opportunity for increasingly data-driven email strategies. Specifically, she sees email service providers (ESPs) leaning into features like:

  • Send-time optimization
  • Dynamic content
  • A/B testing functionality
  • Video embeds
  • Live update embeds

“We will see a lot more functionality on ESPs that will make... segmentation, testing, and deliverability opportunities bigger and better than ever,” Vitale said.

Email marketers will design for dark mode. 

For those unfamiliar, “dark mode” — available at the operating system, browser, website and app level — turns your screen’s default background color to black, and your default text color to a contrasting light hue. 

This means your screen emits less blue light, which is widely thought to cause eye strain. Sure, the general medical consensus is that it simply doesn't, but the general non-medical consensus is that everyone loves the placebo effect.

Exhibit A: Blue-light blocking glasses were a $19 million market in 2020. So — pretty popular!

Dark mode, too, is likely quite popular. It’s hard to pin down how widely it’s been adopted, but 2019 saw a profusion of dark-mode launches. Digital strategist and CRM consultant Ellie Stamouli believes that 2020 was a big year for dark mode adoption, “as we all spent a lot more time than usual in front of our screens.”

In 2021, she predicts that “designing emails for dark mode first will become more mainstream, even for brands not in the tech sector.”

Video — especially TikToks — will take over.

Web video gets an understandably bad rap. Back in 2016, Facebook encouraged advertisers and media outlets to “pivot to video” based on misleading, if not purposely falsified, data. 

But in 2021, we think video marketing will be big, and we’re not relying on Facebook data here — we’re looking at TikTok. 

In 2020, especially during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, TikTok and its short-form videos took off. Originally popularized by Gen Z, the app crossed the 2-billion-download mark in Q2, and achieved such broad spectrum popularity that in August, Instagram launched a sad Tik Tok knock-off: Reels. 

(Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?)

Oddly, though, brands have been slow to follow users to TikTok, “due to uncertainty about the app’s long-term presence in the US market,” Brian Freeman, CEO of Heartbeat and an early adopter of TikTok’s marketing functionality, told MarketerHire. 

He’s referencing President Trump’s plan to ban the app from the U.S. over data security concerns. Those seem to have been shelved, though. 

(In fact, in an ironic reversal, Trump is now arguably banned from TikTok.) 

So in 2021, “with TikTok's massive set of new users, far beyond the youth demographic it had established for itself in the years leading up to 2020, it is poised to be the next great social marketing channel for brands,” Freeman said.

It’s hard to deny the platform’s potential. If you're looking for case studies, take Ocean Spray — its cranberry juice famously went viral on the platform before the brand even had a TikTok account, thanks to this viral post from @420doggface set to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams":

Meanwhile, Ocean Spray's cranberry sauce — a jiggly, not-obviously-videogenic food — got a major boost on the platform around Thanksgiving:

@oceanspray

Hey, can you pass the cranberry sauce?? (via @blondgoblin )

♬ original sound - Ocean Spray Inc.

That’s in part thanks to TikTok’s For You Page (FYP), which Freeman calls “an advanced viral funnel.” Powered by sophisticated artificial intelligence, it allows a great post from an account, regardless of its following, to go viral — and fast. 

In 2021, Freeman thinks major brands and startups alike will “become extremely savvy at growth-hacking the FYP to inexpensively reach large audiences and build new social followings quickly.” 

(Amazon has already started sponsoring unboxing videos on the platform.)

Freeman also foresees:

  • A rise in branded TikTok accounts filled with fan-generated video content 
  • Brands giving TikTok creators increasing creative freedom
  • A popularity boost for TikTok's advertising products — which could be as powerful as Facebook's ad suite by the end of the year
  • Brands using their TikTok accounts to drive traffic back to their Instagram and YouTube pages, since TikTok makes it easy to build an audience and link to other social accounts. 

TikTok operates primarily in the B2C space so far, but in the B2B space, too, we see potential for video explainers, live video, webinars and product tutorials — especially since embedding video on your site can boost SEO rankings.

Bottom line: In 2021, marketers ignore video at their own peril. (Though they maybe shouldn’t pivot to it completely. Just in case.)

Ads and augmented reality will converge. 

Augmented reality (AR) might not have the same pop culture profile as virtual reality, but it's very similar; think of it as a fusion of virtual reality and regular reality.

If that sounds futuristic, it's not. AR is already here and making waves on social media, most notably on Snapchat. The app’s face-changing (and hair-changing) video filters were always a mainstream form of AR, and its latest tools ratchet that functionality up a notch — new lenses can overlay real-world landscapes with AR effects, thanks to the latest iPhone and iPad’s lidar sensors. 

An AR filter on Snapchat | Source: Snapchat

The AR upgrades are impacting Snapchat’s advertiser offerings, too. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Snap partnered with retailers like Gucci and Kohls to create a new digital shopping experience, in which consumers could virtually try on shoes and jackets using AR, then buy with a tap of a “Shop Now” button.

We predict more and more marketers, especially in e-commerce, will hop on this trend in 2021 — and we see it extending well beyond Snapchat.

We predict more and more marketers, especially in e-commerce, will hop on this trend in 2021 — and we see it extending well beyond Snapchat.  

Already, TikTok has made some early forays into lidar-enabled AR, too. This month, the app launched a confetti drop filter where digital confetti settles realistically on people and objects in a video. 

We predict they’ll be selling AR ads soon — if they aren’t already.

Privacy will be paramount…

If this comes as a surprise, you’ve buried your head in the sand. The EU passed its General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR) in 2016, and the California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect at the beginning of 2020. Around the same time, Google announced that Chrome would “phase out” support for third-party cookies by 2022. 

That makes 2021 marketers’ final year of third-party tracking — at least on the web browser a whopping 70% of people use

But even this year won’t be smooth sailing in terms of data collection. Any day now, marketers will confront a major privacy push from Apple — specifically, an iOS14 update that includes App Tracking Transparency, or ATT. This new functionality will only allow brands to collect users’ data with their explicit consent.

Users will consent via a pop-up like this:

Though the details of the update (and its arrival date) remain fuzzy, one thing is clear: Consumer privacy will be king this year, and marketers may not have access to the granular customer data and performance metrics they’ve become accustomed to.

...and marketers will turn to creative attribution workarounds.

The data difficulties throughout the customer journey could pose particular challenges when it comes to attribution. Which digital marketing channels are driving conversions?

In a privacy-oriented world, the answer could grow “increasingly hazy,” Jonathan Martinez, a growth marketing manager at Postmates, told MarketerHire.

In a privacy-oriented world, the answer could grow “increasingly hazy,” Jonathan Martinez, a growth marketing manager at Postmates, told MarketerHire.

More likely, though, marketers will turn to creative workarounds.

For instance, Martinez foresees “the rapid advancement of incrementality testing” for measuring channel effectiveness. In other words, he thinks marketers will increasingly A/B test each of their paid marketing channels against an organic-only strategy, to make sure they’re paying for a measurable lift.

(In 2013, eBay famously did just that, and found that its paid search strategy had minimal incremental impact on its bottom line — though marketing insiders questioned the generalizability of those results.)

Meanwhile, Maurice Rahmey, head of Disruptive Digital (and a former Facebook employee), foresees marketers relying more heavily on first-party data — and on Facebook. 

The iOS14 update, among other things, will “further entrench Facebook as the de-facto paid media channel,” Rahmey predicted. “Other channels… don't have the same level of identity Facebook sees from their user base.”

He imagines that Facebook’s billions of robust user profiles will help it mock up quick, high-quality attribution solutions as the digital landscape changes.

He’s not the only one, either. Paid social media consultant Savannah Sanchez recently shared a similar hypothesis on Twitter:

Even though it’s embroiled in anti-trust lawsuits, this could be a stellar year for Facebook.

Brands will invest more in content marketing — and expect more from it, too.

The paid marketing ecosystem will spend this year jostled by privacy regulations, and that could prompt brands to budget more for the (relatively) stable world of content.

“Companies will invest more in quality content marketing activities and hiring talented content marketers,” Monica Maria, content marketing manager at SuperOps.ai, told MarketerHire. 

Content can help small businesses and big names alike build owned, long-lasting audiences; it also provides fodder for social posts, email sends, chatbot dialogue, and all kinds of customer retention efforts.

The increased investment in content will come at a price, though.

“There will be a much larger focus on ROI from content marketing efforts,” she predicted.

Personalization will thrive across channels. 

“I think personalization is probably going to get real in 2021,” Nik Sharma, CEO of DTC consulting powerhouse Sharma Brands, recently told MarketerHire.

Even as marketers’ data stores diminish, they should still be able to personalize outreach based on:

  • Zeroth-party data collected via interactive content marketing, like quizzes
  • First-party behavioral data collected via desktop
  • First-party behavioral data from Android mobile 
  • First-party behavioral data from iPhone mobile users who opt into tracking

That can translate into email automations personalized based on browsing behavior, like this Sephora one:

Source: Sephora email

Or landing pages personalized based on location data, like this one from DTC disaster preparedness company Judy:

Source: Judy

Though Gartner has raised some concerns about ROI on hyper-granular personalization. At their best, personalized experiences — like TikTok’s For You Page! — can make it cheaper to acquire new customers.

They can also improve the customer experience and inspire customer loyalty.

We don’t see personalization losing steam anytime soon. In fact, we think in 2021, new technologies will emerge that make it easier.

SEO will get increasingly technical. 

Search engine optimization was never just about search queries and keywords — and in 2021, technical SEO will become more important than ever, insiders say. 

Justin Emig, director of e-commerce at York Wallcoverings, sees technical SEO impacting SERP rankings more and more. 

Justin Emig, director of e-commerce at York Wallcoverings, sees technical SEO impacting SERP rankings more and more. 

“This is due to the growth of JavaScript based sites, such as React.js, Angular.js, and Vue.js,” he told MarketerHire. “GoogleBot has not done a great job of parsing JavaScript in the past… and many of the out-of-the-box JavaScript site generators… don't handle technical SEO elements very well.”

In other words — you can’t throw together a Gatsby website on the fly, and expect organic search traffic. You have to invest in technical SEO expertise to merge JavaScript and search visibility. 

Freddie Chatt, a freelance expert on e-commerce SEO, sees two technical specs in particular rising to prominence. “Site speed and UX is clearly a major part of what Google wants the search results to be impacted by,” he told MarketerHire.

Event marketers will continue to innovate.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made remote work the norm — and though vaccination has begun in the U.S., we still foresee professional events taking place on video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Welcome, or Hopin well into 2021. 

(That’s especially true because more and more companies are committing to permanently remote workforces.)

So how can marketers create digital events worth attending? Events specialists will have to continue to iterate and innovate, especially now that Zoom fatigue reigns.

Ashley Smith of Ashley Smith Events sees one events trend in particular gaining traction in 2021: Zoom boxes like Foxtail Catering’s, that include cocktails, snacks, and gifts. Delivered by mail, these at-home kits bring conference amenities for one to each attendee’s home.

Source: Foxtail Catering on Facebook

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, shared some further thoughts on hosting fun and meaningful digital events on an episode of Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast. 

“There are party planners and experience designers who are exploring ways to not just get stuck in the screen,” Parker tells Brown. “We are all so focused on the screen, but we each have these entire universes behind us” — our homes. 

As our new events culture develops, Parker thinks more digital events will get participants engaged with their physical surroundings.

The ultimate 2021 marketing strategy? Experimentation.

Last year, nothing in the marketing world went according to plan. In fact, the most successful brands were the quickest to throw their outdated plans out the window and communicate in real time, with messaging that referenced toilet paper shortages, quarantine and confusion — in a word, reality. 

Now it’s a new year, and marketers have a fresh opportunity to expect the unexpected and lean into agile experimentation. Many established best practices from the years of the ancient past — like, 2019 — no longer make sense. We recommend trying out the trends above, or running an experiment of your own.

Just don’t try to play it safe with your marketing efforts. This year, like last year, playing it safe might actually be the least safe thing to do.

Kate Talbot
about the author

Kate Talbot is a freelance content marketer, author and entrepreneur who helps businesses scale using social media and has run content at brands including Virgin America and Kiva. She is a senior contributor for Forbes, where she writes a column on the intersection of internet culture and social media, and she wrote "Oh Snap! You Can Use Snapchat for Business," an IBM Book of the Month. She is also a millennial marketing post-graduate lecturer at Ireland's Digital Marketing Institute and a marketing course instructor for 500 Startups.

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