Last year, when I wrote out my thoughts on trends and ideas for marketing in 2020, I envisioned it as a sort of roadmap of ideas that I wanted to explore through execution. Then COVID hit, and mine – and everyone else’s – plans were rewritten in real time.

And yet, a lot of what I put down actually seems to have remained pretty relevant. At the same time, some of it became impractical and irrelevant.

A “do less and obsess” approach to content. Less content didn’t happen – more content is created than ever before. But perhaps that is unavoidable when many successful marketing strategies can still be built around “more is better.”

Video as an essential tool to establish brand differentiation. Video has become ubiquitous – in large part because alternative methods of more personal (face-to-face) connections are more challenging.

Community will be critical to success. Community building remains essential – and a moat. Though connecting offline, whether local or at events, became more challenging to impossible.

Print will be a great way to connect and create meaningful content experiences. Print took a major hit. For reasons that include shrinking advertising budgets, media habits that continue to move to digital, evolving distribution channels (including at events) and others.

Otherwise, from the outside it looked like AI-produced creative went a bit quieter this year. And the triple bottom line was a major part of plenty of organizations’ strategies – in part due to what felt like everything being political in 2021.

That said, here are the ideas and trends that will drive our marketing strategy in 2021. Given the surprises 2020 sprung on us, we’re going into this one with an open mind, and a renewed sense of what’s possible.

Embracing Unpredictability

Ultimately it’s really hard to know where we’ll end the year. The economy seems to be relatively stable, all things considered. But there are a lot of stressors that could shift the economic outlook quite rapidly. Being responsive and adaptive is essential. When COVID hit, Tobi Lutke, CEO at Shopify, told his team to delete all their plans and rethink their strategy based on the new reality. Some of us might not have that luxury. But this is the kind of openness that has to guide our outlook.

ABL – Always Be Learning

With the business climate shifting at lightspeed, being a versatilist is more essential than ever. We recently put together a list of free online courses for creatives to develop new, complementary skills and hone existing ones. I just finished the Challenger Sale (at the recommendation of the brilliant April Dunford) and took a branding course on Domestika. I’m currently reading Product-Led Growth (at the recommendation of our head of product). This coming year especially, versatility will be critical given the general level of uncertainty.

If you are looking for some places to start, check out some of some of the best marketing blogs, podcasts and newsletters, great free online courses for (versatile) creatives and where to find creative inspiration.

Being Authentic

With so much content being produced, respecting the reader is going to be a critical differentiator in generating loyalty (how am I doing so far?). With so many marketers focussed on driving organic traffic, streams of content for every imaginable search term have surfaced (along with the unfortunate effect of it becoming increasingly difficult to find the really great content). On the social side, algorithms surface clickbait, the controversial and sensationalism. While those tactics do generate pageviews, the big question is, can they generate sales or valuable ad impressions?

In 2021 we are going to focus more on “story-doing” vs storytelling.

Deeper Virtual Engagement

As companies move to completely or partially decentralized office structures, a lot is going to need to be done to update collaboration and engagement strategies and frameworks. A big new challenge to HR and webops teams will be how to sustain team morale and productivity on a long-term basis. For a good part of 2021, we are likely to miss out on in-person retreats or meetups. But with adequate attention and a good dose of creativity, there are ways to boost productivity and morale.

Email Fatigue (Continues)

It’s not just Zoom Fatigue. When COVID hit there was a big surge in marketing email being sent. Many businesses shifted to online-first, while at the same time a number of the typical channels were suddenly no longer viable (OOH, sport events, events in general, etc.). This meant rapidly shifting strategies and reallocating budgets. Email was an easy choice. But it also meant that our inboxes became flooded with all sorts of endless promotions – and junk.

In 2021, before we send we will have to ask ourselves “are we communicating something valuable? Valuable to us, or the customer?”

Emphasis on Partnerships

Distribution has always been one of the biggest challenges for any company or organization that develops the majority of its business through a combination of online channels. It’s harder than ever to use paid channels effectively, with so much competition for attention. Identifying long-term partners with a shared audience and creating mutual value will become increasingly important. We will also explore ways to provide value to our customers, beyond simplifying creative workflows, whether in promoting their work, ideas or other. A great example for us has been Twine.fm a creative freelancer network. Or how we worked with Cicada to help promote both their own work and how they use online proofing.

Stop Selling – Start Teaching

A study by Gartner shows that people “perceive little distinct value from sales reps.” Digital-first natives might be to blame. As Daniel Pink laid out in his masterclass  – sales people used to hold an information advantage. Nowadays, customers can find all the information they want on their own. To borrow an idea from The Challenger Sale – the salesperson is most valuable as a teacher. This isn’t only for the sales team.  Every facet of marketing should embrace this idea.

In our case for example, we’ve worked through thousands of workflows. If you need to talk about our proofing features we can do that. But more importantly, we can help you build a better creative workflow and ultimately help you produce better creative.

This is essential, especially as so many organizations have or are undergoing digital transformations at lightning speed.

Online Experiences

Lastly, could 2021 mark the return of the microsite? In large part, brands are looking for owned experiences that can be fun, entertaining and have some longevity – all while providing a positive brand impact. Can we shift the offline “booth experience” to online? Out-of-home guerrilla to a website? Or even to an (owned) online learning center?

This is something we will explore, perhaps as an alternative to the whitepaper.

Being Helpful

Ultimately, we are here and we’re in this together. Marketing in 2021 will be about being helpful and empowering our customers and teams to remain productive, collaborative and creative.

Though that has always has been our objective.

 

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