2021: what’s new in Digital Marketing

We are poised at an inflection point in marketing, as accelerations in technology are leading to a lighting fast evolution in tools and tactics.

Will marketing strategies in the next decade do a complete 180°? Photo by Tanner Larson on Unsplash.

I started my digital and growth marketing career in 2015, as a second career. I’m a scientist originally, and while some people questioned this career leap, it’s a pivot that makes sense if you understand marketing. I enjoy the creative outlets marketing affords, but I love the data, research, analysis, and psychology of it all. I started this blog years ago to create clout and make a name for myself in this space, and averaged 6K impressions in 2017 per post back in my Bay Area heyday.

After leaving California for Iceland two years ago, I worked more in high-level marketing and sales strategy roles that this unique Nordic market needed. Now, in 2020, as I look to get back into the marketing trenches, I wonder what has advanced within digital marketing in just a few short years.

The tl;dr of what I found?: Digital marketing is just marketing now. Unless you’re Don Draper, every inch of your marketing strategy is going to touch a digital channel in some fashion. And these days, our digital strategy better be more tailored, automated, and informed than ever before, because customers are getting savvy. But at the speed of technology evolution, I predict we’re ripe for a game changing advance soon.

So, what’s new?

The obvious: updated UI/UX, new channels, more tools, bigger data.

Let’s start with the easy advances. I feel like they’re worth mentioning, because invariably someone will always say, “bUt wHaT aBoUt TiKtOk?” (more on that in a second) The look-and-feel of everything has seen multiple iterations since I last managed social media and paid acquisition teams, especially with regards to dashboards and new management tools. Layouts are cleaner but more dense. Data inputs and outputs more streamlined but more expansive. Reporting abilities both somehow simultaneously more intuitive yet more complex.

“Back in the day”: I once grew a Facebook page to 50K users solely by creating listicles about dogs and then hand-inviting everyone who liked our content.

But beyond the obvious, there are now so many more tools and tactics to enact highly sophisticated, personalized marketing stratagies. The Marketing Technology industry has introduced more than 6000 new products to the market since 2015 when I started, more than doubling in size, and is now a global $120B industry. And of course, there are now more channels, too. Anyone hoping to catch the attention of an audience under the age of 30 should be making TikTok content, which many advertisers say the platform makes native marketing content more digestible and entertaining.

And where has the biggest growth come from? In tools that facilitate personalization and automation via big data and AI/ML. Our ability to collect, store, use, and optimize huge datasets has taken us to new heights.

Retargeting, multi-touch attribution, and email nurturing have gotten more sophisticated and accurate. Algorithms that can predict your next purchase or recommend a new binge-worthy series have become smarter. A/B/n testing with predictive emotions in your creative copy is now a reality. Chatbots have (almost) become usable through natural language generation. Forbes even claims that the biggest marketing job of 2021 will be “chatbot copy writer.”

Our capacity to be “always-on” and always accurate has skyrocketed, and I foresee this is where some crazy advances will develop in the near future. The uncanny valley of AI technology awaits. Let’s dive deeper:

The hyped: personification, real-time and conversational marketing.

Building on what we’ve talked about above, this type of AI-driven technology is what was hyped while I was working in San Francisco, but they hadn’t really reached viable usability yet. While these technologies have been featured heavily in the Gartner Hype Cycle for marketing trends, hype has apparently far outpaced adoption. I think we’re finally turning a corner here.

A standard technology hype curve, as used by Gartner and others to track evolving advances in industry.

Unprecedented insight, intuition and scale fueled by marketing AI will help deliver relevant experiences to prospects and customers. These systems change behavior without explicitly being programmed, based on vast quantities of data collected and analyzed. More so, conversational marketing is a main tactic in this field.

This marketing toolset doesn’t just include chatbots. It can also encompass automated messaging apps, voice search, and smart speakers, the latter two being increasingly more entrenched within marketing and sales funnels:

One in five mobile searches via smart phones are activated by voice, and six out of ten smart speakers owners have used their device to make a purchase in the past year. In fact, a quarter of those users surveyed said they’d made a purchase in the last week. Reducing friction in realistic and fluid voice channels is now key.

And what about the future?

The buzz-wordy: augmented reality and blockchain for advertising.

Going back to the hype curve, when we think about technology adoption, there is always a trough of disillusionment. Some solutions have become so over-hyped and slow-to-advance, that users begin to shrug and walk away. That said, some technologies will rebound and evolve into mainstream life. It’s our goal to recognize which tech will become everyday while it’s still lulling in its trough.

Gartner predicts that we’ll be seeing Blockchain technology used in advertising to deal with multitouch identification, authentication, fraud prevention, and secure payments. As technology becomes more omnipresent, more and more consumers rank trust, privacy, and security as key reasons they choose to interact with a brand. Blockchain could prove pivotal in providing key avenues to build consumer trust.

But my personal favorite for game-changer in 2021 and beyond is augmented reality marketing. In fact, companies that already had AR channels built by 2020 saw huge increases in engagement while brick and mortar retail was closed this year. The technology has definitely improved wildly since it first appeared on the hype curve.

Example: Warby Parker. I was able to update my prescription, try on new frames, measure my face, and order frames all in the app this summer. The AR was so sophisticated that friends assumed I was physically wearing the glasses when I showed them screen grabs from the virtual studio. I ended up buying not one new pair of glasses, but two plus sunglasses. The AR experience is no longer just for collecting Pokemon around your neighborhood!

I swear this isn’t a Warby Parker ad, but here’s the very satisfied author modeling various eyeglasses frames in the virtual try-on in-app studio. Yes, these are AR screen grabs. Pretty impressive!

Warby Parker is now a marketing and business school case study dream, using e-commerce and augmented reality in their strategy before it become mainstream. They announced this fall that they raised an additional $245M this year, yielding a valuation of $3B, a hefty increase from their projections in 2018.

Reaching a tipping point?

In closing, while marketing on the surface seems to have continued with its predictable trajectories for the past few years, I suspect that global conditions will force new strategies and tactics onto marketing teams. Any company that can mimic or replace the brick-and-mortar, in-store experiences with something better online or in-app will be lightyears ahead of the competition. This will need to be achieved through emerging technologies, like AR, AI, and other buzz-worthy acronyms. Additionally, any company that can pivot beyond the usual suspects in social media, i.e. Facebook, will make a mark for themselves.

This year will be the push needed to develop deeply revolutionary new ways of doing marketing. I predict 2021 and beyond will see new channels and methods emerge that are unheard of in the past decade. Real innovation will be a game-changer going forward. Thinking caps on, friends!

I write long sentences in an city that thrives on five cent words and Hemingway prose. The Girl with the Star Wars Tattoo. I have opinions and adventures. ENFP.