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Thanks to the pandemic, the retail landscape has dramatically transformed, with customers forging new shopping habits and upping their expectations for brands. Digital marketing has evolved just as much, with the development of virtual platforms to replace in-person experiences and campaign redesigns to acknowledge the new reality. Yet, given the rapid onset of new technologies, behaviors, and trends, skilled marketers must look even further into the future. 

So, come 2021, will content still be king? Which platforms should brands invest in? How can marketers best engage and retain customers? It’s never too early to start researching, strategizing, and planning — here are our predictions of 2021 digital marketing trends that all savvy marketers should keep an eye out for. 

The New King of Social: Short-Form Videos

People’s boredom levels have increased while sheltering-in-place and many have turned to short-form video for entertainment: TikTok is now the preferred platform for Gen Z, Snapchat implemented a major redesign, and Facebook launched Instagram Reels to get in on the action. Given the boost in social media consumption for all generations, CMOs have redirected budgets to these channels — in Q2 of 2020, social media accounted for almost 25% of total marketing budgets, a rise of 13% from 2019. 

Given the love for all things quick and catchy, marketers looking to target younger customers must invest in their short-form video strategy and execution. TikTok for Business launched earlier this year and is set to expand its paid promotion and advertising options in 2021 — in other words, marketers should start studying up on this elusive platform now. 

Developing short-form videos may seem deceptively simple, but balancing branded messaging with the carefree tone associated with short-form videos will require customer research, strategy, and creativity. On average, Gen Z has an 8-second attention span — it’s high time to start experimenting with how to best communicate your brand purpose, product values, and CTA in a short and snappy way. 

Bonus Prediction: The way shoppers research brands and products on social media is evolving, and we’ll likely see social shopping become more popular on these short-form video platforms. With 30% of consumers saying that they would shop directly through social media platforms, you’ll want to explore creative ways to incorporate social media into your omnichannel e-commerce strategy. 

For more on how to build brand trust with video marketing:

Video Marketing: How to Build Brand Trust

The New Challenge: User Privacy Protections Will Impact Targeting

In 2020, the implementation of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) meant that brands advertising on Facebook experienced a sudden inability to target the millions of shoppers in California, which wreaked havoc on their ad strategies and ROI. The CCPA, which limits how companies are allowed to handle the personal information of shoppers in California, reflects a growing nationwide concern for user privacy protection — 86% of consumers are worried about their data privacy, with Baby Boomers and Gen X being the least trusting. 

The CCPA, alongside the General Data Privacy Regulation, could serve as a blueprint for other states to enact digital privacy laws in the coming year. Meanwhile, Apple’s iOS 14 release privacy feature, which will stop the automatic background collection of data used for personalized ad tracking, is now delayed to 2021. 

The way the industry currently tracks, targets, and retargets customers will undergo major changes. In other words, marketers must toss out their old playbooks. Here are some preparations you can make:

  • Pay close attention to consumer privacy and consent by reading up on the latest industry news.
  • Set up a meeting with your marketing automation platform reps to discuss how potential privacy changes might impact your pipeline.
  • Start conveying the value proposition of data collection to customers so they feel reassured that their privacy concerns are being addressed. 

For more on data privacy:

Consumer Privacy 101

The New Employee of the Month: Artificial Intelligence

More and more companies are beginning to rely on artificial intelligence (AI) for simple tasks, many of which aim to improve the customer experience. Chatbots are a perfect example of this. It is no longer surprising to visit a website and have a chat box pop up in the corner offering assistance or the ability to answer questions. While they cannot perform all the functions of a traditional employee, chatbots help retain customers by making their browsing and/or shopping experience better.

However, artificial intelligence is not just valuable for the customer experience. It was predicted that in 2020, over 30% of companies worldwide would be using AI in their sales process. Marketing automation in all forms is a digital marketing trend that is becoming the new norm. 

For more on ways to use artificial intelligence:

Customer Contact Alternatives to Email: SMS, Chatbots, and More

The New Industry Norm: Marketing Automation 

With digital marketing technology growing in sophistication, it should come as no surprise that we’ll witness marketing automation become a necessary industry mainstream. The customer journey is so dynamic and fluid, with dozens of touchpoints across multiple devices, that having sophisticated attribution models is the only way to predict outcomes and calculate ROI accurately. Over time, as a company grows, it’ll be nearly impossible to track these numbers manually. 

That’s where a marketing automation platform comes in — in fact, 67% of marketing leaders already leverage marketing automation tools. Though marketing automation software has existed for years, developers regularly release new digital capabilities. In 2021, this technology will further evolve, allowing marketers to better convert leads, generate personalized content, and track results. Take it from us: Marketing automation will be the only way to do digital marketing effectively in 2021 and beyond. 

For more on how to avoid marketing automation traps:

Spooky Stories for Marketers: The Haunting of Ray Van Winkle

The New Way to Convert: Content… and More Content

Used to direct target audiences to your website via SEO (search engine optimization) and build trust with that audience, content marketing continues to shine above many traditional advertising forms. It is one of the best ways to engage and convert your audience. Not only does content marketing cost 62% less than outbound marketing, but it also generates 3x as many leads

One of the best ways to start publishing consistent, quality content on your website is to write blog posts relevant to your brand. One study found that small companies with business blogs generate 126% more leads than their competitors without blogs. 

However, “content” is a general term that encompasses so much more than just blogs. E-books, whitepapers, infographics, listicles, even email marketing campaigns require relevant content. With content marketing resulting in conversion rates 6x higher than traditional advertising methods, it’s no wonder content counts in 2021. 

For more on content marketing:

Content Marketing: 9 Steps to Create a Killer Strategy

The New Expectation: More Personalization

A study found that despite widespread concerns about consumer privacy, 72% of shoppers will only engage with personalized marketing. Shoppers are shunning and unsubscribing from mass-blasted email campaigns while choosing personable web pages over generic ones. In 2021, marketers will need to customize customer communications and experiences based on their preferences, interests, and behavior. 

One way to create engaging, personalized communications without hiring dozens of copywriters and designers is to leverage machine learning. Persado is one example of a company using machine learning to infuse more relevancy into bland content. With a robust dictionary that includes language nuances and emotional sentiment, the software cranks out the best messages based on the brand voice you provide it with, which can also deliver more personalized messaging. In one case study, Air Canada used Persado to test its marketing copy, discovering that an “anxious” tone allowed the company to boost engagement by 3%, while language that reflected “safety” and “exclusivity” led to drops in engagement. 

For more on ad personalization:

How Small Businesses Can Use Ad Personalization

Time to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions

In a year filled with unprecedented change, digital marketing has evolved to match new habits and demands of brands and consumers alike. We can safely say that 2021 will be the year of continued digital transformation and engagement, where the innovative use of technology, marketing strategy, and creative ideas will make or break brands. Rise above your competitors by preparing for these four likely trends — start shifting resources, kickstarting brainstorm sessions, and conducting research. 

If you haven’t found a partner to help you grow nimbly, check out what we offer here at AdRoll. We can help you expand your digital marketing efforts, from a one-way ad blast to a personalized two-way relationship with customers.


Jaime is Head of Content Strategy at AdRoll, a division of NextRoll, Inc. She has 12 years' experience in content, social, and partner marketing, spanning from scrappy startups to the global enterprise. Jaime loves crafting content that actually gets used by customers and goes to bed dreaming about how content can change the world. An avid tennis player and Champagne Martini enthusiast, Jaime spends most of her spare time being the #1 dog mom to her chiweenie.