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To say that 2020 has been a year for the books would be an understatement. In many ways this has been a year all about flexibility and adapting — and that is no different for the world of digital advertising. The need to embrace challenges, lean into the unpredictable, and meet the consumers where they are will follow us into 2021 and should play an intstumental role when planning next years approach a digital marketing strategy.

Here are a few things to keep in mind for next year’s marketing plans:

Continue to Prioritize Digital in a Highly Virtual World

Though hope is around the corner with the recent release of the vaccine for COVID-19, it is likely that consumers are not going to quickly jump at the opportunity to attend large-scale events and trade shows that brands and marketers have historically flocked to in order to achieve increased brand awareness. Fortunately, there are many digital solutions that help fill the void where brands can have a presence to continue to experience growth and build affinity with their target audiences, such as streaming and, more broadly, video.

It’s no surprise that the rate of growth in streamershas surpassed what was initially expected for 2020 as consumers spent more time at home. With this comes a great opportunity for brands to expand on their linear TV buys and reach a highly targeted audience on a platform with historically high completion rates – Connected TV and OTT. As a result of this trend, iAB is reporting that the majority of marketers will shift an average of 21% of their linear TV budget to streaming in 2021.

Though this medium is viewed most often as an opportunity to increase awareness, recent studies have shown that these placements are also moving the needle in terms of growing mid-to-lower funnel tactics. This is especially true for short-form videos, thanks to the surge of interest in placements such as Facebook and Instagram Stories, Snapchat, Tiktok, as well as many other competitors that are beginning to emerge on the scene. If you are still relying solely on 30-second videos, it’s time to rethink your bite-sized content strategy and consider how you can innovate your approach.

Social media

It is undeniable that social media can be both a blessing and a curse due to its high engagement rates and its concerns with misinformation. However, it has proven to be a valuable channel for most verticals to grow awareness and encourage action as consumers turn to these platforms for entertainment. While Facebook and Instagram continue to be the go-to, there are additional alternatives that can help diversify your marketing mix and have more of an omnichannel approach to social. This includes, but is not limited to, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, and others. Selecting the platforms on which to have a strong presence depends heavily on the personality of the brand, if the brand’s content aligns with the look and feel of the channel and, most importantly, if you are going to be able to reach your target audience.

Virtual events

Zoom and other video call platforms have clearly taken off in the midst of in-person events coming to a swift halt. This has been valuable for marketers as it provides an opportunity to speak to a broad group of consumers when they can’t on-site or through trade shows, as well as through partnerships and sponsorships with relevant brands to build an even broader audience.

This is not likely to dissipate as we enter 2021. That being said, it is important to ensure the content being presented and promoted is unique and valuable because, let’s be honest, the Zoom exhaustion can be real.

Explore Solutions for a Cookieless World with Increased Privacy Restrictions

Third party cookie depreciation has united the digital advertising industry – kind of. Over the course of 2020, many ideas and solutions to third party cookie depreciation have been proposed. From industry giants like Google to demand-side platforms and data providers to publishers and technical intermediaries, digital players both large and small have joined forces to keep the free internet alive. The collaboration among advertisers, publishers, and technical providers underscores the importance of digital advertising for all parties — advertisers need publishers to share their message, publishers need advertisers to generate revenue, and technical platforms need advertisers and publishers to provide a service. Consumers, the last and most crucial piece of this value exchange, need continued access to the free online content provided by publishers if the status quo is to be maintained.

In conjunction with cookie depreciation, consumer privacy legislation such as GDPR in Europe, andCCPA, and more recently, CPRA in California emphasize the need for a change across the digital advertising ecosystem. While consumer privacy is incredibly important, the reality is most digital advertising today relies on cookie-based targeting solutions that allow advertisers to identify demographics, interests and personas within their target audience. Publishers, advertisers and consumers need to work together to adhere to consumer privacy regulation, while also providing some visibility into the audience characteristics advertisers digital ads are reaching.

What does this mean for advertisers in 2021? Short answer, stay tuned. While cookie depreciation is important and will impact digital advertising, the long-term effects will not be felt on January 1st. Instead, these changes will roll out over the course of several years. With this in mind, advertisers should continue to employ digital strategies including audiences, data providers and channels that have proven effective as long as feasible into next year.

In tandem with proven tactics, new strategies and services should be tested to prepare for still the still unknown changes. For instance, customer relationship management solutions should be evaluated to ensure all data collected is accurate, up to date and cataloged. Contextual strategies may also be tested to prepare for cookie depreciation. Solutions such as automatic content recognition, category targeting and keyword retargeting may allow advertisers to expand reach and test new environments for performance.

Prepare for Sustained Growth of E-Commerce

E-commerce may very well be the Cinderella story of 2020 for many brands, especially as shutdowns occurred and consumers turned to the internet at an unprecedented rate for purchasing solutions. As a result, eCommerce channel ad spend has grown even in a year where many have had to cut their overall marketing budgets. This means that in 2021, consumers’ expectations are going to be even higher in terms of having as positive of a user experience through website purchasing as they do in-store. This is particularly true as consumers are willing to pay incremental dollars for the value of convenience.

While eCommerce, for most retail brands, still remains a relatively small percentage of overall sales (14.5% in 2020 vs. 11% in 2019), it is going to be critical for marketers and brands to invest in this channel to drive demand and not have their online sales potential be swallowed by major players in the eCommerce world.

However, there are some aspects of eCommerce thatshould be prioritized over others based onconsumer feedback on why they turn online to shop. In a recent survey by Attest, it was found that what consumers identified as critical in direct-to-consumer interactions didn’t always align with marketers’ interpretations. When strategizing on your approach to eCommerce and the corresponding promotions, consumers want you to:

  • Help them discover new and relevant products
  • Provide them with a selection
  • Keep pricing competitive

Lastly, consider building on these efforts through paid advertising. On-demand social commerce is becoming an even bigger push through the creation of Facebook and Instagram shops. Many brands also find success by tapping into data such as Amazon’s through campaigns and sponsored products, enabling access to high-intent audiences based on past purchase history on a massive platform. Even delivery apps such as Instacart boast great opportunities to promote trial and encourage repeat purchases.

Leverage Robust Data to Identify Channels That are Creating the Biggest Impact

Long gone are the days of vanity media metrics being sufficient to prove campaign success. It’s time for marketers to dig in deeper and do the challenging, but rewarding, work of truly figuring out which channels and tactics are impacting the brand’s bottom line. We have seen several brands seek out new agencies for this reason in 2020, along with the need to move more quickly. Leaning on the triple threat of advanced measurement, artificial intelligence, and machine learning can be extremely valuable in helping set your team up for a successful 2021.

Creating a thoughtful advanced measurement strategy is valuable for explaining business success at the hands of a digital media campaign. Depending on what the year’s goals are, there are many solutions available across a variety of vendors — whether that is a brand lift study, an incremental sales lift study, a matched market test, or even a multi-touch attribution model. By having this data available to marketers, you can mine unique insights that not only help clients learn more about their brand but also help operations teams optimize campaigns toward top performers that are contributing the greatest impact.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will hypercharge any digital strategy — working to maximize investment against advanced measurement strategies. With so many emerging technologies, it’s important to understand the distinction between AI and ML. AI more broadly involves the collaboration of people and machines working in tandem to improve performance. AI allows marketers to effectively test messaging, channels, and audiences at scale, and may involve marketers setting goals and parameters that machine learning can then act against. Machine learning can be employed as a part of an AI strategy, with custom algorithms developed to train systems to learn, adapt, and prioritize success signals deemed most valuable by marketers. Both AI and ML can help digital marketers prioritize high-value prospects and customize messaging to engage with consumers on a personal level.

Remain Agile and Be Ready to Adapt…..Quickly

The greatest advantage of digital advertising is the ability to make impactful changes literally at our fingertips. While tons of thought, planning and research goes into executing a successful digital media plan, deviating or altering plans should be expected and embraced. 2020 may be the greatest example of the need to adapt and be agile in the digital space. This was evident in the speed of digital video production, nimble creative development, and increase in digital ad spend.

Video based messaging and nimble strategies should continue into 2021 – and beyond. Brands need to meet consumers where they are and prioritize messaging that speaks to their values. 2020 taught us that a multi-million-dollar budget, state of the art production studio, and A-list talent do not a successful digital ad make. Instead, many brands found success with lightning-quick responses to current events by leveraging video with a user-generated feel that has proven successful in bolstering perception and consumer trust. Because so much of consumers’ time is spent on their phones, often on social media, a :06 vertical video with an average person communicating directly with the viewer can make a much larger impact than a :30 traditional TV commercial. This means brands can and should prioritize producing more and individualized content that seeks to communicate core values and ideas that resonate with their target audience.

Often opportunities for brands to meaningfully engage are not able to be planned for. With this in mind, a nimble approach to creative and digital can allow a brand to communicate timely value, reinforce efforts to benefit the greater good, promote core societal values or other aspects that are important to a brand’s customer.


The trends, capabilities, and technologies of digital marketing are ever-changing, as are the conditions and preferences of the world. With this comes a lot of opportunities and responsibility for quick decision making to determine what’s best for your brand. By arming your team with the considerations outlined above, you will remain ahead of the curve and take on 2021 with the tenacity it requires to stay competitive and impactful.

Want more insights into what to expect going into 2021? Contact us.

Recommended reading:

Blog: Digital solutions for In-Person Events

Blog: Growing Omni-Channel Retail During COVID

Blog: Success in a Cookieless Future – Answering Common Questions

Article: Developing Flexibility and Agility in Digital Marketing – Five Trends to Explore