When we compiled our list of 2020 marketing tactics at the end of 2019, no one had any idea what was really in store for the year to come. Now, we know 2021 will continue to see ripple effects from the pandemic and, even when it’s over, consumer behavior will never go back entirely to the way it was before.
This has profound implications for brands and marketers in 2021. On top of that, technology and regulatory changes will require preparation. We asked marketing experts how they plan to tackle 2021—here are the 18 topics they zeroed in on.
18 of the best ways to market your business in 2021
The following list provides insights into many strategies you've already heard of, including SEO, customer retention, ecommerce, and video and influencer marketing. It also includes new strategies related to cookieless advertising and privacy changes, as well as new approaches to help you cater to the new COVID-weary and social change-conscious consumer of 2021. No matter the strategy, the idea is the same: to market personally and value your customers, but also efficiently so you can save time, scale up, and keep running your day-to-day.
1. Optimize for Google’s next update
With Google’s Page Experience Update coming in May 2021, new metrics called Core Web Vitals—which will measure site load time, interactivity and content stability—will start to impact overall search rankings.
“Basically, anything that could annoy a user of the page may negatively impact the Core Web Vitals metrics and lead to a lower ranking in search results for that page,” said Mark Coster, owner of web design agency Web Design for Businesses.
That means brands will have to start optimizing for Core Web Vitals by being more user-friendly than ever before.
“Pages and elements must load fast and not leave users waiting,” said Lee Savery, content executive at digital agency Ricemedia. “The delay before a first input must be very short, allowing users to interact with pages as fast as possible. There mustn't be any unexpected changes in layout while users load and scroll the page. Not addressing these elements could lead to your site dropping fast.”
2. Prepare for the end of third-party cookies
2021 will also be the year marketers prepare for two big changes to come in 2022: the end of third-party cookies and new privacy regulations in California.
“We have to get comfortable with privacy-first data collection practices. That means focusing on list-building and developing one-to-one relationships with customers,” said Harry Maugans, CEO of consumer privacy service Privacy Bee. “Make sure that your campaigns in 2021 help you build your first-party data so you rely less on Other People's Data.”
The death of third-party cookies will change how digital ads are targeted and tracked, but Dave Toby, director of digital marketing agency Pathfinder Alliance, said there’s still “considerable confusion about how campaigns will be affected.”
“The coming year will provide a final chance for marketers to educate themselves about the impact of the cookie-less future and to prepare for it,” he added. “The most important action involves improving access to, and effective use of, their valuable first-party data—and ensure agencies have a clear plan for placing and measuring campaigns after the change.”
In addition to getting comfortable with privacy-first data collection practices, brands will also have to build their own data collection infrastructure to comply with coming regulations in 2021.
“Fines in California start at $2,500 per occurrence, so it's financially prudent to prepare in [advance],” Maugans noted.
3. Foster first-party relationships
In 2021, having direct relationships with customers will be even more important as the online landscape becomes even more cluttered with brands trying to reach digital consumers. But it will also be important because one-to-one relationships mean brands can personalize content for better experiences.
Houman Akhavan, CMO of CarParts.com, said a first-party data strategy yielded “incredible results” in 2020, including “record conversions.”
“A critical part of this first-party data strategy has been using the correct customer data platform technology—one that is scalable to process millions of records of customer insights, including real-time signals that must be acted upon immediately before they go stale,” he said. “Thus far, leveraging our customer data platform has allowed us to generate over a quarter billion personalized one-to-one messages. We’ve seen our click-through rates increase by as much as 400% and our email revenue has doubled.”
4. Focus on customer retention
And for brands struggling to recover from the events of 2020, focusing on existing customers may be wise.
“In an uncertain economy, most brands—especially niche retailers— should focus on existing customers,” said Jonathan Frey, CMO of electric bike retailer Urban Bikes Direct.
For his part, Jim Pendergast, SVP of commercial financing platform AltLine, expects to see B2C brands emphasize mobile marketing for customer retention.
“Think things like personalized push notifications on smartphones and loyalty incentives if you download mobile apps to shop or transact in directly,” he said.
"Keeping existing customers happy is cheaper than acquiring new ones because brands have bypassed the early stages of the customer journey and have more data to work with for personalized messaging," Pendergast added.
What’s more, mobile interactions like SMS (and even email) are a direct link between brand and customer—and bypass third parties.
What’s more, mobile interactions like SMS (and even email) are a direct link between brand and customer—and bypass third parties.
“The pandemic has been catastrophic for small firms…but this simply further heightens the need for small firms to own their audience and have a stellar brand reputation because those are the only things they can leverage against the tech giants,” said Jake Meador, director of content strategy at marketing tech company Mobile Text Alerts.
5. Start selling on social
Another burgeoning trend with potentially far-reaching implications is social commerce.
In 2020, Facebook launched Shops for both Facebook and Instagram, allowing users to shop directly on the platforms.
Bruce Biegel, senior managing partner of management consultancy Winterberry Group, expects to see more focus on social commerce in 2021, along with new marketplaces, to shorten the customer journey from search to conversion.
“It brings a whole new opportunity for marketers to put their products in front of potential clients,” said Jeff Anning, founder of electric skateboard brand Evolve Skateboards. “Retailers are working hard to reduce the friction from product to purchase, using in-app shopping on social media channels.”
That is why Evolve will be “heavily testing and trying to reduce drop-offs by selling directly from social media channels” in 2021, Anning added.
6. Follow statements of purpose with action
2020 was also a year in which consumers and brands alike took stances on social justice issues.
“After the murder of George Floyd and the global human rights outcry we saw in late May, companies and brands will need to continue their promise towards inclusion and cultural competency efforts,” said Tara Miremadi, digital brand manager at health and fitness marketing agency Margaux Agency. “Many statements were released, but the key for brands looking to solidify their relationship with consumers is how they follow through with continued action.
Kent Lewis, president of digital marketing agency Anvil Media, believes brands will do this in 2021 as they “appeal to enlightened consumers that care deeply about a company’s purpose and commitment to social and environmental sustainability.”
7. Build trust
Meanwhile, the pandemic accelerated a trend in which consumers are looking to spend money with brands that not only share their values, but brands they trust.
“As consumers have become even more selective of where they spend their money, they want to know the businesses they support have their best interests in mind,” said Colin Palfrey, CMO of espresso equipment retailer Majesty Coffee. “Building trust doesn't require a big budget. All you have to do is make a promise to your customers and keep it.”
Mark Wood, CEO of glass fence manufacturer National Pool Fences, agreed brands have to focus their messaging on giving consumers peace of mind—even after the vaccine.
“The pandemic will have a profound and lasting impact on customer mindset and messaging that focuses solely on product or service instead of compassion and trust will not fly,” Wood said. “Since our business already has a focus on safety, tweaking our message to be about cleanliness and peace of mind will be an ongoing strategy through 2021.”
8. Grow communities
In addition to demonstrating they are trustworthy, brands should foster communities of loyal customers in 2021.
“The notion of community building isn't novel, but brands in 2021 need to understand that loyalty is coming back and brands that know what it is their customers want, as well as how to engage them through transparency and humility, is what will become the difference maker,” said SEO consultant Itamar Blauer.
Olga Petrik, CMO of Gmail CRM firm NetHunt CRM, agreed brands should invest more in loyalty and retention for 2021.
“Their existing customer base has come this far with them throughout the pandemic—it’s stable to some extent,” she said. “By switching from customer support to a customer success strategy, a business can ensure that customers receive maximum value from a product.
9. Optimize for voice search
We’ve seen voice search in previous year-end predictions. However, 2021 may be the year it really takes off as consumers used their voice-enabled devices more while they were at home during the pandemic.
“This in turn meant people were more willing to explore what their smart home devices could do and open a dialogue with them and begin to learn and rely on them,” said Polly Kay, senior marketing manager at window covering retailer English Blinds.
As a result, brands should optimize for voice search by focusing on longer-tail keywords that reflect how consumers ask questions or make requests verbally to stay ahead of the curve.
“Much [like] Google introduced mobile-first ranking for SEO even in instances of user searches on desktop devices, so, too, is it highly likely that as the popularity of voice search queries increases, Google [will] place a heavier weighting on ranking and rewarding content that successfully meets the needs of voice searchers,” she added.
In fact, Shiv Gupta, CEO of digital media marketing agency Incrementors, said there’s a real opportunity for small businesses to capitalize on local search in voice.
“About 22% of users use voice search by Google to get details of local businesses,” he said.
10. Lean into local SEO
Speaking of which, local SEO is another marketing strategy to make a repeat appearance on this list. This time, it’s because brands can update their Google Business Profiles via their Google My Business Accounts to include pandemic-friendly details like online appointments and curbside pickup and delivery, said Sarah Blocksidge, marketing manager at digital marketing agency Sixth City Marketing.
For more COVID-conscious local SEO tips, check out 13 SEO Strategies for SMBs During COVID-19.
“Since everyone will still want to stay in close proximity to home, but also support small local businesses, it is important to make sure your Google My Business account is optimized and active,” Blocksidge added. “Having strong reviews is also a part of this, on sites like Yelp and [the like] because if a customer needs to hire someone for any type of service, they will want to read up on other people's positive (or negative) experiences on how they are handling safety protocols and [the like].”
11. Go casual in social videos
The trend toward social video will undoubtedly continue in 2021.
Mark Hayes, head of marketing at video-based advice platform Kintell, noted TikTok has over 500 million users and is available in more than 150 global markets. It has also spurred copycats like Instagram’s Reels, which launched in August 2020. (Twitter’s Fleets, which came out in November 2020, offers similar 24-hour-only video capabilities.)
Platforms like TikTok allow marketers to more naturally weave brand content into users’ feeds.
Sarah Walsh, strategic account manager at digital marketing agency Branch & Bramble, expects to see Instagram users move from static posts to Reels in 2021.
“While video content has a certain expectation to be high quality, Reels owns a unique territory where they don't have to be beautifully shot or exceptionally designed to gain attention,” she said.
This means brands can let their hair down a bit.
Lindsey Wigfield, CEO of content marketing agency Sweet Home Marketing, agreed brands are moving away from always looking professional by embracing hashtag challenges on TikTok, for example.
"My prediction is that even more businesses will catch on to the positive brand vibes that are generated through a more laidback social media approach,” she said.
Indeed, marketer, copywriter, and web developer James Blews said video content helps marketers overcome the feeling of disconnectedness we’ve suffered from in 2020.
“Everyone from landscapers to real estate agents to credit unions will need to use more and more video to overcome that and stay connected to people,” he said.
12. Go live
An extension of this video trend is live streams, which will also remain popular.
Reuben Yonatan, CEO of VOIP guide site GetVOIP, noted a sharp uptick in brands going live during the pandemic to interact with consumers in real time.
“In 2021, going live will continue to be a rising marketing trend,” Yonatan said. “Going live leverages the fact that people working from home are spending more time on social media.”
For tips on live streaming, check out our Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and Youtube Live tips.
Ryan Gould, VP of strategy at B2B marketing agency Elevation Marketing, agreed it's an inexpensive option to stay connected with consumers and foster more meaningful relationships.
“At the start of quarantine, we started seeing it done in a lot of unexpected businesses like shuttered restaurants teaching free cooking classes and yoga studios running free live sessions in order to keep consumers engaged while they can't visit,” he added.
13. Tap into micro-influencers
2020 was a good year for micro-influencers like Nathan Apodaca, the viral cranberry-juice-drinking TikTok star, and Tony Piloseno, another TikTok user with wildly popular paint-mixing videos who was fired by Sherwin Williams—and then hired by Florida Paints.
With TikTok showing no signs of slowing down, the power of influencers—big and small—is expected to continue in 2021.
Lewis noted the pandemic amplified influencers’ impact on sales when in-store shopping options were limited.
“Social media use dramatically increased during the pandemic and research firms believe this trend will be lasting,” he said. “A recent study found that 40% of people reported that they purchased a product online after seeing it used by an influencer on YouTube, Instagram or Twitter.”
That’s because influencers speak on a more personal level and give honest opinions that resonate more with their followers, Lewis added.
“As traditional budgets were being cut, social influencers and bloggers were seen as a lower-cost alternative to TV and radio,” said Joe Sinkwitz, CEO of influencer network Intellifluence. “Now even with positive vaccine news and early stage optimism over the possibility of normalcy come Q3 2021, we’re seeing a doubling down effect of influencer budgets expand as the early testing brands from early 2020 are now recognizing the channel is one worthy of reinvestment.”
14. Use retailer media networks
Retailers like Amazon and Walmart were among the few to actually benefit from changes spurred by the pandemic.
In recent history, Amazon has also diversified its advertising portfolio, adding units like Sponsored Video Ads, Sponsored Display Ads and OTT ads.
“With these additions, Amazon has become a fully enclosed ecosystem, supporting the whole marketing funnel from product discovery to purchase,” said Natalia Wulfe, CMO of digital marketing agency Effective Spend. “Advertisers can use OTT and Sponsored Display to build awareness, video ads to educate and engage visitors and traditional sponsored product ads to drive transactions.”
Combined, these developments mean advertisers can enjoy better reach and performance on Amazon than ever before, Wulfe added.
Sponsored Video Ads, Sponsored Display Ads, and OTT ads on Amazon can yield better reach and performance in 2021 than ever before.
Toby agreed the spike in ecommerce and related impact on budget allocations are projected to continue. He pointed to figures from eMarketer, which show advertising on ecommerce platforms jumped 39% in 2020 and will grow another 30% in 2021, capturing 13% of total U.S. digital ad spend.
Measurability is helping drive this change, Toby said.
“According to an April study from Catalyst and Kantar, advertisers believe leading ecommerce sites provide better measurability of ad ROI than many other digital ad types, including social media ads,” he added. “Additionally, ecommerce sites know a lot about their customers, which is key to ad targeting without reliance on third-party cookies.”
15. Establish brand partnerships
2020 brought us successful brand collaborations like McDonald’s and Travis Scott, Adidas and Allbirds and Adidas and Lego, which means more brand collaborations are likely on the horizon.
“Unexpected partnerships between corporate brands capture media attention, generate social buzz and allow for cross-marketing to customer bases—without celebrity endorsement fees, all of which plays well in an era of hard-to-capture consumer attention and tightened budgets,” Toby said.
But brands that, say, don’t have the resources to hire a Travis Scott can instead team up with brands that offer complementary products or services. That’s what thermal imaging brand ThermoGears did when it was looking to bring new visitors to its website.
“Email marketing is one of the most cost-efficient marketing channels, but it's only as powerful as the quality and size of your list,” said CEO Julien Raby. “One approach that is working well for us right now is co-branded emails. In short, we approach companies with an audience similar to ours to craft a deal involving both offerings. We then send this offer to both our email lists.”
One such company was a brand that produces hunting clothes.
“By sending a deal to our respective lists, we got access to a new audience without investing media dollars,” Raby added.
Now, the brand plans to double down on the tactic in 2021.
16. Get into augmented reality
Also expect to see more augmented reality (AR) executions in 2021. This will allow brands to show consumers what objects will look in their homes, like Ikea’s AR catalog, or how clothes or accessories look on their bodies, like Warby Parker’s virtual try-on app.
“The pandemic encouraged marketers to think uniquely for ways to connect with consumers who always stay inside their homes,” said Stephen Light, CMO of mattress retailer Nolah Mattress. “The solution was AR marketing, which helped the target market get a feel of owning the product even without seeing it personally.”
He noted the biggest misconception about AR ads is they’re expensive, but they’re actually more budget-friendly than traditional channels.
“Besides being cheaper than print ads, AR ads can skyrocket engagement rates since they are more interactive and offer a newer experience than traditional marketing mediums,” Light added. “The best part about an AR ad is that marketers can reuse the content across various marketing channels, making it a cost-effective tactic for audience interaction.”
Daniel Snow, CEO of performance and social media marketing agency the Snow Agency, too, said he plans to expand on augmented reality marketing in 2021 as it helps brands connect with consumers even in lockdown. Plus, by showing consumers what products look like, brands reduce the likelihood of returns.
17. Automate what you can
Another tactic to help decrease budget and increase efficiencies is marketing automation.
Sharon van Donkelaar, CMO at LinkedIn marketing automation company Expandi, said automation helps free up employees from “many boring and routine business tasks.”
This includes Automated Bidding in Google Ads.
“Google Ads marketers constantly tweak and adjust campaigns, keywords and bids to get the most for their advertising dollars,” said Thierry Tremblay, CEO of online database software Kohezion. “The problem is all of the tweaking comes at a cost that is more in hours and higher management fees. Enter Automated bidding, which allows Google to automate prior moves to adjust your bid in real-time.”
Matt Bertram, CEO of digital marketing agency EWR Digital, noted other automation software can develop, launch and analyze multiple campaigns on autopilot.
A chart we adapted from Google’s more comprehensive automated bidding breakdown.
“At the end of each campaign it will test, segment and analyze conversions,” he said. “This leaves you with huge time savings and allows you to focus solely on monitoring the results and optimizing to improve future performance.”
And David Kolodny, cofounder of startup studio Wilbur Labs, noted the value of automation and real-time data skyrocketed in 2020 because it was so important to understand what was happening in the moment—and it’s impossible for manual processes to keep up with such rapid change.
“Though trends are smoother now than they were in March and April, we are still seeing rapid customer behavior changes on a daily basis and real-time data loops have directly contributed to greater marketing efficiencies,” Kolodny said. “By utilizing automation wherever applicable— and connecting it to real-time data—we have been able to ensure that our portfolio companies are maximizing every opportunity available to them. Real-time data and automation will be the difference between companies that excel in 2021 and those that are left behind.”
Learn how to bid like a pro using Google's Automated Bidding in this post
18. Embrace B2B2C
In 2021, we’ll continue to see remote work and unemployment, which will impact B2B marketing in particular.
Email marketing may suffer as a result of inactive email addresses, said Graham Smith, marketing director of B2B marketing consultancy Marketing Graham. That could, however, be a bright spot for LinkedIn InMail campaigns, which generally have high open and click-through rates.
Dillana Lim, CEO of data technology company Versium, recommended adopting a B2B2C approach by associating consumer attributes with business target lists.
“In other words, mapping a personal email address to a business email or a physical street address or cell phone to a name of a business professional at a particular business,” she said. “This means that B2B marketers can now utilize all the targeting capabilities that B2C marketers have been using for years to effectively reach their ideal prospects at scale across all digital touchpoints.”
You now have 18 ways to grow in 2021
Will you be able to try them all? Maybe not. For some, you'll pick a few and give them a shot. For others, it will be more worthwhile to pick just one and really focus on it. It all depends on your industry, your audience, and your business goals specifically. Take a look at what your competitors are doing and what your audience is saying, and refer back to this list so you can start building a plan:
- Optimize for Google’s next update
- Prepare for the end of third-party cookies
- Foster first-party relationships
- Focus on customer retention
- Start selling on social
- Follow statements of purpose with action
- Build trust
- Grow communities
- Optimize for voice search
- Lean into local SEO
- Go casual in social videos
- Go live
- Tap into micro-influencers
- Use retailer media networks
- Establish brand partnerships
- Get into augmented reality
- Automate what you can
- Embrace B2B2C