Looking ahead: Digital marketing trends for 2021

2020 saw a significant shift towards digital advertising as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold globally. This saw businesses and advertising providers rapidly adapt to the changing advertising landscape to survive. As lockdowns and social distancing became the norm, consumers moved significantly towards buying online and increasingly towards mobile devices when browsing the internet.

With vaccines only just being rolled out, 2021 is set to be another year of upheaval as we begin to return to our ’normal’ routines. Here, we explore how some of the changes we saw in 2020 will continue into 2021 and look at other digital marketing trends that are likely to emerge this year.

Digital marketing trends 2021 – what we expect

Anti-trust lawsuits

Many digital channels are currently facing anti-trust lawsuits in either America, Europe, or both. These lawsuits are based on the monopolies that regulators believe these businesses have over certain industries such as search , e-commerce, technology and social media. If these lawsuits are successful, it means that these companies could be broken up, or have terms imposed, which will have a knock-on effect on how people use these services – potentially opening up the digital arena to increased competition (think Microsoft in the 1990s).

While it’s unlikely there will be a conclusion to these lawsuits in 2021, there is, and will continue to be, increased scrutiny on big tech and their use of personal data and dominance over certain industries. These cases will develop over the course of this year, where it may become clearer what the results of these lawsuits will be and how we will be impacted as internet users and advertisers.

Businesses playing catch-up

When the pandemic first hit, many businesses turned off their marketing to minimise costs. While many believe switching off, or reducing marketing efforts, to be the wrong decision, as marketing acts as a tap for your company’s sales and revenue, other businesses capitalised on this, taking advantage of their competition switching off by maintaining or even growing their marketing spend.

Competition in digital marketing is likely to increase significantly in 2021 as more businesses restart or grow their marketing efforts. For businesses who lack a digital outlet to do business (Primark is a good example), 2021 could see many of them pivot and take digital seriously. This will see the competition increase in many sectors, as other businesses try to futureproof and diversify, to ensure the issues that they experienced in 2020 are minimised in the future.

Businesses that did switch off at the start of the pandemic will likely see that they are returning to a tougher digital marketplace, with it now more difficult to get a foothold, as other companies will have filled the gap, making it more expensive to compete.

A focus on UX

UX will be a key digital marketing trend for 2021 with the delayed Google Core Web Vitals update being launched in May 2021. When Google has previously announced an algorithm update ahead of time, it has meant that they expect the update to have a significant impact on online perfomance if you don’t comply. This update was originally supposed to launch in 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This update focuses on the experience a webpage provides to a user and will concentrate on:

  • HTTPS-security
  • Safe browsing
  • Mobile friendliness
  • Load speed and page interactivity
  • As well as other technical SEO elements

Google has stated that they are testing rewarding websites that provide a good experience in their search results, most likely with a label. According to a study, less than 15% of websites are optimised well enough to pass a Core Web Vitals assessment so it is imperative that you review your website’s performance sooner rather than later.

Increased focus on privacy

We have started to see the end of third-party cookies, with Chrome finally announcing that they will be phasing out third-party cookies by 2022. This, along with Apple’s ITP and the introduction of GDPR and other data privacy regulations, may mean that the ability to target people across a number of sites for remarketing campaigns will become more difficult.

We’ve seen DuckDuckGo enjoy significant growth in daily search queries in 2020; with October topping 60,000,000 a day. While this is small compared to Google, which deals with approximately 3.5 billion a day, DuckDuckGo is showing dramatic growth in popularity with internet users who are focused on their privacy.

This change in internet user behaviour, coupled with over 40% of European internet users using some form of ad-blocking software, shows that internet users, particularly the younger generations, aren’t happy with their experience from the traditional web companies, such as Google and Facebook, and want a more private internet experience.

Google has announced that they will work with advertisers during this phase-out of third-party cookies so that advertising businesses, which Google relies heavily on for income, aren’t dramatically impacted.

A work-around will likely be introduced between now and 2022, where users maintain privacy and advertisers can target these users with relevant advertising.

The importance of good data

With the changes around privacy, and users adapting their online behaviour, it is more important than ever to ensure that your owned data is of value to your business. Tracking your online performance, and using analytics correctly, will help you make better-informed decisions and help to reduce any data gaps for your website and campaigns.

In 2020, Google upgraded Google Analytics to Google Analytics 4 (GA4)– the rollout of this will continue into 2021. While there have been a lot of changes to the interface, and some of the data isn’t as easy to find as it was, Google Analytics 4 offers a comprehensive analytics suite for businesses. One of the new features in GA4 is the use of machine learning to help you spot trends in your data. Google has already stated that they will be adding more features and predictive metrics and they will be focusing their efforts on GA4 over Universal Analytics.

Losing control

We’ve seen the digital landscape change quite considerably in 2020, as the major players in digital advertising adjusted targeting options and reporting. Facebook is removing previous targeting options all the time, which is making it more difficult for marketers to find the ideal target audience. This removal of longstanding audiences is part of Facebook’s effort to improve data privacy for its users.

However, the biggest uproar in 2020 was from Google changing the search term report so that it “only includes terms that a significant number of users searched for, even if a term received a click”.

The era of the keyword in search advertising may be heading towards its autumn years. And with Google’s emphasis on machine learning, we expect audience targeting and a lot more ‘set-it-and-forget-about-it’ features such as Responsive & Dynamic Search ads to become increasingly important over the next year.

Embracing automation

Closely linked to loss of control, there will be a further emphasis on automation in 2021. We will see Dynamic Search ads and automated reporting increase in importance and value.

Fighting fake news and harmful content

Since the 2016 US Election and the Brexit Referendum, there has been a lot of criticism around fake news and misleading content. This has been particularly prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic too. It’s likely that the major social media networks and Google will increase their efforts to filter content that is misleading, hateful or false in 2021, as already apparent in the social media giants’ reaction to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Numerous social media platforms have also been criticised over how readily available extremist or harmful content is before it has been taken down. These platforms will need to work to create more watertight processes to identify and remove such content.

Social media marketing trends 2021

TikTok: 2020 was the year of TikTok. While not without its controversies, it was still the most downloaded app in 2020. TikTok will likely look to legitimise itself to advertisers and content producers over the coming months to prove that it can be a valuable marketing tool.

Spotify: Spotify’s self-serve advertising platform is in its infancy, having only launched last year. In that time, they’ve introduced video ads and improved reporting and targeting. Targeting improvements will continue and, with 5G becoming more readily available, we expect to see additional ad types and campaign goals becoming available. Podcast monetisation is also looking likely as the platform has purchased Megaphone, a podcast hosting company that inserts and sells dynamic ads for podcasts.

Facebook: Facebook launched a very Marmite update to its look and feel in 2020 in an effort to give greater prominence to other features. However, Facebook is facing the issue that its user base is aging, and younger adults and teenagers are using other channels more frequently. In response to losing younger generations to other channels, Facebook has introduced ‘me-too’ features that are designed to mimic the rival social media feature that is currently popular (Stories for Snapchat and Reels for TikTok), but this is perhaps just diluting its offering. This ‘me-too’ behaviour, coupled with its long-term issue with fake news, harmful and misleading content, and data and privacy scandals, is seeing users leave the platform.

2021 is unlikely to mean the demise of Facebook, and it should definitely not be ignored as a valid marketing channel, but campaign performance could well decline in part due to a decreasing audience base and algorithm changes, which makes it harder for businesses to get in front of users.

Instagram: Conversely, Facebook’s sister platform, Instagram, will become an increasingly important channel for marketers in 2021. Facebook has been introducing improved e-commerce features for Instagram throughout 2020 and this rollout, and increased monetisation of the app, will continue throughout 2021.

WhatsApp: WhatsApp will become a valuable marketing channel in 2021. While it confirmed in 2020 that ads were coming to the platform via the status feature, this hasn’t been rolled out yet. It is likely to launch once the merger of Facebook messenger, Instagram chat features and WhatsApp is complete.

Ecommerce and Google My Business

2020 saw Google introduce free product listings on their shopping tab. This was done in an attempt to increase Google’s market share in the e-commerce space, where Amazon traditionally dominates. This move also opened Google Shopping up to many SMEs, who may not have been able to advertise on Google Shopping previously. Company shopping feeds will become increasingly important for businesses in 2021

Finally, Google launched several features aimed at SMEs and local tradespeople that are designed to help businesses get more out of their listing. These include Google Guaranteed, Google Screened and Google Local Service Ads – all of which are designed to offer small, independent businesses the opportunity to improve their visibility on Google.

As well as this, there is the continued focus on local search being tied to mobile usage as users replace searches for goods or services in a particular location with ‘near me’ phrases. Ensuring your Google My Business presence is top-notch will be key to online performance in 2021 – especially as the economy, and local businesses, reopen.

Those are our predictions for 2021 digital marketing trends – we would love to hear your thoughts. Head over to Twitter to join the conversation.