Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.
As we prepare to enter a new year, we all wonder what lies ahead.
2020 was anything but predictable. But what can we learn and apply to our digital marketing and communications strategies in 2021?
Here’s how 21 influencers answer this question: What one piece of marketing advice would you offer to brands as we head into the new year?
1. 2021 will almost certainly be a big reset for human behavior across advanced economies. If the news is right, distribution of vaccines will start early in the year, and begin returning economic and interpersonal activity to 2019-like levels. Major elections and political cycles in the West are at a low point as well, and political/news media consumption will decline while other sources take their place. As such, the best advice I can give for marketers is to reinvest in getting to know your audiences. Their habits are going to change in 2021, probably substantially. The same messaging, content, and distribution channels you’re using now won’t work the same—so it’s time to re-learn who your audiences are, what they care about, and where/how they can be reached. Now.
– Rand Fishkin, SparkToro
2. If you’re in B2B like me, you’re probably putting a lot of energy into your demand gen stack these days. That’s great—but here’s my plea for 2021: Don’t forget the importance of a clear, strong, smart brand! Too many B2B companies have let their brands atrophy as they ramp up the money machine. I get why, but it’s not either/or—you need both. It’s no accident that the best brands tend to have the most effective money machines too. Branding works in B2B just as much as in B2C.
– Doug Kessler, co-founder, Velocity Partners
3. My advice would be to start off the year with an independent audit of all your digital channels and make your plan for the year around this. Did you ever hear the expression you can’t see the wood for the trees? Our head is buried so deep into our own business it’s very hard for us to see even the obvious issues. Our temptation is to try something new, but we may be better investing our time in making the things we have already in place better! An independent audit will uncover many great opportunities and give you the impetus you need to create a plan for 2021.
– Ian Cleary, founder, RazorAudit
4. People should be especially sensitive to racial and other bias in their marketing and PR introduced by AI algorithms. Frequently, bias comes from social networking companies without marketers’ knowledge as the networks use AI to slice people into groups. I foresee a coming backlash to these programs that marketers need to be aware of now.
– David Meerman Scott, marketing strategist and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of “Fanocracy”
5. Remember to align your values with your value, and use that as the guiding force for how you relate to consumers. If you’re here to make people smile, have fun and be funny. If you’re a helper brand, show empathy. With any luck, 2021 will be a rebound from what a mess of a year 2020 was for so many people and businesses; the best way to earn loyalty, acceptance, and forgiveness from your customers is to stay true to what your brand is all about.
– David Berkowitz, founder, Serial Marketers
6. Get your analytics infrastructure in order. So many companies are in terrible condition, analytics-wise, and if you’re a mess, then you can’t make data-driven decisions. You want to be data-driven. You want to make decisions rapidly under changing circumstances, which defined 2020 and will continue to define 2021.
The toughest part of any disaster is surviving it long-term. When that initial wave comes through, be it hurricane or pandemic, a lot of damage is done, and that damage takes much longer to clean up. The effects of this pandemic will probably last at least half a decade, longer in some parts of the world. You’ve got to have a finger on the pulse of your business and your industry—and that requires good data.
– Christopher Penn, co-founder and chief data scientist, Trust Insights
7. If you’re a company that’s been hit hard by COVID-19, you should be spending your time filling in any marketing gaps that you’ve been neglecting. For some people, that’s building stronger bottom-of-the-funnel content. For others it’s improving their backlink portfolios, or maybe getting a technical SEO audit. Whatever it is, strengthen your site’s foundation, so when people are spending money again, they’ll find your brand and trust what you have to say. In the short-term, to keep business rolling in, double down on what’s working, but then spend at least 10% of your effort experimenting to uncover new opportunities!
– Amanda Milligan, marketing director at Fractl
8. Write an article that helps you sell, something you can send to prospects after a sales call, something you can send to cold leads and stalled opportunities, something your contact can share with other decision makers.
Too many content marketers focus on the top of the marketing funnel. But your most important audience left the sales funnel long ago. […] it’s not too late to use content to help close some business.
- It explains your approach in more detail than anything they expected.
- It answers an important question they didn’t ask.
- It includes examples.
Yes, it could be a case study, but that’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? They’re expecting that kind of story in that format. Try something more educational, more memorable.
We do web design and we have strong feelings about how that work should be done. We put a lot of our best advice into an article about B2B service pages. I couldn’t care less if it ranks or gets shared. Pageviews are irrelevant to me in this case.
Why? Because for bottom-of-funnel content, it’s about who, not how many. When the right person reads this article, they toss all of the other proposals and get out their signing pen.
– Andy Crestodina, co-founder and CMO, Orbit Media
9. My advice for 2021 is to shift your thinking from publish and promote to conversations and collaboration. Move past your direct teammates and schedule one-on-one conversations with new-to-you people in your industry to share ideas. Aerate ideas on LinkedIn by sharing your opinion and asking for feedback. Work on projects with other companies to bring in new ideas and help you extend the reach once something is published. I think this is needed now more than ever as so many of us are working independently from home—and your marketing will be stronger as a result.
10. Heading into 2021, all brands must begin to invest in their purpose to move the communities where they operate forward. The time has passed for brands to release statements that yield no follow up and produce no measurable impact. We saw several brands participate in racial and social justice movements this year, and consumers will continue to hold them accountable in 2021. Beyond posting a black square on Instagram to show solidarity, brands should be investing in minority talent, establishing scalable partnerships, and diversifying their stakeholder ecosystem. 2020 was the year many brands joined the conversation and investing in purpose will be required for them to survive in today’s landscape.
– Sabrina Browne, account director, corporate, BCW Global
11. “Show, don’t tell.” I know, I know, our high school English teachers uttered these words years ago. Still, I think the counsel will be particularly relevant in 2021 when the world once again relegates hyperbole and who shouts the loudest to the back of the room. If there were ever an environment that would reward storytelling—as opposed to adjectives and adverbs—in communications, we’re going to see it this coming year.
– Lou Hoffman, president and CEO, The Hoffman Agency
12. 2020 threw us lots of curveballs, so the key to content marketing success in 2021 will be flexibility. As you think about the content you want to create and the stories you want to tell, keep in mind that you may need to change the format based on how our current reality evolves—or doesn’t. What you thought would be a great e-book may wind up needing to be a live video. What you thought would be a great live video may end up needing to be an infographic. If you start your contact brainstorms by getting clarity on the focus and purpose of your story, it will be much easier to adapt the format in which you deliver it, if you need to.
– Melanie Deziel, author of “The Content Fuel Framework: How to Generate Unlimited Story Ideas,” Contentfuelframework.com
13. Reinvent—don’t replicate.
We saw a tremendous number of marketers “adapt” their in-person events to a virtual format (myself included.) The results were not great. Not only did they make us miss in-person events more, they were frequently more costly, or lost more money than the tactics we used in pre-COVID times.
The key to 2021 will be to completely rethink your tactics—wahtever you’re doing—be it events, emails, Tweets, press releases, digital content or influencer marketing. Go back to the business purpose and figure out how you can contribute to the business more effectively. The problem with replicating traditional tactics is that they can require new skills, new technology and new types of talent, so they may also need a bigger budget, in a time when many budgets are being cut. Use this time to reimagine your communications and be more creative and innovative in your approach.
– Katie Paine, CEO, Paine Publishing
14. When the pandemic hit, many marketing organizations reallocated their live event budget to content marketing. If virus concerns ease in 2021, marketers may feel pressured to swing money back to live events. In the rush to transition to another new priority, it’ll be all too easy to let your content efforts slide. This risks missing the return on investment you’ve already made in content marketing. I recommend leaders identify how content marketing can support live events and start making the case for it now. You’ll get more value out of both your content and events by focusing on the many ways these two line items can complement each other.
15. My marketing advice for brands heading into the new year would be to focus less on traditional sales tactics and to spend more time and energy demonstrating, through the creation and distribution of content, how the thing they make or the service they provide is relevant to their current and potential customers. That’s the whole game right now. The old hard sales tactics—cold calls, cold DMs, traditional ads—just don’t work anymore. Create and share content that solves your customers’ problems and the leads will materialize.
– Warren Weeks, principal, Weeks Media
16. It seems to me that in 2020 marketers learned a lot (the hard way) about being fully digital, being agile, using data well, and about the importance of expressing brand values. Yet most campaigns were understandably reactive. The most important thing brands can do in 2021 is to take advantage of that digital transformation and use what they learned by investing in new ideas and initiatives. The brands who survived are stronger for it, and now is the time to double down by challenging their teams and agency partners to create innovative new campaigns with new ideas, to be bold and proactive and to take risks. For a while, marketers fell into a trap of prioritizing what is easy to measure (clicks, likes, follows, etc.) yet not always what is most valuable, which is the power of a differentiated idea that engages customers, employees, and partners. That will never go out of style.
– Dorothy Crenshaw, founder, Crenshaw Communications
17. Your marketing doesn’t exist for you, your team or your boss. It exists for your target audience. Why aren’t you spending more time with them? Double down on your audience in 2021. I can nearly guarantee that their challenges and their purchasing patterns shifted in 2020. Spend time with your audience to understand how those things shifted and adjust your marketing accordingly.
– Dennis Shiao, marketing consultant, Attention Retention LLC
18. My advice for 2021 would be to really make sure you throw your content a parade. Use it in as many channels that are relevant as possible and test new things. For example, if you decide to do a podcast, also use that podcast on a live stream and as the basis for an article. Maximize everything you do so you can increase your return on effort.
– Christoph Trappe, CCO, The Authentic Storytelling Project
19. Understanding your audience is a constant commitment. You can create personas and breakdown your target audience as much as you want, but you need to dive deeper and prepare for their behaviors to shift or change. We’ve seen many changes in 2020, and brands need to be prepared to watch, learn and adapt.
– Christina Garnett, senior insights strategist, VIZIT
20. I would say:
- Use digital marketing but don’t be afraid to use print, or audio, or magazines, or flyers, or sidewalk chalk…we have five senses in our brain and we use all of them to form memory.
- Be truly inclusive – this is way harder than it sounds.
- Create a sense of community, whether that’s geographic, psychographic, or any graphic. People who feel they belong to a social identity are far more willing to remember and select you.
– Doug Downs, managing partner, jgrcommunications.com
21. The advice I offer brands in 2021 is to listen to your customers and what their needs are. There has been a shift in customer expectations and how they engage with brands with digital leading the way. New programs and solutions need to meet the new behaviors, audiences need to see the value and convenience proposition and the experiences need to look at short term needs while building toward long term solutions and brand loyalty. You either stand apart or you get left behind.
– Bernie Fussenegger, chief strategy & engagement, B2The7