Every year I do a “future of marketing technology” report.
Every year, the answers follow a similar pattern: virtual reality is the future of marketing. Augmented reality is the future. AI is the future. Influencer marketing will change everything. Remember the chatbot craze? Personalization? Voice search? Personalized everything? Omnichannel? Messaging? Podcasts? Shoppable social media posts?
The list of hyped marketing technologies is very, very long. Always, marketers have hoped for a silver bullet. Always, vendors have promised one. Generally, marketers have bought into the hype, at least for six months or a year.
But not for 2021.
Somehow, a global pandemic wiped out the air cover for hype cycle technologies and just maybe, left brands and marketers with a little more reality. A little more wisdom.
So what’s left?
Holistic transformation of marketing in a digital-first world. Not one savior technology that will change everything and make all the difference. But a general, complete, full evolution of marketing that is digital first.
“Finally, all the sacred cows are dead,” says Openpath CMO Kieran Hannon. “Now meaningful customer-centric digital transformation can accelerate.”
“Fusion is the new ecosystem,” says Suzanne Kounkel, Chief Marketing Officer for Deloitte. “Fusion is the art of bringing together new business partnerships, customer insights, and digital platforms to create ecosystems.”
“We’ve learned during this pandemic that we can communicate over digital platforms better than we thought,” says Penry Price, VP of Marketing at LinkedIn.
For 2021 I spoke to, surveyed, and solicited insights from 350 marketing leaders: CMOs, CEOs, VPs of marketing, and more. Then I consolidated all the raw data, getting multiple data points from each leader (which is why the numbers in the chart above add up to much more than 350). What emerged was a surprisingly unified picture of how marketing executives view a coming year in which the global pandemic rages on, privacy and data ownership is increasingly important, and social/political upheaval continues to roil.
My full report is available here. Full disclosure, I do some consulting for Singular, a mobile measurement and attribution company.
2021 marketing supertrend #1: Digital transformation
We usually hear the term “digital transformation” in reference to the old guard of the corporate world: stuffy, aged, behind-the-times companies that need to catch up to smart young startups.
I’ve started, worked in, and consulted for startups for most of the last decade, and here’s a newsflash: most of the marketing departments in most startups are as digitally challenged as other companies. They don’t have a single source of marketing truth, they don’t enrich first-party customer sales data with first-party customer support data, they don’t have omnichannel communications capability that connects with customers or prospects on their devices of choice in their channels of choice and at their times of opportunity. They struggle to connect tools. They struggle to consolidate data. They have fewer employees than they need. They invest in hyped tech and pet projects, just like other companies.
Baling wire and chewing gum are in most marketing departments at most levels and in most kinds of companies, and it’s very tempting to say “all” instead of “most.”
So it’s incredibly interesting to see that a full 76% of marketing leaders say that digital transformation in marketing technology is their most critical focus for 2021.
That transformation means holistic digital marketing: marketing where you comprehensively understand marketing touchpoints when and where it’s privacy-safe. Where you comprehensively manage your marketing activity, spend, and results in privacy-safe ways across all channels, modes, and methodologies. Where your systems of analysis and systems of engagement are aligned and integrated, shortening the span between awareness and action.
Fusion, as LinkedIn’s Penry Price says.
That fusion includes an understanding of the consumer shift as a result of the global pandemic: working, shopping, living from home. It includes focus on digital commerce as emerging primary path to purchase. And it encompasses a few hyped technologies within in, including primarily artificial intelligence, which is increasingly helping marketers in analysis, in targeting, in measurement, in engagement, in communications: in short, in everything.
Most of all, that fusion is built on a deep understanding that change is here and change is real. Covid-19 isn’t a one-and-done.
“The global pandemic and the U.S. election left lasting marks on the psyche of consumers as well as the marketing community that will change the way things are done,” says Drew Boyd, associate professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati.
“A large part of this shift will be permanent as consumers have incorporated new behaviors into their altered lifestyles,” says Michel Wedel, PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science at the University of Maryland.
2021 marketing supertrend #2: Empathy
Everyone who’s lived through 2020 knows why empathy matters in 2021. That’s true for personal relationships, but it’s also true for commercial ones.
25% of marketers identified an empathic brand story as a critical part of marketing in 2021.
“Empathy … coming off of a year like 2020, we know every consumer has more to their story,” says Joanna Milliken, head of SAP Marketing Cloud at SAP. “They aren’t shopping for a mountain bike or the right flour for a sourdough starter, they are looking for solace in a confusing and unpredictable world.”
“It is without a doubt crucial to recognize how COVID-19 has ushered in a strong sense of empathy as a driving force within the marketing industry,” says Tristan Dion Chen, CMO of University Credit Union. “It would not be surprising to see that empathy will continue as one of the big trends in 2021.”
That’s true in communications and marketing in relationship to Covid-19 and all the disruption it’s caused. It’s also true in sharing an evolving brand story in a time of massive consumer shift. And it’s true when brands adopt cause-based marketing around issues that continue to be topical like Black Lives Matter, environment, and equity.
Building in to the supertrend, 21% of marketers identified consumer privacy as a critical issue for 2021. That’s part of empathy because brands respecting their customers’ privacy is being empathic: treating people like marketers would also like to be treated.
In addition, another 19% mentioned various forms of cause-based marketing: marketing that aligns with consumers’ own top concerns and priorities and assures them that the brands they buy share their values.
“2021 will call on brands to authentically infuse empathy and emotion into their brand strategy, and I cannot think of a more appropriate time to build those emotional connections with customers and cultivate relationships,” says Jennifer Chase, SVP and Head of Marketing at SAS. “A brand strategy with heart and humanity will inevitably lead to stronger emotional customer connections, especially when customers recognize that a brand aligns with their values — in good or bad times.”
Cause-based marketing can be dangerous — some people will disagree — but not adopting any causes is also dangerous. A quarter of consumers would drop brands that are polluting the environment, says Braze CMO Sara Spivey.
And some brands are willing to lose business to stand up for what they think is right.
“With the craziness of this year, companies will continue to create diverse visuals and inclusive messaging,” says Michelle Ngome, President of the African-American Marketing Association. “While brand authenticity remains true, the commitment to diversity and inclusion will remain at the forefront with brands hoping to reach new audiences.”
2021 marketing supertrend #3: Everything else
The hype cycles are still with us. All the platforms and technologies that have been hot — data lakes and customer data platforms and marketing automation and AI and AR and VR — are still relevant. But only when and where they plug into the holistic technology infrastructure that today’s marketing leaders are building.
Only in that context are they really relevant as drivers of sustainable change.
One technology that has to be highlighted, however, is artificial intelligence. And that’s simply because AI is not a point solution or a tactic or a new channel. AI is actually infusing all the other components of the marketing technology stack and is therefore actually a core part of supertrend one: digital transformation.
In fact, AI is a key driver and enabler of that transformation.
“Brands will use AI to solve customer problems in real time,” says Dee Anna McPherson, CMO at Invoca. “AI, machine learning, and automation enable brands to answer questions before they’re asked or to serve up solutions the minute the customer calls.”
And AI is making business-to-business marketing more like business-to-consumer marketing.
“B2B marketing will need to adjust to B2C approaches to handle the multi-personae account buying committee and will leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to measure the progression of accounts along the top of the funnel,” says Juliette Rizkallah, CMO at SailPoint.
Driving the future of marketing and technology
Behind this surprisingly non-buzzword-filled and unhyped future of marketing technology is, of course, massive consumer shift. We’ve all seen the numbers: vast increases in digital buying. Vast increases in working from home. Vast increases in shipping. Massive changes in public and social and vacation behavior.
When the world changes, smart leaders change.
“With significant changes to the economy and the way people live and work, what has been successful in the past may no longer be relevant for the new reality of 2021,” says Carly Brantz, CMO at DigitalOcean.
““2020 has ushered in the era of the Agile Marketer,” Susan Vobejda, CMO at The Trade Desk. “It’s the marketers who can rapidly adapt, recognize opportunities, and execute quickly who are driving growth and momentum for their brands.”
Unsurprisingly, brands with strong core architecture for marketing data, analysis, and engagement can adapt quicker to change than those with seven fingers and toes dabbling in multiple different and incompatible marketing clouds, services, tools, and technologies.
Being agile has become mandatory, says Krista Neher, CEO of Boot Camp Digital.
We learned a lot about what went wrong in 2020. What didn’t work. What didn’t provide return on investment. What was over-hyped and under-delivered. And what ultimately didn’t help our distributed teams execute on challenging new marketing problems.
“2021 will be about tackling the challenges we uncovered,” says Mike Schabel, CEO of Kiswe.