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2021 Trends Report: Marketing and digital communications

The pandemic has forced organizations and brands to redefine themselves and the way they interact in a hurry. As all activities moved online, the already crowded digital space quickly became saturated, forcing organizations to innovate to get their message out there and connect with their audiences. As we move into 2021, this will show no sign of slowing down. As most people will continue to work from home, digital strategies will reach new heights, but the public’s attention will be more scattered than ever and the digital media landscape more fragmented.

Here are the trends our digital and marketing experts see for 2021:

The return of the newsletter

One of the biggest online publishing trends for 2021 will be a new take on a very old technology. Email newsletters are back in style, and they’re bringing some of the biggest names in journalism with them. Glenn Greenwald. Matthew Yglesias. Andrew Sullivan. Jonah Goldberg. Why are high-profile opinion writers turning to private, subscription-based platforms? For starters, they make it easy for writers to charge a small subscription fee for content—a feature lacking in most traditional email marketing tools.

Substack is the biggest player in this space, but Ghost, TinyLetter, and even Patreon can work just as well for writers hoping to build a more personal relationship with their readers. What does it mean for digital advertisers? Sadly, even more fragmentation. The shift to newsletters further atomizes the digital ad market as it gives each publisher the power to seek sponsorships. We’ll be watching this closely in 2021, especially for clients who could benefit from advertising alongside current affairs commentary.

Lanny Cardow, vice-president, and practice lead, Digital – NATIONAL Toronto

New ways for brand to connect with their communities

The pandemic forced brands and organizations to rethink the way they typically engage with their target audiences and communities. For example, sponsoring or hosting community programs, participating in community events and volunteering all provided organizations with an authentic way to connect with their audiences, but were no longer possible.

Some brands have been able to quickly pivot and connect with their community in a meaningful way, despite these challenges. The NBA for example empowered their players by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement; FIGR found an authentic way to support BIPOC businesses in Canada; and credit unions across the country participated in the Loyal 2 Local Challenge. Each of these brands empowered their stakeholders to make a difference in their community, allowing them to show up in a meaningful way. As we look forward to 2021 and beyond, brands will need to continue to demonstrate their commitment to their communities in innovative ways.

Tanya Kavelaars-DiPenta, director, Integrated Marketing – NATIONAL Atlantic

Tighter regulations calling for a different approach on digital advocacy

2020 was massive for social media. Not only did usage skyrocket with the world forced into lockdown, but platforms also had to contend with major events like the #stophateforprofit boycott and a high-stakes election in the United States.

For better or worse, digital advocacy also faced major regulation for the first time. Facebook started enforcing disclaimers—and sometimes bans—on advertisers touting the merits of clean energy, racial equality and healthy habits under the guise of “issues-based advertising.” Organizations promoting the most benign mention of public policy now find themselves blocked from running Twitter ads altogether. What does this mean for those looking to advance their advocacy interests in 2021? First, they’ll need to shift from relying on short bursts of advertising surrounding important milestones in favour of always-on strategies that build up organic pockets of interest. Next, organizations will need to think outside the Facebook/Twitter box they’ve relied on for so long and look to other tactics and emerging platforms to drive messaging and identify support.

Jillian Stead, director – NATIONAL Vancouver

Continuing growth and more refined techniques for influencer marketing

Influencer marketing campaigns have been on the rise for the past few years, and businesses will continue to rely on influencers to increase their reach and brand loyalty in 2021. It is no longer a “one-off” strategy and has become an accepted part of the approach to communicating a brand’s message. Such forms of peer-to-peer (P2P) marketing practice build on consumers’ growing appetite for recommendations from people they can relate to.

Brands or agencies will have to work with influencers (or their representatives, which is increasingly common) to draw up plans that detail expected outcomes. This might lead to more performance-based deals (i.e. deals based on a quantum of sales or number of clicks), as influencer marketing enables brands to gain a better sense of the return on their investment. Also look for TikTok—a platform that’s very popular with influencers—to continue its rapid growth worldwide and to be included in many Canadian brands’ influencer marketing strategies throughout 2021.

Pascale Larouche, senior consultant – NATIONAL Montreal

The research pendulum swings: More about people, less about data

There is a growing movement claiming we’ve sold our soul to analytics, and that chasing KPIs is a hindrance to spontaneity and creative collisions. This trend will continue and accelerate in 2021 for two reasons.

First, the unregulated wild west of data on the Internet will become less wild and less free; North America and other parts of the world are catching up to the expectations of privacy and the dangers of ignoring them. As our digital literacy grows, so will our data protections. Second, we’re seeing the return to an appreciation of qualitative analysis—anthropological techniques, field research, primary research, actually talking to people, ethnographic thinking, focus groups. As evidence, we see for the first time in years that organizations are turning to agencies more for services like brand strategy and storytelling versus the broad bucket of marketing technology. As rich and profound as our access to data is, there will come a balance to the quantitative fixation we’ve all been living.

Kevin McCann, partner – NATIONAL Atlantic

A North American media marketplace that’s more crowded than ever

The pandemic has certainly put in the spotlight the importance of digital platforms in digesting the news, and this will show no sign of slowing down in 2021. In today’s digital world, there are no borders; more and more companies are looking to expand their footprint and reach media beyond their local market to build profile, awareness and thought leadership across North America. But as newsrooms continue to shrink, capturing the attention of reporters has never been more challenging. Achieving so requires in-depth knowledge of the media marketplace both in Canada and in the United States.

This makes it all the more difficult for companies to get their messages out, especially if they act on their own. Partnering with an agency who can offer cross-border reach (like NATIONAL does with its sister agency SHIFT in the U.S.) is key to position your stories on the North American media marketplace.

Lindsay Chan, vice-president – NATIONAL Vancouver

More from our 2021 Trends Report


2021 Trends Report: Healthcare
December 01, 2020