Six marketing, tech, and media predictions and trends for 2021 that may actually happen.

If 2020 taught us anything, it was the sheer pointlessness of trying to predict the world ahead. A global pandemic was probably quite low on a lot of media, tech and cultural predictions, although smarter people than me would have been monitoring the new flu-like virus that was emerging in China a little over 12 months ago.

So given few of us can say with any confidence when this pandemic will start to truly recede, it seems a little trite to be making predictions. And yet here we are. Ten ways the world will change. Here’s why retailers are dead forever. Why your brand will die without a Clubhouse strategy.

I’ve always tried to make my start-of-year thoughts a bit broad, and this January is no exception. New tactical channels are interesting, shifts in behaviour are probably more useful to strategy.

The below is based on a lot of reading, the odd bit of data, and a few rabbit holes. I think it’s quite interesting. Hopefully you do too.

Creative solutions to old problems

Have you even experienced 2020 if you didn’t have somebody in your LinkedIn feed noting that Isaac Newton discovered gravity and invented calculus during his isolation from the bubonic plague. While the truth may be somewhat more mundane, there are a couple of trends that the global pandemic has somewhat accelerated.

Firstly, a lot of clever creative and strategic thinkers have more time on their hands (assuming they’re not homeschooling their kids). There’s a lot to be said for having time to think. Secondly, some people who have lost their jobs or been furloughed will use unemployment as a catalyst for launching the new ideas that have been bouncing around their head. Because if not now, then when?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re about to see a boom in entrepreneurialism or that the next Renaissance is just around the corner. As the Financial Times notes, it’s a very high risk strategy to launch a new business at the best of times. But the conditions are at least in place for new ideas or old ideas done better.

Closer to (my professional) home, 2021 is likely to see a new breed of marketing agency. A lot of experienced senior staff have been pushed, jumped or just fancied a change of scenery, which will lead to more interesting independent shops.

Given the trend of holding companies to attempt to consolidate their bigger accounts under one roof (consulting + creative + media + other things), there will be a few mid-size accounts who may feel it’s worth taking a chance on people they know and trust rather than big names. If it’s an interesting year to be starting a new agency, it’s a year of opportunity for clients to pick clever, talented smaller companies and build something special.

The workplace is not dead.

Have you even experienced 2020 if you didn’t have your LinkedIn feed full of hyperbolic proclamations that the traditional office was dead and that the pandemic would kill the need for office space. Silicon Valley suddenly discovered the joys of not commuting while finance departments started calculating how much money could be saved by downsizing office space.

But while Zoom calls and remote events have become, quote unquote, the new normal, that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for everyone. Or even feasible.

In June, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that around 37% of jobs in the country could be performed entirely at home. That means the remaining 63% required some form of interaction at least some of the time.

And this assumes that everybody who can work from home will want to work from home. JLL’s research (from a sample size of 2,033, so not huge but large enough) noted that 74% of workers would like to work from the office in some capacity.

Rather than definitely declaring the home the new office — something that would make both HR departments and insurers nervous — the pandemic has shown that there is a different way of approaching work.

Open plan offices may be hideously inefficient, but they’re also a good melting pot for incidental ideas and conversations and cross-team collaboration. You may never have a Zoom call scheduled with the UX team, but that doesn’t mean that a ten minute chat in the kitchen can’t spark a business-changing idea.

For creatives, especially, the lack of collaboration can be tough. Sales teams too will have seen some interesting disparities in performance between those who thrive in the office and those who can sell without distractions.

Offices and businesses will eventually want to return to something approaching a level of normality, but may also look at creative solutions for utilising unused office space. Perhaps this may lead to more quiet zones or areas where people can work uninterrupted. Maybe it means more hotdesking. Maybe it means cohabiting with smaller, inventive startups, where both sides can learn from each other.

The future of work in 2021 probably isn’t hugely different from 2020 or 2019. But the companies that are really enlightened — or can simply afford to do so — will find a way that gets the best out of the whole team.

Lawmakers will be gunning for Big Tech, with mixed effect.

Have you even… no, we’ll stop with that line now. But 2020 saw a lot of regulation drawn up and investigations and lawsuits going after Big Tech. Add in documentaries such as Netflix’s somewhat over-produced The Social Dilemma and it’s clear who will be the villain over the next decade. If The World Is Not Enough was being made today, the big bad would be modelled on Zuckerberg not Murdoch.

And yet, in 2021 at least, anybody who is hoping to see Facebook, Google et al taken down a peg or two is likely to be disappointed. Part of this is due to the sometimes glacial pace legislation moves at — antitrust lawsuits can take years — but also because nobody has really attempted to answer the question “What are we trying to regulate?”

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

If that sounds confusing, it’s a reflection of just how intertwined the likes of Facebook and Google are in the world. Are we trying to tackle anti-competitive practices? Or protecting worker rights? Or protect democracy? Or the role the media play in a healthy democracy? Or the mental health of users? Or the large amount of ethically questionable content sitting on these platforms?

Answering “all of the above” isn’t really the solution. There’s a lot of separate issues that one bill would be unlikely to be able to cover, and badly written or ambiguous laws benefit tech companies more than they do the states and their citizens. Or worse, have unintended consequences, such as California legislation to provide more protection to gig economy workers effectively banning freelancing.

Writing laws against big tech also assumes no ulterior motive on the case of the legislator, which isn’t always the case. Australia’s media bargaining code that forces Google and Facebook to pay for journalism is really just a tax dressed up as regulation that benefits larger media companies over smaller publishers.

The other issue facing lawmakers tackling Facebook, Google and Twitter, is where to draw the line for what is and isn’t permitted on a private platform. Social media may have kicked Donald Trump off their platforms, but there was nothing in their T&Cs that could have stopped Zuckerberg and Dorsey taking this action several months, or even years ago.

There are also laws against hate speech that vary from country to country that should act as a patchwork takedown — and suggests that regulation is there if the lawmakers decide to use it. But if you’re drafting new legislation around what’s permissible, where do you start? And how do you apply it consistently, given the global scale of these platforms? And how do you ensure that an authoritarian-esque regime such as the Phillippeans doesn’t use it to suppress dissent?

The current issues that legislators are grappling with on big tech are not all the same that led to, say, the breakup of Microsoft. Broad laws against platforms are probably unlikely to work at scale, assuming the work at all, while successes are more likely to be smaller and in specific areas, such as data privacy, where clearly legislation already exists.

Where we are probably heading in 2021 is a handful of legal jurisdictions acting as default global legislators. These are most likely to be the EU and California, given the work already done around privacy in these states.

The rest of the world will then follow or attempt to pass altered versions of the same law, leading to a patchwork approach that may cause a few headaches for Facebook and Google but probably won’t change anything drastically, unless the Biden administration decides it really wants to gun for Big Tech.

So this is Big Tech and the law in 2021: a lot of sabres will be rattled, a lot of time will be spent debating Something Should Be Done, but don’t expect to see millions wiped off Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth just yet.

Voice technology finds its voice

If voice had a Gartner hype cycle to itself, then it would probably resemble the design of a new ride at Alton Towers. Every time it looks like voice is on the verge of a breakthrough, it stalls.

I can remember musing half a decade ago in these predictions how voice technology could change SEO or how you buy insurance. It’s now 2021 and I’m still typing “cheapest car insurance” into Google no matter how many cheerful adverts Amazon or Google put on TV of pensioners dancing around their kitchen as they prepare meals on YouTube.

But if 2021 is to be the year of voice, then it’s potentially about to unleash its secret weapon: being supremely boring.

Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Boring is not bad. It means it’s become an essential part of your everyday life. It’s built into TV remotes. It becomes a muscle memory to ask Siri to call your partner as you drive home. It becomes part of those mundane, everyday tasks and actions that you did perfectly well before voice technology but are now second nature.

An alternative Gartner hype cycle for voice could be written as
1. Disruptive voice technology becomes a reality;
2. Silicon Valley gets very excited and declares everything that came before voice as dead;

3. Marketers leap on the trend and release a voice operated beer bottle that allows the brand’s animal mascot to talk back to you in a variety of voices. Approximately ten people who don’t work for the beer company or its agency use it, but it wins a Cannes Lion;

4. Product designers start creating voice enabled smart fridges because they can;

5. The CMO or CFO asks how effective was the $750,000 investment into the voice enabled choose your own adventure game to promote their rice cake brand, and can they soon see some ROI;

6. Thought leaders pronounce voice dead, launching a thousand one line LinkedIn posts;

7. A product designer quietly slips voice into their Smart TV remote, as it strikes them as quite useful to search for Netflix shows by voice rather than spending 10 minutes typing the show title into the screen;

8. People who don’t own smart fridges, IoT enabled lighting and heating, or have a Clubhouse invite start speaking to smaller, more mundane devices as second nature.

9. A marketing agency proposes a VR beer bottle experience, where the brand’s animal mascot performs a series of popular TikTok dances. Agency books hotel rooms in Cannes, just in case.

Voice’s greatest success in 2021 will be to replicate the prevalence of QR codes in 2020. Nobody really asked for QR codes to make a return, but they’ve become commonplace as a sensible solution for track and trace, and a host of other mundane but quite useful tasks, such as renewing your insurance policy via direct mail.

There will be some genuinely innovative ideas in voice proposed in 2021 — the education sector would be an obvious candidate — but a lot of voice’s progress hinges on how close the vision matches up to the mass market and ease of use. Which is why the TV remote control will probably be the most interesting thing to happen to voice this year.

Ad fraud will take centre stage as marketing measurement gets worse

Anybody who has followed Dr. Augustine Fou, the digital marketer turned ad fraud investigator, will know that something is rotten in the state of digital advertising.

This isn’t exactly new news, but it finally seems as if 2021 could be the year that the industry finally starts gunning for dodgy ad tech. If marketers and lawmakers were really serious, they could make headway tackling ad fraud. There has been enough of a shift over the past 18 months to suggest the right questions are finally being asked.

Too many marketers — especially those with demanding short-term targets — are reticent to turn off digital advertising in case it hurts their boss or client’s short-term goals or leads to awkward questions. But there’s two arguments for better digital advertising that are becoming harder to ignore.

The first is a steady trickle of industry articles that show that turning off or reducing digital spend doesn’t actually make a difference to overall performance. P&G, according to Dr. Fou, saw no change to business outcomes when they turned off their $200m digital ad spend.

These types of headlines are starting to make their way to C-suite level, and when the CEO and CFO read their multi-million dollar digital ad spend is disappearing into a black whole, then they’re more likely to ask awkward questions. Plenty of senior marketers will have seen this coming and will have already changed course.

The second element is the growing awareness that ad fraud isn’t a victimless crime run by bots and algorithms. Those who profit from ad fraud often have links to terrorism and organised crime, while the amount spend on fraudulent activity could be enough to keep some people in a job.

For the first time in a long time, publishers have a very clear positioning argument to put in front of advertisers: pay an ad exchange and have no idea where your money will go or where your ads will end up, or buy premium inventory from us with guaranteed quality eyeballs.

We’ll probably see a few more ad tech fraud headlines before the end of the year. Some reports may prompt an immediate shift — although given how many advertisers quietly slip back onto platforms they’ve pulled out of, such as the Facebook or YouTube boycotts, I wouldn’t hold your breath. The fear of missing out may be more of a pull than the concern of wasted millions.

Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

Content discoverability relies even less on the content than before.

This should be relatively obvious to anyone who works in SEO and social media. Content (by which I mean brand output on channels that aren’t really above the line advertising) is not — and has never been — build it and they will come.

But this year, senior content roles will change even further, possibly to the point where heads of content are more akin to a hybrid of a head of product and head of brand role than just content production.

Content has always been a means to an end. It’s also an incredibly expensive resource suck if you’re not entirely clear what that end is or even how to get there. Just producing content — even good quality content — isn’t a recipe for success. At least good quality content produces a better class of digital landfill.

Brands who do content well in 2021 will have leaders who understand that content is about much more than just the output. That Google’s focus for the year is on tech and user experience as much as it is quality of content. That it’s not enough to create an engaging new newsletter, podcast or data visualisation: people have to know about it to find it useful, and to ultimately provide a benefit to the business.

Essentially, senior content leaders have to have a strategic focus and be clear on their distribution tactics, positioning and ultimately end goal (traffic or simply creating content and then paying to get people to look at that content probably isn’t really the best use of budget most of the time).

Yes, exceptional creative content should cut through to some degree. But it will only succeed if you’re clear why you want the content to cut through and how you’ll get people to see it in the first place.

And if your agency suggests the solution to your content strategy is to create more content and open a new social channel, put the account up to pitch. It’ll be cheaper and a better use of your time and budget.

Anything else?

As ever, these ‘trends’ are just a snapshot of what I think may be interesting in 2021.

There’s a lot of fascinating technical developments — I quite like the idea of etailers giving you a breakdown of your carbon footprint — or just simple shifts in thinking because a few early adopters have started to make a lot of money.

For example, I’m fascinated by how Substack will evolve its platform, but I’m sceptical that everyone will be able to make good money from a newsletter. I’m even more fascinated by how Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox will evolve.

And not everything will be good. Deplatforming hate speech from social platforms is still a game of whack-a-mole and the horses bolted from the stable door a long time ago (sorry not sorry for a horrifically mixed metaphor). The fragmentation of the internet is inevitable as more walled gardens appear around states, technology and communities.

Really, we’re all just trying to get through the mess that is the world right now. The above is food for thought. It may or may not be relevant to you or your work. If you can get through 2021 sane, doing good, effective work, and having a bit of fun experimenting with something new then you’ll probably be doing better than a large percentage of people. Good luck. We’ll need it.

Marketer. Content, social, and podcasting specialist. Ill-informed occasional freelance writer. Professional tea drinker. Occasionally has an opinion.