New year, new marketing: How marketers can become better versions of themselves in 2021

The arrival of a new year is a time to reflect on past accomplishments while setting personal and professional goals. For marketers, the beginning of 2021 coincides with ongoing disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic and its lasting effects on consumer habits.

Amid the uncertainty, many consumers are likely to remain cautious about resuming former activities like shopping in stores, dining in restaurants or going to the movies. As the year gets under way, marketers must prepare for the possibility of more disruption amid a variety of factors that will shape how they respond to the changing needs of their customers.

Below, we look at some of the trends in 2020 and how they may evolve in 2021, with best practices for marketers to stay successful.

Tip #1: Give your customers flexibility in how they shop

In 2021, marketers aren’t likely to see a repeat of 2020’s surging growth in online sales, but they still must be prepared to give their customers the flexibility to shop the way they want. This may include visiting stores when more people feel comfortable resuming former activities, as well as ordering online for home delivery or curbside pickup.

“Consumer shopping habits have changed irrevocably — COVID was like a shock to the shopping system,” says Susan Sanderson-Briggs, vice president of brand at Party City, the party-supply chain with nearly 850 stores in North America. “Frictionless shopping is now the expectation, and retailers must deliver.”

While people have been shopping online for years, the pandemic led them to shift more of their spending on e-commerce sites that not only provided convenience, but also limited in-person contact. E-commerce sales for the 2020 holiday season saw two years’ worth of growth, reaching $188.2 billion, up a whopping 32 percent year over year (YoY).

Some industry experts predict that the 2020 shift online may result in more store closures this year as retailers focus on their most profitable locations. After all, 85.5 percent of retail spending still happens offline.

But this doesn’t mean that retailers should forget all about brick and mortar in favor of online channels, either. The e-commerce expansion in 2020 was impressive, but the growth rate likely won’t maintain compared to what happened last March, which was the first month to see a pandemic surge in online shopping.

E-commerce activity remained elevated in the following months, though the growth rate slowed as the lifting of lockdowns on “non-essential” businesses lessened consumer dependence on online sales channels. As many shoppers returned to brick-and-mortar stores, the yearly growth in e-commerce slowed from 76 percent in June to 42 percent in August, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index (DEI), which uses Adobe Analytics to track online activity. The slowing growth rate for e-commerce was another sign that traditional retailing remains viable.

Retailers have been at the forefront of adapting their operations to the “new normal” of protecting employees and customers from infection through a variety of measures including temperature checks, mask requirements and hand sanitizer in stores. They also have worked to limit in-person contact by expanded services like contactless payments, home delivery and curbside pickup, among other measures. Providing online and offline flexibility for shoppers will continue to be a priority for retailers.

Tip #2: Refocus your engagement strategies around first-party data

In 2021, brands and marketers will continue to lean on customer intelligence through loyalty programs and online sales channels. First-party data is a valuable source of insights into shopping behaviors, helping marketers hone in on personalization for new and repeat customers.

More than half (57 percent) of businesses last year said they expanded their use of first-party data, making their efforts to collect information about consumers a priority, according to a survey by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Those trends are likely to continue this year as marketers boost their data-driven sales efforts.

“Over the last 10 years, we have built a database, and it’s a valuable one,” said Sanderson-Briggs of Party City. “We can be more predictive about some of the things our customers might be interested in, as well as reactive about things they’ve already purchased or browsed.”

Smart companies will expand their efforts to use first-party data about their customers to improve the efficiency of their advertising and personalize their messaging. Those efforts can include everything from customized offers sent through email to video advertising that’s focused on key demographic groups.

“It’s really about identifying the demographic of an audience and finding out where that demographic is most comfortable — be it TV, social media or digital — and then creating relevant content for that audience to make it feel a little bit more personalized,” says Jin Kim, founder and CEO of Creative Digital Agency, a full-service advertising agency in San Ramon, CA.

Tip #3: Think of digital citizenship as key to best practice CX

Using data to deliver insights and support informed customer experience decisions comes with great responsibility: Companies must take privacy and data ethics seriously. They must provide consumers choice and control around what data they entrust to companies, and organizations must be transparent in how they use it.

Data used the right way can help organizations deliver relevant, personalized, and innovative product and customer experiences.

“Good stewardship requires careful and responsible management,” said Scott Schlesinger, senior vice president and global data practice leader at technology integration firm Ness Digital Engineering, in a separate interview. “A good steward manages and controls data while granting access where, when and by whom it’s needed.”

In 2021 we’ll see a rise of data stewards—teams across compliance, IT, legal, and more—working together to build out policies for data governance and usage. Choosing the right platform for data management will also be key.

Indeed, respecting data governance will be a brand differentiator and will be key to building trust and customer lifetime value (CLV).

“The right technology, data stewardship, governance, and process to manage security and regulatory compliance drives marketing effectiveness and optimization across the full customer journey,” says Janet Balis, Americas customer and growth market leader and CMO practice leader at consulting firm EY, in a separate interview. “It may even be an opportunity to differentiate their brand in the marketplace.”

And, according to Balis, setting up a data governance framework is only the first step. Iterating your data governance strategy on an ongoing basis will be just as important.

Tip #4: Tell them your purpose: Consumers want brands that support their values

Brand purpose has become much more important amid the economic stress of the pandemic and the greater awareness of social inequality with global protests against social injustice. Given fears about personal safety during the health crisis and the surge in joblessness during lockdowns, consumers wanted brands to show how they were helping people.

Fifty-six percent of consumers last year said they were pleased to hear how brands were taking actions for good, such as donating products and services during the pandemic, the American Association of Advertising Agencies found in a survey. That sentiment led marketers to revamp their messaging and highlight efforts to give back to the community, a theme that will be important as long as the health crisis lasts and beyond.

The death of George Floyd not only sparked global outrage, but also led many marketers to expand their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Procter & Gamble — one of the world’s biggest advertisers with brands like Tide, Crest and Pampers — was a notable example with “The Choice,” its latest short film to address racial inequality.

Such campaigns have the power to resonate with consumers, especially when they’re backed with authentic efforts to promote inclusion. More than three quarters of U.S. consumers said it is “deeply important that companies respond to racial injustice to earn or keep their trust,” public relations firm Edelman found in a survey last year. Almost half of consumers said a brand’s response to the protests affected their purchase decisions, underscoring the direct effect of such messaging on business outcomes.

With the beginning of the new year, marketers still face the prospect of more upheaval, and they will need to respond to changing consumer habits. Although it’s challenging to make predictions about a global pandemic, that hasn’t stopped marketers from developing strategies to adapt to the “new normal.” By following the five tips above, marketers across industries will be better positioned to weather another year of transformation.