10 content marketing trends will transition media from 2020 to 2021

By Sean Stanleigh

The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Canada


You’re on mute.”

That’s what I’ll remember most from 2020 — the year everyone wants to toss into the dustbin of history.

Let’s hope 2021 brings far fewer mentions of the words “raging pandemic.” That we’ll be able to gather freely in person. That we can sit down comfortably at bars and restaurants. That we’ll manage to travel safely. And, most important of all, that our collective health and economies rebound from the devastating effects of COVID-19.

Shopping local was one of the key trends of 2020.
Shopping local was one of the key trends of 2020.

I typically look ahead when I write my year-end posts. Given the extraordinary nature of 2020, it’s worth reflecting on the content marketing trends from the March to December pandemic period that I expect to continue into 2021, followed by a few to keep an eye on as we continue our journey in 2021.

Seven notable trends from 2020

1. Webcasts and other video on demand: Nobody is going to argue virtual events are preferable to in-person events, and “Zoom fatigue” is real.

However, online does have its advantages: You can pull in audiences from all over the world, you’re not limited by the size of a room, you can attract higher-level speakers because they’re able to take part from home, and there are no catering or other “hard” costs. For those reasons, while Webcasts were not new to 2020, it’s the year they took off.

2. Adapting to COVID-19-safe creative: Great photos, videos, and podcasts are tough to deliver at the best of times. Try doing so when you need to keep physically distant, have to wear masks, and most recording studios are closed. There were plenty of safety checks. A good deal of time was spent making subjects feel comfortable. And there were hacks. Lots of hacks. Like recording audio in a closet under a blanket.

3. Driving audience to e-commerce platforms: Like webcasts, e-commerce was not new to 2020, but with a good chunk of the population shopping from home, retailers that didn’t have an e-commerce site at the start of March had one by the end of it. Or, they likely went out of business.

That’s where the marketing comes in. Competition online is fierce. Getting people to know about you is paramount. Then you have to entice them to buy.

4. Promoting brands with purpose: The saying “fake it ‘til you make it” doesn’t apply here. Young consumers, in particular, choose their brands carefully. The ones who were unable to demonstrate concrete commitments to causes such as climate and sustainability found themselves at the bottom of the consideration list. It’s a trend that’s here to stay.

5. Diversity in storytelling in the wake of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter: This is a companion piece to No. 4. The difference is in the content itself. Media, marketing, and advertising companies have had to re-examine their approaches to the creators they hire and subjects they feature, making sure they are a reflection of the world around them. It’s not going to change completely overnight, but the movement is well under way.

6. Supporting small business: Going up against enterprise-level competition has never been easy for entrepreneurs. The challenge was magnified during the pandemic, when a lot of big players were able to keep bricks-and-mortar locations open under government restrictions, but small businesses weren’t afforded the same luxury.

Public shows of support under the #ShopLocal hashtag were prominent on social media. A lot of corporations, particularly in the banking and credit card sectors, put their marketing dollars to work running their own campaigns to entice consumers to spread their dollars around.

7. The emergence of TikTok as a cultural phenomenon: The best marketing campaign of 2020 wasn’t a marketing campaign at all. It was a surprise viral TikTok video by Nathan Apodaca, the skateboarder who managed to simultaneously promote himself, Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, and Ocean Spray’s cran-raspberry juice. The platform’s base grew exponentially during the first few months of COVID-19, and feeds were filled with mostly young, bored, housebound users sharing dances, pets, and other bite-sized content, inspiring brands worldwide to get on board.

Three notable trends to watch in 2021

1. It’s not about you: Brand managers often talk a good game at the start of creative executions, then continually add more product messaging prior to launches. We know consumers prefer little to no integration. We also know sales requires some degree of mentions. Subtlety is key.

As vaccines roll out, which will bring greater optimism to the market, and the number of campaigns start to ramp back up, content quality is going to be paramount. Success stories in 2021 will come from using in-house brand experts who provide information and solutions over heavy-handed pitching. Smart marketers will find clever ways to fit products into a mix of knowledgeable voices.

2. The end of third-party cookies: Google is going to phase out the third-party cookie on its Chrome browser by 2022, a move Apple and Mozilla have already begun with Safari and Firefox. This is a data privacy issue, first and foremost, but it is going to affect marketing over the course of 2021. The use of third-party data for audience targeting will be impacted and that will give rise to the importance of attracting and tracking visitors to your own Web site. It won’t happen overnight, and the time to get moving is now.

Content will be a key plank in that strategy. You won’t be surprised to hear that leveraging Google Ads will remain effective. It’s time to consider this and other alternatives, such as adjacency to contextually relevant content on partner sites.

3. Greater emphasis on display copy and original imagery: The high-speed scroll is already a thing on social media platforms. The introduction of 5G, with its near-instant load times, will make fast even faster.

Will run-of-the-mill copy and stock photography get scrollers to stop in their tracks? Not likely. If you want your brand to stand out, you’re going to need snappy writing and arresting original photos and videos. It’s going to be a necessity to engage audiences in 2021 and beyond.

About Sean Stanleigh

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