Digital Marketing Trends to Watch in 2021

Jenna Lamb, online marketing analyst at Ontario SEO
Jenna Lamb
January 29, 2021
Digital Marketing Trends to Watch in 2021

Welcome to our annual post on what we expect in digital marketing this year. 2020 was a whirlwind of change for most businesses, and most predictions and projections got tossed right out the window after February. While 2021 is shaping up to be just as unwieldy, hope is on the horizon. Predicting what will happen in 2021 may be foolhardy, but here are the digital marketing trends we expect to see in the coming year:

  1. Expertise, Authority & Trust (EAT) 
  1. The rise of semantic Search 
  1. Social Media Marketing & Social Media Commerce 
  1. Google Ads Automation 
  1. “Position Zero” & No-Click Searches 
  1. People Talking About the Importance of Voice Search 
  1. Conversational Marketing to Increase Leads 
  1. Personalization in Good Measure 
  1. Privacy and Inclusion 
  1. User Experience  
  1. TikTok  & Gen Z 
  1. Jenna’s Wild Predictions 

1. Expertise, Authority & Trust

2020 was many things, but in the world of digital marketing, no one can deny the necessary and growing focus on the way information and misinformation flows on the internet. Foreign election interference, fake news, and COVID-19 deniers – 2020 was the year of (mis)trust.

Expertise, authority, and trust have always been essential elements of brand building, but in 2020 the online giants of Google and Facebook have taken deliberate action to improve our ability to evaluate the information we find. Several Google and Facebook updates focused on rewarding content that signals expertise, authority & trust.

2021 is set to be a year of even larger shifts in this direction as more regional governments pass legislation to police the internet, and a digitally mature user base demands more accountability from the platforms that they use every day.

Update: As expected, 2021 is already shaping up to be an interesting year. With the events surrounding Donald Trump in early January, several major platforms have stepped up to remove users and apps that were involved in inciting violence and hate.

2. Rise of semantic search

Machine learning has exponentially accelerated the search engine algorithms’ ability to process natural language. Gone are the days when users need to type single keyword queries or call in a librarian to do an advanced search with some regular expressions.   

For many years we optimized content for “keywords” and “key phrases”. But as Google and Amazon get better and better at understanding natural language and the semantic relevance and positioning of keywords, it will become much more difficult to “game” the system” by adding a few keywords.  Only useful, well-crafted content will be worthwhile pursuits for SEO.  

There is a tremendous opportunity here as well. Google has started “passage indexing”, which means individual components of pages can now rank in the search results (not just the page itself). This gives good content more opportunity to rank in the results for a much wider variety of queries.  We look forward to our clients being rewarded for the things that we’ve been doing for years; creating content that answers questions, using structured data, good internal linking, and topic, not keyword, optimization.

There has been an 85 percent increase in mobile searches starting with “can I”

There has been a 65 percent increase in mobile searches for “do I need.”

There has been a 65 percent increase in mobile searches for “should I”

(Think With Google)

3. Continued growth in Social Media Marketing & Social Commerce

Facebook has had many setbacks in the past couple of years, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal and more recently Blackout Tuesday and the ad boycott in July driven by the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign. Despite all of these challenges, Facebook posted Q3 earnings that were 22% higher than 2019, and social media marketing budgets actually grew 13% during the spring lockdown. In 2021, Facebook ad revenue is predicted to be $94 billion. 1

All this to say, that if you are not yet advertising on Facebook, you should be. Covid-19 has accelerated the growth and adoption of ecommerce by years, as we became comfortable ordering toilet paper and hand sanitizer from our couches. The growth in “shoppable posts” make buying straight from Instagram and YouTube so easy anyone who sells products would be foolish to ignore this trend.

Some new things in social media to watch for in 2021 include: 

  • Instagram Reels – Set to take TikTok on head on, reels are short-form videos that offer an easy entry point to build a brand audience or sell products. 
  • Facebook Pay – Now available in Canada, Facebook pay makes selling products on Facebook & Instagram easy and hassle free. It can also be used for donations, which creates great marketing opportunities for not-for-profit organizations. 
  • Oculus & Facebook Horizon – Facebook’s entry in the world of VR. This emerging form of entertainment doesn’t yet offer much opportunity for marketers, but as virtual worlds are built, so to will be new opportunities for marketing. 
  • IGTV & Facebook Watch  – The features and integrations of Facebook’s long-form video features continue to improve and offer some real competition to YouTube.

4. Automation of Google Ads

Google makes it crystal clear that the automation of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is a primary goal for the Google Ads platform. In 2020 we saw wider adoption of automated bidding strategies, more options for automation, and a noticeable improvement in semantic keyword matching algorithms.

Our optimism with automated bidding and better keyword matching has waned somewhat now that Google is being much less transparent with ad auction results. Under the guise of improved privacy, we have now lost access to the vast majority of the search query data we once used to make optimization decisions. We can no longer evaluate the quality of semantic matching for the majority of clicks in an ad account. This is a bigger issue for niche industries where Google has much less aggregated data and is therefore less accurate at understanding semantically relevant matches.

What this means for the average advertiser is that they could be wasting more money on irrelevant clicks, and they won’t know it. It is also more difficult to understand how automated bidding strategies are performing in an auction.

This is a critical time to ensure you have a strategic PPC plan, clearly defined campaign-level goals, and a well-monitored ad account. And pretty please, as always, think twice before you launch anything with SMART in the title. Google is just not there yet for most businesses; automation is a tool, not a strategy.

5. “Position Zero” & No-click Searches

While we didn’t see a great number of new features in the search engine results pages (SERP) in 2020, we did see a huge growth in the number of individual features displayed on the SERP. These features, that appear above and beside the search results, now account for more than 50% of all Google searches and have increased nearly 10% in the last year.2

The SERP is littered (yes, I say littered) with features right now, so optimizing your website content for these “position-zero” features is critical to a successful SEO strategy.

We expect to see greater refinement in SERP features in 2021 as Google pins down what is working and what is just distracting.

6. People talking about the importance of voice search

For years marketers have been predicting the rise of voice search. Yes, of course voice search is important, but it hasn’t materialized to be a holy grail that was predicted in 2018.  

Tackling SEO from a semantic search perspective should be just as effective in voice search as it is in the traditional SERP in 2021. At the end of the day, good content is what is going to get you ahead in the SERP and on smart devices, regardless of how users find you.

7. Conversational marketing to increase leads

Conversational marketing utilizes new technologies that mimic human dialogue in a way that enables interactions between customers and companies at a large scale.3  Examples include chat bots and lead forms accessed directly from ads (Google/Facebook/Instagram/Messenger). 

As these technologies improve, and adoption widens, consumers are going to have growing expectations for how quickly and efficiently their questions can be answered in real-time. As real-time interactions at any time become the norm, consumers are not going to be content to wait until normal business hours to get a response. Any B2C business would do well to pay attention to this growing trend. 

8. Personalization….in good measure

For many years now we have had a growing ability to personalize digital advertising. As consumers become more familiar with targeted ads, and more savvy about how ad personalization works, they have growing expectations. Consider these statistics about ad personalization4:

  • 63% of respondents reported being “highly annoyed” by generic advertising blasts. 
  • 80% of respondents said they were more likely to do business with a company with a personalized ad experience. 
  • 90% of respondents said they found ad personalization appealing. 

In 2021 it will be critical to strike the right balance of ad personalization. It is clear that consumers want to see ads that are relevant and useful to them. However, over-segmentation of your ad audiences can miss significant opportunities. Ad personalization can also be irritating to consumers when you get it wrong.  

In some verticals, the ability to target ads has been dramatically reduced with the loss of postal code and demographic targeting. And the Apple OS update in early 2021 is also expected to further impact advertisers’ ability to effectively personalize ads. With all these factors at play, we expect to see some ad personalization hiccups in 2021. It has never been more important to have a robust measurement framework and experienced ad manager deploying your digital advertising campaigns.

9. Privacy and Inclusion

The era of internet giants operating unrestricted in the western hemisphere may draw to a close in 2021. As public pressure for fairness and transparency and increased calls for government regulation grow, advertisers should expect more trickle-down effects to their ad strategies in the coming year.

In 2020, rising pressure from users led to influential changes to audience targeting on Facebook and Google. Changes to ad targeting have been implemented to make the internet fairer and more inclusive for all users. This change has come at the expense of the ability to target by demographics and postal codes in some verticals.

In the Fall, several US states announced antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, Google and Amazon. 5,6,7 These lawsuits will take years to play out, but they signal a greater intent by world governments to actively govern business activities online.

In the next year, Canada is set to follow GB and enact more strict personal data protections for digital companies.8 This will have far reaching implications for business marketing, similar to the big shifts needed in 2016 with the introduction of CASL legislation.

Layer in a growing adoption of ad blockers, and Mozilla and Chrome’s end to third party cookies to increase privacy controls. It is clear that the advertising models of Google and Facebook will be impacted in 2021.

Update: Google has announced beta testing of it’s alternative to 3rd-party cookies called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).10 Instead of third-party cookies, individuals will be grouped in cohorts to keep individual browsing history private. Google plans on testing these cohorts through Google Ads advertisers starting in March of 2021.

10. Influencers meet Microinfluencers

If you market goods & services, this is one trend that does not seem to be going away. Navigating the world of influencers is fraught, so tread carefully and strategically. Microinfluencers (regular people with larger-than-average social media followers) may be a good approach to test the waters of influencer marketing. Find them by social media contests and giveaways.

11. User Experience

Your website probably isn’t fast enough, and it probably looks out of date to all those millennials that make up the bulk of your consumer audience. 

In 2021, expect users to have extraordinarily high expectations of website performance. This spring, Google is expected to respond in kind with an update to target what they’re calling “Core Web Vitals”. The focus of this update is fairly technical, but let’s just say that if your site is not loading lightning-fast already, you should be concerned.  

50 percent of people won’t purchase from a brand that has a poorly designed mobile site
(Think With Google)

12. TikTok & Gen Z

Do you really need to pay attention to TikTok? Maybe. (And this is where I start to feel old) Tik Tok was a bit of a joke around the office when I went on parental leave 18 months ago. Now TikTok has an impressive user base that really cannot be ignored. And the same is true for its largest demographic; Gen Z (those born at the turn of the century) is now entering the workforce and their buying power will only continue to grow.  
Digital advertising is an absolutely essential component to reaching Gen Z consumers. Keep in mind they’re the first generation to be raised in a world of mobile devices and social media, so they’re going to have very high digital expectations.  

Here are some interesting notes about Gen Z compared to us millennials:9

  • They spend more time on devices. 
  • They spend more time on YouTube, Instagram and SnapChat than Facebook. 
  • They are do-gooders and socially conscious. 
  • They expect relevant advertising (but indicate privacy is important to them) 
  • They prioritize saving money more than millennials (even before the pandemic annihilated their job market)

13. Jenna’s Wild Predictions

If we learned anything in 2020, it’s that life is not predictable. So, I thought I would wrap this up by including some less-data driven predictions for 2021:

The monetization of Google My Business

In 2020 we saw a large expansion of GMB features and business owners are starting to realize how critical their GMB listings are to their success. Consider how you have updated your clients about things like business hours during the lockdowns. I expect Google will find a better way to make money from these offerings.

The death of the text ad….and maybe manual bidding

Responsive search ads are now the default and are generally reported to have better results than text ads. As automation becomes the default in Google Ads, we expect to see one or more standard manual features stripped away. I expect the first to go will be the good ol’ static text ad.  

I also predict Google will toy with removing manual bidding options but will roll back on this quickly as the marketers with their pitch forks surround Google headquarters in hell-bent furry. 

The erosion of segmentation

As regional privacy laws get more restrictive and anti-trust lawsuits worldwide threaten to breakdown our digital data tracking systems, it is naïve to think our ad targeting will not be affected. Marketers are going to have to be clever and agile in 2021 to keep ads personalized and segmented to the right audiences for their business. 

The dawn of 5G

While I don’t think 5G is going to change things much on the ground in 2021 (thank-you pandemic), I do think savvy marketers need to keep this brave new world in mind. 5G networks will allow uninterrupted and seamless digital experiences, regardless of where people are and what they are doing. This will surely mean new places to advertise (fridge screens anyone?) and well as better penetration into rural markets where ads were only a hinderance to their already slow digital experiences.