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2021 Trends in Digital Marketing

by Will Francis

Posted on Dec 18, 2020

What's in store for digital marketers in 2021? We had a chat with seven experts - previous guests and DMI folks - covering all the key areas of digital marketing. What's in store with Google Analytics 4? How much more popular can short-form video get? And why is 2021 the year you really need to optimize for mobile and think about your social media community? Host Will Francis is joined by Ken Fitzpatrick (DMI), Clark Boyd, Julie Atherton, Alison Battisby, Cathal Melinn, Joe Williams, and Jamie Ritchie (DMI).


Episode Transcript

Will: Welcome to "Ahead of the Game," a podcast brought to you by the Digital Marketing Institute. This episode is all about trends for 2021, what you need to know about and what you need to be prepared for as a new year dawns. It's fair to say that 2020 has been a pretty strange year. And 2021 is likely to be just as unusual and remarkable. But the effect of this on the world of marketing has been just an acceleration of very, very rapid change, [00:00:30.304] to the way we work, the way we talk to our audience, the way we do business, in general. But of course, in marketing, we're used to change. Change has been happening at a very fast pace every year that we've worked in marketing. It's not unusual.

And actually, that's where we find a lot of the opportunities, opportunities to do things differently, more efficiently, more effectively, have more meaningful relationships and conversations with our audience, new tools, new platforms, [00:01:00.507] new ways of working, right? But what are those things that we need to be aware of as we head into 2021? And I was interested to know that both from a very macro level, but also a very micro level.

So in this episode, I'm gonna talk to a range of previous guests, and also a couple of very special people from the DMI itself. To get that range of views, you know, we'll talk about digital transformation very broadly. We'll also talk about the ins and outs of things [00:01:30.095] like social media and SEO, just to get a sense of what we need to be aware of and ready for as this new year dawns.

So first of all, who better to give us that 30,000-foot view of what's changing in digital marketing and what trends are likely to emerge than the CEO of the DMI, Ken Fitzpatrick.

The Move to Digital

Ken: There's probably two things I wanted to talk about in relation to 2021, not necessarily new trends or new platforms but two things we've seen [00:02:00.065] happening this year, but predominantly because of COVID-19 that I think will be with us well into '21, and are here to stay. So, the first one is around the area of the acceleration of the move to digital. So, all our research and all our experience this year has shown us that big companies who are undertaking digital transformation products, and even small companies who are seeing an increase in their online business. [00:02:30.352] The acceleration towards that increasing even further has taken off in 2020. And I think if marketers are not on top of that increasing pace, then they're going to lose out relative to their competition. So, that acceleration is here to stay. It's not gonna go away. Customers are comfortable in that environment. And I think marketers need to be... Whatever [00:03:00.205] deadlines they had, they need to bring them forward. So that's the first thing that I'm seeing as a trend.

Customer First

The second thing that I'm seeing as a trend is related to that: it's to ensure that marketers are reimagining the customer journey in an online environment. And I think some companies have done that well this year and some companies have a bit of work left to do. But you've got a consumer who's now very, very comfortable dealing with a company both pre and post-sale in an online world. They're getting more demanding in that [00:03:30.422] online world and they expect a really high quality service in that online world. I've had too many personal experiences this year of companies who have not really adapted to dealing with customers in the not online-only world. You know, utility companies where some people are in a call center who can deal with your query, other people you ring are actually at home and can't actually deal with your query. And to be perfectly honest, that's not good enough from a consumer’s point of view. So, [00:04:00.886] again, reimagining that journey in a pure online environment, it's what customers want, is here to stay. And if companies don't make that adaptation and give high quality, both pre and post-sale service to customers, again, I think they're gonna lose out.

Will: So how can we as marketers adapt our customer experience in light of this?

Ken: Good question, Will. I think it's back to basics, genuinely. I think first of all, go to the website; [00:04:30.200] is your website optimized for genuine e-commerce and online customer service? There's so many websites... you know, people take their website for granted because they've had it for so long, but it actually doesn't work start to finish. I would start there. And the second place I would go is in customer service post-sale, you know, the area of returns for physical goods, the area of dealing with customer queries, [00:05:00.091] of dealing with chat queries. That's something that I think is a little bit hit and miss with companies. So those are the two places I would start: real back to basics with the website and inquiries that come in, and making sure they're handled properly and secondly, with the customer service piece post-sale.

Will: So, in a world where the digital experience has, in some cases, completely replaced the physical experience of a brand, it's about optimizing that website experience, and being there for our customers, pre, [00:05:30.445] during, and post-sale in the form of five-star customer service, through the channels that they prefer, whether that's an on-site chatbot, social media, email, phone. Be customer led, in that respect, for sure. Now, I was also interested how Ken thought 2020 had affected the DMI and how it delivers value to its membership base.

Ken: I think we've had a lot of change occur this year. We were at already a business that was [00:06:00.458] very much in the virtual delivery of our products. So, we didn't have to make the shift from physical to virtual. A lot of our partners did, who deliver programs in classrooms. So what we allowed them to do was actually to deliver that on our learning management system, which enabled them to keep going. But I think from a membership and a student or customer point of view, we've done a [00:06:30.138] huge amount of extra content. This podcast as an example, that's been very successful, a lot more webinars. And I think the provision of as much content as possible is something that we're definitely gonna focus in on and make sure that we're really helping people get through what's a significant period of change.

Will: So, lots of extra content to look out for there. And don't forget, you can sign up for free at, to gain access [00:07:00.269] to a wealth of webinars, case studies, toolkits, real-life insights, and lots more.

So, my next guest is Clark Boyd. And he's someone that I spoke to earlier in the year about digital transformation. That's his specialism. And I asked him, you know, "We're all very, very happy to see the back of 2020. Will 2021 be any different?"

Digital-First Culture

Clark: I think with 2021, we're all kind of hoping it will be very different anyway. But the sad state of affairs is [00:07:30.883] it will be a continuation of what we've been seeing. I think a lot of what businesses have been doing in 2020 is going to hopefully set them up for a quite prosperous 2021 because it has accelerated a lot of the digital transformation plans that they already had. The first main thing that I see that's going to lead a lot of this is really a well-established digital-first culture that we have in most markets [00:08:00.148] worldwide. Now it's sped up a trend that was already in process, I think going into this year. But we saw stats like, you know, 10 years of acceleration and e-commerce purchases happening in the space of two months in the U.S., obviously, those sorts of things aren't sustainable. If the shops aren't open, people go online and buy things then the shops open again, and they go back to the shops.

But there will be a lot of residual change as a result of that. So, new customer behaviors, new demands [00:08:30.339] will lead to big changes in security. So making sure that we're using data ethically and in the right way, but also this expectation that customers can show up on their own terms. So, that means they can have curbside pickup. They can click and collect. They can do things whatever way they want to have that hybrid of online and offline. From a digital transformation perspective, that means having the infrastructure in place so that this can actually happen. It's not as easy as just pressing [00:09:00.058] the big button and making these things “go”. So, we're seeing a lot of companies investing quite heavily and bringing together the customer data that they have, in upgrading their e-commerce offerings, in developing new platforms.

Micro Services

And I think, quite interestingly, and something that will last into 2021 and beyond, is this movement towards micro services, companies are calling them, where rather than spending 6 to 12 months discussing maybe launching a new product offering, they're [00:09:30.289] offering a small, rather agile little services, things like new subscription packages, reacting very quickly to changes in customer demand, and making tweaks to what they're doing, getting them out immediately.

An example of that was, this year a company like BorrowMyDoggy very quickly responding to the whole COVID outbreak, because they thought, "Well, maybe, elderly people who have dogs, they won't be able to take them out." So they give free premium memberships to people who were ill or who were disabled, [00:10:00.971] and all of these kind of people that maybe would be at a disadvantage. And they got that out very quickly. Normally, something like that takes, you know, six months, 12 months of discussions. Companies have been forced to adopt this agile mindset. And they're calling that kind of micro services.

So, first thing, digital-first culture, we're very much getting used to it. Companies are going to build the infrastructure for that. Those that do are reaping the rewards over Black Friday already. Companies seeing up to 700% increase year on year [00:10:30.163] because of what they did during the COVID outbreak to put themselves in that position.

Customer Data Platforms

Now, the second thing, then... And I obviously have to talk about data if I'm talking about something like this. And I don't want it to be too banal of a prediction, but from what I see, and a lot of the companies I'm speaking to, they're finally taking the plunge with customer data platforms and trying to bring together all of their customer data into one kind of single customer view, we call it. A bit of a cliché, probably was predicted in 2012 as the big [00:11:00.927] thing for 2013. But these things take a long time to solidify and to happen. So, data privacy regulations will mean that, yes, you do need to have that single customer view anyway but customers have an expectation now. They're interacting with brands in multiple places. And they expect to be treated as that same customer.

So, second thing, I think, it's bigger investment in customer data platforms. A lot of people are starting to understand what those problems are with, say, data fragmentation within organizations. [00:11:30.155] I'm finding a lot more kind of solution-oriented mindset and workshops and things that I run on this topic, where before there were a lot of problems: you know, we simply can't do that. There's no way we could do it. Our company isn't capable of it. Now everyone's saying this isn't optional anymore. And everyone has to get their hands dirty and has to get involved. So, people are curious about it. They're questioning the technology. They're starting to think about it a little bit more. So, we'll start seeing that unified sense of a customer data platform as my second thing.

Remote Collaboration

So the third thing, [00:12:00.132] and I think this is fascinating, really, led, I suppose by what's been happening with COVID. But it's created an opportunity here for much better collaboration remotely between people. So, if you think about what's happened this year, we've taken pre-existing technologies, and then used them in a completely new way. So we've never worked like this before and we've used the tech that was there in a good way. We would call it I suppose kind of digitization rather than digitalization. You know, we've taken the processes [00:12:30.811] and we've stuck them online. We haven't actually done anything new necessarily or created new technologies to suit what we're doing. So, I think with further investments in connectivity, and I'll try and steer clear of saying “5G will be the big thing next year” because that's the first thing that came to mind. But with just general, better connectivity, even 4G in a lot of markets now: by the end of 2020, there'll be 100% coverage in Kenya, as it has never had before.

The things like that start to enable people to work from [00:13:00.034] not just home, but pretty much anywhere: you know, work becoming an activity rather than just a destination, as we've seen it in the past. So, what I would see as a big opportunity then is collaboration technologies that I think all of us have felt this year, we've been missing a little bit. With being just on Zoom, you can communicate, but you can't necessarily read the room. You can't work together all that well. I think we're going to see a bit more of a democratization of innovation, I suppose, getting people [00:13:30.402] a bit more involved, technologies that involve either low code or no code to get the most out of them. So, giving people the chance to get stuck in with some of these problems, try and solve them, come up with solutions for the business and for customers, where in the past that has been a department. You know, the specific innovation or data analytics department, those specialties will still come with a premium, but I think we will see more people enabled or empowered, I suppose, through technology to collaborate on [00:14:00.182] these big, big questions.

Hybrid Cloud Computing

Now, my fourth one is there will be more of a shift towards what I would call hybrid cloud computing. So, where we have seen companies investing in, say, one solution up to this point, we'll see them investing in multiple different cloud solutions that will work together. Now, hybrid cloud computing I would mean is, it'd be a blend between private and public cloud. [00:14:30.270] So each comes with their own benefits and drawbacks. Companies are now finding ways to make those work together. And big companies, Google, Amazon, Oracle, Microsoft, and so on, are enabling that. So rather than this being “either us or them situation”, finding ways to give businesses the option gives them a lot more agility, gives them a lot more processing power and allows them to adapt much more quickly.

Now in tandem with that, you see big developments in processors. So in videos, new [00:15:00.166] GPUs (or graphics processing units) will enable much more deep learning, much more big data crunching. And to go back to one of my earlier trends, you combine that with low code or no-code tools, where people just need to have an idea or a question even, and know how to formulate it, and they can use a combination of these processors with cloud computing, to crunch a lot of data on their customers, potentially, through those customer data platforms I mentioned as well, and start delivering those kind of real-time [00:15:30.675] personalization services that people are expecting. And we always talk about personalization and it's a trend for a reason.

It would be great if companies could personalize things to people. It's really hard to do it. But there's a demand for that kind of thing at the moment. When people can't meet up personally, there's actually been a huge increase in people searching for these gifts. And that tends to give businesses the impetus they need to get their house in order because there are people out there [00:16:00.055] right now saying, "We'll go to your competitor and buy these things." So, you will see companies enabled to do that both through that demand, but also having the processing power, having cloud computing, all those kinds of things. And I think this hybrid approach is probably going to be quite fruitful in 2021.

Headless Commerce

On my fifth one, my bonus one, I do genuinely think this is one I predicted in about 2015 on something like this. And I felt very confident about it then. I feel equally confident about it now, which [00:16:30.237] is perhaps foolish, but here we go. I think we're finally going to see these headless commerce experiences come to life.

Now, for those who maybe think that sounds a bit scary and a bit Sleepy Hollowish, this headless technology roaming around, it's really just the separation of the front end presentation that you see on a website and the back end functionality or fulfillment. So, as things stand, we have these monolithic e-commerce [00:17:00.392] sites that handle both the commerce on the transactions and the kind of delivery of the experience to the user. So it makes it really difficult to customize that to individual people, to bring in different APIs or to work with, say, voice assistance through commerce websites, really, really difficult to do that if the two have to be in tandem. So by separating those out and using more of these headless technologies, the big retailers are starting to invest in. We'll see a huge amount more customization [00:17:30.079] there. And hopefully, finally, in 2021, proper personalization.

Will: And by headless commerce, you could mean more of the social commerce stuff, kind of like we're seeing more of on Instagram, right?

Clark: Yeah. Yeah. So that's obviously going to be an absolutely huge one. You kind of create your own shop in there just by tying in your product catalog. And you can create some content, create a little shop and, you know, add editorial angles to it, but it could be showing up just about anywhere. You don't really know. [00:18:00.666]

Will: Indeed. And it will be fascinating to see how the act of buying moves from shops and e-commerce stores, into the spaces where we play, and connect, and message and hang out like social platforms, right?

And thinking about social media, I wanted to kind of zoom in that little bit more and just hear where we think social media might be headed, strategically speaking. So, I spoke to Julie Atherton. Julie is someone that we had on the podcast quite recently, [00:18:30.263] in an episode where we focus specifically on social media strategy. She is, after all, the person who, well, literally wrote the book on that subject. She's a fantastic expert on that. So I asked Julie how she saw things panning out in the coming year.

The Trend towards Trust

Julie: It's really for me about this coalescence of the triumvirate of brands and businesses, the consumer, and government around trust. And I think the biggest trend is this trust element, you know, [00:19:00.136] what is happening in these platforms in these spaces that is actually built on trust. And a growth of trust is actually essential for them to continue and develop. And so I think that that's really interesting. So the three ways I think, three core ways that manifests itself.

The first area, I think is around this desire for the platforms to want to keep people within-platform. [00:19:30.198] So they want them to, you know, shop within platform. They want to gain within platform. They want to share and have conversations all within the same space and not have to move out to go and pay for goods or services or to play games. And that's particularly true in the area of social commerce, which I think you can explain what's happening there quite easily because it has a benefit for everybody. So social commerce benefits [00:20:00.265] the platform because they keep people in their space, which means they spend more time there, which means they've got more advertising revenue they can generate from those individuals.

And they also will stay there because they trust that platform. They want to be in that platform. They've chosen that platform, over and above other places. For brands, social commerce has a real benefit because it takes the friction out of the buying process. So, rather than having to leave and then give your payment details and all those [00:20:30.417] other things, on an e-commerce site, you can just see something you love and buy it straight away. And it's really easy for consumers because, you know, they don't have to add any more details. They can just click and buy. So I think social commerce will grow. And I think it will grow because people will increasingly start to trust these platforms. And the platforms themselves will have to engender that trust in [00:21:00.245] order to keep individuals within that platform. So we'll probably maybe have less platforms that we use, but spend more time within the ones we're in because we can do everything we want in there. So I think that's a really interesting aspect of it.

The second aspect of this trust relationship between these three areas is around governance and legislation, ethics, whatever you want to call it. And that [00:21:30.338] set against this backdrop of, we're gonna have a new president in the U.S., Brexit is about to happen so that's gonna affect Europe and the UK quite dramatically. And we've got things like the Facebook oversight board that's just starting to sit, which is, you know, looking at the ethics of the kind of content they've got on the site. You know, what's hate speech and should that content be taken down. And I think some of the decisions that are gonna be made between [00:22:00.145] government and between these huge, you know, superpower platforms - and, you know, spaces like Google as well will fit into this - will really change the rulebook. And I think it has to change if we're going to build these trust environments. So, I think there's gonna be some decisions that are made in 2021 about that, and I hope for the better. You know, it's been interesting what Twitter's done with Trump's tweets [00:22:30.135] over, you know, him disputing the election, starting to put warning signs on there and things like that. You know, so it's gonna be an interesting time to see what happens there.

And then the final thing, which I think is about this trust environment is I think a lot of people have fallen in love with social again, during the pandemic. And they've realized that, you know, the real reason why social media really started in the beginning was to, [00:23:00.132] you know, share content, share information, connect with people we love through digital spaces, when we couldn't do that in the physical way. And actually, so I think there's gonna be a real leap in people continuing to use social to enhance and improve real-world, real-life, you know, experiences, within social as well.

And [00:23:30.005] I think that's gonna be very exciting from a creativity point of view, but also, from a technology point of view, you know, using AI, using VR, the, you know, brands letting go of what they say about themselves and allowing people to be as creative as they can with that, you know, the memes and things like that have really taken off. So I think we're in a place where social's gonna be joyful, you know. [00:24:00.071] And it can be a real power for good if it's a trusted space, if we trust the people we're engaging within those spaces. And we believe that those platforms have some ethical codes of practice, some principles that we feel comfortable engaging in. And that means we as individuals feel comfortable being there and engaging that, and brands feel like they are happy to be associated with those spaces. So, [00:24:30.609] I think it all comes back, as I said at the beginning, to these three, this trust relationship between the brand, the consumer, and government.

Social Media Backlash

Will: So trust, a key theme there for Julie. But of course, we have seen trust in social media platforms eroded significantly, particularly over the last year. We've had cultural landmark moments like the Netflix documentary, "The Social Dilemma," which uncovered the way that the social platforms manipulate our attention, our [00:25:00.235] dopamine centers in our brain, purely to maximize their own profit. And that was seen by a huge proportion of their viewer base globally. We've had a major boycott of the Facebook ad platform by some pretty large well-known multinational brands, based on how they moderate their platform. We've had multiple news stories break about the working conditions of the people who moderate social media platforms, and the mental, and emotional harms that they're subject to. The #deleteFacebook hashtag [00:25:30.820] continues to reappear from time to time in the wake of the latest data scandal, whatever that is. And the list just goes on. So I asked Julie if she thought that this backlash that we're seeing against social media has any real weight behind it and whether it might mean that social media has peaked, and is in long-term decline.

Julie: So, I genuinely don't think it's gonna be in decline, I really, really think people love to share and they love [00:26:00.527] to share with their friends and family. They want to really express themselves: it’s a wonderful medium for creative expression and all of those things. And the generation that's coming through now is, you know, grown up in that space and loves that space. I think people are concerned about personal data. I think people are concerned about their digital footprint. And I think that's why I go back to [00:26:30.672] this trust environment. I think platforms that cannot build a relationship of trust with their users will not survive in the long-term.

And when we talk about, you know, it's the same for brands. You know, brands that people don't trust, don't survive in the long-term. And I think, you know, we are more and more aware, exactly as you say about how our data is being used. And we're more and more concerned actually, about how our data is being used [00:27:00.783] by organizations, because of that awareness. So, we have to believe that it's useful for us, that data isn't being exploited, and that we are comfortable with, you know, the ethics and principles of those organizations that we're sharing that data with.

Will: So the key takeaway from Julie there, when thinking about our own businesses in social media, is that it's gonna be part of our job more and more to [00:27:30.382] gain and maintain and respect the trust of our audience. And we do that by being there for them and adding value to their feeds, rather than trying to shove promotional messaging down their throat at every opportunity. And you could say that about every marketing channel, I think, as people become more savvy about what an ad looks like, more repelled by that, ad blockers, fake news, algorithms. There's so many reasons why outbound [00:28:00.369] marketing is going to be challenged. And inbound marketing, where people come to us because we provide value for them in the form of informational or entertaining content is just gonna be more key than ever in 2021 and beyond.

And so, zooming in on social media for a minute and thinking about the content there, I spoke to Alison Battisby, who I'd spoken to earlier in 2020. In fact, she was one of the last people I spoke to in-person before lockdown in March. [00:28:30.334] She was on the podcast talking about social media communities and also about time management and personal skills in relation to running her business and working in social media. So Alison is a real expert. She's at the “coalface” of social. And so I talked to her about what content trends she saw on the horizon as we head into 2021.

Dominance of Short-Form Video

Alison: One of the biggest trends that we're about to see in social media for 2021 is just the absolute rise of short-form [00:29:00.775] video content. So, for a couple of years, we've been seeing short-form video content rise in popularity. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are recommending that you post videos around 30 seconds long. Now Facebook is saying 15, so it's definitely cutting down in terms of length. But this year, we saw the launch of Instagram Reels, which has really forced many marketers to think about very short, sharp pieces of [00:29:30.447] video content. Video content is becoming more creative and more thought-provoking. So platforms like TikTok have really fueled brands’ creativity in that space. And we're definitely going to see in 2021 more corporate traditional brands launching eye-catching campaigns in this new medium, in a bid to target more generations-led audiences, those younger audiences.

I think [00:30:00.117] as well we're likely to see more interesting sort of recruitment campaigns for both career and education opportunities, utilizing TikToks and Reels, because that's where the young people are, and that's where the eyeballs are. For those brands out there that don't necessarily feel comfortable using short-form video content, we're gonna see a lot of savvy brands enlist the help of influencers to enable them to create [00:30:30.431] content. So, these influencers will create content on behalf of the brands. And I really see this happening in the food, beauty, fashion, sport, lifestyle space. I think global brands with healthy advertising budgets are going to be exploring more paid opportunities when it comes to short-form video content as well. So particularly when it comes to supporting really large events, like the rescheduled Olympics, or the World Cup, or the [00:31:00.605] Super Bowl, we'll just see video content becoming so much more mainstream and commonplace. And the brands that are going to win are the ones that can be the most creative with this medium.

Community-led Content

The second trend, another trend which I believe we're going to see more of in 2021 is community-led content. So, this is really where brands are embracing user-generated content. [00:31:30.701] UGC, as it's known is not a new thing. But with the pandemic in 2020, more and more brands have been asking people to create their own content from at home. And so, 2021, we'll see a continuation of that. And I think brands are gonna become a lot more collaborative when it comes to content creation, crowdsourcing content for their marketing campaigns through social media. One of my favorite examples I saw in 2020 [00:32:00.404] was Tesco, creating a television advert from clips that they had crowdsourced using social media. I think this really also helps to humanize the brand as well. So where you see user-generated content, it does massively put faces behind the brand and make them more accessible, more authentic, more eye-catching to people in social media. So thinking about how you can [00:32:30.512] get your community to create content on your behalf is a really good strategy for 2021.

Social Media ROI

Also, in the aftermath of 2020, we're going to see more businesses using social media to directly drive leads and acquire new customers. So rather than just using social media for brand awareness, I think social media is going to be expected to work a lot harder for brands to generate a real return. [00:33:00.477] So we're going to see much better measurement and analysis when it comes to proving ROI. So brands will need to have a very clear objective and strategy around how they're going to, not only acquire leads, and customers, and sales, but how they're gonna measure that from social media. So, getting your pixels sorted, getting your Google Analytics set up correctly, and creating a social [00:33:30.264] media report that works for you is a very good idea for 2021.

Will: So as Allison says, get creative with short video, and perhaps some of those short videos can come from your own community in the form of user-generated content, or UGC. And that's something we've been talking about for over a decade. But it's really come into its own in 2020, as we've all been stuck at home, and not been able to produce content in the same way because we can't put teams of people together in [00:34:00.241] confined spaces. We can't use studios, we can't even be in the office, right? And so brands have had to make do with what actually turns out as a fantastic source of content - their own audience. So think about how you can use that. And as Allison says, the ROI on social media should become easier to prove as better analytics tools become available. And so it will be on us as marketers to be able to do that and report the commercial, the business [00:34:30.591] impact of our efforts.

And talking about analytics, what do we think might be next in the world of marketing analytics in general? Well, it just so happens that earlier in 2020, I talked to someone who knows an awful lot about this area. His name is Cathal Melinn. And earlier this year, he was on our podcast talking about analytics, specifically around ecommerce, but also more generally, the practice of thinking analytically and being [00:35:00.725] data-driven. So I asked Cathal, what does he see coming in 2021? In the world of marketing analytics?

Really Understanding Analytics

Cathal: Well, I think with marketing analytics, the big trend is going to be predictiveness. And being able to turn on all the different data sources that we've gotten over the past number of months in this COVID era where everyone's kind of gone online. We've had this accelerated influx of data. And the current analytics tools haven't been able to handle that, if you know what I mean. [00:35:30.296] So, Google Analytics, you know, the, certainly the free version of Google Analytics is, you know, it's around since 2012. And so it doesn't really have the capabilities to handle all of the influx of data that we have in a useful and meaningful way, not in the way other tools can.

So what's actually after happening is, and Google launched their new iteration of Google Analytics, GA4, which is cool, I think [00:36:00.235] it's really cool anyway. And it is cool, because it's the first new Google Analytics since 2012, which, you know, that's certainly ages ago and back in the old world. But it's a really cool interface, first of all, but what's actually under the hood is most interesting. What I see is really interesting is that it's got this kind of number-crunching capability, built on machine learning and AI.

Machine Learning & the Cookie-less World

Because another pitfall that's gonna face us marketers over the [00:36:30.214] next couple of years is cookies are going. So, cookies are going, and what the AI does and the machine learning does is it kind of fills the gap with kind of predictive formulas for what might actually be happening. So, in a cookie-less world, which we're all going to be facing in over the next few years. Things like GA4 will really help us see what our consumers are doing, and allow us to use data in a [00:37:00.388] respectful way, but again, in a useful way for us.

So what will be most interesting in 2021, and beyond is, machines doing a lot more work for us. And, you know, machine learning has been a promise for a long time, it kind of caught up with the promise this year, last year. And in the mid-teens of the 2000s, it was all “oh AI machine learning machine learning, it'll be brilliant”, but it wasn't quite there yet, [00:37:30.140] kind of is coming there now. And with the acceleration of data collection, from the internet of things, from shopping online this year: we're after leaping ahead far quicker than I expected, than any of us expected. So we have a whole lot of data. And now we have the tools and the processing to actually use them. So for analysts and for marketers in 2021, it'll be about using algorithmic understanding [00:38:00.108] to predict what's happening because despite how unique and individual we think we are, we're all really similar to each other. And we're all really, really predictable.

And I've made my peace with that. I've certainly made my peace with the predictability of myself. So I think that, you know, as Facebook algorithms get better, social media algorithms get better, all of that stuff, coupled with the - I suppose - conversion probability [00:38:30.953] aspects of the machine learning and analytics, it just means we will be better at doing our job know, wasting money. Because that's my feeling, whether it happens or not, I don't know. But that's my feeling.

Google Analytics 4

My understanding of what they want us to do with GA4 right now is get it onto your site, just get it onto your site and get it collecting data. And they'll start rolling out the features and the integrations over the next [00:39:00.579] while. So the action really for everyone right now is probably not to use GA4 as your primary reporting, you know, tool, it's to get it onto your site, get it collecting data, continue with universal analytics. And when the migration suppose happens more on mass globally, you will have a back catalogue of data that you that you've been collecting since now.

Will: Okay, so smarter analytics tools, and they're gonna become very useful as we head into a world [00:39:30.404] without cookies, because that takes away some functionality which allows us to track users coming to and from our site, or across multiple visits, and that kind of thing. So, a large part of what Cathal talked about was, of course, Google Analytics, for this is a major update for the most popular website analytics software on the planet. And what it brings is the power of machine learning and predictive analysis. Which [00:40:00.358] sounds really complicated, but should make it much simpler and much more intuitive for a user, regardless of their expertise, to just ask questions of it and find out the important insights about their website's audience. So as Cathal says, get that new tag installed on your website. It's not possible on all website platforms yet. But if you have a flexible site, something like a WordPress, or a custom built website, you can put that on now and have it [00:40:30.618] start collecting data from now. It only becomes more useful over time.

So, staying on the topic of Google products, let's look at the one that we use and think about every single day. And that is, of course, their search engine. Which essentially acts as the world's Question and Answer engine, the world's repository of knowledge. So which factors that affect our visibility in that product are going to become more important as we head into 2021? Well, I asked [00:41:00.300] Joe Williams, he's an SEO expert. And I interviewed him on this podcast around a year ago, about SEO and also about time management. Here's Joe giving his overview of what he sees on the SEO horizon.

Google Page Experience

Joe: Really, there's two trends, which both fall under the user experience umbrella. And so if you've been following SEO, you know, you've probably heard that there's Google's launching a page experience update in May. And this is predominantly to do with [00:41:30.120] user experience. So there are some signals that we previously knew about, like mobile friendliness and HTTPS. But the kind of newest signals are to do with core web vitals. So that's kind of my trend number one is optimizing for core web vitals. And these are three metrics. The first two are to do with PageSpeed. But where we tend to think in the past that PageSpeed is the entire loading of a web page [00:42:00.493], which may be one second, two seconds, three seconds, and we try to aim maybe under two seconds, Google is shifting more towards how quickly is your page useful for the user? So the first metric is Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). And that's to do with the most significant element, the largest element being shown to the user. So they're seeing something useful.

And the second metric is First Input Delay (FID). So that's really about how [00:42:30.869] interactive a web page is: so how quickly can you click on a link and do something. And the last one is to do a Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). And so that's basically does your web page move at all after it's finished loading. And so that's kind of the biggest one for me, which I think you'll hear the most talked about in the SEO world is optimizing for core web vitals. And one little tip, I'd like to sort of add and share. Now, if you've ever run [00:43:00.108] your website through, you know, Pingdom, or Google PageSpeed Insights, sometimes what you'll find is that it's, it's being slowed down by JavaScript. So it might be a live chat that you have on your website. But what you can now do, and this is becoming relatively newer, is you can lazy load JavaScript, in a similar way to how you can lazy load images, it’s actually called deferring JavaScript. And I've done this personally, on WordPress using the WP [00:43:30.789] Rocket plugin. But yeah, that that's something that I think is going to be talked about a lot in 2021.

Will: So you're saying in May '21, Google will consider a blend of existing and brand new signals when ranking web pages in its search results?

Joe: Yes. So in May, it's been announced that Page Experience will be a new ranking factor. And this is made up of, I think there's like six or seven different signals. And [00:44:00.748] half of those signals are old signals that we already knew about. The things like HTTPS, and mobile friendliness. But the new signals that we didn't know about are these core web vitals. And you can get those, your core web vitals’ scores from Google PageSpeed Insights. If you run your website through that tool, it gives you a score for mobile, it gives you a score for desktop. And at the moment, most websites are scoring pretty [00:44:30.890] poorly for mobile, I would say the majority are under 50%, maybe 30% is quite average. I've been spending the last few weeks optimizing a new version of our website, where I've managed to get it up into the 90%. Which wasn't that hard with WP Rocket. I was just playing around with that mostly. The one thing that I've noticed that affects cool web vitals the most is long JavaScript tasks. So it could be a video, it could be live chat, or lots of other things [00:45:00.493] that your web page may load.

Will: So as Joe says there, run your website through Google PageSpeed Insights, and take heed of those recommendations offered by Google in your results. So what else can we do? Well, Joe told me that it's about improving that post-click experience for search engine users, as Google looks at how many people are enticed to click on your webpage in search results, and then how long they stay on your website consuming the content. This is known as dwell time. And here's Joe explaining that to me.

Dwell Time

Joe: [00:45:30.579] Dwell time is the time that it takes from a user to click from a search engine – so, after they've typed a keyword to your website - and then return back to search engine. So, you know, if someone returns after one or two seconds, that might be seen as a bad user experience signal to Google. There are exceptions. If someone's checking for the weather, or, you know, the sports results, they'll probably, they might return back to Google quite quickly. But Google will understand the intent of that [00:46:00.592] keyword. And if the intent of the keyword requires more thorough information, then your dwell time will become more important. And so, I guess, what can you do to improve your dwell time? Well, it's thinking about what is the user intent of the keyword? And can you satisfy that user intent. So, it's basically improving user satisfaction.

And where I think, as marketers we sometimes go wrong, is we focus on “our outcome is basically [00:46:30.443] sales and conversions we want them to turn into customers”, whereas Google's outcome is that the user is satisfied. So we need to put ourselves in the searchers’ perspective, not just thinking about sales, that is important, but “are we satisfying what they're actually after and what they're looking for”. So that's a big one.

Video and SEO

And just to kind of tie into that one, I think possibly video might become finally more significant in SEO [00:47:00.511] in 2021. So, by having video and useful content that will help your dwell time. And I think I've probably been saying it myself, the last two or three years, videos can really help with SEO. But I think it's only been in a small way up until now. But, you know, that may change next year.

Will: So it's about depth and quality of content to engage your visitors who come from search, and demonstrate your authority and expertise in your area, and keep them on the site with a range of different formats, [00:47:30.952] like text, images, and video.

Joe: Exactly. Yeah, it's depth of content. We used to think of SEO, particularly from a content perspective, as being the best keyword-optimized result, whereas now it needs to be the best result. So, yeah, definitely, you know, Google uses artificial intelligence, since I think 2015, officially, probably a little bit earlier with Hummingbird. We've had RankBrain, we've now had Bert recently, [00:48:00.711] these are all Google algorithms that use artificial intelligence to try and understand the nuances of human language better.

Will: Okay, so it sounds like Google's getting very smart. And it's able to understand the content and the context of the words, images and videos and audio that we've published online, right? So what does the future of SEO look like beyond what we've talked about here?

The State of SEO

Joe: From Google's perspective, they're almost working towards not needing to have an SEO agency, [00:48:30.636] you know, not needing to be even to SEO. It's like if you've got a good product, and you can actually satisfy what users want and need, you know, then you're gonna do well. And I spoke to someone recently, and they had a furniture website that did really, really well on Google. And I asked them, like, "You know, how come you did so well?" And they were like, "Well, about five years ago, we just decided to record all the questions that we got asked to do with furniture on the phone. [00:49:00.406] And we recorded them over a two, three-week period." And they got like, 200 or 300 questions, and they just created content on those questions. They weren't even thinking about it from an SEO perspective. And all of a sudden, they just naturally became an authority, and just started ranking for lots of not just long tail keywords, but lots of head keywords as well.

Will: That's a great example, Joe. And it just proves that there really is no secret hack or magic button to get to the top of page one [00:49:30.557] in a Google search result. The tactic is just, be useful for your target audience, you know, be useful in a relevant way for the people that you want to reach. That's all because Google's been at this for more than 20 years now. It understands what people are looking for, and what the best content to serve them is when they search for something. That's their business. That's what they do. That's what they're the best in the world.

Joe: Yeah, definitely. And I think the only thing I would maybe add on that is [00:50:00.675] we're not 100% there were Google and search engines are clever enough to always know the best result. But that gap is getting smaller and smaller. So, you know, the more serious you take that mindset is gonna be good now and even better in the future.

Will: Okay, so lots to think about there in terms of optimizing our website and content to get that visibility on Google's search engine. But what about the wider user experience on our website in terms of the way it's designed, [00:50:30.693] the way it's laid out, the way we use images, interactive elements, copy, and the like? Well, I spoke to the head of UX and design at the Digital Marketing Institute, Jamie Ritchie, and he had some thoughts on what he thinks is going to matter more in terms of UX in the coming year.

The Effects of AI on UX

Jamie: Well, I think AI is gonna be even bigger again, in 2021, we're seeing its influence across a number of platforms like Spotify and Netflix. And so I think it does tie in then to [00:51:00.403] UX, I think, the more AI comes on, and the advances it makes, it brings jobs for UX designers. So, how can we personalize digital platforms or products, to tailor these products or platforms to user, make them more engaging? It ties into personalization, I think. And I think, you know, I've mentioned there, Spotify and Netflix, they're two of the platforms that probably most people would recognize. For me, personally, I guess, half my music is probably coming from recommended music, recommended playlists from [00:51:30.503] Spotify, the same with Netflix. Netflix has such a huge content library of video, and that we can't actually...we probably can't even figure out ourselves what we want to watch. So based on what we're watching ourselves, Netflix like to recommend those personalizations. So I think that'll be a big thing in 2021, for UX designers, and we'll see that across a number of different platforms. And even in DMI ourselves, for example, we look to personalized content to your own needs based on what you're viewing and what you're reading, what [00:52:00.821] content you're consuming. And because, you know, we've got a vast array of content, it's hard for anybody to consume that amount of content. So it makes more sense to provide people with valuable content that they're interested.

Will: Okay, so in a vast sea of content, it's more and more down to websites to sort that out and serve what's most relevant to that user at that specific time to actually keep the experience of value and have relevance to them. But I asked Jamie what else he thought was important in terms of web design in 2021?

Mobile-First Design

Jamie: [00:52:30.575] Google are to roll out a new algorithm later this year, and what that means for designers, in particular for UX is that they're actually going to index your mobile site, first and foremost. So, what that means is, you need to have a fully functioning mobile site, you can't strip down your mobile site, it can't be half a site compared to your desktop version, or your desktop platforms. So more focus there on that user experience towards mobile [00:53:00.434] viewers and mobile users.

Will: So, Jamie, reiterating what we heard from Joe earlier, where the experience on your website can have a huge impact on how Google ranks you in their search results. And Google now sees that in a mobile-first context, and so you should too. But I know the other aspects of design are important to Jamie too. And here he is talking about the importance of copy, specifically, micro copy.

The Importance of Copy

Jamie: And copy is hugely important [00:53:30.522] across UX and marketing in general. And we see it through Amazon. Amazon are particularly excellent with micro copy. They like to replace their objectives with data as well. So, for example, they might say, instead of saying, "We made the performance faster," they'd say, "We reduced service latency from 10 milliseconds to 1 milliseconds," or they'll try and be more time efficient with their copy, they'll use one word instead of five or six words. So, instead of saying, "With the possible exception of," they'll say "except." And so it's [00:54:00.040] all about being concise, shorter, sharper.

And UX copy as well, which is usually important in terms of your brand messaging, as well. You can add a tone of voice, it can bring that personalized feel which ties back into the AI elements earlier on when we're trying to personalize your experiences, we need almost feel more human, particularly to users. The word "users" is synonymous with UX. But these are people at the end of the day that are using our products and our platforms. And we need to speak to them like humans and [00:54:30.890] people. And so, I think, UX copy, again, which has been around and you can hear more about it in the last few years. And we've seen more specialized roles being hired as well, where people actually being hired as UX writers and UX copywriters. But I think that'll take on another leap again in 2021. To be honest, it's one of those things at DMI that we really think about as well, and it's a focus we're gonna put on next year is that micro copy, the little nuggets of content between your [00:55:00.538] experience just to nudge you along, and to tell you and reassure you through each step.

Will: That's fascinating. And are there any specific visual design trends that you're seeing emerge?

Less is Still More

Jamie: 3D has been sort of big in 2020, and probably will in 2021, and Apple have released Big Sur just recently, as well, which is the new OS. And with that OS, they've redesigned the operating system. So these sort of trends you'll see come and go, things like gradients will come and go. A lot of our trends, I think, ultimately, with design, [00:55:30.852] it's always about the fundamentals, you know, once you have the fundamentals correct, it doesn't matter about trends, really. So it's about, you know, having good, clean typography, good, clean grids, and systems. And, to be honest, less is more in design, really. I know you hear this a lot. Marketers hear that too. And the less focus we put on...the more focus we put on one item rather than trying to clutter your screen know, there's so much comprehension you can take from looking at 10 pieces of content on the screen. And really, you know, [00:56:00.303] breaking it down to the most important message, I think that copy comes in again, in the UX copy, and the micro copy, is being clear, concise, and short, and sharp with your message giving your users and your readers the message you want to deliver in the quickest way possible.

Will: And how important is accessibility?


Jamie: Accessibility is, you know, I guess, it's easy to assume, just because you can see something that everyone can and the truth is more and more focus has been put on accessibility every single day [00:56:30.521] and every single year, you know, over the last, who knows how long. And we're all guilty of having inaccessible aspects of our design systems, but it's something that we're all looking to, particularly at DMI we're looking to improve on in 2021, as well. That's where you have to make your balance where you can have beautiful design. And your goal is to have beautiful design, but you can't have it at the exception of accessible design as well. So your text can't be too gray or illegible for someone to read or, you know, your font sizes need to be the minimum size they need to be, you know, despite them maybe looking nicer at a certain size. [00:57:00.726] You know, you have to have your minimum basics in place. And your color systems as well as your contrast are very, very important.

Will: So, how can we personalize content for our individual audience members? How can we make our websites work as well as possible on mobile? How can we use copy efficiently to reduce friction as we guide users towards our objectives? And as Jamie says, there'll be even more focus on clean and simple design [00:57:30.641] that doesn't overwhelm users. And, of course, accessible design, which allows all users to consume our content, regardless of their capability, or the device they're using.

So that's all from our experts. And I think the key takeaway here is that what's required of us as marketers in the next year is a doubling down on digital in the aftermath of what has been an unprecedented acceleration of digital transformation of every kind of process imaginable in [00:58:00.456] the world of business. So what does that mean for us as marketers? Well, it's about optimizing our web presence in every way. It's about being audience LED, putting them at the center of our strategy, at the center of our social media activities, at the center of the communities that we build around them. And it's also about respecting the fact that there's now an expectation on us as companies to be there for our audience, to be there for our customers at every stage of the buying journey.

So it just [00:58:30.742] leaves me to wish you a happy, healthy, and successful 2021 from myself and all the team at the Digital Marketing Institute. Thanks to all our listeners for supporting us throughout the podcast. If you like what you hear, please help us get it to more people by reviewing us on your podcast platform of choice. And don't forget, there are so many free resources available for you, where you can sign up for free. Thanks for listening. [00:59:00.000] Goodbye.

Will Francis
Will Francis

Will Francis is a recognized authority in digital and social media, who has worked with some of the world’s most loved brands. He is the host and technical producer of the DMI podcast, Ahead of the Game and a lecturer and subject matter expert with the DMI. He appears in the media and at conferences whilst offering his own expert-led digital marketing courses where he shares his experience gained working within a social network, a global ad agency, and more recently his own digital agency.

Connect with him on Twitter (X) or LinkedIn.

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