2021 Marketing Trends Foster Meaningful Connections in a Digital World

by Andrea Aker 

There’s little argument that adaptability is critical for a business’s survival today. Even with hope on the horizon, 2020 taught us to expect the unexpected. Businesses must continue to ride waves of uncertainty and evolving consumer sentiment throughout this year to deliver value, support their people and churn a profit. And while accustomed to life during a pandemic, many businesses are still grappling with effective and appropriate channels to market their products and services. 

Two things are clear in this climate: (1) people are seeking more meaningful connections following a year of upheaval, and (2) companies must rely on digital tactics and communication channels to spread word about their businesses. 

In some sense, these realities seem to conflict with one another. How can one develop meaningful connections with impersonal technologies? It’s a question many businesses in both the B2B and B2C sectors are struggling with, as a successful approach is far from one-size-fits-all. 

Revisiting an Audience’s Position and Pain Points 

Personally and professionally, few people have the same life experience as they did one year ago, weeks shy from the World Health Organization declaring the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, a busy rush-hour commute led executives to a packed board room to determine next steps in their tradeshow strategy. Today, sitting at their kitchen tables with a laptop and webcam, those same executives are reevaluating their resurgence with physical distancing and safety top-of-mind. 

Even if a company’s offerings haven’t changed, it’s likely their customers’ needs and wants have. New marketing strategies start with a refreshed look at this customer in 2021 — what motivates them? What are they missing? How can the company fill a current gap? How will a recovery impact their daily lives?

Moreover, a customer’s needs and wants represent one side of the coin. The other side is focused on how today’s customer consumes information. As people crave more interaction in the coming months, businesses need to monitor changes in sentiment, communication habits and digital trends. For instance, how are clicks and opens evolving in email communications? What are people attracted to? What are the primary referral sources of web traffic? Has a LinkedIn messaging strategy proved effective at generating leads? Be ready to roll with the punches. 

Website User Experience Is Foundational to Marketing Success 

Pre-pandemic, a company’s website served as a 24/7 storefront and invaluable resource. Today, the state of a website and user experience can literally make or break a company. Simply having a website isn’t enough. Websites must be optimized to attract the right traffic, resonate with specific audiences and create meaningful connections with words, images, video, user flow and interactivity. 

This isn’t a surprise to any company with an e-commerce component. Nielsen highlights how the pandemic has democratized e-commerce for all types of consumers, noting that more than 18 million consumer goods buyers flooded the U.S. market between March and December last year. Further, omnichannel shopping (e.g., shopping online and offline at the same retailer) increased 50% in 2020, with nearly half leading to e-commerce purchases. 

Companies that invested in their online shop’s customer experience, revisited their automation strategy and refocused social and digital advertising opportunities likely yielded the greatest results throughout the pandemic. They learned to not only attract the right prospects, but also to relate to their customers’ pain points and develop a connection that fosters loyalty. “We’re in it together” has been a common, relatable theme. 

Beyond e-commerce, the same principles still apply. A company’s website, hands down, is the greatest reflection of its capabilities and expertise, serving as the home base for all digital engagement. The buyer journey across industries starts online — and, whether you like it or not, people judge a book by its cover. 

The B2B space has been revolutionized as much as consumer retail. According to Forrester, more than one-third of B2B technology buyers say digital engagement channels (such as vendor websites) have become more important in their buying journeys, while around four in 10 indicate human engagement with sellers has become less important. In fact, Forrester predicts a third of B2B technology buyers will rate chatbots as a top-10 engagement channel in 2021. 

Another sign of what’s to come: Forrester also predicts more than 60% of B2B sellers will be enabled by AI or automation. Businesses with outdated websites simply won’t be able to keep up with peers investing in a new digital experience. 

Technological advances, such as chatbots and virtual assistant technologies, coupled with personalization, help foster meaningful connections by replicating the experience one would have in person, yet in a more convenient manner on the customer’s own timetable. 

Not quite ready for AI? That’s OK, but chances are the business could benefit from refreshed messaging, positioning, email automation and a search engine optimization strategy to help people find the company through daily Google searches. To keep visitors from going elsewhere, websites of all types need a new look in 2021. 

Putting the Social in Social Media 

For better or worse, people have increasingly been glued to their mobile devices throughout the pandemic. In the months following the outbreak, Global WebIndex found social media users worldwide were spending an average of two hours and 24 minutes per day multi-networking across an average of eight social networks and messaging apps. This presents businesses with opportunities, yet it can also pose a threat at the same time if social networks are used inappropriately, alienate prospects or simply annoy followers. 

Scheduling a slew of sales-oriented content and calling it a day isn’t a social media strategy. There’s certainly a time and place to boldly sell a product, but what are social users really looking for? They are scrolling their feeds for meaningful engagement, entertainment and education; basically, someone who “gets them.” They want to interact with brands and learn something new. 

The connection businesses are missing in person can be nurtured via social media. They should seek to interact with customers and prospects on their feeds, use technology to “listen” to their customers’ wants and needs and find creative ways to relate to followers through compelling imagery, videos and messaging. Brands embracing storytelling will be able to grow their networks further and faster than companies solely focused on sales. 

With that said, there is a time and place to sell, especially if the product or service is positioned to fill a gap in the current market and/or embraces authenticity in the brand voice. Social advertising enables companies to finely tune and personalize their targeting, helping to ensure the right people see the ads at the right times. Throughout 2021, expect to see increased use of video advertisements. People want to see and interact with a product or concept before making a buying decision. 

Oh, the Places You’ll Go 

A sense of “normalcy” is slowly vacating the business lexicon, as what was normal a year ago is unlikely to be normal again, at least in the foreseeable future. Businesses must face the present reality and invest further in digital engagement strategies, even if in-person interaction is necessary at some point in the business development cycle. 

The good news is that 2021 has a new theme: hope. There is ample opportunity to build a business and connect with new customers, even if the platform or mode has changed. Digital and social technologies can be used to replicate human connection and amplify it, often through humor, empathy and kinship. 

A 2021 recipe for success: Revisit the audience’s needs and pain points. Adapt product or service positioning. Upgrade the company’s website to better cater to today’s customer and invest in digital engagement strategies that help foster meaningful connections.   

Andrea Aker is CEO and president of Aker Ink, a full-service PR and marketing firm that helps companies increase brand awareness, enhance thought leadership and generate leads. The agency works with businesses of all sizes, from startups through large, multi-national enterprises, guiding them through complex communication challenges and opportunities to achieve business development goals. 

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