The year 2020 had a lot of marketers scrambling to keep up. It was a year like no other, really, with current events dramatically shaping digital marketing trends. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, this laundry list should sound familiar: socio-political turmoil, including mass protests, violent street clashes, and an upcoming election; a cooling U.S. economy; destructive wildfires and unpredictable weather phenomena; and of course, our old, pugnacious nemesis, COVID-19.

The reason these developments so directly affect marketers is all the, ahem, unprecedented uncertainty they create. Who knows, for example, what social media advertising costs will look like a week, month, or year from now? What new updates will Google unleash at us? And who can predict how long the eCommerce “boom” will last, especially when we don’t know when the world will get the green light to return to normal?

What is normal, really, and where the hell did it go off to in such a hurry?

The point is, the time is now for marketers to closely scrutinize their goals, performance metrics, and KPIs. To survive and thrive again, marketers must be nimble and adapt new strategies quickly and precisely. As we’ve seen with our own client portfolio at Cardinal, those brands, businesses, and people that can find a way to be flexible in the face of adversity will be best positioned to stick around, grind it out, and begin looking forward to 2021.

We’re not just creative people, but we’re analytical people. At the end of the day, I think using those faculties to be able to not just pivot but even, perhaps, in this state of things, as they’re today, we’re ready to disrupt going forward.” –Kurt Lee Hurley, CMO of American Family Care, during an interview with Cardinal CEO Alex Membrillo.


2021 Digital Marketing Trends: Analysis and Predictions

The good news is that it’s not all doom and gloom. And many organizations are cautiously optimistic about the future. In light of all the craziness, we thought we’d put together our predictions for the coming year in digital marketing trends. Having spent most of 2020 right in the thick of it, helping clients in industries like law, education, and healthcare navigate these turbulent times, we’ve got some ideas about the direction things will take in a few key areas of marketing.

While there are certainly new trends and technology to account for, what you’ll by and large find is that a lot of these marketing strategies and trends aren’t necessarily new, but they’re evolving in notable ways that should inform your outlook going forward.

Article Contents:

We’re about to embark on a comprehensive survey that examines how digital marketing is evolving in 2021. If you want to jump to a specific trends section, use the links below.


Pay-per-click (PPC) Advertising

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

Social Media Marketing

Paid Social

Video Marketing

Email Marketing



Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) is always a moving target because search algorithms are constantly evolving. That regular flux certainly won’t change in 2021. But we have noticed certain trends that promise to be a lot more than just “flash in the pan” changes.

That’s not to say things like COVID-19 won’t have lasting effects on SEO (just look at Google coronavirus search trends for 2020). But there are far more fundamental changes that will impact the world of SEO in the near to long term. So we’ve earmarked the five SEO trends we think will matter most come 2021.

search trends within Google

Google Trends platforms allows viewers to see how key terms are being searched. Use this to your advantage in your SEO strategy and see how you can use keywords.

User Experience

User experience (UX) is not just a buzzword, and it cannot be overlooked by folks in SEO. Not only is designing digital experiences and customer journeys from the user’s perspective—and for the user’s benefit—a best practice, it’s now becoming a central ranking factor for search algorithms.

That’s right.

According to a May 2020 Google Webmaster Central Blog post, Google Search now factors so-called “UX signals” into its rankings. This change is underscored by new Core Web Vitals, which organizations can use to take the pulse of their UX health. “Core Web Vitals are a set of real-world, user-centered metrics that quantify key aspects of the user experience,” say the writers at Google Webmaster Central. “They measure dimensions of web usability such as load time, interactivity, and the stability of content as it loads.”

Put simply: to keep your pages ranking in 2021, UX will be just as important as on-page/off-page SEO, if not more so.

UX by the numbers:

One has to believe that this shift toward ranking, based at least in part on UX signals, is based on a simple premise: if the experience is bad, people won’t get what they need and then bail. Why would Google rank pages that make for this kind of poor experience? Indeed, a brief survey of the data shows that there’s something far more important than SEO at stake for companies that are unable to deliver consistent, well-designed UX:

  • 25 percent of mobile apps were only used once in 2019 (Statista)
  • 50 percent of people won’t purchase from a brand that has a poorly designed mobile site (Think With Google)
  • 33+ percent of smartphone users will immediately go to another company’s site if they fail to get what they were looking for (Think With Google)
  • For every $1 invested in UX, you get $100 in return (Forrester)
  • 54 percent of people experience more frustration when mobile load times increase (Think With Google)
  • 60 percent of smartphone users have contacted a business directly using the search results (Think With Google)
  • 39 percent of smartphone users are more likely to browse or shop a mobile app because it’s easy and fast to make purchases (Think With Google)

Percentage of smartphone users more likely to use a company's app to make a purchase

Our takeaway? People expect speed, ease, and convenience wherever they are, on whatever device. If they can’t find it, they move on. And Google is adjusting its algorithm accordingly.

How to prioritize UX in the coming year:

That means SEOs ought to have a vested interest in making sure that their websites are up to par from a UX perspective. This will require an even greater emphasis on off-page and technical SEO strategies that make life better, faster, stronger for site visitors. Because these so-called UX signals aren’t going anywhere, your content needs to do a couple of core things in order to rank well:

  • Load fast. There are a number of ways to optimize for page speed, from the way images are handled, to CSS and Javascript code optimization. The PageSpeed Insights tool is a great place to analyze URLs.
  • Be easy to use and find. Site structure, navigation, and usability matter. As does SEO.
  • Be accessible across all devices and platforms. You can use tools like BrowserStack to audit your sites and ensure a compatible, bug-free experience no matter what device someone is using.

Based on the latest updates from Google, it’s safe to conclude that sites that can deliver this caliber of user experience will be rewarded with better search visibility.

Read our article “Google Core Web Vitals: What to Know and How to Prepare” to get more information on what you can do to improve your website’s UX.

Semantic Search

Moving forward, so much of the SEO world will be shaped by how people search for things on the internet. And while that seems like a simple thing, it’s rooted in something a tad more complicated: semantics. Generally, semantics is the study of words, their relationships, and what those relationships mean in specific contexts.

The perfect thing for search engines like Google, right?

In 2021 and beyond, semantic search will be how search engines use the myriad data available to determine the context, intent, and meaning needed to retrieve the most relevant content possible. In layperson’s terms, semantic search is how the Google algorithm can take your incomplete, grammatically incorrect, seemingly random search query and find exactly what you were looking for.

Here’s how Alexa Blog defines semantic search:

Semantic search refers to the ability of search engines to consider the intent and contextual meaning of search phrases when serving content to users on the web.”

Semantic search is just as much about UX as it is about SEO when you think about it. Rather than putting the onus on people to use exactly the right search terms to find what they need—that perfect sequence of words—search engines are taking it upon themselves to interpret our gibberish, fragmented language, and obscure questions.

Semantic search by the numbers:

Increasingly, people are treating search engine experiences, be they web-based, mobile, or voice-activated, as conversational. They use normal language, not Google keyword speak, which leaves it up to search engines to interpret this language, piece together meaning, and bring back the most relevant content. Just look at these mobile search stats from Google supporting the shift toward semantic search:

  • There has been an 85 percent increase in mobile searches starting with “can I” (Think With Google)
  • There has been a 65 percent increase in mobile searches for “do I need” (Think With Google)
  • There has been a 65 percent increase in mobile searches for “should I” (Think With Google)
semantic search for the term "Should I"

Search engines are learning how to interpret certain search questions in order to increase relevant results.

It’s all conversational. Which brings us, of course, to voice assistants. You can’t really talk about semantic search without mentioning voice assistants. Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Siri—these assistants are at the center of this broader shift to semantic search.

By their very nature, voice assistants are designed to interpret and respond to searches spoken in natural language. And they’re powered by semantic search capabilities. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of Google Assistant requests “are expressed in natural language, not the typical keywords people type in a web search” (Think With Google). It follows that this search behavior is directly influencing search algorithms.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the 15 years working on Google Search, it’s that people’s curiosity is endless. We see billions of searches every day, and 15 percent of those queries are ones we haven’t seen before–so we’ve built ways to return results for queries we can’t anticipate. –Pandu Nayak Google Fellow and Vice President, Search

How to prioritize semantic search in the coming year:

Optimizing for semantic search is an ongoing effort. As you plan, execute, and update your content for 2021, keep a few questions in mind. First and foremost, how and why do your users search for your content? What answers, information, content, or even experience are your target audiences likely looking for? How can you create authoritative, enriching content to meet the demands of these prospects, customers, clients, and partners?

Semantic Search

From there, here are the areas we recommend focusing on when it comes to semantic search:

  • Content that answers questions. You might dedicate entire blog posts or website pages to a particular question that your prospects or target buyers commonly have. FAQs. Interview transcripts. The point is to be thorough, accurate, and authoritative. Search engines will reward you for it.
  • People-optimized content. No keyword stuffing. No compromising good structure, flow, and material for the sake of keyword ranking. In terms of readability, think easy-to-understand sentences, bulleted and ordered lists, a skimmable hierarchy of headers, and supplementary images and video. Oh, and you might want to hire a specialized content or copywriter—it’s worth it.
  • Structured data. A semantic schema for a given product, question, article, ratings, or review can certainly help search bots find and understand your pages. Assuming you have the website resources and expertise to execute schema properly, you might want to make structured data part of your strategy.
  • Internal linking. Linking between your content not only makes it easier to navigate to related content, but it creates a structured map of content around a central topic or search term for search engines to crawl, index, and serve up in search results. Certain software integrations, such as Yoast, will automatically suggest relevant content to link to on a given web page. They’ll also alert you to broken internal links, which can hurt your site health and SEO.
  • Topic optimization (vs. keyword optimization). Build out clusters of valuable content around high-level topics, sometimes called the “skyscraper” or “topic cluster” method. A topic cluster around semantic search, for example, might include subtopics dedicated to things like schema and writing for voice assistants.

A good, measurable indicator of your efforts around semantic search will be earned featured snippets, knowledge graphs, and other SERP features, all of which can be tracked through various SEO tools (Moz, Ahrefs, SEMRush, and so on).

Search Intent

We firmly believe that come 2021, the marketers who understand their audience’s intent and the questions they’re asking will achieve better organic search rankings (see our treatment of “Semantic Search” above). It’s not that controversial of a take when you consider that, in 2019, Google rolled out its BERT update dedicated to “understanding” peoples’ searches better. Here’s a bit more from Google Fellow Pandu Nayak on search intent:

“At its core, Search is about understanding language. It’s our job to figure out what you’re searching for and surface helpful information from the web, no matter how you spell or combine the words in your query. […] With the latest advancements from our research team in the science of language understanding—made possible by machine learning—we’re making a significant improvement to how we understand queries, representing the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”

Since rolling out this rather massive update, the Google search experience has become much more conversational. The Google algorithm can now interpret intent from all kinds of natural language queries, long and short. That obscure 90’s one-hit-wonder you’re looking for, but don’t know much about beyond the first three notes—somehow, Google is going to help you find it with even the most ridiculous search query.

search query through voice device

Among other catalysts, this focus on search intent is an evolution of the search engine experience to accommodate the growing popularity of voice assistants and voice search (as mentioned). Instead of big-thumbing text into a search bar, people now ask Siri, turning these conversational AI platforms into powerful search engines. Going forward, the preference for “searching the way one speaks” will only grow stronger, and Google is clearly adapting to meet this need.

And it begs the question: is your content optimized for no-touch search experience powered by voice?

Search intent by the numbers:

If we can find a way to inference and optimize for the intent behind what our audiences are searching for, we can potentially tap into a significant lift in organic search rankings. Here are a few search intent stats that support that claim:

  • Comprehensive retail keyword analysis revealed four primary “intents”: informational; commercial; transactional; and local (Moz)
  • Brands see 80+ percent brand metric lifts for intent-based targeting compared to demographics-based targeting alone (Think With Google)
  • Brands have achieved a 677 percent increase in organic traffic to a landing page after optimizing for search intent (Ahrefs)

brand metric lifts for intent-based targeting

Can you imagine a 600 percent increase in organic traffic to one of your high-value landing pages, just by making things more human? It’s amazing how far a little bit of empathy can take you. After all, that’s what optimizing for intent is really all about.

How to prioritize search intent in the coming year:

From an SEO perspective, the shift toward intent means that you can’t just focus on top-of-the-funnel, short-tail keywords anymore if you hope to maintain strong organic keyword share. Says Think With Google, search intent is redefining the marketing funnel altogether:

“Stop marketing to the average: Be useful. People respond to brands that understand their needs. So, it’s important to optimize your media for both relevance to the consumer and lifetime value for the brand.”

Put differently, think about how to bring value to the journey as you build and optimize content around the four core “intents”: getting information; making a purchase; shopping and comparing products; getting to a certain website or digital “place.” From there, we recommend that you:

  • Build content based on your target customer’s intent. First and foremost, use clear, concise sentences and write the way people talk. If a certain target segment has demonstrated commercial intent, write content that answers those searches and, ideally, nurtures them toward a purchase decision.
  • Publish FAQs around natural queries and use schema for these FAQs to send stronger signals to Google that yours is authoritative content it needs to rank. Google loves to pull FAQs or portions of FAQs and throw them into snippets that offer a zero-click answer for a given search engine query.
  • Bucket your target keywords based on the four intents to help inform your SEO strategy. Ahrefs provides a great breakdown of keyword “modifiers” that indicate a certain type of intent (informational, commercial, transactional, and local). What need does your target audience typically need to be filled?
  • Research intent-based content needs. People who want to buy something like product overviews, walkthroughs, and reviews, for example. Others prefer dedicated landing pages or blog posts. SERPs will reveal a lot about the content people want based on their intent.

Zero-Click Search Results

Increasingly, search results take people to Google properties, such as YouTube videos, snippets, and knowledge graphs—stuff that Google can serve up in search results without requiring a “click” from the user. Why? Because it’s all about what the end user wants. And people want the answer, information, or “thing” they’re looking for as quickly as possible.

A “zero-click” search result provides the answer or information a person needs without the need to spend any more time clicking through to a website. As of 2019, zero-click searches account for more than 50 percent of all Google searches. Not surprisingly, Google is getting really good at giving their users all they need on a single SERP page, through things like featured snippets, knowledge graphs, and video carousels. Duplicate listings, where a snippet holder would also earn a top spot in the traditional list of search results, are now a thing of the past.

Examples of zero-click searches:

To demonstrate the experience, search Google for “coronavirus” and look at the SERP. There’s a glossary with information about symptoms, statistics, and testing. There’s aggregated news from local and national sources, as well as a localized map of case volume for your area. Because the SERP is Google property, they have tremendous leeway and space for creativity when it comes to giving people all they need straightaway.

Zero-click search

Here are a few more examples of zero-click search experiences:

  • A knowledge graph for a particular health condition. When you search for, say, “migraine headache,” Google will display an interactive knowledge graph with overview, symptoms, treatments, and specialists.
  • A simple calculator for a common calculation. For example, when you search for “mortgage interest calculator,” you’ll be presented with an embedded calculator where all you have to do is input the numbers right there in the SERP.
  • A movie or album carousel. When you search, for instance, “movies by sofia coppola,” Google will give you a tidy horizontal panel including all of the esteemed director’s films.

Zero-click search results by the numbers:

Zero-click search results are a funny thing. The data seems to indicate that they’re becoming the norm, with Google constantly innovating new ways to enrich SERPs and “keep people on Google” without clicking through to third-party websites. However, therein lies a caveat: the more effective that Google gets at delivering zero-click search results, the less likely people are to click through to your website, which could mean lost traffic and, potentially, conversions.

Interesting twist, huh? Here are a few other thought-provoking numbers to consider:

  • Zero-click search results are becoming more common on mobile (Smart Insights)
  • Mobile and desktop zero-click searches have grown 11 percent and 9.5 percent over the past two years, respectively (SparkToro).
  • 62 percent of mobile users never click on search results (Search Engine Journal)
  • Having a featured snippet reduces CTR by 5.3 percent (Sistrix)

Google searches resulting in zero clicks

Let’s get this straight: we really, really, really want to rank our content on SERPs, but a) the majority of mobile users never click a search result and b) earning a featured snippet actually reduces CTR to our web entities? It’s certainly something to chew on as you build your 2021 SEO strategy.

How to prioritize zero-click search results in the coming year:

Start with the understanding that Google is doing all it can to keep search traffic on its own entities (Google Search, Google My Business, and YouTube). Have we driven that point home adequately? Knowing that, you can optimize content for both zero-click search results and related Google channels, hopefully without hurting SEO for your own web entities.

That means focusing on a few key areas:

  • Creating well-optimized video content and publishing to YouTube
  • Building a verified, complete, and frequently updated Google My Business listing for all of your locations
  • Creating schema for your FAQ, location info, and events

It might feel a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater, this constant kowtowing to the latest whims of the Google algorithm. But the zero-click search experience actually is a lot better for users (assuming it’s not flooded with paid search ads). And with Google still firmly atop the rankings in terms of users, search volume, and popularity, keeping up and keeping your pages ranked isn’t an opportunity your business can afford to miss.

Google My Business

Okay, let’s start here: the demand for local search is significant, with more than a billion people using Google Maps every month and more than five million apps and websites using Google Maps Platform products every week. Due to this demand, Google continually releases new features, such as posts, new service and product options, COVID-19 and options for black-owned businesses, and even a website builder. Google wants to make it easy for the many people searching locally for:

  • Services
  • Hours
  • Addresses
  • Phone numbers
  • Menus
  • Customer photos and video
  • Company websites
  • Reviews and ratings

This of course creates yet another opportunity to rank and access local markets. It also helps level the playing field for smaller enterprises. Instead of trying to break into the ranks for highly saturated, highly competitive, high-traffic keywords, businesses can build their visibility in more localized markets. As it turns out, a lot of business decision-makers and consumers turn to their local markets first.

I love to keep things local. I’m always going to start local. I have an ad agency background myself, so I have a lot of connections in terms of whatever we need, whether it’s production or audio, video, or even when we were searching for a new agency a couple of years ago. I always like to start locally.” –Chryssa Rich, Director of Marketing–Marketing Speaker and Panelist–Inventor, in a recent interview with Cardinal Digital Marketing

Google My Business by the numbers:

If your Google My Business listing still strikes you as a low-ROI activity, or something down on your list of priorities, you might want to think again. Here are some Google My Business data that might change your mind:

  • 5 billion+ people use Google Maps every month (Google Cloud)
  • 5 million+ apps and websites use the Google Maps Platform every week (Google Cloud)
  • The average business is found in more than 1k searches per month, with 84 percent coming from discovery searches. Between Q4 2017 and Q4 2018, direct searches grew 38 percent, website clicks from GMB listings 29 percent (BrightLocal)
  • 900 percent increase in mobile searches for “___ near me today/tonight” (Think With Google)
  • 500 percent increase in “near me” mobile searches that contain “can I buy” or “to buy” (Think With Google)

Local search demand is a lot deeper than you might think. Most people start by looking for what they need within their immediate vicinity. And tapping into this search demand could provide your business with a tremendous competitive advantage.

How to prioritize Google My Business in the coming year:

Location-based search is built on a basic premise: when a person located in Chicago searches Google Maps for “Chicago-style hot dog,” they probably want to see results limited to their immediate area. This is why Google My Business optimization factors heavily into local search experiences, and engagement and activity on a GMB listing are strong ranking signals for Google.

Optimized GMB Listing

If local search is part of your digital marketing strategy, you’ll want to keep your Google My Business listing complete, detailed, and updated on an ongoing basis. The first thing to do is to sign up, claim your business, and verify it through the Google My Business service (the verification process can take a couple of days or weeks). Once your location is established and verified, go through your Google My Business listing and optimize every aspect of the listing that you can.

  • Update service availability and business hours. It’s pretty frustrating when you go looking for a business on Google and they don’t have their hours posted. Or you want to order food and a restaurant hasn’t posted menu information or a link to a web page.
  • Post your COVID-19 update. People are turning to search engines and business listings to see if their favorite spots are open, which services are still available, and how COVID-19 is affecting operations. Google My Business has included a dedicated space in its dashboard for COVID-19 updates.
  • Share your review form. Reviews are super important, both for your digital reputation and as a local search ranking factor. Consider including a link review form your email messages, customer communications, and website to encourage more customers to review your business.
  • Add location managers for your listing. Managing listings for multiple locations can be time-consuming for a single person. Google allows you to add managers to specific business listings to help save time and scale as you continue expanding to new locations.
  • Publish FAQs. Answering common questions can help get customers what they need without having to contact you, all in one place.
  • Add photos of your business, product, or services. People come to your listing to get a feel for business, brand, and experience. If you’re a restaurant, for example, people will look for photos of your space, your food and menu, to decide if it’s the right vibe for their night out.
  • Share weekly posts about products, events, or specials. Keep your Google My Business traffic engaged and informed with posts about your latest product sales, promotions, and special events. Post daily, post weekly, and give both customers and Google a lot of content to find.

Read “How to Optimize Your Google My Business Listing in 2020” to get more tips that will help you develop a compelling GMB listing that helps searchers and helps your ranking.


Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising

First, the good news: pay-per-click (PPC) advertising isn’t going anywhere in 2021. If anything, highly targeted, highly efficient PPC campaigns will be even more important to digital marketers. How marketers execute targeted and efficient PPC campaigns, however, might look a little different.

ppc ad for a lawyer

As you build out your 2021 PPC strategy, remember that businesses still get a $2 return for every $1 they spend on Google Ads (according to Google Economic Impact). While the underlying reasons and trends are many—and not without their fair share of debate—few disagree that PPC can be very effective. To that end, we’ve narrowed the focus to three PPC trends sure to make waves this coming year.

A CEO might not understand a paid search campaign or an SEO campaign, but they can understand your lead volume from inbound went up 100 percent, and those leads for quality and drove 20 percent increase in inbound revenue generation. That you’re starting to speak their language. A lot of it is understanding who your audience is and translating what you’re doing, which might be tactical into strategy, but then also outcomes. –Cody Lee, Vice President, Summit Partners, in a recent interview with Cardinal Digital Marketing.

Privacy Concerns and Limited Data Availability

For professionals in the PPC world, intelligence around the search terms and language people use is essential information. At a fundamental level, this is the data that we use to understand audience behavior and dial in PPC campaigns. It’s how we determine our target audience, optimize spend, and build out supporting campaign creative.

Due to the increased scrutiny around data privacy, including new legislation such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), access to keyword and search query data will be even more limited in 2021. Take Google, for example. The world’s largest search engine now limits the availability of search data, including query information in its widely used Search Terms Report. Here’s the statement on data privacy from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella:

At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. We are doing this by building an intelligent cloud, reinventing productivity and business processes and making computing more personal. In all of this, we will maintain the timeless value of privacy and preserve the ability for you to control your data.”

In achieving this mission, Microsoft focuses on six core areas that are pertinent to our own discussion about privacy:

  • Control
  • Transparency
  • Security
  • Strong legal protections
  • No content-based targeting
  • “Benefits to you”

At their core, these changes are meant to protect people’s data and comply with domestic and international privacy regulations. For the PPC folks who spend money on clicks, however, these limitations directly affect their ability to ensure the efficiency of their campaigns. That’s because knowing someone clicked a PPC campaign target keyword without knowing the term that the user clicked—and spending valuable marketing budget on that click—is a bit like flying blind.

For marketers, evolving data privacy regulations will create new challenges in 2021.

PPC data privacy by the numbers:

Data privacy is no longer that thing that search marketers can conveniently overlook, sneak around, or leave to someone else’s responsibility. Data breaches and fraud crimes now seem to come one after the other, often making national or international press. These incidents have severely impacted consumer sentiment around data collection. People are weary! They’re being bombarded with pop-ups and disclosures when they reach a website.

And new data privacy regulations can really pack a punch:

  • A business’s failure to adhere to GDPR can result in a fine of 20 million Euros or 4 percent of global turnover (
  • Data and privacy concerns are so pressing that Gartner predicts 80 percent of marketers will “abandon personalization” by 2025 (Gartner)
  • By 2023, more than 30 percent of all “brand public relations disasters” will be caused by data ethics issues (Gartner)
  • 91 percent of people are concerned about the data companies can collect on them (Search Engine Journal)
  • 12 percent of consumers say they “get customized assistance from brands” (Smarter with Gartner)

As this sample of privacy and personalization data suggests, the stakes around data privacy are high. PPC marketers have officially been put on notice, something we might not have said so definitively in previous years.

How to prioritize data privacy in PPC this coming year:

In terms of how to strategize around these changes in 2021, marketers would be wise to rethink how they collect and track data. How do you do so today and how are these strategies and tactics impacted by new limitations to data availability? There’s room for adaptation here. And there are still ways to target specific demographics while launching lean, mean, PPC campaigns.

First and foremost, though, it’s time to prioritize an organization-wide data security process for 2021. This process ought to bring in the stakeholders from Marketing, Sales, IT, Customer Service, and so on. Going forward, your ability to protect consumer data and not run afoul of data protection laws will likely become a matter of survival.

PPC Automation and AI Will Continue to Dominate Trends

If you’ve done any work with PPC, you know that campaign efficiency is the holy grail. Generally, that means maximizing conversions while minimizing cost, something PPC marketers constantly strive and innovate for. And this focus on campaign efficiency has now given way to new automation technology, powered primarily by machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), that can automate campaign efficiency.

What makes PPC automations so powerful are their ability to more accurately target people at the optimal level of “buyer readiness.” New automation technologies can do things like predict click-through rate (CTR) and conversions, freeing up time so that marketing people can better guide strategy and shape messaging.

Some insiders are predicting that manual bidding will disappear entirely in the very near future.

PPC automation by the numbers:

Most PPC ad platforms are offering some form of automation. As the data shows, many PPC marketers are taking advantage to make their jobs easier, their campaigns more efficient:

  • Using Maximize Conversions can improve CPC 426 percent vs. manual configuration (CXL)
  • 84 percent of marketers surveyed reported that machine learning is speeding up PPC work (Acquisio)

How to prioritize PPC automation in the coming year:

If you’re not finding ways to at least automate the time-consuming aspects of your PPC campaigns, you’re likely falling behind a competitor who is. Tinkering with bids comes to mind, as do rule engines and ad scripts. All of this can be automated, leaving more time for PPC strategy, including the people you target and the campaign creative you use to do so.

The key is to find what works for your team and the clients you manage. The idea is to maximize conversion value, right? If it’s an automated solution that gets you to that end, fine—as long as you’re delivering results. Here are some areas of PPC you can automate according to Search Engine Land:

  • Dynamically generated ad copy based on your site content or user data
  • PPC reporting for the campaign performance metrics that matter most to your team
  • Error checking to identify and address unexpected errors that might affect campaign performance
  • Bids based on your target conversions, spend limits, or return

One last thing! As you automate more and more of your PPC campaigns, make sure to scrutinize your ad placements to make sure you’re not advertising at a sensitive time, or running afoul of the highly critical public eye.

Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) Become the Default

By now, you’ve likely heard of responsive search ads (RSAs). Actually, by now most PPC marketers not only know about RSAs, but are using them thanks to Google’s push to make RSAs the default option. Introduced in 2019, this new(ish) kind of ad should probably be filed under automation, as they’re powered by Google AI. With RSAs, Google optimizes your headlines, ad copy, and CTA for you based on audience and search terms. Your job is to supply the content.

Here’s a tidy definition of RSAs from Microsoft Advertising:

Responsive search ads make creating ads easier by eliminating the need to figure out which headlines and descriptions work well together. You provide up to 15 headlines and 4 descriptions, and using these, Microsoft Advertising will mix and match the most optimal combinations to create effective ads for potential customers.”

responsive search ad example

In practice, RSAs are designed to save you time and improve performance for your ad groups. Just feed the system lots of variations for ad headlines and descriptions and let AI do the rest—Microsoft-powered, Google, or otherwise. The ability to automatically optimize for audiences, devices, and so on—at scale—makes a lot of sense, right? Google certainly thinks so: RSAs work so well that Google may be phasing out expanded text ads altogether.

Responsive search ads by the numbers:

Since they were introduced in 2018, RSAs have performed very well in a number of different tests. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the data that points to the eventual discontinuation of expanded text ads (ETAs).

  • Beta testing of RSAs created a 53.1 percent increase in conversion rate (adzooma)
  • In a comparative test, RSAs delivered better CTR vs. expanded text ads (ETAs) across the board, with few exceptions (Adalysis)
  • In another test, cost-per-click (CPC) and cost per conversion were generally better using Google Ads RSAs (PracticalEcommerce)
  • “On average, our advertisers have seen an increase of 10% in volume, 6% in CVR, and a decrease of 7% in CPA” (Microsoft Advertising Blog)

Given this sampling of results, which time is revealing to be quite indicative of the broader efficacy of RSAs, it’s not hard to see why this type of ad automation is likely to become the norm.

How to prioritize responsive search ads this coming year:

First and foremost, you’re going to have to make peace with ceding more control to your PPC advertising platforms. Like it or not, you’ll be using RSAs more and more if you plan to make Google Ads, Microsoft Ads, and others part of your 2021 PPC strategy.

That means a lot less tinkering and tailoring with text ads, a lot more time tinkering with your campaign creative. Is it time to find yourself a battle-tested ad copywriter for those killer, high-converting headlines? It certainly looks like it. Here’s what Microsoft Advertising recommends for RSAs:

  • 8-10 headlines, both short and long for better cross-device usage
  • 2-3 titles tied to target keywords, also with varying title lengths
  • 1 dynamic keyword insertion that automatically matches a target search
  • 1 brand title to be included in the most optimal place


Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

With the influx of automation and new advertising channels, conversions are more important than ever. And the ability to apply CRO best practices—to fine tune every step of the funnel—can translate into tremendous ROI.

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) can get a bit technical, so we like to break it down into simple terms:

  1. Get people to your site.
  2. Turn those site visits into tangible, revenue-generating outcomes.

A “conversion” might look like a form-fill to download an ebook, for example. A purchase from your eCommerce shop. Or maybe it’s a trial sign-up or direct purchase of your software subscription. See below for an example of “conversion”:

Your “rate” is the percentage of people that end up completing your desired goal, usually a percentage.

conversion rate of a call to action

With this in mind, we urge you to consider CRO from two perspectives:

  1. How people are getting to your website or digital experience (the journey from an ad, social media post, etc.).
  2. What people are doing once they’re on your site.

This gives us a bigger picture of all the key “touchpoints” along the journey, from awareness to conversion, each of which can be optimized to increase the chances that somebody makes it to the finish line. These include:

  • Display and PPC advertising
  • Landing pages
  • Blog posts
  • Website copy
  • Site structure, navigation, and page speed
  • Email and text messaging campaigns
  • Calls to action (CTAs)
  • Forms

What’s so interesting about CRO is that the discipline is all about getting more out of the website traffic you already have. It’s an opportunity to test, tweak, refine, and rebuild so that more people make it to the finish line (a purchase, a download, etc.) when they reach your site. And the reward can be tremendous, both in terms of revenue generation and overall user experience. So what are the conversion rate optimization (CRO) trends that will drive this important part of digital marketing in 2021?

Mobile Optimization

Mobile google adLots and lots of people will be interfacing with your digital channels on mobile devices. According to, people are spending 23 additional minutes per day on their smartphones in 2020. Statista estimates that there are more than 3 billion smartphone users worldwide. And in 2019, the mobile conversion rate for U.S. online shoppers was 1.53 percent (Statista). Put simply, if your conversion funnels aren’t optimized for mobile, you’re going to leak conversions and revenue.

How to prioritize mobile CRO this coming year:

Though the emphasis on mobile experiences and conversions isn’t news, the pace has quickened. Today, the focus is optimizing for a proliferation of new mobile experiences, including voice assistants, augmented reality (AR), and mobile search experiences. CRO specialists are especially concerned with their mobile checkout experiences: according to Google, the average mobile checkout experience takes 120 taps, with a 27 percent abandon rate.

To that end, audit your mobile checkout experience. How is your mobile abandon rate looking? A lot of missed revenue and goal completions might be hiding in your mobile checkout experience, so scrutinize that journey from “tap to tap.” Are there friction points, confusing user flows, or things that simply take too long on mobile? What about entering credit card information and user authentication? It’s that important.

Leverage RSAs, too. Thanks to responsive ad formats (covered above), you can rest assured that one part of your conversion funnel—your paid ads—are automatically optimized for whatever device your target audience is using.


Here’s an eye-opening stat from the team at Epsilon: 80 percent of consumers are more likely to make a purchase from brands that personalize the experience. Personalization matters, both for traditional “consumer” buyers (B2C), and “organizational” buyers holding the purse strings (B2B).

Personalization works because, at its inherent best, it makes for a more relevant customer experience. If you know, for instance, that I’m a tennis enthusiast from San Diego shopping for gear, why would you show me content related to thermal cold-weather gear? It’s a rudimentary example, but you get the picture. And in 2021, CRO specialists will need to continue finding creative ways to precisely segment and personalize various aspects of their conversion funnels.

  • 90% of leading marketers say personalization “significantly contributes to business profitability” (Think With Google)
  • 33% of marketers believe that “engaging the right customers” is the most important factor in reaching their marketing goals over the next three years (Think With Google)
  • 36% of shoppers want better personalization (Retail TouchPoints)
  • 84% of customers consider “being treated like a person” as important to earning their patronage (Salesforce)

personalization leads to business profitability

How to prioritize personalization in CRO this coming year:

The idea is to build digital experiences tailored to specific personas. With solutions like Optimizely, for example, you can create personalized web pages that display only for people coming from certain IP groupings, geographic locations, or even companies. These personalized landing pages can be used in conjunction with highly segmented—and personalized—email marketing campaigns to deepen the level of personalization and, ideally, increase conversions.

Identity access management (IAM) will be increasingly important in 2021, too. You don’t want to put users on a well-orchestrated journey to a purchase, for example, only to lose them with a cumbersome login experience that takes them to another page or interrupts the user flow. IAM solutions can solve this problem, seamlessly integrating authentication experiences that allow for deeper personalization without interrupting the user experience.


We touched on the importance of transparency in PPC advertising (see: Privacy Concerns and Limited Data Availability). CRO specialists will have similar concerns about data privacy and transparency. After all, optimizing for conversion through personalization, mobile optimization, and other tactics is all well and good; but not at the expense of user privacy or, worse, being “creepy.”

Transparency by the numbers:

If we’ve learned anything from our own adventures in marketing, it’s that people won’t buy from brands they don’t trust. Can you blame them for valuing the trust factor? 2020 was full of breaches, hacks, and cybersecurity issues, some from well-known brands. For example:

And the list goes on. It’s no surprise that big names in marketing and tech are coming under increased scrutiny around what they do with user data.

How to prioritize transparency in CRO this coming year:

Of course, trust can have a direct impact on conversions. To help build trust, build some transparency into the way you build and orchestrate your customer journeys. For example:

    • Disclose data usage in a way that users can’t miss it (and that doesn’t confuse them)
    • Review default data usage settings to make sure you’re adhering to both regulations and best practices
    • Invest in secure systems and software vendors with a reputation for the highest standard or data security
    • Tell users which apps have been granted access to your product or service and the specific details of those permissions

Data & Design

McKinsey recently published research indicating that the top companies integrate data across the organization, including design. We’ve seen the importance of integrating data and design in the way we design website experiences.

Whereas internal consensus among web designers and even copywriters might favor guiding users to a specific landing page, the actual user data—heat mapping, click tracking, etc.—often indicates what users actually want. The two aren’t always the same. In 2021, the companies that can marry design and data stand to differentiate themselves considerably.

How to prioritize CRO data and design this coming year:

This kind of collaboration can be far-reaching and deep. Mckinsey calls it “data synchronicity.” We see it as an opportunity for CRO specialists to work with their counterparts in design and data to build and refine customer journeys. The impact of this kind of collaboration on UX and, ultimately, conversions, can be significant.


Social Media Marketing

Social media is its own ball of wax, isn’t it? The nuance, controversy, and ever-shifting demand that we as marketers have come to know and love only intensified in 2020. The need to adapt quickly and precisely is as urgent as ever, especially as new and powerful channels emerge.

In reviewing our own social media strategies with clients, a few common themes continue to crop up as we look to 2021. Here are the four focus areas that we’ll be prioritizing as we build out and monitor new campaigns and expand into new channels.

Upticks and Evolutions in Usage

The COVID-19 outbreak, specifically, has created all kinds of short-term and long-term effects on the social media landscape. According to Facebook, “in the US and UK, Gen Z, Gen X and baby boomers all say they’re spending more time checking social media due to concerns around COVID-19.” Indeed, Facebook usage is way up since the outbreak of COVID-19, as is the amount of time people are spending Instagram every day.

Which makes sense, right? People are spending a lot more time at home, either voluntarily or as a result of imposed lockdowns in their city or state. Social media provides an engaging way to stay connected, pass the time, and find entertainment while we’re stuck at home. And while it’s unclear the extent to which these upticks in social media usage will extend into 2021, marketers ought to be keenly interested in some of the new insights emerging around how—and how much—people are using social media.

Here are a few data points that help underscore the profound ways social media usage is evolving:

  • Overall usage is up for everybody. According to a Harris poll cited by Business Insider, “between 46 percent and 51 percent of US adults were using social media more since the outbreak began. In the most recent May 1–3 survey, 51 percent of total respondents — 60 percent of those ages 18 to 34, 64 percent of those ages 35 to 49, and 34 percent of those ages 65 and up – reported increased usage on certain social media platforms.” Research from Statista supports this claim.
  • Average daily Facebook traffic is up 27 percent according to New York Times. Interestingly enough, the traffic spike is for the actual website (—usage for the mobile app is up only 1.1 percent.
  • The uptick might go away once the virus is contained. Assuming we do return to some form of normalcy and put COVID-19 behind us, the folks at believe social media usage will go through a correction in 2021 back to normal levels.
  • In Q1 2020, there were 100+ million downloads of the Instagram mobile app and 300+ million downloads of Tik Tok. The latter is absolutely shattering mobile download and usage records, spurred on by Gen Z and Millennials. However, the fate of the app is up in the air as officials threaten to ban it.
  • Instagram usage is up 40 percent and Instagram Live usage is up 70 percent according to Mediakix. And here’s another interesting tidbit: “In a recent COVID-19 agency guideline deck published in Business Insider, Mediakix shared that likes on sponsored posts on Instagram are up by 76 percent.”

tiktok versus instagram downloads

People are scrolling, posting, and engaging across nearly all social media channels. As you navigate this ever-evolving demand, here are a couple of 2021 social media trends to keep an eye on.

The Rise of the So-called Cancel Culture

Whether you agree with it or not, cancel culture is a real phenomenon, and it’s something that digital marketers have to be aware of. To be “canceled” on social media is to be collectively targeted for backlash or boycott. It’s digital shaming, really. And in today’s age of mobile-enabled social media, nearly any person, group, company, or organization can be quickly and swiftly “canceled.” The consequences can be severe. Here are a few recent examples:

What these three 2020 examples of cancel culture tell us is that the waters of social media are choppy, murky, and sometimes treacherous. Protecting one’s brand reputation against backlash and cancel culture has to be a consideration in 2021. The implications of any unwanted attention can be too terrific and irreparable.

How to Stay Ahead of Cancel Culture in 2021

Again, whether you agree with cancel culture or not, from a brand perspective, you don’t want to be on the wrong end of this social media trend. Here are a few tactics for protecting your brand’s reputation on social media:

  • Regularly audit any ads that are on automation. This will help avoid unknowingly publishing or advertising to questionable outlets, or posting at a sensitive or inopportune time (after a national tragedy, for example).
  • Formalize review workflows for social media posts and ads, including close scrutiny of copy, creative, and other reflections of your brand. Get sign off before clicking publish and always double check! The more diverse your stakeholder review, the better chance you’ll avoid showing a blind spot.
  • Dedicate internal resources to “listening.” Which current events, social media trends, and competitor behaviors have bearing on your micro and macro social media operations? Today, there are AI-powered solutions that can automatically provide regular, tailored alerts so your team doesn’t miss a thing.

Calls for Social Media Transparency

Not unrelated to the rise of cancel culture are growing concerns around how social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, filter content and decide what’s real, and what’s fake, what’s hate speech, and what’s not, and what content, ultimately, makes it onto their platforms.

Given the sheer volume of content and number of users on these platforms, as well as the speed at which content can be posted, shared, and catch fire, regulating what’s legitimate and what’s “fake” is no small undertaking. How does Twitter, for example, decide which topics to display on its “trending” lists? Is it based on an algorithm? Is it biased? And what is Facebook doing to help flag, report, and remove hateful, harmful, or blatantly inaccurate content?

Naturally, the major social media channels have garnered a response in the face of massive public pressure. Consider these recent developments from the world of social media:

fbi issues social media psa

Even though major platforms are committing to a coordinated response, the spread of hate, disinformation, and hurtful content remains a big, big problem. For digital marketers looking to 2021, transparency will be of utmost importance. People will scrutinize what you post more closely than ever, and they’ll expect some kind of explanation should any kind of slip-up—real or perceived—come to light. If nothing else, we can be sure that the social media landscape will remain rather turbulent come 2021.


Paid Social

As trends and consumer behavior in social media go in 2021, so goes paid social advertising. What we do know is that paid social continues to experience tremendous growth and upside. The analysts at Statista predict that social media spending will eclipse $113 million in 2021, with average ad spend per internet user surpassing $23.

Why are businesses so eager to commit marketing budgets to paid social campaigns? Paid social works, first of all. It can be highly targeted. And new ways to reach consumers, such as Messenger, as well as integrated authentication and payment options, will provide for some exciting opportunities to innovate and improve return.

Facebook Ads

Say what you will about advertising on Facebook, but the platform is still a behemoth. As we mentioned before, Facebook usage is way up. According to Statista, Facebook ad revenue is predicted to $94 billion in 2021. To tap into this tremendous pool of ad revenue, here are three Facebook Ads trends that we think will hold salt in 2021:

The eCommerce boom:

While many sectors are barely treading water amidst the pandemic (retail is down 10 percent, for example), eCommerce is up 18 percent. Predictably, the booms and busts are happening along lines drawn by the global pandemic. Many people are staying home, by choice or by requirement. At least in the United States, many businesses are in flux, stopping and starting operations based on local and national COVID-19 developments. Some are choosing to close altogether, especially those reliant on seasonal demand or special events.

Targeted Facebook Ad for ecommerceIt’s a tough time, for example, to be in the business of wedding rentals, travel, or food and drink. But if you’re in the business of home fitness equipment, now might be the time to invest more in Facebook ads. To capitalize on this eCommerce boom using Facebook ads, here are a few tips:

  • Advertise your products in highest demand. Looking at your product portfolio as a whole, it might be time to dial up ads for home improvement, cooking, and home fitness—products in high demand thanks to COVID-19.
  • Identify opportunities to take advantage of lower ad costs as more companies pause their advertising budgets, which can be monitored through Facebook Ad Manager and, to some extent, automated (see above).
  • Make mobile a priority. Mobile accounts for 94 percent of Facebook ad revenue as of Q3 2019. As we’ve mentioned, COVID-19 has only increased the amount of time people are spending on their phones, which means optimizing your ads for mobile and taking advantage of new mobile-only advertising techniques is more important than ever.
  • Be helpful. It might seem counterintuitive, but eCommerce isn’t just about sales and revenue. Think about how your products might solve a problem or make things more comfortable for people stuck at home. Use this information to inform your ad creative for Facebook ads.

New video formats:

You might say we’re living in the golden era of video, with an explosion of new channels, formats, and video advertising formats. This is especially true of Facebook: according to HubSpot, there are 8 billion video views on Facebook every day, and 84 percent of marketers use Facebook to promote their videos. Here’s a couple of other eye-popping stats:

  • 35 percent of marketers use Facebook Live to advertise (HubSpot)
  • In 2019, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said that three million advertisers had purchased ads for Facebook Stories.
  • Video creative optimized for mobile-first is 27 percent more likely to drive brand lift and 23 percent more likely of “driving message association” (Facebook Business)
  • An estimated 85 percent of viewers watch Facebook video without sound (Digiday)
  • Square videos earn an estimated 30-35 percent more video views and 80-100 percent more engagement (Buffer)

upload different videos on facebook ads for more engagement

Videos provide entertainment, joy, humor, or distraction. They can educate, enlighten, and promote. Video marketing on Facebook is super flexible, with cost-efficient options for most budgets and objectives. New predictive analytics, powered by AI, help you make sure that your campaigns are efficient, whether you’re advertising on Messenger, Playables, Carousels, or Stories. Speaking of new options, check out augmented reality and Instant Experiences, which provide interesting ways to engage your audience.

One of the compelling things about Facebook video ads is how they’re embedded in the flow of a normal user experience. They’re integrated almost seamlessly into your streams, feeds, and stories. User experience is important as you build out your own strategy for Facebook video. Here a few other things to consider:

  • Audience. Your people should be your starting point, not ad creative or technology. Your audience will tell you which ads will do best, on which devices, and when.
  • Sound. As we mentioned above, up to 85% of people watching Facebook videos with the sound off. Maybe they’re multi-tasking, in public, or sitting at their work desk. Optimize your videos for both sound-on and sound-off for better engagement and accessibility.
  • Specialists. Look for ad creatives that specialize in Facebook video ads, specifically, because quality matters and there are more than enough Facebook-specific formats and touchpoints to warrant a specialist.
  • Data. You can dig into a rich data set thanks to Facebook Ad Manager, including insights into audience segmentation, conversion optimization, and spend reports.

The unpredictable costs of Facebook Ads:

What a time to forecast your Facebook ad spend! We know that global cost-per-click (CPC) for Facebook ads is down, as are Facebook advertising costs across the board. Consumer behavior has shifted and some advertisers are weary (if they haven’t hit pause or pulled out already).

Will this trend hold forever? What’s more likely to happen is that companies will adjust and adapt their Facebook ad strategies, eventually reigniting competition among advertisers and, subsequently, ad costs. “Some 89 percent of advertisers say they have taken action with their budgets in response to COVID-19,” according to research from Facebook, “with 45 percent saying they have adjusted media type usage or shifted budget among media types.”

Eventually, the cost of Facebook Ads will self-correct, especially as the platform continues to grow its tremendous share of users. In the meantime, you’d be wise to keep a watchful eye on your Facebook ad spend, test, test, and test some more, while constantly looking for actionable data about your target market.

In its 4 Strategies to Adapt Your Ad Measurement During Challenging Times, Facebook recommends some high-level strategies for 2021:

  • Focus on the fundamentals, such as audience research and segmentation, spend management and reporting, and really good ad creative.
  • Refine your ad testing, including multi-cell A/B testing, to make sure you’re maximizing conversions, spend, and ROI.
  • Use industry-specific impact evaluations to get a more tailored and relevant look at the performance of your campaigns.

Instagram Ads

Instagram has evolved from a rather simple photo-sharing platform to a full-blown social media giant, replete with a dedicated business arm, advertising platform, and advanced analytics. As you consider how you’ll make Instagram part of your 2021 digital marketing strategy, take a look at some of the numbers from Instagram Business:

  • There are one billion Instagram accounts active every month (!!)
  • 90 percent of Instagram accounts follow a business
  • 500 million accounts use Instagram Stories every day
  • 87 percent of people say influencers have inspired them to make a purchase

There’s tremendous opportunity here, for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Instagram is particularly suitable for helping businesses launch their online presence during the pandemic. Using video, images, and stories, brands can build and engage their target audiences in really interesting ways. The platform seems to roll out new features and in-the-flow ads and shopping experiences that should at least be on your radar for the coming year. Here are the different types of Instagram ads you have at your disposal:

  • Stories Ads
  • Photo Ads
  • Video Ads
  • Carousel Ads
  • Collection Ads
  • Ads in Explore

In addition to these highly versatile ad experiences (we encourage you to explore each and find what works best for your product or service), here are two new Instagram features that marketers might want to keep an eye on.


Instagram’s primary competitor, Tik Tok, is really riding the wave right now. As popular as the platform is (it has experienced outstanding growth in 2020), it’s also up against censorship fights and bans in various countries. And its core format—short video—is pretty easy to replicate. In fact, it’s really nothing new (remember Vine?).

instagram reel for ecommerce

You can use your business page to utilize Instagram stories and reels to allow customers to see the products you offer, offer advice, or show anything “behind the scenes.” Wellstar Health System uses Instagram Reels to show patients pertinent information such as heart attack symptoms in men and women.

Enter, Instagram Reels, which the platform introduced in August. According to the Instagram blog, Reels allow users to “record and edit 15-second multi-clip videos with audio, effects, and new creative tools. You can share reels with your followers on Feed, and, if you have a public account, make them available to the wider Instagram community through a new space in Explore. Reels in Explore offers anyone the chance to become a creator on Instagram and reach new audiences on a global stage.”

Okay, technically Reels aren’t “paid social.” But marketers have a powerful tool at their disposal here. Reels are like a robust mini-creator studio within the Instagram app. It’s dynamic. It’s quickly shareable. And the possibilities are endless. Put Reels together with Instagram Stories, which more than 500 million accounts use every day, and you have a potent way to reach new users, build your brand’s audience, and even sell products.


shopping ads are increasingly popular on InstagramIncreasingly, businesses are using Instagram to market and sell products directly, and Instagram is responding with new features to improve this experience. Some businesses, for example, can publish “shoppable” Instagram posts, in which they tag products much the same way as they would tag another account or use a hashtag. People can then tap through to an integrated shopping experience from that post.

Businesses can also use Instagram Stories to build ads that drive traffic to their shop. Have you ever seen the “tap here to shop” or “swipe up to see the shop” Stories? Businesses can use Stories in this way to advertise products and link users directly to their website or online shopping experience.

As a shopping, advertising, and brand-building platform, Instagram is quite powerful. Just look at some of these numbers:

  • Every month, 130 million Instagram accounts tap on a shopping post to learn more about products and 70 percent of shoppers use Instagram for “product discovery” (Facebook for Business)
  • Instagram Ads generated an estimated $20 billion in 2019 (Bloomberg)
  • 60 percent of people say they find new products on Instagram and 30 percent of the most viewed stories are published by businesses (Instagram Business)

LinkedIn Ads

Though LinkedIn Ads might not get as much press, or have as much pizazz, like Instagram and Facebook, they’re very real. Primarily used for companies marketing business-to-business (B2B), LinkedIn can deliver significant ROI. Here are a few data points that might tip the scale for you, especially if you’re a B2B marketer.

  • LinkedIn advertising revenue is approximately $1.30 billion and 49 percent of marketers in the U.S. use the platform for marketing (Statista)
  • 94 percent of B2B marketers use LinkedIn to distribute content and it’s the #1 social media platform for lead generation (LinkedIn Marketing Solutions)
  • 1 in 2 prospects open a LinkedIn Message Ad (LinkedIn Marketing Solutions)

As you put together your paid social strategy for 2021, consider these trends as you decide whether or not to invest in LinkedIn ads.

LinkedIn Ad

Adoption is slow-growing but on the rise:

We came across some interesting research from eMarketer. They predict that more than half of all marketers will use LinkedIn for advertising by 2021. And why not? There are a lot of B2B buyers that are not only active on the platform, but use it to stay up to date on the latest in their industry, learn about new solutions, and connect with like-minded professionals. In the B2B space, where buying cycles are longer than B2C and relationship building is essential, this kind of advertising makes a lot of sense.

Here are some of the LinkedIn Ad formats you can take advantage of:

  • Sponsored Content that appears in mobile, desktop, and tablet feeds for the audiences you specify
  • Sponsored Messaging that appears in the Messaging portion of the LinkedIn experience
  • Text Ads that appear on various pages throughout the LinkedIn UI, including the top right panel on the home feed
  • Dynamic Ads that can be customized for specific users based on their behavior, profile, and history on the platform

It’s worth noting that advertising on LinkedIn is typically more expensive than other platforms. Neil Patel pegs LinkedIn cost per click (CPC) at $2 minimum (often much higher). Then again, B2B advertising—and gaining access to B2B buyers—is a different beast. LinkedIn estimates that 4 out of 5 users influence business decisions. And with new ways of targeting LinkedIn ads, we predict more B2B marketers will make LinkedIn a larger portion of their ad budgets in 2021.

Targeting is getting much, much better:

Which brings us to our second important trend to consider for LinkedIn ads: targeting and demographics. Within LinkedIn Campaign Manager, you have a lot of options for getting extra granular with your ad targeting. You can really dig deep into the job roles, company sizes, and industries that are clicking through to your website, for example, or converting on your ads. Here are a few tips:

Video Marketing

Video is going off. To say we’re in the golden era of video would be an understatement, especially when there seems to be no end to the new formats, innovation, and audience engagement techniques out there. In terms of audience, the stats are kind of wild.

Now, when you think about video, your mind probably first goes to YouTube. And for good reason: YouTube continues to be one of the most popular video platforms out there.

  • YouTube engagement and views are at an all-time high, with YouTubers seeing 20-30 percent more views (Mediakix)
  • People tend to forget that YouTube is the world’s second-largest search engine
  • In the United States, YouTube has achieved a market reach of around 90 percent, while racking up 2 billion logged-in users as of 2019 (Statista)
  • 60 billion U.S. users access YouTube daily (Statista)

And then comes Twitch. According to the same MediaKix report, streaming on the Twitch platforms has increased by more than 30 percent, indicating a marked uptick in streaming and live events. Gamers, radio programs, and other media producers are using this platform to expand their reach through engaging live streams.

The point is, the importance of video to all digital marketing channels is growing and growing fast. Exponentially. Which means this medium is critical if you hope to connect with your audience and attract new people to your brand in 2021. To that end, here are a few key video trends to keep an eye on:

More Videos on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP)

If it’s more pleasing, convenient, and useful to people, Google is probably going to make it a priority—especially if it’s a Google property. This is exactly why we’re seeing more and more YouTube videos at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs).

SERP video carouselThis trend is part of the broader algorithmic trend toward interpreting search intent and creating rich, no-click or one-click search experiences. This is why when you search for, say, “new movie trailers,” the first thing you see is a video carousel containing the most recent releases. Google is assuming you want to watch the latest trailers and giving you what you want straight away.

It’s also why certain “how two” searches prominently display an embedded YouTube video that gives you the answer, explanation, or step-by-step video instructions, right there in the SERP. All you have to do is click play to get all you need.

For marketers, this yet another opportunity to engage users, build brand awareness, and get content to rank. But there’s really no way to game the system; you can only please it by creating a lot of rich content. So: create more video content! A quick win that we recommend to our own clients is to repurpose long-form written content, such as blog posts, into smaller video “chunks.” The same can be done with interviews and webinar replays, all of which can be optimized for search (metadata, lazy loading, and so on).

As a best practice, optimize your video content for SEO, including:

  • Thumbnail
  • Transcription
  • Description

TikTok’s Growing Global Influence

We’ve talked about Instagram’s choice to “absorb” the TikTok format into its own “Reels” functionality. That’s because there’s just no ignoring TikTok’s meteoric rise. Instagram doesn’t really have a choice. Just look at some of these demographic and usage numbers:

  • TikTok is the sixth-largest social media platform with 800 million monthly active users (Hootsuite)
  • The TikTok platform has eclipsed 300+ million downloads, shattering mobile download and usage records (Mediakix)
  • Teenagers account for 32.5 percent of TikTok users (Statista)
  • More than 37% of TikTok users have a combined household income that exceeds $100k (

chart of tiktok users and income

With so many users worldwide, and the ability to share content across other social media platforms (you’ve probably seen TikTok videos pop up in your Instagram Explore tab or Facebook Video feed), TikTok’s ubiquity is staggering. The question is, how can marketers tap into this thriving platform? We have a feeling this question will be answered one way or another come 2021.

That is, assuming TikTok is still around. In the past, we’ve seen similar platforms like Vine and Snapchat taper in popularity, be reborn, or disappear altogether. As we write this, TikTok is embroiled in a legal battle with the Trump administration, facing a ban that could potentially kill the platform. The outcomes of these ongoing legal issues, as well as purchase negotiations with the likes of Walmart and Oracle, could very much impact the role of TikTok for marketers in the coming year.

The Rise of Webinars and the Shift to Virtual Events

It’s a really tough time to be in the live events industry. Many live events sectors have been absolutely decimated by COVID-19, especially concerts, live shows, and professional conferences. Since March 2020, we’ve seen a wave of cancellations and indefinite postponements.

Shift to virtual events

The shift to virtual events will continue in 2021 until people feel safe attending live events. At Cardinal, we host live webinars and round table events centered around healthcare marketing


A recent survey of business event professionals, suppliers, and planners from PCMA provides some interesting insights into the fate of the event industry:

  • 87 percent have canceled events as a result of COVID-19, while 66 percent have postponed an event
  • 70% of respondents have moved face-to-face events to a virtual platform (“many don’t see that as a short-term fix during the pandemic but something that will continue alongside in-person events going forward”).
  • 48 percent of respondents believe people will be hesitant to travel moving forward

Yet events are an integral part of lead generation and brand awareness for many, many businesses. Not surprisingly, marketers have adapted by pivoting to virtual events, with mixed results. The challenge now becomes how to develop effective and engaging virtual events, especially when in-person events might remain off limits in 2021.

Webinars, on the other hand, remain relatively unscathed. Take a recent report from ON24: compared to 2019, the day of week, time of day, and other audience adoption metrics has remained relatively steady in 2020 (despite the pandemic). If anything, marketers are investing more into webinars now that live events are out of the question. The challenge is finding new ways to keep webinars engaging, interactive, and integrated with email marketing and lead nurturing activities.

Zoom’s Rapid Rise to Prominence

Poor, poor Skype. Somehow, the familiar video conferencing tool was totally overtaken and overshadowed by the rapid rise of Zoom that was triggered by the global pandemic. And one really can’t mention video trends without mention of this ubiquitous video conferencing solution.

Almost out of pure necessity, thanks to most everybody working from home and relying on virtual meetings (including teachers!), Zoom has rapidly gained worldwide traction. And when we say rapid, we mean it. Just look at some of these stats from a recent BBC article about the rise of Zoom:

  • 30x increase in usage in April 2020
  • More than 300 million daily participants at its peak
  • Sales expected to reach $1.8bn in 2020

In terms of how Zoom can be used for marketing purposes, the jury is still very much out. Still, it is a video platform at its core, meaning you have the ability to record Zoom meetings and use those recordings in other marketing channels. This lends well to repurposing Zoom-hosted webinars, for example, or case studies and customer testimonials.


Email Marketing

As we’ve seen with the marketing trends we’ve covered up to this point, necessity really is the great motivator. As marketers strategize for the year to come—one sure to be fraught with all kinds of uncertainty and upheaval—they need to focus on getting the most out of their core marketing activities.

And it doesn’t get much more “core” than email marketing which, despite external market conditions, has remained quite reliable. One study from Omnisend shows a 31 percent increase in YoY open rates and a 22 percent increase in YoY conversion rates in the “post-COVID” era. Another study from Campaign Monitor indicates that open rates and unsubscribe rates both improved in the months following the March 2020 lockdown (YoY).

While it might be premature to call email marketing pandemic-proof, it’s safe to say that it will remain a part of your 2021 marketing strategy. At least it ought to. So here are a couple of email marketing trends to keep in mind as you build out your email strategy for the coming year.

Email Investments Will Likely Increase

As marketers tighten their budgets to continue weathering the COVID-19 fallout, they’ll increasingly shift what budget they do have to lower-cost options with higher potential ROI. After all, the need to generate leads and drive revenue will remain, global pandemic or not.

Email marketing allows businesses to nurture prospects through a long decision-making process without the same kind of budgetary commitment of say, paid social. The question is, where to direct email marketing investments? According to Smart Insights, 45 percent of email marketers report that engagement is their #1 obstacle to successful email marketing campaigns. And 65 percent of respondents think personalization is the best way to improve email marketing effectiveness.

Beyond basic personalization tactics, such as personalized subject lines or body copy, here are a few other email personalization investments to consider for 2021:

  • Re-engagement. Think about innovative ways to use email to automatically re-engage people who have already engaged with you somehow. For example, certain e-commerce integrations allow you to email people who left items in their cart without completing the purchase or to deliver personalized product recommendations directly to a customer’s inbox.
  • Dynamic segmentation. How can you leverage email marketing solutions already in your tech stack, or available from vendors, to generate emails that include personalized content and offers based on behavioral data you have about a person? According to Statista, this kind of dynamic email content is the most effective personalization tactic.

Email Marketing Automation Will Expand and Intensify

Personalizing email marketing campaigns is all well and good, but it can be extremely labor-intensive—prohibitively so, for larger enterprises. This is why so many organizations are seeking new ways to efficiently automate the process. Here’s a good example from our recent blog post, Can Marketing Automation Help Doctors Improve their Patient Relationships?:

Take some time to create pre-made emails that you send to your patients based on certain parameters. For example, your practice could have a setup in place that registers when patients come to your office. This system could then trigger a follow-up email to them a day or so following their visit that lets them know that if they have any specific questions or concerns to feel free to reach out to your team. This little follow up – that would be signed and sent by the doctor who saw them, is enough to make them feel like they were more than just a number.”

By linking web analytics to email marketing platforms, a fundamental of email automation according to Mailchimp, organizations can trigger personalized email campaigns based on user behavior. And while adoption and sophistication of this kind of integrated personalization vary from industry to industry, it ought to be a priority in 2021.

Email Marketing

Allow blog subscribers to select the kind of information they want to receive; you can then send them personalized content based on their preferences. 

Here are a few email automation numbers from Statista that underscore why:

  • 90 percent of consumers find personalization appealing
  • #1 personalization experience used by global marketers are email campaigns
  • 54 percent of U.S. consumers are interested in mobile shopping recs based on purchase history
  • Dynamic email campaigns the #1 “most effective personalization tactic” in the United States

What makes automation so appealing is the ability to automatically gather and segment customer data then trigger timely, personalized campaigns. What it requires, on the other hand, is an investment in email marketing software and web analytics that integrate directly with your customer relationship management (CRM) solution. Here are a few good examples of email marketing automation tactics:

  • Create a blog subscriber welcome series. This can be as simple as one email that welcomes new subscribers to your blog, or a multi-email campaign that shares relevant resources.
  • Enhance your existing confirmation emails. How can you make order confirmation emails more productive and useful? Is there an opportunity to include links to relevant information, how-to articles, or case studies? What about cross-sell or up-sell opportunities that add value to the customer journey?
  • Launch customer anniversary emails. Customer appreciation goes a long way to garnering loyalty! Put in place automated thank-yous that include special product discounts for annual customer anniversaries.
  • Integrate email marketing with your website. Email marketing automation software, such as ActiveCampaign or HubSpot can integrate with your website and trigger email campaigns based on specific website activity.
  • Send emails to users who abandon their carts mid-purchase. When integrated with your website, you can use marketing automation software to send website visitors a follow-up email with a coupon code to entice them to come back and complete their purchase.

From there—and that’s no small there, by the way—the possibilities for innovations in email automation are quite limitless. It will all depend on what works best for your target audiences.

Attribution continues to be a problem for everyone. […] Again, I go back to the problem of having the systems and you have to make sure that your systems are talking, especially with your financial system, so we can really go and look down at all the encounters and really attributed to those ads.” –Hernando Ruiz-Jimenez, CMO, New York-Presbyterian Hospital during a recent interview with Cardinal Digital Marketing

Email Nurturing Will Shift to Omnichannel Marketing

Though it might be the case in the B2C world, few B2B prospects and buyers come to you with their wallets out. It’s just not how the lead nurturing and buying cycle works in B2B. More frequently, the “first touch” (awareness and lead capture) is the beginning of a nurturing cycle that involves multiple organizational stakeholders and “marketing touches” that extend across weeks or even months. It’s the perfect avenue for email lead nurturing.

Traditionally, lead nurturing has been limited to the email marketing world, but that is changing and changing fast. Today, and especially in the B2B world, businesses need to reach and nurture leads through multiple channels. Here are a few data points that help explain why this evolution is happening:

  • “93 percent of the B2B buying process begins with an online search” (Pinpoint Market Research)
  • Converting leads to customers is a top priority for 74 percent of companies (HubSpot)
  • 49 percent of companies characterize their sales cycle as long, with many influencers (Ascend2)
  • 76 percent of all marketers say they have the capability to use marketing attribution or will in the next year (Think With Google)
  • 52 percent of marketers currently use attribution reporting (HubSpot)

Because lead nurturing isn’t limited to email alone—and leads don’t engage with your marketing channels statically, in a vacuum—omnichannel marketing has become the new norm. Omnichannel marketing is really a catchall for advanced nurture programs that consider and care about multiple touchpoints in a lead lifecycle, including:

  • Organic search, or how people find you using search engines
  • Organic social, or the people engaging with your brand’s various social media channels
  • Social media ad re-marketing or advertising to specific social media users based on their past behavior and engagement
  • Programmatic ad re-marketing that retargets users on digital entities outside of social media
  • Online marketplaces, such as Amazon, Walmart, and other places that people go shopping online
  • YouTube videos, which, as we’ve established, a lot of people engage with on a daily basis
  • Podcasts, a fast-growing medium for entertainment, professional development, and market intelligence
  • Sales outreach through various media, such as email, LinkedIn messaging, and good old cold calling
  • Reviews on platforms like Google, Yelp, and Facebook Business

The list goes on. And building out an omnichannel marketing program for lead nurturing, one that’s comprehensive and driven by multi-touch attribution data captured from some or all of the sources above, is no small undertaking. That might explain why 25 percent of marketers say organizational and structural challenges are the top reason they haven’t adopted data-driven attribution (Think With Google).

Still, as we look to 2021, where the number of marketing channels only promises to continue proliferating, and lead nurture cycles become more layered, varied, and interconnected, finding a way to implement an omnichannel approach will be imperative.


In Summary: 2021 Will Be The Year of “People First”

Omnichannel marketing is a great place to close this article on 2021 digital marketing trends because omnichannel marketing captures what we think will be the guiding high-level trend in 2021 and beyond: putting people at the center of everything you do.

As with any year, 2021 will have us digital marketers knee-deep in all kinds of strategies, tactics, and technologies. And of course, there will always be new trends and external market conditions to keep pace with. But the success of it all will really boil down to how well we treat people—how well we’re able to empathize, recognize, and serve their needs. When a brand incorporates empathy into its marketing strategies, what it’s doing is validating its customer base. The more validated a customer feels, the deeper a relationship that the customer will build with the brand.

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has rattled some cages. People are still anxious, unsure, even scared. And we do turn the corner, things are sure to look a little different. Research from McKinsey & Company, for example, indicates that more people intend to continue online shopping post-COVID. And 77 percent of Americans have tried out new shopping methods, brands, or places to shop.

More broadly, McKinsey predicts a market shift in consumer behavior to “value and essentials.” Indeed, we’re moving away from an age of passive consumers toward the age of active consumers. In 2021, brands will be co-created. Customer voices will be heard, one way or another, especially as the economy moves more and more toward services—toward an experience that fosters a relationship with customers and fulfills their needs continually. This shows empathy. This is the human-centered approach.

So the question for digital marketers in 2021 will be, where along the customer journey—across your SEO, video, email, social, paid advertising, and so on—can you create value and adapt to shifting consumer behaviors?


Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).