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Hindsight 2020 & Looking Ahead to 2021

8 MINUTE READ | December 16, 2020

Hindsight 2020 & Looking Ahead to 2021

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

It was a year unlike any other, defined by unprecedented events, yet characterized by a strong sense of togetherness and community around the world. And though year in review stories are a time-honored tradition for publications, this year’s batch feels different. In similar form, many of the major tech platforms published detailed reports and insight into what drove the most significant amount of conversation and engagement among viewers and users this year and what trends will carry into 2021.

The events of 2020, including the devastating wildfires and ecological losses in many parts of the world, the pandemic and its economic impact, as well as the national reckoning of racial equality and equity, collectively turned the public’s attention to social issues related to civil action, social justice, education, mental health, and improving sustainability initiatives and environmental protections. 

According to the World Bank, the pandemic has had a wide-ranging impact on nearly every aspect of life and economic development, including:

  • Millions of families have been forced to make trade-offs and sacrifices that will harm global health and learning outcomes as a result of job loss and financial insecurity. Student dropout rates have also grown worldwide since the pandemic began. 

  • Reversing the gains made in economic progress, economic empowerment, voice, and the agency of women everywhere.

  • A global rise in food insecurity, conflict, and violence resulting from economic lockdowns and the pandemic’s impact on public health and business sectors. 

A renewed focus on mental health and wellness has also emerged due to the pandemic, with health and fitness firms like Calm and Peloton experiencing record adoption and growth. In contrast, a greater emphasis has been placed on addressing and monitoring the pandemic’s psychological impact across academia, public health organizations, and large businesses with the resources to offer new benefits for employees. 

Google’s 2020 Year in Review noted that searches for invisible disabilities doubled, demonstrating the collective awareness of disabilities including PTSD and autoimmune disorders in 2020. “How to donate” was searched twice as often as Google searches related to “how to save money.” According to Reddit’s 2020 Year in Review, some of the most discussed topics in r/worldnews included COVID-19, Climate Change, and Human Rights, while the most discussed in r/longdistance included separations due to COVID-19, supporting one another’s mental health, and more. 

As we reported in last week’s briefing, in 2021, pandemic-induced behavior and pre-COVID normalcy are likely to co-exist, assuming that once vaccines are out and the pandemic is under greater control, pent-up consumer demand will make up for lost time in the entertainment sectors hit hardest by restrictions – including cruises, theme parks, and live events. Simultaneously, streaming, podcasts, and gaming will continue to rise and orbit the home, as home continues to be the center of how we live, work and play. 

Because many trends (cord-cutting and curbside pick-up for example) were already in the process of widespread adoption, we can anticipate a gradual merging between pre- and mid-COVID lifestyles. In other words, we don’t expect people to return their Pelotons or cancel their Hulu subscriptions, which means the adoption of in-home lifestyle behavior across fitness, entertainment, and work is likely here to stay.

Digital communities flourished in 2020, with TikTok, Twitch, Clubhouse, and Substack serving as the platforms of choice for millions of new creators worldwide. Virtual events and immersive experiences, such as the Travis Scott concert in Fortnite or virtual graduation ceremonies and events in Minecraft and Roblox, introduced new ways to create community and foster creativity while giving us a glimpse into what the future of entertainment and media could look like.

As such, the creator economy is growing at an impressive rate heading into 2021, with platforms like Substack and Roblox serving as the foundation for independent creativity, innovation, and the development of niche communities — especially as leaders like Facebook are expected to face legal battles and headwinds against M&A activity and platform innovation. 

Related: Morning Consult’s Fastest Growing Brands of 2020.

Reddit’s 2020 Year in Review unveiled that the platform sees a staggering 52M daily active users (up 44 percent Y/Y) with important subreddits like r/blacklivesmatter and r/needafriend experiencing incredible surges in membership growth and activity (+9972.4 percent Y/Y and +100 percent rise Y/Y, respectively), signifying the strength of online activism and community building. In line with this trend, Google’s Year in Search reports that the top searched game in 2020 was Among Us, the free, social-based online multiplayer game that explores new territory for online gaming: communication and cooperation versus sabotage and deception, as is typical for other popular titles like Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout or Fortnite. Combined, these trends point to a growing desire for community, entertainment and online social engagement that’s rooted in positivity and enjoyment.

Further Reading: Andreessen Horowitz on the new wave of social platforms.

Regulating Big Tech and the burgeoning influence of tech platforms on society continued to take hold on Capitol Hill, with the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google (virtually) appearing before lawmakers several times throughout the year. Additionally, Netflix’s The Social Dilemma put a spotlight on consumer privacy and the negative impact of social media, offering viewers a unique glimpse into data collection practices, the psychological impact of social media, and how more personalized technology has played an integral role in the spread of misinformation. Of course, this was exacerbated by the attention dedicated to election security and the fight against misinformation amid the 2020 U.S. elections. 

In the end, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security determined that the 2020 elections were the most secure in the country’s history. While 2020 concluded with the U.S. Justice Department filing a legal complaint against Google, and the Federal Trade Commission and 48 states filing antitrust suits against Facebook, few analysts expect 2021 to deliver bold federal regulatory action, especially considering the competing priorities in Washington, D.C. 

Further Reading: The New York Law Journal on the privacy challenges brought on by the pandemic.

As we discovered earlier this year, trying to predict what the next 365 days could bring may not be the best use of our collective time. However, annual forecasts still serve as an opportunity for reflection and act as a healthy barometer for defining the most influential trends shaping the future of the marketing and media industries, and how marketers can prepare accordingly. 

Below are some of our favorites:

Many marketers are asking: How do you plan when so much remains unknown? Even as promising strides are made in the fight against the coronavirus, life isn’t expected to return to “normal” anytime soon, and when it does, no one knows what life after a pandemic looks like. As analysts, lawmakers, sociologists, and scientists weigh all these questions and more, one idea remains true for marketers: Innovation and agility will be a necessary part of a winning formula in times of uncertainty. 

Related: Adweek unveiled the 25 best ads of 2020.

For brands, this means continuing to reforecast your business based on consumer sentiment and the ebbs and flows of the pandemic and its effects on communities, supply chains, and fulfillment solutions as done throughout 2020. 

We anticipate 2021 will mark a period of ongoing transformation for marketers as, 

  • Digital and ecommerce adoption continues to accelerate. The technological impact of 2020 is here to stay, offering marketers more data points, more customer interaction, and a greater need for innovation during the customer journey than ever before. Combined with the advancements 5G will usher in, brands will need to continue to adopt speed, agility and flexibility in how they go to market.

  • The consumer mindset evolves, and the desire for greater insight into consumer needs, desires, and behaviors grows for marketers. From the issues consumers care about to new family and work dynamics and the enduring psychological impact of 2020, brands must approach 2021 with insights and empathy for how consumer needs, desires and behaviors have shifted. 2021 will bring a renewed focus on strategy, creative, and brand purpose. As a result, efforts to improve the customer experience and find new opportunities for personalization will be essential. 

  • Media diversification and advanced advertising solutions blur the lines between brand and performance marketing. With platforms under fire and a burgeoning streaming marketplace, there will be more avenues than ever for reaching and resonating with target audiences. It will be important for brands to continue to diversify investments and to test and learn as much in new channels like TikTok and Fortnite as traditional channels like email and display, to find audience engagement and exciting new growth opportunities.

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In prioritizing digital transformation, vertical integration across the digital landscape, and innovation amid these changes, brands will need to remain agile and ready to take advantage of the latest trends and advertising opportunities to drive meaningful engagement, staying one step ahead of whatever 2021 may bring.