The future is the great unknown. Er, actually, the future is now! No, no, no—the future is yesterday, old timer!
My first thought upon reading Caleb Mynatt’s article “How Digital Marketing Will Change: 14 Predictions for 2021” falls under what we might call Newton’s first law of internet editorials: For every suggestion or prediction, an opposite of equal assurance will be claimed (i.e. any diet recommended online can elsewhere be fully refuted). Where some of this article’s predictions assert a recommitment to perennial, fundamental, foundational marketing tactics, others claim companies that don’t “get with the times” are going to be left behind—that the old ways are just that. Then again, change and evolution were always perennial features of marketing. To add more nuance, none of these predictions foresees a retreat from the recent embrace of e-commerce, rather some predict a re-embracing of traditional commerce, where others envision e-commerce as the only worthwhile focus going forward.
Articles like Mynatt’s are a bit funny, though; by now, everyone knows there’s very little accountability for predictions that don’t pan out, and yet we keep reading them, falling for the clickbait. While some conservative guesses can certainly prove accurate, such lists are perhaps more valuably understood as Rorschach tests speaking more to the hopes and anxieties of the predictor than glimpses into a crystal ball.
Such insight into the minds and (ir)rationalies of a given industry’s experts is illuminating regardless. For example, you can bet if a CEO is espousing his belief that video will be vital for digital marketing next year, that his company is investing resources into its video capabilities.
Still, disregarding the dubious accuracy of fortune-telling online list-icles, and operating under the assumption that these are genuine predictions from legitimately informed professionals (come on, you’d never heard of “Steve Hooper” before either), these contributors foresee four trends—or changes—that I can only describe as “big if true.”
1. Kasim Aslam/Mike Rhodes: Forthcoming Data Collection Restrictions
“The massive and sweeping emphasis on privacy is going to alter (and significantly inhibit) the way advertisers are able to target and track prospects. This might be the first time in the history of online advertising that we have actually gone backwards in terms of our ability to capture and utilize data.”Kasim Aslam
“Under the guise of ‘privacy’ expect the ad platforms to continue to pass on less & less data to you in the future.”Mike Rhodes
This prediction stood out to me somewhat for Aslam’s and Rhodes’ shared opinion that data collection will be restricted and therefore more difficult for marketers to obtain, but more so for the implication that consumer privacy is just some pesky nuisance only existing to frustrate noble data research. This mindset represents the ultra creepy side of marketing, and Aslam and Rhodes either completely lack compassion for their customers, or they’re simply devoid of self-awareness. Or, is this simply how all marketers talk, and these two happened to let the mask slip? Regardless, it’s a bad look. (Nathalie Lussier from the same article frames this far, far better, predicting how companies can differentiate by “championing user privacy.” Yes please!)
2. Russ Henneberry/Savannah Sanchez/Scott Desgrosseilliers: “Old” Guard Loses Grip
“We will begin to see a crack in the Facebook/Google ad duopoly as Amazon continues to steal share from Google search ads and networks like Spotify, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, become more proficient at serving ads.”Russ Henneberry
“. . . Facebook’s tracking, targeting, and reporting may not be as effective as previous years. I believe that this will have brands looking at channels like Snapchat, TikTok, and Pinterest more seriously.”Savannah Sanchez
“The Apple vs. Facebook war is going to have seismic changes to Facebook advertisers. We are headed ‘back to the future’ where advertisers will need to use Facebook as a traffic source but completely unable to trust, verify, or count on the reporting accuracy.”Scott Desgrosseilliers
I understand the reasoning behind these predictions, but the greater psychology at play here is the human desire to be the first to “stick the fork in” and declare the end of an era. Especially in tech, everyone wants to be ahead of the curve, particularly with regard to seismic events such as Google or Facebook slipping from prominence. How embarrassing (and costly) it would have been to any digital marketers who had pinned their hopes on MySpace’s longevity, for example. Like an economist who predicts a market crash every year, or the football fan who “calls it” that his team’s defense will get an interception on every play, yes, eventually Facebook will fall, but such predictions just strike me as disingenuous, are inconsequential when incorrect, and seem more for vanity’s sake than bearing significance to investment or strategy.
3. Marisa Murgatroyd: Death of the Digital Marketing Middle Class
“While it IS still possible, it’s harder and harder to ‘get lucky’ on talent and charisma alone. You have to develop a highly specialized skill set and give each platform what its specific algorithm wants. Which means that, with some notable exceptions, the businesses and individuals with deeper pockets, deeper connections or deeper marketing chops are winning the internet… and the middle is dropping out. The big players are either getting bigger or stepping off the field as savvy new competitors leap onto the bench to take their place.”Marisa Murgatroyd
There’s something to be said for being average. That something, according to Ms. Murgatroyd, is “rest in peace.” Sure, smaller companies will have “the right” to compete with larger ones, just like how individuals have “the right” to sue corporations. Per this prediction, money is power, and neither talent (a.k.a. what we’re trying to acquire in these classes) nor charisma will be able to compete with a top company’s ability to buy or outbid its way to success. Not exactly motivational here, Marisa!
4. Emily Hirsh/Elise Darma: Devolving Consumer Attention Spans
“Videos and Instagram Reels are going to continue to take precedent and convert better than ads that use images. Over the last several months, I’ve seen that ads that are using short videos or Instagram Reel are cutting CPM’s (cost per thousand impressions) in half. I believe that this will continue to be the case as Facebook tries to compete with Tik Tok.” . . . “The life cycle of how long content is good for will shorten.”Emily Hirsh
“Gone are the days of perfectly posed or edited images. Instagram is no longer a place for photographers to show their snaps, but is a content hub of videos, memes, lives and reality TV-like stories.
“Businesses need to get on video. Even if it’s a 15-second story just to get comfortable on camera.”Elise Darma
Do digital marketers need to employ flashy videos because people have short attention spans, or, do people have short attention spans because digital marketers employ flashy videos? Either way, the relationship seems to negatively reinforce itself. Elsewhere in Ms. Hirsh’s prediction she urges companies to “focus on connection, emotion, community, and trust in your ads and go even deeper”—but do these constant attempts to grab attention and capture hearts and minds just make people shallower from repeated exposure, less able to connect, and numbed to mental and emotional stimulation? This concept certainly ranks high on my ethical dilemmas regarding digital marketing.
Goodness, at least for me, this list didn’t exactly lay out the brightest future for the industry. I’m willing to lean into these difficult truths, though—to stare into them until they start to stare back, if you will. (Talk about a Rorschach test!) I’d certainly rather get this glimpse into the industry now, though, before I’ve started to work in it full-time. Really, an aspiring digital marketer can either simply wish for tactics and trends to be a certain, preferred way, while standing athwart the rushing current in futility, or he or she can recognize the direction of the forthcoming wave and embrace or even attempt to influence it.