Our digital marketing predictions for 2021 - what does the future hold?

Written by Lee Colbran - 09 Dec 2020

As we draw to the end of what has been a disruptive, draining, and surreal year, we can now look forward to 2021. Given all that has happened in the last 12 months, we will likely not ever return to how things were pre-pandemic, even though come Easter, it is predicted that we will be over the worst of things. With the chaos of 2020 drawing to an end in the coming days, our team shares their thoughts on what to expect as we hurtle toward a new year with renewed hope.

Fresh Egg's digital marketing predictions for 2021

From across the business, there is never a shortage of opinions as to what the future holds. It's almost as though we knew last year not to make any predictions, as they would have all been wrong. With so many learnings from 2020 and user needs changing overnight, it will make 2021 perhaps the single most interesting and progressive year in digital.

Predictions from across the business include:

  1. The continued growth of home delivery service
  2. Remote user research will continue to grow in 2021
  3. The pandemic has fundamentally changed customer behaviours
  4. eCommerce will continue to expand and mature
  5. 2021 will be a breakout year for digital innovation
  6. Amazon will continue to disrupt traditional markets
  7. The rate of change will continue to accelerate
  8. 2020 will make fundamental changes to the way we work in the next 12 months

1. The continued growth of home delivery service

I think it’s a given that home delivery of goods is going to continue to see growth in 2021. As an example, food delivery services, both for grocery shopping and takeaways, have long been seeing increased demand. Deloitte published a report in Nov 2019 showing the industry was experiencing double-digit growth rates and could be worth $25bn by 2023. That was before Covid.

There is a related opportunity though I don’t believe been truly realised yet, and it will likely be a key battleground in the coming year – delivery logistics. I don’t mean dull B2B delivery logistics. I mean the customer-focused kind.

Not even the product delivery giants Amazon have mastered a friction-free solution - the best you can often hope for is a 24hr delivery window and a ninja delivery driver who’s in third gear and off down the road before your doorbell chime has ended. There are risks here as well, with UK Police reporting theft of packages from doorsteps increasing by 25% in the last three years.

Headshot of Duncan Heath

Brands and delivery companies who can work together to offer customers a genuinely pleasant experience will win business.

Duncan Heath, Digital strategist

Brands and delivery companies who can work together to offer customers a genuinely pleasant experience will win business. Customers want to be able to keep track of their parcel progress easily, they want quick delivery and to be able to select a slot that suits them, ideally to the hour. They want to be able to select options such as to leave in a safe space or with a neighbour, or in a close, secure location. They want to be able to return items easily and at no expense, without having to dust off the printer and print a return label in magenta ink, because that’s the only colour left!

Disruptive companies like Shutl (owned by eBay) and Doddle have been trying to solve these problems in recent years, but still haven’t got it quite right. I believe there is a huge pot of gold waiting for whoever nails this.

2. Remote user research will continue to grow in 2021

The growth of remote user research will continue throughout 2021, even if and when things get back to normal (whatever normal will be). The pandemic made remote user research the only option for much of 2020, but this enabled researchers to really get to grips with the method.

Headshot of Luke Hay

The pandemic has moved the discipline on and as a result, user testing has matured at a rate we would not have seen had the disruption of COVID not happened.

Luke Hay, User research director

The big advantage of this kind of research is that you automatically have a bigger pool of participants to choose from. Not only are geographical restrictions removed, but it’s also easier to test with users who may have had accessibility issues with in-person testing.

There’s also the fact that society has got more comfortable with video calls, both from a technology point of view but also from a behavioural one. At the start of this year around 70,000, UK users had the Zoom app installed, but now, the numbers are over 700,000! This means that a lot more research participants will not only have the app installed already but that they will be comfortable using it. While some elements of research can only really be run face-to-face, I can see the shift towards remote testing continuing in 2021.

We can help you with your digital challenges in 2021

3. The pandemic has fundamentally changed customer behaviours across all demographics/generations

In 2020 many businesses became incredibly agile and adaptive. Many adapted to the challenge and harnessed technology as they quickly pivoted their business to adapt to the ever-changing climate. For example, restaurants suddenly overnight created online shops and set up deliveries and were able to see their restaurant quality food being enjoyed in customers' homes. This rapid and agile state of mind is here to stay, and those businesses that will accelerate in 2021 will be those that continue to adapt at pace.

Headshot of Libby Toscano

This rapid and agile state of mind is here to stay, and those businesses that will accelerate in 2021 will be those that continue to adapt at pace.

Libby Toscano, Project director

The pandemic has fundamentally changed customer behaviours across all demographics/generations. More people than ever are more confident and comfortable with online engagement and transactions. I can tell how much more digitally capable my 70-year-old mum has become in the last six months!

With many large and small businesses being hit negatively by the impact of COVID, for many, 2021 will likely see many adapting their strategies to deliver results with smaller budgets. This could see an upward surge in the use of analytics to drive optimal investments.

I think 2021 will continue to see disruption to the traditional distinction between brands and retailers with the continued rise of direct to consumer, e.g., https://heinztohome.co.uk/.

4. eCommerce will continue to expand and mature in 2021

It’s 2020, and everyone has a website... except those that don’t have a website. During lockdown #1, I had a brief conversation with a local shop owner making deliveries to keep their business running. Outside of a single-page online directory profile, they had no website and no online sales channel. To facilitate phone orders, they literally had a piece of paper stuck to the front door of their closed shop.

COVID resulted in massive disruption to 'normal' life, to our way of purchasing products. The world has had a serious push in the back to move forward and join the digital revolution. Now, small, local businesses need an online presence to continue to serve the local community. This has led to increased demand in ready-made eCommerce platforms.

As a result of this increase, there will be a growth of software and cloud platforms to enable and streamline eCommerce for non-digital businesses.

I feel 2021 will bring:

  • Growth of online shopping ecosystems
  • Existing platforms aggressively targeting businesses
  • New providers streamlining access to provide online browsing and sales functionality
  • Increase of features and innovation to enhance the online shopping experience
  • Specialised e-tailer platforms recognized as authority destinations for certain products.

Headshot of Stephen Jones

The traditional ‘high street’ shopping experience will continue to die as towns see the independent retailers hollowed out of the storefronts, but it will make a side-step online and software or cloud platforms that enable this are going to be hugely popular.

Stephen Jones, Senior SEO strategist

The necessity of an eCommerce or brochure site is questionable when the weather is good, and there is a plentiful supply of footfall traffic in a brick and mortar store. Take those factors away (whether through the pandemic, disruptors like Amazon or whatever Brexit is going to do to the economy) and that quickly becomes a liability.

Even before COVID, the high street was struggling, and small businesses bore a disproportionate brunt of recession. Now, even large brands are rationalizing their branch chains, and the smaller ones, which represent 46% of private corporate businesses, are going to be further squeezed out of shopping centres where costs continue to rise.

Sadly, I can only see that the traditional ‘high street’ shopping experience will continue to die as towns see the independent retailers hollowed out of the storefronts, but it will make a side-step online and software or cloud platforms that enable this are going to be hugely popular. Amazon and eBay (of course) are going to try and take as much of this market as possible. Still, I’m sure we’ll see a flurry of providers openly courting business owners to get online, visible, and selling. Bridging the skills gap for digitally-immature clients will be the key to carving out a niche.

Equally, the infrastructure to support getting goods to retailers and customers will also thrive. Business growth in transportation is currently the highest in the UK in 2020. E-tailers will need to ensure their solutions dovetail with the range of potential vendors as well as the increasing range of delivery systems.

Given enough migration to this model, it will specialise. There’s already been some movement on this with food deliveries. Still, eventually, the more successful online platforms will be seen as the new ‘hidden gems’ where quirky, interesting shops can be found. As convenient as sell-everything megastores can be, there’s still the innate attraction of exploration and discovery that’s part of the casual retail experience, and this isn’t something online vendors aren’t presently good at.

5. 2021 will be a breakout year for digital innovation

COVID has demonstrated the importance of digital service provision across many sectors. It's a fair certainty that the need to react to changes in consumer purchasing behaviour will push digital maturity up the priority ladder for many organisations. I think there'll be a lot of work put into new websites to introduce new functionality. At the same time, a lot of effort will go into logistical solutions to get the product to consumers in the manner that they will grow accustomed to, such as the same or next day.

The speed of digital service delivery will be an important selling point. When everyone starts offering home delivery, things like next day will become standard. Same-day or even within the hour delivery in certain locations will become strong differentiators.

Headshot of Duncan Heath

I think 2021 will be a pretty spectacular year for digital innovation. Some of the pieces have been lining up. Economic downturns are generally good incubators for innovation as people invent their way out of difficulty, spotting opportunities in the market that aren't being addressed by the established players who are busy focusing on the immediate situation.

Nate Wood, Digital strategist

Digital fatigue has already been a thing for some time, most notably applied to social media. Through 2020 the initial novelty of Zoom meetings was relatively short-lived. While working environments have successfully adopted remote working and meetings, something they resisted for a long time, I think 2021 will start to see digital burnout/overload as a serious risk. I think 2021 will be a pretty spectacular year for digital innovation. Some of the pieces have been lining up.

Economic downturns are generally good incubators for innovation as people invent their way out of difficulty, spotting opportunities in the market that aren't being addressed by the established players who are busy focusing on the immediate situation. Couple that with high digital usage and adoption in the market, and there's fertile ground there. Having said that, the start-up tracker at Plexal indicates that funding for tech start-ups is drying up a bit, and over 1000 tech start-ups have filed for administration since COVID kicked in. So while that innovation seed may be ready to grow, the cash fertiliser to help it along may be lacking.

I think the digital landscape will become a lot more complex. The need to deliver elevated digital capability within organisations that may be strapped for cash may further accelerate the in-housing trend, particularly in the hybrid space. There may be increased use of freelancers as organisations may not wish to commit to permanent headcount so that they may seek creative alternatives to agency contracts.

I think smaller, more agile, and nimble agencies that can be creative will have a significant advantage there. This might introduce multiple ways of working and servicing organisations. I would expect our current model using trusted freelancers to become much more commonplace, especially as the amount of talent in the market may grow.

In the paid space specifically, I think the use of hybrid models to deliver fairly standard biddable channels will definitely increase. We've seen it with PPC quite a lot, and the trend will continue with things like paid social, where the barrier to entry is skill-driven as platforms are generally freely accessible and tech is now relatively affordable. The hybrid model will become important in this space. I think marketers as a whole should expect increased levels of scrutiny on performance in 2021. For many organisations, the economic situation will drive increased consideration for the short-term performance, unfortunately, which may favour many digital channels. Digital marketers can expect to be very busy through 2021.

6. Amazon will continue to disrupt traditional markets

You may say, based on the last 20 years, it is all too easy to predict another big year for Amazon. But this is exactly what I see happening. The platform gets so many things right which puts it streets ahead of its rivals. It helps when your owner is the richest man in the world, and there is no shortage of funding to test, innovate, and commit to endless R&D.

While there are many negatives to Amazon and the damage it inflicts on our way of life, its users get sucked-in by the ease of the platform. With its next big move, I fear for the UK grocery market and the traditional grocery retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, and Asda.

Amazon, in partnership with Morrisons, will be gaining huge insights into the UK's retail food market. This is a big call, but I can see no other path than Morrisons falling to the Amazon empire, if not in 2021, then a date not far beyond this. This would be a huge shake-up to one of the last bastions of the UK shopping experience. Amazon already has two core pieces of the puzzle in place with Alexa and Prime. I have seen first-hand non-digitally savvy users embrace using the Alexa home assistant. It will become easy to add items to shopping lists through the technology that many users now have in their homes and use effortlessly. I have been watching the general increase of groceries appearing on Amazon UK, it is like watching a grandmaster play chess, and now it really does look as though checkmate is coming. With the recent move in the US with Amazon venturing into prescriptions, UK chemists may be subject to huge disruption shortly. 

Headshot of Lee Colbran

Sadly for the UK retail sector, there is not going to be any let-up in the relentness nature of the Amazon land grab. With the tech giant venturing into new markets all the time, further elements of the high street will be disrupted. The tie-in with Morrisons is a relationship that needs to be watched closely.

Lee Colbran, co-founder

On the flip-side of watching the carnage of Amazon disruption (and swimming against the tide), I do feel there is an opportunity for a renaissance within the High Street.

The pandemic has battered the traditional UK high street into what almost looks like the end game. But... could the enforced lockdowns could be what the doctor ordered? While we like the convenience of online ordering, won't it be refreshing to go out, touch stuff, look at things once again?

Retailers can capitalize on this on ways that online shopping cannot offer. A physical shopping experience can and will still exist. Yes, VR and AR can offer a novel, even unique experience, but is not the same. After months of being confined to barracks, retailers can entice shoppers back with a high-end personalised experience - will it happen? I really hope it does - but retailers have to up their game.

7. The rate of change will continue to accelerate

We’ve seen Disney’s latest blockbuster bypass the cinemas and go straight to digital release. It’s now possible to walk through the flat you want to rent via a 3D virtual tour and make an offer without even stepping foot inside the property.

And we now live in a world where it’s just as acceptable to have a meeting at the kitchen table, as it is the boardroom table. These advances have always been on the horizon; it's just that the pandemic just gave them a significant push.

While 2020 has been the year of change in so many ways, the changes to our behaviour that have been normalised by the COVID pandemic would have come to pass whether it would have taken 12 months or 12 years. This change is happening on a global scale, but also on a much more localised one too – and it’s happening faster than ever before.

Headshot of Duncan Copeland

These advances have always been on the horizon; it's just that the pandemic just gave them a significant push.

Duncan Copeland, Account director

In terms of digital marketing, this change could be an entirely new market. Still, it could also be a new channel that drives acquisition in a more affordable way than you ever thought possible back in February.

To adapt when change is happening at pace, we need to try and predict what might be on the horizon and in my experience, the best way to do this is to get the opinions of your customers, both current and prospective. Speaking to real users or testing how they engage with your website will enable you to

identify behaviour changes and adapt accordingly. We might not be able to predict 2020 levels of change, but user research might well hold the key to a successful 2021.

8. 2020 will make fundamental changes to the way we work in the next 12 months

My predictions for 2021 are based on how the impact of 2020 will make fundamental changes to the way we work in the next 12 months (and beyond).

In March, millions of us were plucked from our familiar offices and overnight had to set up desk space in a kitchen/bedroom/cupboard, then carry on with doing what they used to do, but in a very different way.

Many brands had to throw away their marketing plans and strategies and adapt to a world that was changing daily. I heard an interesting conference presentation recently from Specsavers' eCommerce and Marketing Director, Chris Carter, who talked about how having to change direction quickly actually had positive effects - silos were removed, new stars in the team stepped up, and the overall performance of the team increased.

Headshot of Duncan Copeland

Speaking to real users or testing how they engage with your website will enable you to identify changes to behaviour and adapt accordingly.

David Somerville, Strategy director

Other 'ways of working' that I think will continue well into the next year include:

  • Changes to siloed working - we have seen businesses realise that they need to get people working better together and arguably being all located individually means you can bring people together virtually more easily than in physical spaces
  • Online meetings replacing face-to-face meetings in many cases - there will definitely be times when people should meet face-to-face. However, I feel that many will realise they can maximise their working time by cutting down on the travel time for a meeting that could be easily done via video
  • Online workshop tools growing in popularity - undoubtedly running a workshop face-to-face is much easier, but we have found ways of using online tools (such as Miro or Google's Jamboard) to replace classic workshop sticky notes
    • This means that people might well look to adopt these tools more, in conjunction with a reduction of face-to-face meetings
  • Flexible working as the norm - I see this being embraced by many firms, based on the demand from workers. According to surveys like this one, a majority of employees want to continue working from home at least two days a week
    • This flexibility will give people the chance to embrace better a work/life balance, which can only be a good thing when it comes to employee mental health and happiness
  • Recruitment of people regardless of location - whilst many businesses will continue to want their employees to live within a commutable distance; others will be looking to take advantage of the ability to recruit from a much wider national (or even international) pool of talent. There are clearly advantages of getting people together physically - both to work and socialise - however this can still happen, with people working flexibly and then visiting the office from time-to-time.

Regardless of what happens in terms of vaccines and potentially more offices reopening, there is no doubt that the way we work in 2021 (and beyond) will have changed. And personally, I think this is largely for the better.

So, that's it, after much thinking 2021 will inevitably bring change for marketers in both agencies and in-house teams. Organisations that can adapt will benefit from the evolving landscape, continued changes in customer behaviour, and emerging technologies. Let's hope the new year is more positive than 2020, and that a sense of normality can return.

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