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Change has become the only constant. Much like we saw in 2020, navigating through uncertainty (often with fewer resources) has become the new normal. As a result, the media mix has become much more fluid and digital marketers who operate with a high degree of flexibility, adaptability and agility will emerge as champions in 2021.

The Drum and Microsoft recently explored key strategies for business growth to help marketers stay ahead of shifting consumer behaviours in 2021, bringing together a panel of experts who discussed how to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to your advantage and how to achieve authenticity through emotional intelligence to increase brand appeal.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

Michelle Morgan, director of client services at Clix Marketing, believes that as the economy starts bouncing back, the biggest area marketers can take advantage of is to start growing budgets again. “It’s affording us the opportunity of being really smart and diligent about where and what we test,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for testing smaller scale, new channels and ways to expand what we’re doing, but in an incremental, smart way.”

This will require many to step out of their comfort zone, diversify their portfolio, and explore and test new ways of working, said Francisco Lacayo, vice-president of partnerships at White Shark Media. “This is the year you’re going to be forced to test new things that maybe you don’t really believe in or you’re not 100% sure could work. If something unexpected changes in the market, it's a lot more tricky if you rely on one single channel, so having a diversified portfolio can give you a more secure foundation. It's going to open up a lot around how channels contribute to each other. You have to cover all your bases and find a way to connect all of them together.”

Many businesses embarked on rapid technological and digital transformation journeys in 2020 and this continuation will require adapting to levels of automation not used before. “Businesses have gone from zero to 60 in a couple of months, just to get to a point where they can stay afloat and keep their campaigns running in a smart way,” explained John Lee, head of evangelism at Microsoft Advertising.

“With search marketing, that’s adapting to some levels of automation that maybe you’re not comfortable with or haven’t used in the past – like automated bidding or dynamic search ads (DSA). None of these are bad things, but for a lot of folks there’s been trepidation and caution and they’ve had to throw that out the door and try something new.”

Last year brought significant changes in how consumers interact and engage with products and brand awareness campaigns will become even more important, according to Clix Marketing’s Morgan. “The ability to be a brand awareness generator is a much bigger deal this year,” she said.

“Everybody has tried to gobble up the bottom of the funnel; everybody wants the highest intent, leads, sales. That’s great, but you’re not going to get that if you don’t fill the top of the funnel. Your opportunities to get out in front of your competition and create brand awareness – whether through more top of funnel search, display advertising, social, and mirroring that messaging organically or through ads – it’s all about having the right brand voice out there and making sure you’re putting your best foot forward.”

With many companies having to rely more on their digital presence in 2021, brands can add value through content that mirrors customer needs to generate leads at the top of the funnel by providing value and considering the strategic side of the equation and digital’s role in that.

Getting into the right digital mindset

Microsoft Advertising’s Lee suggests that it’s “much more about agility”, which requires three things: a growth mindset to build on the foundation you have and take it to the next level; adaptability; and compassion to ensure that marketing and advertising efforts are reflective of consumer sentiment.

“It’s been a rapid change and, as a marketer, you should have already been thinking about the customer journey and looking at where search plugs in, layered with everything else that you’re doing – the content piece, the storytelling, native, display and social,” he said. “But it is much more important to have a strong cohesive plan for each layer of the customer journey.”

White Shark Media’s Lacayo added: “We’ve all been in a position where we want to use automation but we’re not 100% sure that we want to give up control of what we’re doing. This is the moment we’re going to have to start trusting a lot of the machine learning opportunities and tools out there. It’s going to take a lot of embracing, learning and understanding to help gain momentum and traction.”

With new changes on the horizon for data privacy, control and regulation, Morgan suggests that marketers need to ensure their own marketing data warehouse is clean: “A lot of people don’t pay as much attention to it as they should because we rely on cookies so much, but at some point that’s going to go away and our marketing will only be as good as the data that we have in our own warehouses,” she said.

Watch ‘Growth Strategies for 2021: The Agile Marketer’ digital panel session on demand.