Digital Marketing Evolution 2021: Changing Trends and Implications for Marketers by@osama-tahir
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Digital Marketing Evolution 2021: Changing Trends and Implications for Marketers

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Osama Tahir

I write about issues on the intersection of technology and...

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Marketing is an ever-evolving field marked by a pace of
change that is higher than most other industries in the modern economy.

In the year 2020, this natural tendency of marketing trends to change and evolve was catalyzed even further by the barrage of upheavals – mass protests, political tensions, COVID-19 etc. – affecting every area of society.

The scale and suddenness of the changes can be tough for marketers to keep up with, especially when these are coupled with other non-2020 factors that have been gradually developing in impact over the years, such as stronger privacy protection laws, increased demands for transparency, and advancing capabilities of search engines.

Looking ahead into 2021 and beyond, it’s important to understand the direction that some of the digital marketing trends are evolving in so that marketers can timely turn current challenges into future opportunities – and much to our delight, it so happens that there is ample room for opportunities in this changing digital landscape.

Search Intent over Keyword Optimization

One developing trend that will become extremely important in the years to come for SEO is the prioritization of the user’s search intent for any given keyword rather than the usage of keywords within the content. Gone are
the days when marketers could simply sprinkle a bunch of relevant keywords in content (even if they didn’t quite make contextual sense) and see instant improvements in rankings.

As Google’s capability to understand semantic search improves, so does the importance of capturing the intent of the user in your content. It’s a common fact that the way people search for information online –
often involving nothing but a few vague words or phrases - is starkly different to the way content is written around said information. Therefore, for any search engine to retrieve information that accurately satisfies the searcher’s intent, a reliance on keywords can be quite misleading.

This is why recent core updates rolled out by Google focus heavily on search intent and semantic-driven search, such as the 2019 BERT update. On top of that, there’s an essential shift in the way people are searching for information today as compared to the pre-voice assistant era.


With pretty much every phone and smart gadget equipped with voice search functionality today, the language of searchers is becoming increasingly conversational and less of that fragmented keyword-speak that we’ve become so accustomed to.

This is evidenced by the increasing usage of terms such as “can I”, “should I”, and “do I need” in search queries as per Think with Google. The direction of these trends clearly suggest a shift towards topic optimization rather than keyword optimization to best answer the queries of the searcher and rank high on SERPs.

Marketers can benefit from this trend by developing their content strategies in a way that focuses on answering user queries and questions with accuracy and thoroughness. It can often be difficult to judge the intent behind a search query, but a quick glance at the top ranking pages can help you understand the kind of content that Google is ranking on the front.

For instance, if people are trying to search for a free tool and all the high-ranking pages on SERPs consist of said tools, then your page needs to have a tool of your own in order to satisfy the search intent and rank well.

There are also some less permanent changes in SEO caused by COVID-19. Hardly anything is left untouched by the pandemic and search traffic during COVID-19 is no different. With rising economic uncertainties and the resulting budget cuts, marketers have no choice but to rely on organic search more than any other area of marketing.

Understanding consumer trends created by COVID-19 has become ever more important for designing your SEO strategy so that your business may
survive the challenges posed by the devastating pandemic.

PPC and the Privacy Dilemma

The most significant change that’s going to affect PPC professionals is the online privacy landscape. With the overreach of big tech companies goading policymakers into action, leading to the development of privacy protection legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in EU and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the US.

In response to these rising privacy concerns and stricter regulations, Google has now limited the availability of search term data. This presents the dilemma for every modern marketer: on the one hand, consumers now
prefer personalized marketing and advertisement that is tailored to their
needs, but on the other hand, respecting user privacy impedes marketers trying reach out on a personal level to their target audience.


So badly have corporations damaged consumer trust through data and privacy breaches that Gartner has predicted 80% of marketers to move on from personalized marketing by 2025.

It goes without saying that PPC marketers are going to have to adapt considerably in response to these changes and prepare for a world
where zooming in on personal information of your potential customers isn’t going to be easy. In fact, even if it could be done, it would be unwise out of respect of the customer’s privacy; and you don’t want to upset your audience by breaching their trust.

Ad Automation

Automation is quickly supplanting traditional methods of running ad campaigns. For PPC marketers, expanded text ads (ETAs) are still in popular use but Google is pushing to make responsive search ads (RSAs) the default option.

This relatively new ad technology introduced in 2019 is powered by Google AI, which automatically optimizes your headlines, copy, and CTAs. All it needs is the provision of different headline and description variations. The tool then tests different combinations of the provided content and generates ads that likely to perform the best.              

RSAs are believed to be excellent for saving time and even helping improve performance of your ad campaigns. However, the effectiveness of RSAs is still a point of great contention with marketers still largely preferring ETAs.

According to a research by Adalysis, ETAs performed significantly better in terms of conversion rates while RSAs had the upper-hand in terms of click-through rate. While this might be due to a poor utilization of the RSA algorithm, the difference still reinforces the belief in the superiority of ETAs. After all, there’s a human element to advertisement that professionals might not be ready to trust AI tools with yet.

Increased Social Media Usage & The Need for Transparency

Confined to their homes under the pandemic-caused lockdowns, it’s only natural that social media usage has multiplied, creating one of the most prominent digital marketing trends that we’ve observed since the COVID-19 outbreak. From Facebook and Instagram to TikTok, social media usage has grown significantly. As per Statista, this increase was as high as 32% in the month of March.

This upward trend presents ample opportunities for firms to upscale their social media marketing campaigns and benefit from higher engagements and leads. But where the increased social media usage has levelled up opportunities for marketers to capitalize on, it’s also had a serious effect
in amplifying the spread of fake news and disinformation.

While the problem of fake news propagation has been getting worse since popular social media platforms were launched, the consequences of misinformation can be extremely harmful in the midst of the general fear and anxieties brought along by COVID-19. As a result, social media platforms are under strong pressures to allow for greater transparency.

As a marketer, this will likely translate to greater scrutiny of your social media posts and probably require some exceptional PR to avoid getting
under fire in the event of any mishaps in your posts. Sensitivity towards
transparency is going to be essential for marketers in 2021 and beyond as the world of social media is probably going to get even more ruthless in the years to come.

Wrapping Up

The life of marketers is never easy and it’s never supposed to be. As long as the world continues to spin, there will always be changes for marketers to adapt to. Sure, the year 2020 brought wide-ranging changes and, in
general, posed far more serious challenges that affected far more than our
marketing campaigns (our health and lives, for instance); but the ability to
adapt quickly to emerging trends is the hallmark of successful marketers.

All it takes is keeping pace with the insights that each trend has to teach us and evolve in the general direction marked off by the market conditions and consumer behavior.

As we’ve seen in recent years, the principles of transparency, privacy, and trustworthiness are gaining in significance, influencing much of newer trends in all dimensions of digital marketing from PPC to SMM. Although by its very nature, general rules do not belong in the world of marketing, but if we had to make one induction regarding what the future holds, it’s that the importance of transparency in all marketing endeavors will continue to rise.

And frankly? So much the better for all of us.


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