5 digital trends to watch in 2021

Lessons learned in social disinformation and the explosion of gaming from WE’s Trevor Jonas.

Without a doubt, 2020 was a year most of us are eager to put squarely in the rear-view mirror — while stomping down on the accelerator. That said, there are lessons to be learned from the past 12 months, particularly as they pertain to marketers’ abilities to capture and maintain the attention of a target audience.

As we have collectively relearned how to live our lives, maintain social connections and work in an increasingly digital world, several trends emerged that promise to influence our future, COVID-19 or not. Here are five such digital trends to watch in 2021:

The disinformation dilemma

Social media platforms were built to make information sharing and distribution dead simple, and they’ve wildly succeeded in doing so. Conversely, they were not built to filter, edit or make any type of editorial judgements on the information shared by users. 

Watching Twitter and Facebook grapple with a daily flood of misleading content and disinformation shared across their platforms has been eye-opening. It also brought me back to a time long ago — South by Southwest 2014, to be exact — when I attended a fascinating and prescient session hosted by Zach Seward, cofounder and CEO of Quartz. The session was titled Platforms vs. Publishers, and a good amount of time was spent talking about how social media platforms took great solace in the fact that they were not held to the same editorial standards as publishers. In fact, the thought at the time was that editorial standards for these platforms would be bad for business. Fast forward to present day, and that certainly appears to be the case.

For better or worse, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of social platforms’ handling of the disinformation dilemma. The warning labels used today by Facebook and Twitter feel like slapping a Band-Aid on a mortal wound; they don’t address larger, underlying issues. 2021 will be a year that all social platforms, mature and emerging, must take a significantly deeper look at disinformation and at themselves to begin to chart a different course.

Live, but with a long tail

Without a doubt, 2020 will be remembered as a year of virtual events, with an astronomical number of hours spent in live video meetings and chats. When it is safe to host large-scale social gatherings again, there is little doubt we will see a return to major industry and tentpole events like the Consumer Electronics Show, SXSW, and college and pro sports. Also likely to stick around is the use of digital tools, bringing geographically dispersed audiences together for smaller-scale moments. I’m talking about things like product launches or customer events, where people have historically traveled to be physically present, but now realize the folly of such a mindset. 

The smart marketers will be those who approach these moments with two distinct, but related, mindsets. First, addressing how to pull off an impactful, engaging live event in a virtual format. Skills and technologies have been developed, and lessons have been learned. 2021 will be the year live, digital-only events truly entrench themselves in daily work life. Second, addressing how to tailor content from those live events for the long tail of consumption for the days, weeks and even months after the curtains have closed on the live event.

Data and privacy

I’m not sure about you, but my nonwork bubble this past year included quite a lot of discussion and shock — even disillusionment — about Netflix’s documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” It turns out our favorite social media apps, and even our phones and smart speakers, aren’t only providing us with a way to stay connected with near and far friends and family; they’re also collecting a ton of data about each one of us. Of course, we have known this to be the case for a long time. 

New U.S. laws went into effect in 2020 at the state level, putting more burden on companies that collect consumer data and do so deceptively. There appears to be a storm brewing on the horizon when it comes to consumer data and privacy; the best way for brands to navigate it will be through first-party data. As consumers become smarter about digital data collection and regulators become increasingly involved, access to second- and third-party data may very well dry up. Marketers and their organizations need to be preparing now for operating in such a scenario. How? Start by prioritizing the collection of first-party data; it will be the most reliable, accurate and affordable data to which you’ll have access. 

Entertainment is greater than gaming

Gaming is on nearly every trend list for 2021, and it has been a focus for several years. This is for good reason. Globally in 2020, YouTube Gaming had 100 billion watch time hours. Think about that: 100 billion hours were spent by people watching others games — not playing games themselves. It’s staggering. 

Separately, Fortnite recently held an event to mark the release of a season of its popular game. According to its own data, some 15.3 million concurrent players joined the in-game event, and another 3.4 million watched via YouTube Gaming and Twitch. That’s nearly 19 million people reached in this singular moment. For the sake of comparison, this is essentially the same number of people who tuned into the National Football League season opener this past September, and we know how much of a juggernaut the NFL is in terms of commanding an audience. 

What does this all mean? It means we need to think about gaming differently. It’s clearly evolved beyond a cartridge, a console and a display of content on a single television. Now, it is multichannel entertainment, with options and offshoots of a given franchise tailored for segments of each audience. There are creative modes for those who want to build and experiment; there are watch modes for those interested in simply viewing; there are party modes for those who want to hang out virtually with friends in a different environment. Not only are there multiple ways for brands to engage through integration and advertising, but there is a lot to learn from the most successful gaming franchises, who put audiences first to build unique experiences for all segments. 

Agility

If 2020 has taught us marketers anything, it was that a truly agile approach is now an imperative. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow, and agility is no longer something that can be left solely to lip service.

Team structures need to be revisited. Are the right people collaborating with each other? And how close to real time can you make that collaboration happen? Similarly, ways of working must be re-thought and re-implemented to be far nimbler: think quick scrums and virtual stand-ups versus hour-long, once-per-week team meetings. With these structural changes in place and in practice, overall marketing and comms strategies can be re-imagined and implemented. 

What digital trends are you watching as we head into a new year?

Trevor Jonas is WE’s VP of content and channel strategy.

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