2021 Will Be Unpredictable, But It Doesn't Have To Be Unplanned

Last year, marketers saw unprecedented volatility and uncertainty, meaning that data from previous years — or even the previous day — was essentially useless for planning.

As a result, our carefully considered KPIs, sales targets, product roadmaps, and testing plans were rendered obsolete, leaving us to make it up as we went along.

It would be nice to imagine that 2021 will be calmer, and therefore more predictable, but we have already seen there will continue to be massive disruptions from COVID-19, a rancorous political environment and the implications of a transfer of power, as well as new, poorly understood restrictions on cross-device tracking and greater scrutiny of Big Tech. 

Still, this year we have the advantage of knowing in advance that the only thing we can predict is unpredictability. And if 2020 taught us anything, it was how to make agile, data-powered decisions, offering us insight into how to make a plan that will be durable regardless of what happens.



To do so, we need to apply both the lessons learned from this past year, as well as some universal truths that tend to be forgotten in the chaos of uncertainty. 

Focus on what will be true no matter what.

Make your customers' needs your True North. This is always good advice, but this year those needs will shift significantly. We will have to watch trends closely to distinguish between permanent and temporary shifts in how people live, work and shop.

For example, which grocery shoppers will still prefer buying online? Will consumers keep choosing curbside pick-up, even when they can safely shop in stores? Will there be an explosion of revenge travel this summer or are people locked into more cautious plans?

Consumer insights and brand empathy will be more valuable than ever, including for performance channels, where they are often an afterthought. 

Get creative with your creative.  As an industry, we have become so dependent on measurement, hyper-personalization and microtargeting that we can forget to make ads that could appeal to a broader target.

Brand loyalty took a hit in 2020, which means that while brands are working even harder to keep and engage core customers, every marketer has an opportunity to expand into new segments.

And with diminished precision for audience targeting, creative that connects with consumers in an authentic way — aspirational, practical, informative — will be crucial.

By staying true to what your brand has been before last year, you'll be in better shape to succeed next year.

Make content worth finding, and make it findable. If you had to put off SEO projects, now is the time to move them back to the top of the queue. Not only should you get your technical house in order, but also ensure that the content on your site is tailored to this moment.

For instance, a content audit can identify legacy content that can be refreshed, improving SEO ROI. Search demand may go up or down, but it is always a good thing to get as much of that demand as possible and then to give searchers a great experience on your site.

As a bonus, this will benefit your paid-search performance and provide insights into what customers are most interested in. Have specific plans for what you think will be true.

Embrace the hurricane.  Your models for 2021 will have lower confidence levels than usual, so this year might be more like predicting hurricane paths rather than tomorrow's high temperature. This does not mean you abandon your familiar methods, just that you will need to be comfortable with probabilities rather than certainties. 

Plan like it's Cyber 5, so it won't feel like Cyber 365.  Every year retail teams begin scenario planning for Cyber 5, working on action plans for everything from CPC inflation to site outage to crisis communications, so when something happens, the team acts immediately.

In 2021, brands should be approaching the entire year the same way —and not just in retail. You can't plan for everything, but you can plan and create scenarios for what is likely to happen, even if you can't say exactly when or where it will occur.

Knowing ahead of time exactly who will do what, when, and where will ensure optimal performance and brand safety, and it will not come at the expense of your team's work/life balance.

Remember: Prework means less work. 

Eat. Sleep. Take Walks.  Like everyone, marketers are exhausted. Many of us didn't step away from our computers for more than a few minutes — for months at a time. Asking teams to do their normal tasks the normal way while dealing with this extremely unusual volatility is a recipe for errors, reduced creativity, and burnout.

To ensure your team can manage what you can't plan for, find ways to streamline daily work that you can plan for — reduce and shorten meetings, automate repetitive tasks, relax turnaround times — and give your team (and yourself) explicit permission to take breaks.

The tradeoffs will be worth it because you will improve not just morale, but productivity and work quality. One of the positive lessons we can take from last year is that we are far more resilient, creative, and adaptable than we had ever imagined.

But those were hard-fought lessons that often came at the cost of living a balanced life.

2021 promises to be just as unpredictable as 2020, but if we plan properly, it doesn't have to be as difficult.

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