Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

What will 2021 look like for digital advertising?

By Harmony Murphy, GM Advertising at eBay UK

2020 was a very unsettling year for all industries – and digital advertising was no exception. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic the sector experienced worrying setbacks as advertising spend dropped dramatically, but the sector remained resilient, and made a strong comeback in the latter part of the year.

2021 may be a new year, but the pandemic isn’t going anywhere fast, and therefore neither are the challenges that marketers are facing. The silver lining? We’ve learnt some important lessons over the past few months. With this in mind, here are three things we expect to see in the world of digital advertising in 2021.

Brands must prepare to pivot and adapt

While planning has always been crucial for brands, the ability to pivot is becoming increasingly important. Indeed if there’s one thing we learnt in 2020, it’s that the world we live in is highly unpredictable. From one wave to the next, consumer behaviours have at times been turned on their head – and even the best strategies have had to be rewritten.

With brands still facing plenty more uncertainty in the year ahead, planning and thinking about long term goals will of course remain crucial – but marketers also need to be ready to adapt their strategies as necessary.

And while the bravest marketers might be well prepared to pivot, they’ll need to be willing to make mistakes too. After all, new strategies might not always produce the best results straight away, so resilience, perseverance and a ‘test and learn’ mentality is key. Marketers will need to be able to roll with the punches.

Ultimately, it’s going to be the most agile, relevant and in-touch brands that will remain a step ahead. These brands will be the ones that tap into the freshest data to understand ongoing changes in consumer behaviour, readily reassess and pivot their plans, and continually engage consumers with relevant, empathetic messages – whichever way the wind shifts. And while the market conditions might be tough, there’s no doubt we’ll see many marketers thriving amid the adversity.

No more blanket blocklisting

In 2020, the global pandemic highlighted weaknesses within blocklist systems. As Covid-19 reached the UK in spring, many advertisers and agencies scrambled to distance brands from ‘Coronavirus’ with blocklists. But, as brands saw their ads blocked from huge swathes of engaged audiences, it became apparent how flawed blocklists can be when used as part of a broad-brush approach.

Of course, blocking ads against keywords on certain channels will improve brand safety in certain situations, but it quickly became evident that this blanket approach – particularly for something dominating the global agenda – has potential to cause more damage than good – limiting campaign reach and reducing share of voice, for no good reason.

This has given the industry a great opportunity to learn an important lesson and reassess how they use blocklists. In 2021, I hope to see more marketers realising the value of taking an approach that’s granular enough to optimise reach, relevance and brand safety across each channel.

The death of the cookie means more room for more sophisticated solutions

Third party cookies have been incredibly powerful tools for marketers over the past 20 years – and still have a very important part to play today for marketers and consumers alike. But they aren’t the be all and end all of ad targeting, and change is long overdue.

This year, I believe the cookie will continue to decline, and this will provide an opportunity for brands and publishers to explore more sophisticated methods of targeting – and prioritise quality over quantity.

Instead of relying on quick wins, a cookie-less, premium, user-first experience is a move in the right direction for brands. After all, this is what advertising is about: quality engagement with consumers that helps them and genuinely delivers ROI for the brand. It’s about engagement and relevance, rather than irritation.

In the year ahead I hope to see more brands and publishers invest in new technology and strategy that allows for more meaningful, interesting ads. And I hope to see greater industry collaboration too – with more publishers uniting to create powerful joint offerings.

Another year of resilience, change, and opportunity

While we may now have a vaccination programme underway, Coronavirus isn’t going anywhere fast, and so I hope the events of last year serve as a catalyst for change. As an industry, we must continue to take proactive action to create the best marketing solutions – and brands and their marketers will need to continue to be creative, resourceful and adaptable in the face of adversity if they’re to weather the storms ahead.