Sunday, December 13, 2020

MarTech Plot Lines for 2021

“Apophenia” – seeing patterns where none exist – is both occupational hazard and job requirement for an industry analyst. The CDP Institute Daily Newsletter provides a steady supply of grist for my pattern detection mill. But the selection of items for that newsletter isn’t random. I have a list of long-running stories that I follow, and keep an eye out for items that illuminate them. I’ll share some of those below.

Feel free to play along at home and let me know what stories you see developing. Deep State conspiracy theories are out of bounds but you’re welcome to speculate on the actual author(s) of the works attributed to “Scott Brinker”. 


Everyone knows the pandemic accelerated the shift towards online media that was already under way. A few points that haven’t been made quite so often include:

- connected TVs and other devices allow individual-level targeting without use of third-party cookies. As online advertising is increasingly delivered through those channels,  the death of cookies becomes less important. Nearly all device-level targeting can also include location data, adding a dimension that cookies often lack.

- walled gardens (Facebook, Google, Amazon) face increasing competition from walled flower pots – that is, businesses with less data but a similar approach. Retailers like Walmart, Kroger, Target, and CVS have all started their own ad networks, drawing on their own customer data. Traditional publishers like Meredith have collected their formerly-scattered customer data to enable cross-channel, individual-level targeting.  Compilers like Neustar and Merkle are also entering the business. None of these has the data depth or scale of Facebook, Google, or Amazon but their audiences are big enough to be interesting. The various “universal ID” efforts being pursued by the ad industry will enable the different flow pots to cross-pollinate, creating larger audiences that I’ll call walled flower beds unless someone stops me.

- shoppable video is growing rapidly. Amazon seems unstoppable but it faces increasing competition from social networks, streaming TV, and every other digital channel that can let viewers make purchases related to what they’re watching. The numbers are still relatively small but the potential is huge. And note that this is a way to sell based purely on context, so targeting doesn’t have to be based on individual identities. That will become more important as privacy regulations become more effective at shutting off the flow of third-party personal data.

- digital out-of-home ads will combine with augmented and virtual reality to create a fundamentally new medium. The growth of digital out of home advertising is worth watching just because DOOH is such a great acronym  . But it’s also a huge story that doesn’t currently get much attention and will explode once people can travel more freely post-pandemic. Augmented and virtual reality are making great technical strides (how about an AR contact lens?) but so far seem like very niche marketing tools. However, the two technologies perfectly complement each other, and will be supercharged by more accessible location data. Watch this space.

Marketing Technology

- data will become more accessible. That marketers want to be “data-driven” is old news. What’s changing is that years of struggle are finally yielding progress toward making data more available and providing the tools to use it. As with digital advertising, the pandemic has accelerated an existing trend, achieving in months digital transformations that would otherwise have taken years.  Although internal data is the focus of most integration efforts, access to external data is also growing, privacy rules notwithstanding. Intent data has been a particular focus with recent announcements from TechTarget, ZoomInfo, Spiceworks Ziff Davis, and Zeta Global.

- artificial intelligence will become (even more) ubiquitous. It seems just yesterday that we were impressed to hear that a company’s product was “AI-powered”. Today, that’s as exciting as being told their offices have “electric lights”. But AI continues to grow stronger even if it doesn’t get as much attention (which the truly paranoid will suspect is because the AIs prefer it that way). Marketers increasingly worry that AI will ultimately replace them, even if it makes more productive before that happens. The headline story is that AI is taking on more “creative” tasks such as content creation and campaign design, which were once thought beyond its capabilities. But the real reason for its growth may be that interactions are shifting to digital channels where success will be based more on relentless analytics than an occasional flash of uniquely human insight.

- blockchain will quiet down. I’ll list blockchain only to point out that’s been an underachiever in the hype-generation department. Back in 2018 we saw it at least as often as AI. Now it comes up just rarely.  There are many clear applications in logistics and some promising proposals related to privacy. But there’s less wild-eyed talk about blockchain changing the world. Do keep an ear open, though: I suspect more is happening behind the scenes than we know.

- no-code will continue to grow. If anything has replaced AI as the buzzword of the year, it’s “no code” and related concepts like “self-service” and “citizen [whatever]”. It’s easy to make fun of these (“citizen brain surgeon”, anyone?) but there’s no doubt that many workers become more productive when they can automate processes without relying on IT professionals. The downside is the same loss of quality control and integration posed other types of shadow IT – although no-code systems are more often governed than true shadow IT projects.  In addition, no-code’s more sophisticated cousin, low-code, is widely used by IT professionals.  It’s possible to see no-code systems as an alternative to AI: both improve productivity, one by letting workers do more and other by replacing them altogether. But a more realistic view is to recognize AI as a key enabling technology inside many no-code systems. As the internal AIs get smarter, no-code will take on increasingly complex tasks, making it more helpful (and more threatening) to increasingly skilled workers.


The pandemic has changed how marketers (and everyone else) do their work. With vaccines now reaching the public, it’s important to realize that conditions will change again fairly soon. But that doesn’t mean things will go back to how they were.

- events have changed forever. Yes, in-person events will return and many of us will welcome them with new appreciation for what we’ve missed. But tremendous innovation has occurred in on-line events and more will surely appear in coming months. It’s obvious that there will be a permanent shift towards more digital events, with in-person events reserved for situations where they offer a unique advantage. We can also expect in-person events to incorporate innovations developed for digital events – such as enhanced networking techniques and interactive presentations. I don’t think the significance of this has been fully recognized.  Bear in mind that live events are often the most important new business source for B2B marketers, so major changes in how they work will ramify throughout the marketing and sales process.

- remote work is here to stay. Like events, marketers’ worksites will drift away from the current nearly-all-digital mode to a mix of online and office-based activities. Also like events, innovations developed for remote work, such as improved collaboration tools, will be deployed in both situations. The key difference is that attendance of most events is optional, so attendees can walk away from dysfunctional changes. Workers have less choice about their environments, so harmful innovations such as employee surveillance and off-hours interruptions are harder for them to reject. Whether these stressors outweigh the benefits of remote work will depend on how well companies manage them, so we can expect a period of experimentation and turmoil as businesses learn what works best. With luck, this will mean new attention to workplace policies and management practices, something many firms have handled poorly in the past. Companies that excel at managing remote workers will have a new competitive advantage, especially since remote work lets the best workers choose from a wider variety of employers.

- privacy pressures will rise. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) wasn’t the first serious privacy rule or the only reason that privacy gained more attention. But its enforcement date of May 25, 2018 does mark the start of an escalating set of changes that impact what data is available to marketers and how consumers view use of their personal information. These changes will continue and companies will find it increasingly important to manage consumer data in ways that comply with ever-more-demanding regulations and give consumers confidence that their data is being handled appropriately. (A closely related subplot is continued security breaches as companies fail to secure their data despite best efforts.  Another is the continued misbehavior of Facebook and other social media firms and increasing resistance by regulators and consumers.  That one is worth a channel of its own.)  Marketers will need to take a more active role in privacy discussions, which have been dominated by legal, security, and IT staffs in businesses, and by consumer advocates, academics, and regulators in the political world. Earning a seat at that crowded table won’t be easy but making their voice heard is essential if marketers want the rules to reflect their needs.

- trust is under fire. This is a broad trend spanning continents and stretching back for years (see Martin Gurri’s uncannily prescient The Revolt of the Public, published in 2014),  Socially, the trend presents itself as a loss of trust in institutions, the benefits of technology, and credentialed experts in general. In marketing, it shows up as companies voicing disappointment with data-driven analytics and personalization, as consumers not trusting companies to manage or protect their data, as workers' fear that AI systems will harm creativity and codify unfair bias, as widely-noted gaps between what customers want and companies deliver, as “citizen developers” preferring to build their own systems, and as buyers preferring peers, Web searches, social media, and pretty much any other information source to analysts reports.  

Trust is the theme that connects all the stories I’ve listed above.  Without trust, consumers won’t share their data, respond to marketing messages, or try new channels; governments will push for more stringent privacy and business regulations; workers will be less productive; and all industry progress will move more slowly. The trust crisis is too broad for marketers fix by themselves. But they need to account for it in everything they do, adjusting their plans to include trust-building measures that might not have been needed in a healthier past.  The pandemic will end soon and technologies come and go.  But trust will be a story to follow for a long, long time.