• John Bell

5 Trends That Will Shape Post-Pandemic Marketing



The pandemic has changed us. Even as vaccines arrive and people’s health improves, the experience has forced marketers and business leaders to take drastic steps. We need to continue to adapt and not simply white-knuckle it until we are magically restored.


No Going Back

For business leaders and marketers, that means continuing to do what they are best at – prioritization. Given the slow roll-out of vaccines and improvement throughout this year and the need to accelerate revenue recovery, what should we focus on? Many of the changes in business from the COVID experience will not be reversed:

  • The growth of ecommerce and commerce hybrids (e.g. curbside pickup)

  • Work-from-home

  • Virtual collaboration

  • Telemedicine

  • and more

In many ways this episode in our lives simple accelerated trends that were already happening. Every business has had to take stock of their need to become more “digital” and quicken that transformation.


Deloitte surveyed consumers’ sentiment toward digital technologies due to COVID-19.

They heard that 66% agreed or strongly agreed that the pandemic experience increased their appreciation for digital technologies and that 63% agreed or strongly agreed they would use digital technologies more following the pandemic.

We are not going back.


The 5 Trends

Here are 5 trends that should inform how we prioritize and shape marketing and business growth. The writing is on the walls for most of these. These are trends that are relevant to both small business and mid-size organizations. Change is not the luxury of the large enterprise.



1. Marketing to Stressed Customers Requires Deep Listening, Empathy and Taking a Stand


2020 has been a tragic, dumpster-fire year. It left everyone with a persistent nervous exhaustion not knowing what might come next. That has not magically gone away with the promise of vaccines and we should expect consumer anxiety to be high for the foreseeable future.


When the pandemic first hit, I was still at Travelers. We began bi-weekly customer pulse surveys on top of all of our other listening programs. We simply knew that we couldn’t predict what people would be concerned about week-to-week. We asked them and listened. We found great insights about how they were planning or postponing weddings, dealing with selling their homes, optimizing their homes for work-from-home and more. We found a pervasive worry about the unknown.


Deep, in-the-moment listening suddenly became more important. I would expect most companies to sustain that practice. Listening works hand-in-hand with a greater empathy.

Brands have been taking more care to understand the emotional state of people. Marketers try to avoid over-marketing and aim to get the “tone” right. Marketers have dialed up their empathy. This is a good thing. Hardship and social injustice will not dissolve away with COVID vaccines. Smart brands will hold onto that thought and fashion their marketing accordingly.


Many brands will need to take a stand.

Gartner reports “95% of CMOs believe brands should take the lead in finding solutions to major societal and cultural issues.”

How many brands posted in support of social justice issues during Black Lives Matter protests? How many posted outrage after the Capitol invasion? This isn’t just Nike and Patagonia. Brands are doing it because their customers are ready to hear it and their employees demand it. It’s difficult to get serious about diversity and inclusion as so many public and private companies are trying to do without taking a stand.


Social media posts that take a stand from brands will continue.



2. Content and Performance Marketing get Married


Digital ad spend has been growing as a proportion of media spend for years. This year, it surpassed traditional spend. The digital growth from platforms like Google and Facebook as well as programmatic spend all point to the rise of performance marketing. Content marketing is also on the rise.


Brands aim to solve customer challenges with easily discoverable, highly relevant and inspiring content. That’s content marketing. Many brands have been moving to one version or another of this over the last few years. Content is how many brands can produce more value for their customers while attracting new ones. We did this at Travelers to serve customers in both our Business Lines and Personal lines businesses.


More than 62% of marketing respondents will increase content marketing budgets: 9% significantly, 23% medially and 30% slowly, via a Semrush survey of marketers.

“Performance Marketing” is constantly optimized digital advertising that pays attention to what people click on. The phrase may mean something slightly different for different marketers yet is often associated with direct digital marketers like PPC shops.

Pay-per-click (PPC) marketing grew out of direct and ecommerce. Its goal was to get the most efficient click-through. Multiple versions of ads get deployed and media spend optimized around the top performers. The digital marketing team cycles through a constantly moving, agile flow. It was designed to drive conversion or bottom of the funnel metrics with the greatest efficiency.


Now performance marketing comes to the top and middle of the funnel. This highly managed form of digital marketing can build brand as well as drive sales results. The evidence for this growth can be seen in the emergence of new, performance marketing shops like ForwardPMX, Powerdigital and KlientBoost. These are all growing firms with the skills to deliver performance marketing. Simply follow the growth of Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital. They have assembled companies and capabilities under the rubric of the “the Holy Trinity of first-party data, content and performance marketing.”



3. Brands Get Serious About the Quality of their Content


There’s an awful lot of content out there, and some of it, you guessed it, is awful. Brands have been pumping out content in the hopes of dominating Google search results. The rules of search engine optimization (SEO) guide their whole content strategy. This often leads to mediocre-to-weak content that just happens to return well against questions typed into Google.


We were seeing this as early as 2017 when a Havas study on brand content efforts revealed,

“Some 60% of the content created by the world’s leading 1,500 brands is “just clutter” that has little impact on consumers’ lives or business results.”

More brands will pull back from this volume game and create fewer yet higher quality pieces of content. This will happen for four key reasons:

  1. Brands will continue to shift to designing marketing to support customer journeys - like the simple view from Google of Customer Moments above. This requires content that truly solves a customer challenge while reflecting well on the brand for quality.

  2. Maintaining a broad SEO effort (many terms and intents) doesn’t have enough of an ROI (a focused effort does, however)

  3. Brand marketers are getting better and better at creating high-quality yet, relatively, inexpensive stories or content.

  4. Marketers will invent new, remarkable content that not only supports their performance marketing goals but also differentiates their brand. That means quality, not necessarily, quantity.



4. Even Small Companies Master Customer Data, Analytics and Insight


Data is at the heart of this next exciting age of digital marketing – customer data, performance data, predictive data, insights-from-data, and yes, artificial intelligence. There’s just no way to get great at the current opportunity with digital marketing without becoming proficient with marketing data.


The clock is ticking. Four changes are afoot that will put pressure on businesses to get better with data, especially their customer data:

  1. Google will stop supporting the use of cookies in their browser within two years. The “cookie” is the primary tool for tracking and targeting marketing currently.

  2. The California Consumer Privacy Act and the EU’s GDPR restrictions will meaningfully restrict business-as-usual for digital marketers, principally how they use and manage data about people.

  3. Apple’s requirement for people to opt-in to any app to allow the collection of data via their Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) changes mobile marketing.

  4. The tyranny of “Walled Gardens” – Facebook, Google, et al – will continue limit how marketers can get data from customers on those platforms. They are the “roach motels” of data – data checks in but it rarely checks out.

Small companies lag behind in the use of marketing data. That will change.


The opportunities for near-term benefits are great and the risks of not becoming facile with data over time are too great. Getting great at data could take months or longer. Sure, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on everyone’s horizon – even the small business marketer. Best to become “conversational” now to be fluent in the future.


Here are some of the immediate opportunities:

  • Gain customer insights via SEO, social and surveys

  • Find & engage customers by building custom audiences

  • Retain customers via personalized marketing based upon rich profiles

  • Build your customer database now (1st-party data) to be ready for customer marketing tomorrow

  • Create your own marketing dashboard to understand how your marketing dollars are delivering




5. Time to Breed Digital-First Marketing Unicorns


We need talent with different skills. Not only is digital marketing becoming more and more data and automation-focused, it is becoming even more accountable. With the rise of performance and content marketing comes the need to manage marketing execution as an ongoing, optimizable effort. This requires more agile practices – standups, immediate performance analysis, incremental improvements. We need marketers with new skills and savvy at working in this nimbler fashion.


What shape marketer do you need?


“T-shaped” describes talent that has a broad understanding in addition to at least one deep hands-on expertise. The content creator who understands strategy and brand, for example. Now there are new talent “shapes:” X-shaped, I-shaped, Pi-shaped and, even, comb-shaped.


We need to grow more comb-shaped talent. Hiring them off the street is pointless. You can make unicorns or waste a lot of time finding them. The Glittery, comb-shape we are after has a solid understanding and fluency in the basics of strategy, creative/story, brand, and measurement while having depth in new skills related to data and insights, channels (e.g., Facebook, Google, Instagram, TikTok), functions (e.g., email marketing, CRM, voice) and martech platforms (e.g., Salesforce, Sprinklr).


This next generation talent comes with a digital-first orientation. They understand the full-funnel and are quick to get the concept of customer journey marketing. They can not only do both brand and performance marketing, they can combine them effectively. Lastly, they are outcome-savvy and understand the basics of acquisition, lifetime customer value, retention.


Today’s talent is always putting more teeth in the comb. They are learning and training all of the time. Whatever training is not happening on the job is happening via the explosion of online training from the platforms themselves like Facebook Blueprint to Google’s Analytics Academy to Salesforce’s Trailhead.


If you want to grow digital-first unicorns, you will encourage them to always-be-learning. Marketing organizations will make more concrete commitments to always-on training to skill-up, adapt to changes and genuinely engage employees looking to grow their personal value proposition.