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Digital Marketing Trends in 2020 + Predictions for 2021

We can all agree that the biggest trend of 2020 was finding inventive ways to say that it's been an “unprecedented” year. Putting that aside, the past 12 months have yielded plenty of interesting trends, and given us a peek into what 2021 might hold.

Trend #1: Leaning into SMS

Email surged in 2020, and SMS surged right alongside it. As brands leaned into email to reach consumers and keep them engaged, retail brands in particular turned to SMS campaigns to stand out from the crowd. On average, text messages are opened 98% of the time, while emails are only opened 22% of the time. That makes SMS a pretty powerful tool. With inboxes being hit by more and more emails (spoiler alert for trend #5), taking advantage of text messaging campaigns to capture attention gave a lot of brands a new avenue to drive engagement. 

Are you looking to step up your SMS game? There are a lot of great examples out there you can draw inspiration from. 

Trend #2: Embracing dark mode

For many users, dark mode is an absolute must. In addition to being easier on the eyes, it can also make content easier to read. With more users making the switch to dark mode everywhere possible, email marketers have smartly embraced dark-mode-friendly designs. Brands like Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Bose, and Lyft have all created campaigns fully embracing dark mode, while other brands take steps to ensure that their emails look on point no matter what the subscriber prefers. 

If you want to make sure your emails look sharp in dark mode, this guide could be a great help

Trend #3: Keeping it simple with text-only

From statements about safety protocols to corporate stances on social issues, many brands turned to simpler emails to deliver messages this year. These emails tended to ignore two primary rules of email marketing: keeping the content short and having a clear CTA. Instead, there was an insurgence of lengthier emails that were more about delivering information rather than driving an action. If nothing else, these emails demonstrated the power of email to connect brands to their audiences quickly and effectively. 

There are all kinds of examples of text-only emails from this year you can reference. 

Trend #4: Looking to email for brand building

A focus on authenticity was already coming into prominence pre-Covid, but the realities of 2020 made it a necessity for brands to turn to email to maintain bonds with their audiences. Consumers want to feel connected to brands - 77% of consumers buy from brands who they believe share their values - and with that connection being mostly facilitated in digital spaces, email was the primary channel for telling brand stories and building brand affinity. From communicating core values, to reinforcing customer safety and satisfaction, to pivoting brand messaging to address the current state of the world, email gave brands a vehicle to share, grow, and evolve their stories to meet the moment. 

Trend #5: More is more!

Email volume was off the charts this year, and the pandemic was a hot topic. By the end of May, 1 in every 15 emails mentioned Covid. But while Covid-centric emails have become less frequent, overall email volume hasn’t dropped significantly from the first weeks of March. In addition to sending more emails, many brands sent their messages to larger lists, sidestepping typical segmentation approaches and curated lists in favor of sending messages to as many subscribers as possible, especially in the early days of the pandemic, to get their business updates and safety protocol information out to subscribers. While recipients reacted with increased complaint rates, email volume has remained exceptionally high. 

There’ll never be another year like 2020 (*fingers crossed*) but if nothing else, the past year has demonstrated how critical digital marketing is to the success of a business. Looking ahead to 2021, there are three things we’ll be seeing more of in the digital marketing space. 

Prediction #1: Personalization, with a side of privacy

Consumers demand personalization, and digital marketers have to react accordingly. Fifty-two percent of consumers expect all offers to be personalized, and 66% expect brands to understand their personal needs. As those expectations continue to grow around receiving personalized experiences across every touchpoint with a brand, marketers will be tasked with stepping up their personalization game in 2021. From emails, to websites, to in-person experiences (we can dream!), the opportunities for personalization are endless. However, marketers must also be mindful of privacy best practices and regulations. GDPR and CCPA are more than snappy acronyms, and it’s important for brands to fully understand and abide by privacy regulations while driving towards hyper-personalization. 

Prediction #2: Prioritizing inclusive design

With more minimal email designs as a trend in 2020, expect that to continue into 2021 with a focus on inclusivity for those with visual and hearing disabilities. Plain text emails certainly won’t become the norm, but simpler, minimalist designs enable subscribers who rely on screen readers to have better engagement with emails and web content. Given that millions of Americans have vision, cognitive, or hearing impairment, prioritizing inclusive design allows brands to connect with those users and serve a much wider audience, regardless of disability. 

Prediction #3: Featuring interactive elements

Forgive the counterintuitive trends here, but while minimalism will definitely surge in 2021, innovation will as well. With email becoming more and more prevalent, it presents an incredible opportunity for email marketers to push the envelope and try new things when it comes to making emails stand out. After making it to the inbox and getting an open with a catchy subject line, the next step is driving engagement, and subscribers are usually eager for something new. Savvy email marketers will rise to the occasion and find new ways to encourage conversions with gifs, embedded videos, and fun animations.