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What 2020 Teaches Marketers About Planning for 2021 (Part 1)

Woman Wearing Red with a Mask On

This time last year, you were probably deep in planning for 2020. And a fat lot of good that did, right? 2020 was the most chaotic year we’ve experienced in a long, long time, and that chaos has forced businesses into quite a few pivots since New Year’s Day.

That being said, the prepared business is significantly more able to handle those pivots as things change—a solid foundation is the best way to be sure you can react to change as it happens. Therefore the first lesson 2020 has to teach us is not “planning is stupid because anything can happen.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

So what can we learn from 2020 and take into our planning for the year that’s to come? A lot, honestly—as you might guess. Let’s look at what changed in 2020 and what we expect to last into 2021, so you can build your planning foundation for success in the coming year.


Marketers have been talking about the increasing importance of video for years. This part isn’t new. What changed in 2020, though, was that since most of us had to transition to a remote work lifestyle, video became a drastically more important part of any marketing setup, both for internal communication and external prospecting.

In 2020, we saw a pretty stark shift in the acceptable standards of production for video content. In the past, getting started in video was a pretty costly and nerve-racking proposition. Creating content with high enough production value to get noticed takes an investment in equipment and personnel that just wasn’t feasible for some organizations. But with lockdowns and quarantines in effect, the bar dropped. It seemed like everyone was shooting from an iPhone or their laptop camera, from major corporations to television productions. When Saturday Night Live is doing a Zoom episode, you know things have changed.

It became okay for some rough edges to show, and honestly in some cases it was preferable. The human side of business can show through a little. When someone’s child walks through the background or a pet jumps on the desk, that’s not really a faux pas anymore. It’s a glimpse into a life, and a comfort when we all feel so distant.

And, perhaps more importantly, the “dumbing down” of quality has allowed for the emphasis to go back where it belongs: onto what’s being said. Flashy production can overwhelm a message, and there are plenty of marketers out there who have important things to say but lack the platform to get their messages out there. A $20 dollar phone tripod and cheap editing software democratize messaging and make video a lot more accessible.

The lesson: Don’t expect video to go away. And if you still haven’t gotten on the bandwagon, don’t worry—startup costs are cheaper than ever, and while there’s certainly still room in the marketplace for gorgeous production, if you’re just using the webcam built into your MacBook, as long as you have something interesting to say the audience will no longer turn up its nose at simple video.

Digital Transformation

Much like video, the increasing importance of digital marketing and connecting with prospects and clients online has been something of a buzzword for years. And much like video, the forced distancing that 2020’s pandemic wrought upon us has only thrown that “increasing importance” into overdrive.

This isn’t an attempt to convince you that digital accessibility is important—it’s the 21st century, and if you’re still on the fence, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to be able to convince you at this point. Especially after this year, in which we seemingly had to take everything online.

In 2020, we had to ask ourselves how to translate operations and processes that would typically take place in a face-to-face setting into the digital arena. If you never had much of an online presence before, the choices were basically to build one now or wither away. Those who are digital veterans still had changes and adaptations to make. How do we reach customers when they can’t walk through our doors? How do we report on successes and failures? How do we understand the information we gather, and how do we know whether communications are being effective? Answering these questions ceased to be optional in 2020.

The real question, the one that really gets to the heart of what we need to be doing online in today’s world, is: how can we make our customers’ lives easier? Think about it from the point of view of a hungry person. Where are you more likely to order food? The restaurant that has an easily navigable app where you can order and pay with just a few taps? Or the restaurant with a ten-year-old website with no menu where you have to order by phone and pay after delivery? I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry right now, and I have no interest whatsoever in talking to anyone on the phone.

The easier it is to buy from you, the better. And after a year of increasing reliance on digital tools, everyone knows it.

The lesson: Digital transformation does a couple of things for you. The more your customers connect with you digitally, the easier it is to track those interactions and measure to see what is and isn’t working. And it also makes life easier for your customers, as it drops barriers between them and the product or service they want. Everyone wins in an increasingly digital world, and that’s not changing in 2021.

Digital and Virtual Events

One of the most obvious effects of a pandemic is that you can’t be around other people. In particular, you really don’t want to be among a huge group of people you don’t know from all around the country or the world, all in an enclosed space. So in 2020, conferences and events were hit hard. Marketers and event promoters alike had to react quickly.

Thankfully, that pivot actually led to some unexpected benefits. Lots of planners shifted to virtual events, and such events have become more or less a regular part of the fabric of our work lives over the past year. That is, of course, partly because they had to, but also because there are things about virtual events that mean they’ll be sticking around long after 2020 is in our rearview mirror.

Mainly, it’s just easier to attend a virtual event. The costs associated with travel and lodging are absent. There’s less of a time commitment; you can even easily attend parts of an event that interest you without having to come and go from a convention center or meeting hall. For the event planners, you can “fit more people in” a digital broadcast than you could a physical location, and sharing that recorded broadcast loses less of the flavor of the original when it’s not an in-person talk.

And it’s likely that, over time, the standards for virtual events will rise. People will get more used to using streaming software, both as producers and as attendees. Technology will improve and adapt—and as barriers to entry are met, future events will be easier to produce. Hybrid events will likely grow as we return to a more normal life, mixing in-person and digital components to create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

Are there downsides? Sure. One of the reasons we go to events is to meet new people and build connections, and while you can make networking at virtual events work, it’s not quite the same. But for many, the benefits are going to outweigh the negatives. The ease of attending makes a virtual event more appealing, and for that reason alone they’re here to stay.

The lesson: It’s too late to step into the vacuum created by cancelled large in-person events, but you should still be thinking outside the box about ways that you can structure and tweak a virtual event that allow you to do things you couldn’t otherwise in person. And if you’re planning an in-person event for whenever we’re allowed to have those again, make sure you’re thinking about making it available online as well—and that you’re structuring it in a way that makes virtual attendees as much a part of the program as those who are in the room with you.

There’s still more to come

Of course more than three things changed in 2020, but for the sake of something approaching brevity I’ve decided to divide this subject into two posts (the second of which is now live). For a deeper dive, check out our webinar, Planning Your Marketing for 2021—After a Year of Chaos. Downloading the recording is easy, and will give a sneak peek at the other forces we think will shape marketing and business in the year to come.


Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.