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What 2020 Teaches Marketers About Planning for 2021 (Part 2)

Man and Woman Whiteboarding a Strategy

Earlier this week we started a look at what we can learn from 2020 that can make planning ahead for 2021 a bit easier. But let’s be honest: too much happened in the past twelve months to be able to cover everything in one blog post. So we’re back again today for Part 2, where we’ll dive into three more major changes that took place in the past year and see what we can learn and take with us as we plan for marketing in 2021.

How Marketing Teams Function

Practically every industry has been hit hard by the events of 2020. From internal teams to independent firms and consultancies, marketing is no exception. We’ve seen budget freezes and furloughs, shrinking teams, and other struggles that make most other years look like a cakewalk.

Before this year, we saw a lot of specialization in marketing, and honestly it made a lot of sense. As marketing becomes more and more involved, each individual part of the process becomes a bit more difficult for a non-expert. But that specialization leads to ballooning, bloated teams, and when belts have to tighten, it’s just not sustainable. And now we’re seeing that the “jack-of-all-trades” marketer is making a comeback—if you can’t have a 50-person team, you’re going to need some people who can fill more than one gap, wear multiple hats, and carry a diverse workload.

Another key to surviving when things get tight: making sure that you’re operationally intelligent. Who’s accountable for what? What goals are you trying to accomplish? What can you do with the people, resources, and budget available to you? What’s changed and what hasn’t? You need to carefully think through all of this, rather than just winging it, and you have to be honest about what is and isn’t realistic. If you’ve slashed marketing budgets and let half your staff go, growing revenue by 10% is probably not a realistic goal to set.

That commitment to thinking things through and planning ahead might seem obvious, but when quick pivots are necessary, it can be really tempting to ignore the process and just go. Don’t succumb. If there isn’t clear understanding within your team of where you’re going, how, and why, confusion abounds. Slow down just a little and prevent a lot of wasted effort later.

The lesson: The demand for more versatile marketers isn’t going to go away in 2021—and it’s unlikely that purse strings are going to get any looser in the new year. Marketing teams need to stay smart and not get in over their heads due to lack of planning or improper goals.

Doing the Work of Marketing

You can’t plan for everything. That’s obvious. But what you can always do is react intelligently when things change. Every organization is going to handle new situations differently—in 2020, some boosted their marketing budgets, some held steady, and some drastically curtailed their marketing spend. In our experience, panicking and shutting down marketing was the wrong call, as media consumption has been so high all year that marketing seems like a no-brainer win. In other words: stops and pivots were necessary, but there were also opportunities.

For example, as 2020 began we had an idea to start a podcast. Once COVID hit, though, we had to pivot. Was it worth starting something new? If so, was a podcast still the right medium? As we thought through the issue, we decided that as remote work became the order of the day—thus curtailing commutes—a podcast was not, in fact, the best medium for our message, and our original subject matter might no longer be relevant either. Instead, we changed gears to create Scared Confident as a webinar series instead, and adjusted the content to talk about leadership during times of crisis. And, candidly, it did really well.

The lesson: It’s better to try something. Make a clear decision and make a move, don’t just sit on your hands. It might not work, but with clear planning and smart management even a failed attempt isn’t going to kill you. But you’ll never know if you don’t take a shot, and even (perhaps especially) in tough times, people are hungry for content.

Branding and Messaging

2020 changed a lot in terms of how brands talk to their audiences. The pandemic forced a lot of brands into unfamiliar positions, and then the unprecedented sociopolitical movements around Black Lives Matter meant that brands were more motivated than ever to put their stake in the ground and take a stand. Sometimes that felt genuine. Other times...not so much.

There’s nothing wrong with a brand having a point of view. In fact, it’s a good thing. But it’s only a good thing when you mean it. As with anything, transparency is key. Are you being real with your audience? Are you supporting things that you actually care about, as the people who make up your business? Or are you just “saying the right things” to appear woke, or to look good? The importance of genuineness and authenticity can’t be overstated in times like this—or, really, ever.

Most importantly, know what your audience is looking for from you. Back in April, our inboxes were filled with messages with everyone from shoe stores to video game retailers reassuring us that they were “there for us” during these tough times. For the most part, that’s lip service. I don’t really need to hear that my sports apparel retailer of choice is thinking about me during a pandemic. But when it’s actually relevant—think Guinness wishing us a happy socially distanced St. Patrick’s Day—it’s really worth the effort. Again, don’t just say something to say it.

The lesson: This year sort of broke the dam in terms of brands getting more involved in sociopolitical stances, and that toothpaste is probably not going back in the tube. But you cannot just jump on the bandwagon. If it’s appropriate for your brand to take a stand, and you truly believe in it, do it. But nobody’s looking for lip service. Be true to who you are, who your audience is, and what you’re providing, and don’t overstep those bounds.

What does the future hold?

If you’d asked me a year ago what 2020 was going to look like, and you’d given me a hundred guesses, there’s no way I could have nailed it. But you don’t have to know what’s coming to plan for success. You just have to prepare intelligently, learn from what’s come before, and be prepared to pivot when necessary. We’ve all learned a lot from the past year—probably a lot more than we were really hoping to. Now it’s time to take that learning and use it to try to make 2021 the best year yet.


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.