12 Trends for 2021

By Julio Romo, public relations consultant and digital strategist.

2020 has been an eventful and unprecedented year. The COVID-19 global pandemic has disrupted everything. Yet, while the virus has challenged us, we have adapted, at pace. We’ve shown how nimble and resilient we can be.

The digital transformations that our businesses and governments have been going through, well, the pandemic turbo-charged them!

Lockdowns and circuit-breakers have all added petrol to the transformation of the way we live, work and play. Businesses have pivoted even more to online channels, creating increased competition and as a results customer expectations have been more difficult to meet.

The watch-words for 2020 have been survival, transformation and resilience. At the same time, reputations have been questioned even more. Trust has become the ultimate commodity in the public and private sectors alike.

So as we get ready for the year ahead, what are we going to face this year? What are the challenges? Well, here are my thoughts – 12 for ‘21:

Technology

After the challenging past year and with vaccines now coming on to market, we will see new technology receive major investments from the VC and CVC communities.

Getting vaccines to market at such pace and with such scrutiny has given businesses and start-ups in the life sciences and biotech sectors a huge boost.

Also, look out for automation, cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) companies whose services will become attractive as a result of the increase in remote working environments that we have shifted to.

AR, an old piece of tech might be coming back to market. It is already there in the business community, but many rumours on what Apple is working on after Google tried Google Glass. Remember that?

I am not spending much time mentioning 5G, because it is just more hot air. It will make a difference to some technologies, but will it be transformational? And what about the extra experience that it will be giving to products and services and their respective consumer bases?

When you think about tech, don’t just think of tech and innovation being developed in their traditional geographical hubs, like the US or Europe. China is there, as is South East Asia with Singapore as a hub and a nation that is putting tech at the centre of how it wishes to be perceived. Asia has risen and is challenging!

Social Media

Regulation is coming to social media. We are moving from idle chatter on the fringes to clear political discussions in both the US and Europe. The appetite is there.

The damage that Facebook has created to the reputation of digital companies has focused minds, not just against them, but on Google and others.

The ePrivacy Directive is already being used by Facebook to influence the perception of how regulation is limiting the usability of their tools.

Facebook knows this as it has embarked on a hiring spree in order to ready themselves for arguments in the UK, EU and US. Whether this investment comes to anything we will only know based on conversations that come to light, but the train has left.

In the US, Facebook is also facing antitrust suits at a federal and state level. The focus appears to secure the spin-off Instagram and WhatsApp from the firm.

Google meanwhile faces its own anti-trust suits as “tech giant’s search results favored its own services over those of more-specialized rivals, a tactic that harmed competitors.

In the US, these cases have bipartisan support, which is an issue of concern. Equally, there is a growing move to consider a GDPR law over in the US.

Privacy

Here in the UK, we know of privacy through having to comply with the European GDPR directive.

Again, on both sides of the Atlantic, privacy is an issue, with firms like Apple making it into a point of consideration when it comes to their offerings against those of Google, Facebook and others.

Let’s not forget that Facebook makes over 90 per cent of its revenue from advertising. It needs as much data as possible in order to offer better advertising services, compared to that of Google and Alphabet.

Both Facebook and Google rely on small and medium-sized companies for the bulk of their revenue.

Privacy is going to affect their business model as firms like Apple push hard in support of privacy on their devices. Apple makes its money from product sales, revenue and increasingly from streaming services. Compare this against the dependence on advertising by Facebook and Google.

The public spat between Facebook and Apple is down to protecting it’s revenue sources.

Self-regulation, or the lack of it, is an issue that will influence how privacy establishes itself amongst consumers as a must-have.

Innovation

The current pandemic will have an unexpected outcome with many more organisations looking at innovation to establish themselves and gain competitive advantage.

A key area is that of understanding behaviours of people and using this data to improve products and services. This data and the insight that it gives designers will bring in challenges around privacy. At the same time, new products will have a focus on influencing behaviours, something that will have ethical questions around it.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) will also feature heavily this year. That said, away from the buzz and hype there will be growing expectations to see outcomes that confirm the investment in these areas.

AI and data analytics will be a focus in order to develop improved customer experience and service. Reputations will be built on the quality of customer experience and service.

Customer experience

Customer experience – the elephant in the room!

Little time is spent on this subject, but if 2020 saw a huge move to digital for many businesses, the ones that succeed in 2021 will be the ones whose products and services that have been designed around the behaviours of prospects and customers.

As the World Economic Forum points out, it is a time to ‘go digital or go bust.’

Being online is no longer the key to survival, especially with so many established brands competing for eyeballs and engagement. What will matter is the quality of the experience and the service.

Reputation and trust will be earnt and lost on how services are designed around the customers and users.

Personalisation and an integrated omnichannel approach will help businesses and public sector organisations better engage with their respective audiences.

And I’m not even talking about chatbots or the like, because unless these are designed and built well, they are a risk in my opinion.

Content

We will continue to see the continued battle to get content up and ranking on Google. High-quality SEO will continue to be there, but at the same time, there will be a move to community-based marketing, especially on closed groups on WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and Facebook.

These groups are there to support others, promote new products or link up with people who share similar opinions and interests. We should note the impact of these groups, especially on Facebook to the spread of misinformation. While not all groups are influential, they do have influence on opinions.

In 2021 we will continue to see the rise of video. Just look at the success of TikTok and Instagram to see how people consume content. Dynamic web content will also gain further traction.

Immersive story-telling will improve the quality of content and make it more audience relevant.

At the same time, podcasts will continue to grow, but as they do, the biggest challenge is meeting a level of quality of expectation. Brands will have to be careful to not be so sales focused.

Cybersecurity

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to move their employees towards remote working structures. This increases risk, especially from phishing and social engineering attacks.

At the same time with more companies establishing cloud strategies, the security of these will be central to reputation management of public and private sector organisations.

Ransomware threats will continue to increase. It is not just about encrypting data and content, but stealing and profiting from it.

Trade

The elephant in the room. While the UK has left the European Union and ventures to establish further trade deals with economies around the world, others, like those in Asia has formed the ‘world’s largest trading bloc’

Fifteen Asian countries have signed up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

While China is the main superpower, it also includes leading economies, like Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore.

Equally, with a new administration taking office in the US, trade and investment will be on the agenda for Biden in the White House. Though, it’s immediate priority will be with the EU.

Rise of Asia

What holds us back in the West is our history. What leads Asia in the East is its culture.

Make no mistake, Asia has risen. It is here and is a huge trading bloc that through it’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will gain speed in how it works, trades and prospers.

The Fifteen Asia Pacific members that signed the agreement ‘represent 30% of the global economy, 30% of the global population and reach 2.2 billion consumers.’

While China sits at the centre, countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore will promote the opportunities they present to attract businesses to establish themselves in their respective markets.

The strength of rules based structures will support inward investment. Businesses need trust and legal certainty.

Public relations and communications

Public relations will continue to battle to be recognised on the board of organisations, compared to how it is close to power in government and the political world. The fact is that reputation matters and slowly, but surely the c-suite is recognising that it needs senior advisors and experts that can look beyond media headlines.

Management consultancies will start to eat into the public relations space. Their expertise on other management areas will see them better positioned to further develop this offering and sell it as a must have.

As the world starts to open again following the rolling out of the COVID-19 vaccine, there will be a need to more international and strategic expertise.

There will also be a need for understanding audiences and users. Customer experience and customer service will be key disciplines that become part of a communications capability.

Reputation will also become a key aspect for venture capital (VC) and corporate venture capital (CVC) when considering who to fund.

Influencers will continue to be a must-go this year like the media were 10/15 years ago. But make no mistake, thinking about short-term likes will create risk for brands.

Public relations and communications will continue to be the skill-set that focuses on developing and managing trust and reputation.

The battle against misinformation

Misinformation and disinformation campaigns will continue to be major issues in the coming year.

While the past year the focus of misinformation was on political issues, the coming year we will see challenges continue to be made against science and, specifically, vaccines.

Opinions and anecdotes will be used to spread falsehoods and conspiracy theories. These will continue to go through private groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, leaving online and social media companies at a loss as to how to fact-check what looks like first-hand experiences.

The lack of trust by parts of society in governments and people in authority will continue to hamper the battle against misinformation. Whack-a-mole campaigns will not achieve much unless there is a clear strategy and understanding of the issue. This is where we will see public authorities look at regulation.

Working from Home (WFH)

Let’s be honest. There’s been a lot of spin that working from home is the new normal and that offices in it’s pre-COVID set-up will not return. I don’t buy this.

The business and public sector community will return to the concept of the office. Maybe not as we saw it, but it will return. Office space will be crucial.

What will change is the acceptance that working from home is inefficient. The pandemic has proved that it is not. People have had to adapt to working remotely like digital nomads have done so for many years.

Working from home has turned our homes, our safe spaces, into places where we cannot relax. Because of this we will see locally based flexible office space where people can work remotely, without having to commute or do so from home. This in turn will enable a more collaboration and community focus around the suburbs that many people live in.

Happy new year!!

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