2020 was rife with uncertainty: a pandemic, social unrest, political division, and a changing digital landscape. As we settle into a “new normal,” Insider Intelligence has identified the top digital trends and developments that should be on marketers’ radar throughout 2021.

Here’s a look at the biggest digital trends to watch this year:

Digital Trend #1: Big tech may be reined in, but there are no breakups in the immediate future

With the threat of such action hanging over the tech giants’ heads, marketers could find them less aggressive and easier to deal with in 2021. In a sharply divided country, there’s a rare consensus view: Big Tech has become “Too-Big Tech.” But while this sets the stage for antitrust efforts in 2021, action is more likely to involve constraining the big players than breaking them up.

Digital Trend #2: A federal privacy law will pass

Whether through consumer consent for personalized advertising, or by investing in privacy-safe alternatives, marketers need to figure out new ways to reach their audiences. In the years since the EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), analogous privacy bills have stalled in the US Congress. In 2021, thanks to a Biden administration that is friendly to the idea, not to mention increasing pressure from consumers and advertisers, this will finally change.

71% of US adults polled favored some government regulation on how companies treat personal data. - Insider Intelligence
71% of US adults polled favored some government regulation on how companies treat personal data. Insider Intelligence

Digital Trend #3: A retail media trio rises up to challenge the duopoly’s dominance

Amazon, Walmart, and Instacart will become new power players in the digital ad ecosystem. The Facebook-Google digital advertising duopoly is encountering its biggest challenge yet, and the threat is about to accelerate. While the two dominant ad platforms are still posting strong revenue growth, No. 3 player Amazon’s footsteps are getting louder.

Digital Trend #4: Advertisers will test new targeting and measurement techniques

Government regulation and private pseudo-regulation will fundamentally change how marketers target and measure digital ads. Marketers have a short window before the world’s most popular browser deprecates third-party tracking cookies. The Chrome team’s January 2020 announcement to that effect was just one in a long series of events making it more difficult for marketers to target and measure their digital ads, including the passage of regulations like the EU’s GDPR and the CCPA in the US, but it felt official: The cookieless future is coming, and something must be done to prepare.

Digital Trend #5: First-party data will reign

Increasing restrictions on data collection and the death of the third-party cookie will mean that winning brands will place a greater focus on first-party data and owned channels. In short, more direct-to-consumer (D2C) marketing and less (though still plenty) advertising. Amid the chaos of 2020, marketers had a scant moment to take stock of what they were doing and reprioritize. For many brands, 2021 is the year where that critical evaluation will occur, and as a result, brands will reinvest in anything that allows them to own and strengthen the direct customer relationship rather than going through intermediaries.

CDPs enable brands to create a single view of their customers and employ that data to improve customer experience - Insider Intelligence
CDPs enable brands to create a single view of their customers and employ that data to improve customer experience Insider Intelligence

Digital Trend #6: Virtual event shortcomings will drive marketers to accelerate event transformation

Hard lessons have been learned, best practices have been established, and there is much transformation and opportunity ahead for marketers sticking with virtual events. Prior to the pandemic, virtual events were uncommon—72.1% of event and meeting professionals worldwide surveyed by software company Aventri in April 2020 did not have a virtual event strategy before the coronavirus hit. Last year forced most marketers to reconceptualize how to execute an in-person event in an online forum.

Digital Trend #7: ‘Brandstanding’ will become the new normal

Many brands remain skittish about taking a stand on controversial sociopolitical issues. But now, they face pressure to weigh in. The tumultuous events of 2020—including the global pandemic, recession, and Black Lives Matter protests—have exposed deep flaws in US society and disillusioned many consumers, especially younger ones. Facing a lack of confidence in government and traditional institutions, these consumers now expect the private sector to confront today’s pressing crises and advocate for change.

Visa found that 75% of millennials would support businesses and causes in response to social justice protests. - Insider Intelligence
Visa found that 75% of millennials would support businesses and causes in response to social justice protests. Insider Intelligence

Digital Trend #8: Social commerce will stall at checkout

Despite the hype, most US consumers won’t make a purchase via social media in 2021. Discovery and consideration, rather than direct transactions within social apps, will remain the key social commerce opportunity for brands in 2021. The major social platforms worked hard in 2020 to make social checkout happen. While there was already plenty of commerce-related activity on social media before 2020, it was mostly upper-funnel. As the pandemic elevated ecommerce adoption (and temporarily slowed social ad spending), Facebook, Instagram, and others quickly expanded their social commerce offerings to help drive conversions within their apps.

Digital Trend #9: Social entertainment is here to stay

A multiplatform social strategy focused on short videos will be essential for brands looking to maintain relevance. In December 2019, we wrote about how TikTok represented a new type of social media, calling it “social entertainment.” We could not have predicted the ownership drama that would envelop TikTok in 2020, but we did say that whether or not it succeeded, the popularity of watching user-generated short videos would grow. Given the huge growth of TikTok this year, as well as the launch of Instagram’s Reels, YouTube’s Shorts, Snapchat’s Sounds, Triller, and other apps that mimic TikTok, we can now say that social entertainment has not only stuck around, it is the future of social content and communication.

Social entertainment apps like TikTok have not only stuck around, but they represent the future of social content and communication. - Insider Intelligence
Social entertainment apps like TikTok have not only stuck around, but they represent the future of social content and communication. Insider Intelligence

Digital Trend #10: Disney will become a streaming heavyweight

As viewers spend more time with ad-free services, marketers will have to get craftier with their media plans. In 2021, the biggest US beneficiary of the streaming bonanza will be Disney. After a plethora of streaming competitors launched in 2020, Netflix still added a substantial number of subscribers. Equally as impressive as Netflix’s sustained dominance was Disney+’s ability to quickly gain viewers. These developments show there’s room for multiple services to thrive in this fast-growing market.