By necessity, marketers spend a lot of time looking ahead. The marketing team’s efforts are often the first point of contact people have with the business — whether those people are clients, partners, customers or employees — so getting ahead of the trends that drive their decisions is a critical part of business operations.
For an industry that prides itself on preparing for the future, the last two years have been humbling at best. As difficult a year as it proved to be, 2020 was very clear in the challenges it presented. As 2021 approached, expectations for some return to normalcy were fueled as much by hope as they were by rationale.
If you could distill the events of the past two years into a single takeaway, it might be something like this: We don’t know what’s going to happen, and we are only as good as what we can learn from it.
So, before we start looking ahead again, we thought we should spend some time reflecting on the predictions we made to start the year.
Early in 2021 the binary choice between logic and emotion seemed clear. People were stressed, confused, scared — pick any of a long list of collectively experienced emotions. We looked for comfort, reassurance and good news, and marketing teams were right to give it to us.
As it became increasingly clear that the pandemic itself was less a problem to be solved and more a challenge to be managed long-term, the goals seemed to shift. Under pressure to return to normal, marketing teams were faced with a need to split the difference. Messaging and programs still needed to show compassion, but they also needed to stand up to growing resolve within the audiences they reached. With customers increasingly wary and weary of emotional manipulation, teams had to find ways to bring authenticity and logic back into the fold.
It’s not wrong to blame some new lead gen challenges on basic safety measures — a lack of in-person tradeshows, for example. But lead gen has been getting more difficult for years. Between rising advertising costs, competitive earned media opportunities and proving program value, marketers are under pressure to find tactics that work — without months or years of trial and error.
But when life gives a marketing team lemons, that team gives back a carefully worded, expertly designed explanation for why that lemon is in fact an orange. Virtual conferences weren’t just a reaction to in-person event restrictions, they were a strategic method for making the event more accessible to a wider audience. Supply chain backups weren’t barriers to customer relationships, but opportunities to win new business. 2021 was nothing if not a lesson in perspective.
In the face of social unrest and deep political division, it was clear to many companies that simply staying quiet wasn’t an option. But that didn’t necessarily make their decision easy. Take a strong social and political stance — and risk alienating the people who don’t agree — or publicly state an intention to remain apolitical — and risk alienating people who believe you should stand for something. Fantastic options, right?
When life gives a marketing team lemons, that team gives back a carefully worded, expertly designed explanation for why that lemon is in fact an orange.
As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, there is another element to this that companies must consider. Who gets to decide what a brand stands for? The board? The executives? The employees? As people increasingly expect their workplace to care about their individuality, and as businesses strive to make that priority a part of their employer brand, this question will only become more pressing.
Marketers are pretty good at answering the question, “Does this work?” It’s the second part of that — “Why or why not?” — that is the bigger challenge. Accurate data, free from organizational silos, is still the essential first step to understanding the finer details of your team’s efforts.
The role of data isn’t being reduced. In fact, it’s likely more important than ever, but marketers will have to continue finding ways to get creative with how they use it. How do you thread the needle of personalization when customers are wary of data mining and selling? How do you use data as proof when people have been so discouraged from trusting it?
Some things never change. A marketing program and a marketing team are, still, only as good as their ability to adapt. If 2020 was a lesson in pivoting, 2021 was an entire course on adjusting in real-time to the slow roll of ever-changing priorities.
Abandoning entire content programs and marketing campaigns in favor of crisis management was a necessity, but one could hardly call it a strategy. In 2021, building agility into your marketing plan meant finding ways to keep a balance while still moving forward. Which brings us, at long last, to 2022.
You would think at this point that we’d all stop trying to predict what’s coming. No one knows the future, but when has that ever prevented anyone from trying to plan for it?
Marketing teams have never been exempt from the challenges that plague the companies they call home. But as ongoing external factors continue to weigh heavily on businesses, some teams are finding those challenges have sharper edges than they once did. Whether a company has been forced to downsize or had to fight to keep its best people, businesses and teams across sectors have encountered some version of a personnel problem.
But even as marketing teams work to overcome personal and organizational challenges, they still need to execute on their strategy and goals, which means looking at the bigger picture.
Rather than asking them to predict the future, we asked industry experts what they’re thinking about navigating the challenges that lie ahead.
Marketers largely perceive the challenges of 2022 not as brand new problems, but rather as the latest iteration in a laundry list of familiar headaches. One consistent trend was a need to hire or promote employees to meet changing needs within the marketing team — a problem exacerbated in some cases by necessary downsizing.
“A serious reduction in staffing levels this year will certainly negatively impact how/what we’re able to deliver as a marketing team in 2022. It will force us to cut back on a lot of what we did in 2020 and 21 in order to keep our heads above water and just maintain.” – Matt Snodgrass, Director of Community, Marketing Profs
“I believe we’ll see a lot more work in the area of content operations. Teams are being unified and content is becoming a strategic initiative for many brands. But content can only be as strategic as it is coordinated – so we’re seeing a much higher need for strategies around governance, management, scalability and measurement.” – Robert Rose, Chief Troublemaker, The Content Advisory
“The landscape is going to get much more competitive in 2022. 2021 was an early-mover advantage, given the pandemic and the multitude of distractions. The biggest challenge in 2022 will be how to stand out and differentiate in a sea of sameness, but also where trust is at an all-time low. Earned media will have to play a key role.” – Shama Hyder, CEO, Zen Media
“We need to double down on what is working well, and still invest time and money into new, innovative marketing tactics. Particularly we need to invest in using each customer’s comprehensive Golden Record to better personalize their digital experience with us.” – John Nash, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Redpoint Global
Overall, marketing teams face an age-old challenge: touching so many areas of the business means teams are constantly managing a wide and changing volume, velocity and variety of work.
“The old model of lead generation, qualification and sending leads to sales doesn’t work (has it ever, really?). B2B Revenue teams are responding by re-thinking and re-tooling how they work. This change and makeover list includes:
Other than that, it’s business as usual!” – Scott Vaughan, CMO, Growth Accelerator
As lead gen challenges persist, businesses may find some success with previously untapped sources. When PAN surveyed marketers for our 8th annual Content Fitness Report, 91% indicated they viewed social media followers as prospective buyers. In some cases, that’s true: of surveyed 18- to –44-year-olds, 66.86% follow a brand because they plan on making a purchase. But for users 45 and older, 65.89% do not plan on making a purchase.
As brands look for unique lead gen opportunities in 2022, learning more about social audiences — who they are and what they want — could be an important first step.
Marketers see a need to not only prioritize data gathering, but also train their teams in better analysis and application.
“Our entire data strategy and its role in revenue and customer generation and satisfaction. This will focus on building out infrastructure, processes and guidelines on how and where to more intelligently use data to drive better customer experiences and performance, how to manage and protect customer data, and how to turn data into actionable insights across the organization. The strategy includes adding more data experts and leveling up our whole team’s data competency.” – Scott Vaughan, CMO, Growth Accelerator
As always, content is king — marketing teams are anticipating a trend of spending even more time on original PR and content marketing. In the 8th Annual Content Fitness Report, we found that marketers still don’t have all the answers when it comes to content: Readers digest only between one and five pieces of marketing content per month, yet more than 85% of marketers we spoke to were creating six or more pieces per month, with 39.41% producing 16 to 20 pieces. In 2022, marketers will continue to pursue questions of execution, audience, quality and quantity.
“Understanding how to balance the various needs of a content strategy. So much of it isn’t about writing, or producing content – but rather how to develop, manage, activate and measure what it IS we are creating.” – Robert Rose, Chief Troublemaker, The Content Advisory
“We truly want to make a persona centric content program, that requires a lot of research and discipline.” – Shannon Curran, Director of Content Strategy, OpenView Venture Capital
“Increase quality, even at the expense of volume.” – John Nash, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Redpoint Global
Finally, as buyers get savvier about what they want and need, the role of the marketing team is more important than ever.
“We are going to continue to help educate and elevate our clients’ brands. More and more b2b companies are realizing that a good product/service and a solid sales team are just table stakes. Most buyers are over 60% through the sales cycle before they even approach a company — which means marketing has to take a major seat at the table and can no longer simply be seen as an on-demand collateral centre for sales.” – Shama Hyder, CEO, Zen Media
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: We can’t predict the future. But as marketers wrap up a strange year, a few truths seem clear. Marketing teams have to be greater than the sum of their parts, and there’s no shortcut to that end. As the challenges we face year in and year out become more nuanced, creative solutions will be essential to overcoming them. By empowering and elevating individual voices, teams can position themselves to effectively address whatever lies ahead.