by Jeremy Fain, CEO and co-founder of Cognitiv

Looking back at prediction pieces from last year is a bit like looking through a wormhole into an alternate universe, one where it was safe to leave our houses without a piece of fabric covering our faces and Purell was not a rare commodity. If anything, COVID-19 has reminded us that no matter how confident we feel about what the future may bring, there will always be unforeseeable, externalities circumstances that can transform the entire marketing industry – and world – in an instant.

With those cheery thoughts in mind, here are my four predictions for what 2021 has in store for marketers.

Embracing automation

In 2020, all companies have had to do more with less, whether by slashing budgets or operating with a leaner staff.

An estimated 61% of marketers have experienced a smaller budget this year, which has only accelerated the adoption of automation in marketing, as advanced technologies such as machine learning and deep learning are able to take over tasks previously done by humans.

As businesses realize they are able to carry out all of their marketing initiatives with fewer staff and a smaller budget, they will have less of an incentive to revert to their pre-pandemic business practices, and more reason to embrace further automation in 2021.

In particular, the shift to remote work has highlighted the numerous inefficiencies in the flow of information between employees, across departments and throughout the overall marketing ecosystem.

Even something as simple as automating invoicing and expensing processes could save businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, not to mention free up employees to spend their time on more useful pursuits.

B2C brands shift channels

Also in 2020, companies pulled back their marketing budgets from open web prospecting due to severe impacts on digital CPMs, and instead focused their spend on social and search in the hopes that these latter platforms would prove more efficient.

A survey of marketers and agencies conducted earlier this year reported that 75% said they would be utilizing paid search for their regional and local advertising, and 70% said they would also be using paid search.

However, this spending shift has not resulted in lower customer acquisition costs, which has particularly affected direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands. VC money has fueled this unprofitability in DTC CAC and the pandemic has accelerated the unsustainability of this loss-per-customer practice.

In order to be successful in 2021, B2C brands will have to learn how to build new marketing models without Facebook and Instagram – and they will need to use machine learning and advanced analytics to figure out how to market more efficiently and lower the customer acquisition cost (CAC).

Heightened reliance on machine learning and deep learning

Businesses that effectively adopt machine learning, deep learning and other advanced automation technologies will be able to operate on a leaner budget, innovate faster, and adapt more quickly to the realities of the post-pandemic economy.

Those that continue to do marketing the old way – that is, manually – will be left at a considerable disadvantage as they struggle to adjust to the changing patterns of consumer behavior and effectively respond to market shifts.

In a marketing context, both machine learning and deep learning enable brands to use their data to get a better understanding of consumer behavior, which in turn allows them to better identify prospects and deliver hyper-personalized advertising in real time.

The ability to automatically optimize campaigns will be incredibly valuable in an industry where every resource is stretched to its limit, and will enable marketers to more quickly adjust to rapidly changing conditions.

Renewed push to cement brand loyalty

Depending on which study you believe, the pandemic has caused anywhere from 45% to 75% of consumers to change their brand preferences.

While this could largely be due to the product shortages faced by many across the United States over the course of the pandemic, one could also chalk it up to the fact that more people are shopping online, and discovering brands and products that they might not have been aware of previously.

At any rate, in 2021, brands who wish to regain lost customers – or retain the new ones they have attracted – will need to figure out how to find the right mix of advertising, promotions, and other marketing content that will keep customers in the fold.

Incorporating machine or deep learning would help considerably in this regard; however, it is also incumbent on brands to find ways to connect more deeply with their customers, and provide a positive experience that people will want to return to.

In 2020, marketers have been forced to be reactionary instead of revolutionary. In 2021, as budgets stabilize and consumer spending slowly gets back to normal post-COVID, marketers will have the chance once again to be innovative and creative – and, most importantly, take advantage of all their 2020 learnings.

Article originally appeared on ClickZ.

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