What. A. Year.

Virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives transformed throughout 2020. Some for worse, others for the better. Businesses, too, experienced upheaval, growth and transitions while learning to cater to a new customer.

Clear, consistent and strategic communication has been critical to staying afloat amid the turbulence. Companies that neglected PR and marketing initiatives or failed to reexamine their approach to business development may not have survived, or perhaps they’re operating on shaking ground. Heading into 2021, it’s do or die time.

Working with a variety of clients experiencing diverse challenges, I gleaned many insights from the past year as our team helped them reinvent their brands and tap into new customer wants and needs. Here’s a look at what we learned, and how you can set your business up for success in 2021.

Marketing Lesson 1: You must be nimble. Adaptability is crucial for survival.

Bar none, this is the greatest lesson from 2020. Masks, home confinement, virtual school and Zoom gatherings are the new peculiar norm. This overnight transition created vastly different consumer behaviors and psychographics, and businesses were forced to adapt to meet a new consumer demand (often scrambling to do so).

“Nimble is a word a lot of tech companies overuse, but it really sums up what marketing companies and departments had to be, or quickly become, in 2020,” says Director of PR Valliere Jones. “We needed to pivot from what we had planned for the year to address COVID and social movements such as Black Lives Matter.”

Pivoting involved audits of marketing communications and retooled messaging and content strategies. Content Manager Taylor Haynes continues: “As marketers, we’ve always needed to be adaptable — responding to client needs and events as they arise. But 2020 has truly put these skills to the test. More empathy and sensitivity must be thoughtfully woven into our communications. We’ve needed to quickly shift gears, scrap editorial calendars and postpone projects to make way for more urgent matters. This calls for fast, creative thinking.”

Heading into 2021, marketers need to build flexibility into their marketing plans and budgets. While we have adjusted to a new norm, we have also learned to expect the unexpected. With a new presidential administration and COVID vaccines on the way, more change is brewing. We suggest defining semi-annual or annual goals, but strategizing and executing campaigns on a quarterly basis. Don’t be afraid to scrap what was a great idea — there are always new ideas on the horizon. Attachment to a dated tactic could negate progress. Further, collaboration between marketing and sales teams will be vital to growth.

Marketing Lesson 2: Social media will play an even greater role in building meaningful connections with customers, fostering loyalty and reworking customer service strategies.

While social media is nothing new, companies amplified their efforts in 2020 as screen time increased and people took to social platforms to connect with friends, family and even brands that they could no longer see in person. Global Web Index reports 42% of consumers globally said they are spending more time on social media because of the outbreak.

“Many brick and mortar businesses such as restaurants, breweries and boutique shops were doing fine pre-pandemic, relying on foot traffic and traditional marketing to maintain their business. However, when visiting stores in-person became potentially deadly, and in some states illegal, being on social media was no longer optional,” says Social Media Strategist Tatum Shacklett.

Pre- or post-pandemic, your customers probably aren’t looking for a slew of advertisements in their social feeds. So, what are they looking for? Meaningful engagement, entertainment and education, basically someone who “gets them.” They want to interact with brands and learn something new.

Tatum asserts the need to infuse creativity into campaigns, focusing on meaningful relationship building, listening as much as talking, and taking incredible care to narrowly target and personalize advertisements and sponsored posts. A “spray and pray” approach just won’t work.

Marketing Lesson 3: Businesses will take a refreshed look at their websites, understanding the connection to traditional PR and SEO.

I’m often asked to fix a company’s SEO, as if it’s a button I hit on the backend of a website that instantly shoots a company to the top of Google. Boy do I wish it worked that way! Search engine optimization – a vital component of any marketing plan – is an ongoing process that requires long-term consistency, strategic content, an algorithm dance and, believe it or not, traditional PR.

In 2021, companies will need to ramp up SEO efforts, taking steps to improve technical SEO, on-page SEO and off-page SEO (aka PR!). Marketing Specialist Bri Gibson predicts we’ll have a year of website revamps. “Many companies experienced an awakening in 2020 when they realized their website wasn’t just for show, but it was their business’ lifeline. Next year, companies need to take a closer look at Google ranking factors and adapt outreach efforts accordingly.”

SEO talk is hooey to most business owners, so I’ll save the ins and outs for another blog. Yet I cannot underscore enough how critical it is to work with a team that not only understands the technical aspects, but also knows how to integrate SEO with other PR and marketing tactics so they all support one another.

Marketing Lesson 4: Virtually every business can benefit from a sensitivity audit.

2020 also underscored the need to be sensitive and thoughtful not only in current messaging, but also in ensuring both internal and external communications support it. Companies needed to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Those who didn’t were publicly called out when they rushed to make statements about social issues.

“2021 will require even more sensitivity,” says Valliere. “Expectations are high, and the cancel culture is unforgiving of missteps. Companies will not be allowed to fly under the radar. Communicating in this ‘new normal’ requires finesse, and it’s best to work with skilled professionals.”

We see the increased need for what we’ve dubbed “sensitivity audits.” Such audits examine marketing communications, customer service practices and messaging, and business development processes to ensure they are sensitive to world events and a diverse consumer. Outside expertise and perspective are essential, as it’s often difficult for internal teams to pinpoint issues because they are too close to the business.

Marketing Lesson 5: More companies realize they don’t need cubicles to have a productive workforce.

I’m proud to say Aker Ink was 13 years ahead of schedule! With today’s technological advancements and a digital-first lifestyle, remote workforces simply make more sense for many professional service companies. Is remote working a panacea? No. But, if you hire people you trust, make a concerted effort to engage and motivate them, and implement the right virtual and cloud technologies, remote work is much more seamless and rewarding than many folks once thought.

I don’t want to de-value in-person connections, as those are very important, but I predict we’ll see more hybrid models as businesses return to the office – two days in, three days out, for instance. Childcare throws a wrench in things, but rest assured, kids will one day be back in the classroom.

Account Executive Tim Gallen sums up the greater lesson from 2020: “Clear, effective communication is always critical, but this past year has underscored just how vital it really is. In a year of unending crises — health, economic, social — and an onslaught of false or misleading information, our essential role as communicators has come into striking focus as we aid clients in honing stakeholder messaging and educating them amid uncertainty.”

Professional marketing guidance isn’t a luxury or option. It’s necessary to manage turbulence, emerge from it and adapt to a new world. The professionals at Aker Ink can guide you every step of the way with integrated, thoughtful campaigns. See what we can do for you.