Highlighting digital marketing trends for 2021

Person scrolling through a website on a smartphoneEnhancing business survival with digital marketing technology

An unprecedented year peppered with lockdowns and social distancing saw record reliance on technology – to attend work meetings from our hastily arranged home offices, to order essentials and to ‘see’ our families and friends, to name but a few.

Digital technologies have more than proven their powerful role for marketing and business survival over the last year.

Dr Ana Javornik and Dr Emma Slade, lecturers in digital marketing at the University of Bristol Business School, reflect on some of the changes during 2020 and explore some of the key digital marketing trends for 2021.

Virtual events, livestream shopping and social commerce

In addition to established social media activities, such as short videos or posts on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, brands and online opinion leaders are now connecting even more closely with consumers through virtual events and livestreams, where they present products or services and have real-time interactions with viewers, responding to questions posted through instant messaging.

Prominent retailing examples enabling livestream shopping, where viewers can make real-time purchases directly, include Amazon Live and Taobao Live or, on a smaller scale, Popshop Live. The ability to make those one-click real-time purchases during the livestream is key in converting viewers to buyers through creating a seamless customer journey, and this is where the likes of Facebook and Instagram previously lagged behind.

In China e-commerce has undergone an important transformation with an intense blending of social media, shopping, gaming, group deals, live-streaming, and instant messaging, where “super-apps” such as WeChat combine numerous features and juxtapose social interactions to innovative forms of buying. Whether there is demand for this in the West may soon be revealed through the success or not of Facebook and Instagram Shops. Watch this space!

Platforms for peer-to-peer social shopping are also gaining steam as they allow for a different shopping experience that counter-balances wasteful consumption trends, such as fast-fashion. A notable example is DePop, an app that combines features of a social platform with buying and selling among peers. Such innovative shopping formats promote circular and thus more sustainable economies.

E-commerce personalisation and virtual appointments

Traditionally, an opportunity to interact with store or brand representatives was missing from e-commerce, with consumers instead directed to visit their bricks-and-mortar store for an appointment. However, the global pandemic has caused brands to rethink their strategies.

Several retailers, such as John Lewis and Ikea, now offer the option to book virtual appointments with representatives to ensure a more personal experience. This kind of approach is particularly well-suited for high-end, VIP customers or those that need guidance with more complex purchase decisions. Not surprisingly, such personalised virtual or online appointments have been well received by luxury customers who are particularly keen on interacting with brands.

Alongside other personalisation features and use of personal data for more targeted recommendations, this trend is further enhancing personalisation of e-commerce. It remains to be seen to what extent it will be driven by automation and AI agents.

Meaningful (online) content

As the pandemic brought many challenges and hardships into consumer’s lives, we became more appreciative of brands that helped in the crisis – their efforts did not go unnoticed. As we were forced to stay at home, we were thankful for brands’ expert advice, such as recipe and DIY ideas, as well as some light relief and distractions, like Longleat’s virtual safari.

Consumers also continue to connect more closely with those brands and businesses that champion meaningful causes; who have shared values. Authentic engagement in wider societal, political, or environmental initiatives drives online conversations and contributes to brands’ reputations. However, your brand needs to walk the walk if it’s going to talk the talk or consumers will not hesitate to call you out.

Meaningful communications

Over the course of 2020 our inboxes filled up with emails from brands reassuring us they were still there for us at a rate some of us hadn’t witnessed since GDPR came into effect in 2018. While some provided useful information about online options, safety in store, and supporting local communities and staff, others missed the mark. Email continues to be an important digital marketing tactic in 2021, particularly as the pandemic continues, but it’s vital to read the room and keep communications concise.

Exciting online experience

With fewer opportunities for consumers to engage with brands in physical locations during the pandemic, there is an even stronger appetite for online experiences that can at least partially replicate, replace or complement the tactile physical experiences.

Brands are creating online and virtual experiences that are appealing, multi-sensory, immersive, hedonic or escapist. Immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual realities have become more mainstream, as they enable consumers to virtually try-on or visualise certain products or spaces and can immerse consumers into a brand’s world.

A recent example is Jo Malone’s website transformed into the brand’s bricks-and-mortar store through augmented reality. See some of the latest examples proposed by New York-based QReal. Also, social media platforms such as Snapchat, which excel in integrating AR in the content creation, can offer an edge to brands’ engagement strategy.

Virtual education experiences

We can apply this to the context of Higher Education, too. In what would normally be a busy period of open days and visits at universities, campuses are closed and there are restrictions on travel. With the outlook of at least a blended-learning offering for the foreseeable future, the digital experience needs to be on point right from the initial interaction with any prospective students. One aspect of this is making all the in-person gatherings of an open day possible with exciting online experiences and virtual events.

Innovative deployment of mixed realities

A combination of mixed realities and gamification elements brought new formats of virtual experiences or platforms, with metaverse being the latest craze. This is a relatively new digital marketing trend that emerged – or has at least substantially accelerated – due to COVID-19, as brands are keen on offering engaging interactions. Popular examples are Balenciaga that launched its autumn/winter ’21 collection in a futuristic virtual game and Pangaia that created a virtual experience set in Antarctica.

We have also even seen examples of virtual-only fashion items – clothing created from pixels rather than textiles that you buy but only ever see yourself wearing online. While this is not a mainstream trend as of yet, it certainly highlights a possible future direction for digital consumption, which speaks to self-expression desires on social media.

Haptics for touchless interactions – a solution for safer shopping?

As increased attention is paid to healthy and safe physical interactions, brands are on the outlook for technologies that allow touchless and seamless interactions at physical locations. Advances in haptics permit touchless interfaces – one such company is Bristol-based Ultraleap, a global player in mid-air haptics. We can potentially expect an increase in the interactions fuelled by this technology, and it will be interesting to observe what other types of consumer experiences might emerge as a result of it too.

Dr Ana Javornik and Dr Emma Slade explore all of these trends and more in their research and teaching on digital marketing modules on both the MSc Marketing and BSc Marketing programmes.


Accenture Interactive (2020) Immersive Experiences Digital Report

Deloitte (2021) Global Marketing Trends

Drum (Jan 2021) The luxury strategy – how to maintain brand value while driving online sales

Forbes (2021) Seven Digital Marketing Trends For 2021

New York Post (Aug 2020) Would you buy a $700 shirt that doesn’t exist?

Pure 360 (2021) Marketing Trends for 2021

Stylus (Dec 2020) Fashion’ Virtual Launch Activations: Balenciaga and Pangaia

The Economist (Weekly edition January 2nd – 8th 2021) The great mall of China

WWD (Jan 2021) Virtual fitting rooms, From Marketing Gimmick to Essential E-commerce Tool