Digital Marketing Insights for CMOs in 2021

May 10, 2021
Contributor: Kelly Blum

As leaders embrace digital marketing channels, technologies and approaches, they need to be prepared to face significant external and internal challenges. Here are three ways digital is shaking up marketing in 2021.

The past year was one of unprecedented change for marketing, especially when it came to accelerating digital business transformation. As marketing leaders continue to shift investments away from traditional to digital channels, the importance of digital within the overall marketing mix and the influence of the digital marketing leader will continue to grow. In fact, Gartner research shows that in 2020, digital channels accounted for almost 80% of marketing budgets, with digital advertising representing 22% of total spend. 

“36% of digital marketing leaders now hold the title of CMO.”

“Digital marketing leadership continues to evolve and expand rapidly in scope and responsibilities,” says Noah Elkin, VP Analyst, Gartner. “The degree to which digital marketing leadership now more closely aligns with overall marketing leadership is a direct result of the expansive remit digital now holds in overall marketing strategies and objectives.” 

The Gartner Digital Marketing Survey 2021 reveals that 36% of digital marketing leaders in the survey now hold the title of CMO. Overall, 85% hold the title of vice president or higher. Driving this evolution are shifting customer engagement preferences, the emergence of new technologies and disruptive forces, and an ongoing need to balance marketing’s core objective of acquiring new and retaining existing customers.

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Moving forward, marketing leaders need to plan for and execute in an environment that requires strategic prioritization, agility, an emphasis on longer-term initiatives that can propel the marketing organization’s digital transformation and a focus on achieving results. Here are three critical digital marketing insights for marketing leaders in 2021.

No. 1: A renewed focus on customer acquisition

Marketers have typically struggled to balance new customer acquisition with retention and maximizing customer relationships. In the first half of 2020, in an attempt to quickly adjust to the economic and social disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, many marketers took the safe approach and shifted focus to maximizing existing markets. However, when asked about digital marketing objectives for 2021, four of the top five objectives related directly to the goal of new customer acquisition: Improving lead quality (45%), acquiring new customers (38%), driving increased sales among identified leads (35%) and increasing brand awareness (35%). And this shift is only expected to increase over the next two years, with 80% of digital marketing leaders indicating they will be focused on acquiring new customers.

No. 2: Digital advertising and social lead channel effectiveness

While many organizations have had to navigate a difficult climate this past year, agile marketers quickly learned to capitalize on the larger digitally engaged audience. In fact, social marketing and digital advertising led all other channels that digital marketing leaders used over the past 12 months to support their digital marketing strategy, with both used by more than half of survey respondents. Marketing leaders find these channels to be the most effective across brand awareness, demand generation, conversion to sales, and customer loyalty and advocacy. These strategic decisions are not made without significant confidence on marketers’ behalf, with 79% stating their marketing function is effective at selecting the right channels for each phase of the customer journey. 

“Marketers will need to maintain strong diligence in customer data management and testing to be successful with their channel strategies in 2021,” says Elkin.

No. 3: The challenges of scaling personalization technologies

Gartner survey results show that 84% of digital marketing leaders agree that using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) enhances the marketing function’s ability to deliver real-time, personalized experiences to customers. However, 63% of digital marketers still struggle with personalization. And although marketing leaders report that their teams are scaling their use of AI and ML to align with their customer acquisition and retention goals, only 17% are actually using AI/ML broadly across the marketing function. 

Trust remains the biggest inhibitor of more widespread AI/ML adoption and effectiveness. However, the trust barrier declines with increased usage — whereas 75% of marketers piloting AI/ML worry about trusting the technology, only 53% of those broadly using AI in the marketing organization worry about trust. This is indicative of a steep but progressive acceptance curve.

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