Imagine if you had a crystal ball. It could show you everything. Even how to plan for 2021. Truly, it’s every advertiser’s secret wish. Now consider, just for a moment, how would we have handled 2020 differently with all that we know now?

I guess hindsight really is — ahem — 20/20.

Last year, the change came fast and furious. As advertisers, we were not prepared to quickly adjust how and where we spoke with consumers. Nevertheless, we adjusted, and we persisted. Settling into our unease of the unknown became commonplace. Consumer usage of media shifted but also grew. The content of ads began to reflect the realities of a pandemic. (If they didn’t, they came across as reading tone-deaf, even feeling negligent)

So, what about the here and now? 2021 seems to be picking up right where 2020 left off — in a shroud of utter uncertainty. And that’s putting it mildly. So, are we any more prepared this year? Prepared to pivot on a moment’s notice? Prepared to expect the unforeseen? Prepared for … whatever comes next? Media consumption is no different – it is more fragmented, especially in video options, than ever before. People are more aware of their privacy rights and still expect advertising to be relevant and meaningful for them. Marketers have to be ready to address these ongoing changes. For one, I think 2020 taught us well. To prove it, here are my media lessons from 2020 to get us through 2021.

Prepare but Be Prepared to Pivot

Stay flexible to remain a player in this digital-driven world where everyone is always connected, on their phone, their computers and even their TVs. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. But always leave yourself the room to pivot. A new administration is moving into the White House. The coronavirus vaccination rolls out as cases continue climbing. The Black Lives Matter movement will matter even more. And, unbelievably, we witnessed an assault on the U.S. Capitol Building – a tragic event that dominated just about every media channel imaginable. So, plan, but be prepared for some radical pivoting. This means relying less on buying advertising inventory far in advance of a campaign, looking to media and partnerships that can work with you to adjust, and having a nimble solution that can be activated quickly and efficiently. This means truly having your media buys and creative messages in sync to react quickly and intelligently to resonate in today’s environment while not relying on what’s worked in the past.

Little Changes Will Have Big Consequences

As marketers, we have to stay on top of current events on a micro and macro level. Already this year, the Grammy’s have been postponed along with the Oscars. What changes might this bring for advertisers and their quarterly budgets and goals? The Super Bowl — the most important day in advertising — is on the horizon. A shift in the event or a postponement would send shockwaves through the advertising industry. However, flexibility is the new reality sponsors must accept if they want to take part in this national event. When planning for those big events and marquis moments, there has to be a plan B waiting in the wings. Investment in live events is no longer guaranteed even if planned as an anchor in marketing efforts. What if you lose that anchor? Have a plan to reinvest that budget that can be impactful and can still give you the right platform that supports the advertising message. While not as alluring as a big-event sponsorship, shifting that planned budget into a multi-touch, longer term plan can also create the awareness, buzz and ROI every marketer aims to achieve with their budgets.

Consumers Want Even More Video Content This Year

2020 saw a spike in digital video. Especially on connected TVs, where binge-watching became an event unto itself. Video viewership continues to climb, but in ways we would never have predicted at the start of 2020. For example, daytime viewing and news viewing increased, as live sports all but disappeared. When live sports finally returned, it looked (and felt) entirely different. Gone were the raucous crowds in stadiums and stadium sponsorships and activations. So now sports and entertainment have to find new ways of connecting with their audience. Brands need to create engaging and authentic messages that resonates with viewers both in linear TV (cable, broadcast) and CTV/OTT (i.e., Roku, Hulu, YouTube TV). That may mean evaluating the message and how it will resonate with a digital audience compared to a linear audience. It will also mean reevaluating advertising budgets to ensure there is the right balance of video budgets between linear and OTT to reach your desired audience.

Ad-Free Streaming Presents Challenges for Advertisers

The real challenge of reaching video viewers are the ad-free subscription streaming services — a blessing for the everyday viewer but a unique challenge for anyone in advertising. Yes, it’s great to see shows from start to finish with no interruptions, but we are now faced with the ever-growing challenge of getting our messages in front of those viewers. You may begin to see more product placements and plot points that feel like ads in the content from subscription services like Netflix. Advertisers are working diligently with these services to integrate their products into the viewer’s content. Another way to reach these subscription viewers is with a halo approach. Not only was Queen’s Gambit a hit show but it drove interest in chess up and sales of chess sets that no one predicted. It also drove online searches for information on chess, the actors and even the symbolic nature of the lead characters clothes. That’s content that advertisers can partner with, be a part of, and play (pun intended) off of the show’s success.

Privacy Concerns Are Doing Away with Cookies

Understandably, consumers have privacy concerns about their activities being tracked on the internet. Legislators have responded with stricter regulation. This means cookies are on their way out. How quickly they’ll be phased out remains to be seen. But it’s happening. As advertisers, we have to be prepared for what comes next, as we see behavioral targeting diminish while contextual targeting grows. We will evolve from users agreeing to cookies on the content they are viewing to actively authenticating their ID before accessing content. So, consumers will either pay a subscription for ongoing access to content or pay with actively allowing access to their online ID. Advertising will still be able to target their message to their target audiences, but we need to do it in a way that will not leave a bad taste in consumers’ mouths about the ads that they are seeing. Value propositions and personalization will continue to be key messaging tactics but we, as advertisers, have to recognize and respect that people agreed to see the message and it had better be worth it.

Unpredictable Media Consumption Will Occur in 2021 and Beyond

We know that people’s media habits are not universal. We all consume media and information in our own ways. Especially in today’s world, it’s hard to predict and measure someone’s daily routine. The end of the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have a return to normalcy either. We can’t kid ourselves that media consumption will go back to the way it was. That’s not how humans are wired – we evolve, adapt, and keep moving forward.

While we wait for vaccine rollout to fully roll out, we continue to evolve the way we engage with consumers in a rapidly evolving media landscape. In 2021, that means targeting relevant messages to the right people without cookies, around ad-free streaming services and on social platforms that continue to dominate our time and attention. Also, because the old-fashioned ways like TV and radio still have value, they can’t be tossed aside.

Of course, how we define “TV” and “radio” is in a state of flux, as well. We have to think of it from the consumer’s viewpoint – no matter how or where they watch and listen, we have to be there with an engaging message of personal relevance.

Four words to live by in 2021:

In summary, marketing in 2021 will have to, more than ever before, recognize that people’s media usage is fragmented, they want to see messages that have value and are relevant. These messages need to be integrated into their everyday lives, not interrupting it.