5 Valuable Marketing Lessons We Learned in 2020

by Katy French

I think we’d all agree that 2020 was one hell of a year. There were plenty of surprises—the majority of which were not great—and marketers had to learn to roll with the punches, whether or not they were prepared to. But, even though it was stressful, it was also inspiring to see so many brands face unprecedented events head on. If anything, this year showed us that the best brands are truly resilient—and that every challenge also holds a unique marketing lesson. 

The Biggest Content Marketing Lessons We Learned

Now that the new year is approaching, we’re thinking a lot about what worked and what didn’t in 2020. Why did some brands sink, some brands struggle, and some brands thrive? The more we’ve thought about it, the more we’ve noticed a few common traits among the most successful brands, which we’ve translated into five major takeaways. As you prepare next year’s content strategy, think about how you can apply these lessons in 2021 and beyond.

Marketing Lesson 1: Stay Flexible

As marketers, we work hard to plan, anticipate, and craft strong strategies that help us hit our goals. But when something unexpected happens, those plans won’t work the same way. And if you try to blindly stick to them, it can actually be detrimental to your brand. 

In 2020, the most successful marketers responded to unexpected events by adapting quickly and decisively. Whether it was the fallout of a global pandemic or the launch of a new technology (e.g., Reels on Instagram), smart brands were proactive in their approach and willing to pivot as needed—without getting bogged down by second-guessing. 

⇒ 70% of B2B marketers made major or moderate adjustments to their strategy due to the pandemic.

Content Marketing Institute

How to apply it: You need a solid strategy to guide you, but remember that no strategy is written in stone. To learn how to create a flexible strategy that can adapt, see our Guide to Create a Content Strategy.

Example: As in-person events couldn’t happen in 2020, Adobe got creative with their virtual conference. For Adobe Summit 2020, they made speaker videos available in a massive digital library. This made it easy for attendees to consume  the knowledge shared from every speaker, something they couldn’t have done in person.

Marketing Lesson 2: Lead With Empathy

We’ve talked about the role of empathy in good content marketing, but this year took that concept to a whole new level. 

During a particularly stressful and uncertain time, people were more eager for community and connection. Brands that led with their humanity, expressed solidarity, and looked for ways to help their communities made a true impact—and built relationships that will last for the long run.

⇒ 44% of people say they have recently started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the virus outbreak.

2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report

We were especially delighted to see brands show so much creativity in providing truly valuable content to people in the early stages of the pandemic. Whether it was a stuck-at-home playlist or virtual cooking class, this content gave people what they needed and wanted.  

How to apply it: Focus on providing people with true value.

Example: As the world transitioned to Zoom, many brands took advantage of the visual platform. Jobvite used this technology to their advantage with their Summer to Evolve series, 12 weeks of programming designed to help recruiters and talent acquisition leaders improve their skills, strategies, and tactics. In addition to tips and presentations, Jobvite also integrated Zoom conversations with thought leaders, giving viewers valuable insight into the industry. 

Marketing Lesson 3: Stand by Your Values

Your Brand Heart includes your purpose, vision, mission, and values. These powerful drivers guide your business and the choices you make about your brand, and they can be the key to genuine connection with people. 

This year we saw society grapple with a number of hot button issues, such as racial injustice, and it was brands who took a strong public stance in their content marketing that stood out. By leading with their values, they earned more respect and support from their communities, creating even stronger bonds. 

⇒ 44% of people say a brand’s values factor into their buying decision. 

2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report

How to apply it: People are increasingly looking to brands to not only support change but actually lead it, so it’s important to be vocal about the causes you support. As you head into the new year, make sure your Brand Heart is fully documented. Use our Brand Heart workbook to get yours on paper, and look for ways to incorporate these elements into your content strategy. For more inspiration, see how these brands put their values front and center in content. 

Example: In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, Ben & Jerry’s came out firmly in support of the movement, publishing a variety of content and resources aimed at educating people about racial inequality, particularly in the prison system. The brand has long been at the forefront of social action, and this type of content only reinforced the brand’s values.

Marketing Lesson 4: Be Honest

Trust is the key to cultivating a successful brand, but you can’t cultivate it—or keep it—if you aren’t being honest with people, especially in times of crisis. The pandemic only made this more evident. 

Beyond the safety of their business practices, many brands found themselves in hot water over what they said publicly vs. how they acted behind closed doors. For example, brands that publicized their support for essential workers—then denied their own essential workers sick time—took a PR hit, and for good reason. 

How to apply it: Make sure that you’re really walking your talk, and create content marketing that reflects that. That said, you don’t have to present a perfect front at all times. Brands are made up of people, and sometimes people make mistakes. The key is to be honest and proactive in your communication. For example, if you’re still figuring out how to address a massively messed up shipment of your product, say that explicitly. Don’t try to downplay or distract from a problem at hand. 

If you don’t have a problem to publicly address (and we hope you don’t), one great way to peel back the curtain on your brand is to tell stories about your employer brand and culture. See our guide to culture marketing for ideas to create more transparency in your content. 

Example: To help battle unethical labor practices in their supply chain, AllianceBernstein released a detailed report the steps they’re taking to address the issue. This is a transparent way to acknowledge a very real problem and clarify their actions around it. 

Marketing Lesson 5: Simplify Everything

This turbulent year helped us put a lot of things into perspective. One of the biggest takeaways for us is that life is short, time is valuable, and where you spend that time matters. 

In terms of content marketing, that means we should all be focusing on the things that make the most impact. The truth is you won’t be an expert at every social platform. You won’t be able to produce every type of content. But you can refocus on serving people’s core needs.

How to apply it: Go back to basics. Revisit your personas. Update your content strategy. And make sure you’re tracking the right metrics to measure your efforts.  

How to Take These Tips Into the New Year

You’re probably already planning for 2021 and looking to finish out the year strong. If so, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success.

Most importantly, give yourself a pat on the back. You made it through a wild year and you’re still here. Thanks for riding it out with us, and we hope next year brings better things for everyone. 

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