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84% of Marketers Say Customer Expectations Are Changing Their Digital Strategy

With insights from more than 8,200 marketers, this year's State of Marketing Report reveals the biggest priorities and challenges that will shape the future of marketing strategy in 2021 and beyond.

Since the start of the pandemic, 60% of consumer interactions with companies have been digital. [Stocksy]

Digital transformation isn’t just a buzzworthy phrase — it has quickly become the reality for marketing organizations around the world.

Eighty-four percent of marketers surveyed in our latest State of Marketing report said customer expectations are changing their digital strategies. As that transformation continues, they also indicated their jobs have become more important. Seventy-seven percent of marketers surveyed said they feel their work adds more value than it did a year ago.

This year’s State of Marketing report, now in its seventh edition, is our largest-ever pulse check on global marketing trends, with insights from more than 8,200 respondents across 37 countries. Representative of marketing roles from the event marketer to the CMO, this survey taps into what has inspired and challenged marketers over the past year, and what they’re expecting in the times ahead.

For instance, working from anywhere is here to stay. Eighty-two percent of marketers say their company is adopting new policies around remote work. Despite the harsh challenges of the past year, marketers have found innovative ways to connect with their customers — and each other. Yet 69% of marketers still say collaboration is tougher than before the pandemic. How do marketers grapple with our new reality as we emerge from one year of transformation into the next?

Read on for five key takeaways from the report.

1. Collaboration is now a top priority and challenge

Some of marketers’ top priorities and challenges are evergreen — innovation and real-time customer engagement, for example. It’s what’s new to the list that paints a vivid picture of what marketers are excited about — and concerned by.

We’ll start by talking about what’s new to both marketers’ top priorities and top challenges lists — collaboration. During the shift to remote-first work, marketers may feel like they’ve lost touch with their colleagues. Given employees’ and companies’ interest in continuing flexible and remote work, marketers will likely continue to use an evolving set of technologies, such as video conferencing and messaging platforms.

Marketers had two other new priorities in their top five this year — creating a cohesive customer journey across channels and devices, and improving marketing ROI and attribution. Collaboration is essential to achieving both of these. Collaboration within the marketing org — and with sales and service departments — is the only way marketers can deliver a cohesive experience at every customer touchpoint. It’s no wonder that 78% of marketing organizations have adopted new work-collaboration technology due to the pandemic. Coordination across marketing campaigns and activities (as well as solid digital savvy) will help marketers find new, innovative ways to measure marketing ROI. Since only 31% of marketers are completely satisfied with their ability to measure marketing ROI and performance, leaders should make a concerted effort to improve their measurement capabilities.

Aside from collaboration, there was another new challenge in marketers’ top five this year: insufficient organizational structures and processes. It’s natural for marketers to feel unprepared for the rapid pace of business transformation that they experienced over the past year. But now is the time to step back and look at how to improve processes to better serve customers, operate internally, and drive growth.

2. Innovation and resilience help marketers deliver on customer demands in digital

Since the start of the pandemic, 60% of consumer interactions with companies have been digital, compared to 42% pre-pandemic.

Although pursuing digital innovation can be daunting due to the overwhelming amount of new channels and technologies in the market, marketers are leaning in. Even digital channels we might have classified as “emerging” recently are seeing widespread adoption, such as podcasts and streaming (OTT) ads.

Amid the massive shift to a digital-first approach for marketers across business types, industries, and regions of the world, leaders such as Petco CMO Tariq Hassan have faced the velocity of change head-on.

“The speed of change over the last year has propelled us towards never-before-seen levels of marketing innovation. We tried new things, learned hard lessons, got back up, and kept on going,” Hassan said. “It’s amazing to think about how far we’ve come with the types of digital experiences we can now deliver. I’m continually inspired by the resiliency and caring focus of our Petco customers and partners who fuel everything we do to improve pet lives.”

In the end, it’s innovation and resilience that separates those digital marketers who are best prepared for the digital long-haul from the competition. Forty-eight percent of underperforming marketers — those moderately or less satisfied with their overall performance and investment outcomes — say they struggle to innovate their marketing strategies, tactics, and technology. That’s compared to just 31% of high performers — those completely satisfied — who say the same.

3. More data doesn’t mean better data or smarter data decisions

Marketers are planning to use 75% more data sources on average by 2022 than they did in 2020. Yet only 33% of marketers are completely satisfied with their ability to use data to create more relevant customer experiences.

Parsing that out between high-performing marketing organizations and underperformers reveals another striking statistic. Compared to 47% of high performers, only 8% of underperformers were completely satisfied with their use of data to craft relevant customer experiences.

There’s a clear problem in the world of customer data. How do we fix it?

Marketers must know that more data sources doesn’t necessarily mean richer customer insights. In fact, marketers felt that across the board, their data quality left much to be desired.

Marketing leaders can take advantage of the opportunity to improve their data management by becoming data champions within their organization and by boosting the data literacy of their teams. For example, Bank of Georgia CMO Levan Gomshiashvili and his team gather data on customers’ financial and non-financial needs, which they view holistically for a data-driven, 360 view of the customer. Data literacy will help marketing leaders improve on things like data quality by being purposeful in choosing data sources, and data integration by being fluent enough to partner closely with IT.

The future of marketing strategy is data-driven, so improving our data practice is an investment in long-term success.

4. Account-based marketing soars — with caveats

Last year’s State of Marketing report found that account-based marketing (ABM) programs had rapidly gained in popularity. This year, 79% of B2B marketers said they’re using an ABM platform, and account-based marketing comprised an average of 16% of B2B and B2B2C marketing budgets. B2B buyers expect the same level of empathy and personalization that B2C consumers have come to enjoy, especially during the pandemic-era shift to digital-first B2B selling — a trend that ABM programs address.

Despite the resources being dedicated to ABM, fewer than half of marketers are completely satisfied with any one element of their account-based marketing programs — including technology, measurement, personalization capabilities, and the identification of target accounts. Where’s the disconnect?

Although ABM programs are relatively new to the B2B marketers’ toolkit, marketers shouldn’t be complacent when adopting these strategies. They require dedication to coordinating with sales teams, as well as digital and technology skills that evolve as quickly as the market does.

Heather Malenshek, CMO of Land O’Lakes, agrees that it’s a large investment of time and resources, but the return on investment for ABM programs is high.

“Account-based marketing continues to deliver a sizable return on investment for our business,” Malenshek said. “Don’t get me wrong, the investment is big — it’s not easy to achieve the required level of alignment across our marketing, sales, and service teams. But the experiences we deliver and the customer relationships we build in return make it more than worthwhile.”

We’ll continue to see ABM in B2B marketers’ toolboxes. But marketers should make plans now to improve the requisite digital skill sets and internal sales and service processes that make account-based marketing programs successful.

5. Marketers need relevant training to prepare for the future

There are two main approaches to improving a marketing team’s skills: Hiring to fill knowledge gaps and upskilling or reskilling current staff members to keep up with the pace of change. What’s the best option to future-proof a team’s success?

It may depend on the quality of the internal training resources at hand. Unfortunately, that’s a cause for concern for many teams: only 44% of marketers rate the employee training they receive as excellent.

Even marketers’ top-requested skills training is falling short. The No. 1 skill marketers said they want to improve is creativity, yet only 44% of companies offer training in that area. Even critical data analytics skills that are in high demand are falling behind, with only 39% of companies offering analytics training.

So marketing leaders must make the choice: Do I rely on the quality of the reskilling resources I have, or do I look elsewhere?

The choice starts with making the conscious decision to be proactive. Marketing leaders should take a hard look at their existing training resources to decide whether they are enough to prepare teams for the future of marketing strategy. Having the right skills on your team means marketers can react to dynamic market conditions and embrace new trends in what customers want and need.

“The ability to adjust to rapid changes in market conditions is key,” said Guillermo Plasencia, CMO and co-founder of JoinMyTrip.com. “This is both a year of transition and a year of opportunity. Marketers need to double-down on critical investment and opportunity areas to execute Plan A, while also having Plan B and Plan C ready to go. Prioritizing things like technology, content, and skilling our people for this digital-first era will help marketers stay three steps ahead, no matter what the future holds.”

For marketers around the world, future-proofing success can feel unattainable given the rapid pace of transformation across all industries. But preparation, and being willing to look outside the box for resources to upskill your teams, can be the solution marketers need.

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