February 16, 2021  |  Brianna McKinney

2021 Communications Trends: Audience Reach & Engagement

Earlier this month, I shared part one of my communications trends forecast for 2021 and beyond, which focused on the theme of brand positioning. Today, we’re taking a look at trends to reignite how you reach and engage with your target audiences.

Humanizing the Digital Space

Personalization in marketing efforts is nothing new. In fact, it’s an expectation. The shift that we saw in 2020 brought a heightened level of personalization expectations to the forefront – more individualized, human-centered communications. People are craving personal connection more than ever before in our physically disconnected times. 

Limitations on in-person interactions (which we should all expect to continue on varying levels of personal choice and comfort beyond vaccine rollout) continues to drive the demand for digital-first communications. This was essential for brand survival in 2020 and is now a must to sustain momentum. This consumer desire for authentic connection is compelling brands to humanize the digital landscape.

How can you put this into practice? Get to know your customers again. It’s time to revisit your target audience personas. You can’t and therefore shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone, so ensure you are targeting the audiences most likely to engage with your brand. What has changed about those audiences’ needs and preferences? Is there a case to further refine and get more granular and niche in the personas you’re targeting? What are they asking for? How are they currently engaging with you? 

Next, take a look at how you are segmenting your communications efforts. Map your segmentation strategy to your freshly revised and fine-tuned personas to create highly relevant communications.

Let’s talk about content. Consider that the content marketing playbook you’ve been using might be dusty and deserving of a deep clean. Grab that bleach you’ve been cleaning your house with and eradicate any keyword-heavy content you might still be clinging to as a strategy. The days of writing love letters to your non-human friend Google are long gone. It’s a crucial time to write for people in order to attract the human members of your audiences.

We know that consumers are seeking authentic experiences with brands, so consider how you can replicate the feeling of genuine connection in the digital space by leading with conversational content. Look at all the channels you’re using to communicate, and modify the tone and approach to be one that’s designed to forge personal connections. 

When you employ this conversational approach to create human connections, be prepared to meet two additional expectations – more direct access to your brand’s digital channels and faster response times. Be careful not to start one-way conversations and instead, be ready to participate in open dialogue and use social listening to ignite timely conversations.

The Evolving Earned and Paid Media Landscape

Today’s news cycle continues to be focused on two long and drawn-out story tracts: the pandemic and political/social unrest. For consumers of that news, it’s nothing short of exhausting. Now put yourself in a reporter’s shoes for a moment. You think you’re sick and tired of hearing about those same topics, but imagine you’re the one tasked with telling those stories in new ways day in and day out. While on one side of the coin we’re tired of beating these dead horses, on the other side lies an addiction to those storylines because they directly affect our day-to-day lives and future outlook. With lives and the way we live our lives together hanging in the balance, readers and viewers want more, and editors and producers know it. 

On top of that, it’s no secret that historically print-first media outlets have been furiously working to both replace lost revenue and stay relevant. Some of the reporters that were once assigned to product reviews and editorial coverage are now finding themselves straddling the line between the editorial and advertising departments.

Alongside our fellow public relations professionals across the country, our PR team therefore spent the bulk of 2020 searching for answers to three main challenges (among others): 

  • How do we cut through the noise? And when?
  • How do we determine when to pause outreach? 
  • How do we navigate changes to publishers’ business models?

Here are three key takeaways from our work navigating media relations in 2020:

  • Reporters continue to be interested in unique human interest stories – but they have to be even more spectacular to stand out. 
  • Be flexible with your media mix – take a step back and recognize that earned media isn’t always the best option. People are more important than news coverage for your company, and if you can’t find a way to use public relations efforts as a means to help people in these times of great need, it’s best to pause media outreach and use other channels to tell your story.
  • Just like social media influencers, consumer publications have taken advantage of affiliate marketing as a new stream of revenue. The listicles that were once purely editorial coverage are now mostly paid, affiliate marketing opportunities. The lines between earned and paid media are continuing to blur.

Crisis Communications

Do you know what it is? Do you have a plan? Is it up-to-date? The pandemic shone a spotlight on the need for brands of all shapes and sizes to have a crisis communications plan. In the past such a plan was viewed as a, “nice-to-have.” That view rapidly shifted in 2020 as many organizations experienced the chaos that ensues without one. 

So, the lesson here is if you don’t have one, it’s time to create one. It’s like the insurance plan you are glad you have when disaster strikes. Take time to train your executive team and any other spokespersons on how the plan should be implemented, as well as inform your broader team on what to do should a reporter reach out to them directly in a crisis. If you do have a plan, carve out some time for spring cleaning in Q1 or early Q2 to be sure it’s up to date and ready to activate in a timely manner. 

Crisis management is about building trust with audiences, and people trust others when they admit they’re human and subject to mistakes – AND proactively share a plan for addressing them. When in a crisis, your company’s spokespersons will be best served to address it head-on and with transparency. 

Communicating with transparency in a crisis means to share updates early, clearly, simply, and frequently. When your audience (whether internal or external to your company) is in any kind of shock, acknowledge that people are likely to forget some or most of what you said the first time, so play it on repeat, and continue to be honest and upfront about where things stand. Always have an answer or a statement prepared. “No comment,” will never garner positive results. When well executed, this approach will help to create calm in the midst of chaos and build trust and loyalty for your brand – even if what you have to tell members of your audience is not the news they want to hear.

These trends will continue to be a focus for all brands in 2021. Know your customers, shift your strategies in earned and paid media, foster human connections, be prepared, and be transparent.

Topics covered in this insight: content marketing, public relations, communications trends, crisis communications, marketing tips

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