As noted by many, 2020 was a year of seismic digital acceleration, fueled by the pandemic, social and civil unrest, and wide-spread ambiguity – events we all experienced together. We witnessed how these events reshaped our world and watched communities, brands and organizations rapidly embrace change.

We’ve seen life and work move online, demand for action in areas, such as data privacy, misinformation, trust in digital platforms, brand safety and inclusivity, a wide-spread embrace of touchless technology, the acceleration of social audio platforms and the growing influence of creators and niche communities (e.g. GameStop). The topics that follow are a few areas of focus that are recurring in my conversations with brands, businesses, platforms and industry partners.

1. Social Commerce Takes Flight

Commerce is flourishing everywhere and has gone from being a singular destination in a journey to being dispersed and embedded into nearly every experience, whether natively in social feeds or in influencer livestreams. In the second half of 2020, we saw social platforms take advantage of consumers’ willingness to adopt social commerce and announce updates such as Instagram Shops, new Pinterest shopping formats, TikTok + Shopify Partnership and more. Brands will need to think about how they can leverage social media to enable commerce along every stage of the customer experience.

2. Customer Targeting Moves to Opt-In Data

With raising concerns about privacy online, consumers are expecting real action to be taken to protect their data. We’ve seen platforms take steps to improve users’ privacy and will be seeing more of this, such as Google’s FLoC, Neustar’s PeLICan, Criteo’s SPARROW and other post-cookie solutions to audience and cohort targeting. Marketers will see a shift away from third-party targeting and towards consumers’ choosing to share their first-party data with brands. Earning that first-party data will require a new and modern approach to value exchange, empathy and trust.

3. Virtual Is the New IRL

2020 saw an acceleration of technology being used to allow, enable and enhance experiences. What may have been a novelty in the past, technology will now be required to enable everything from business-to-business sales conferences to healthcare practitioner and patient engagements to shoppable consumer experiences. The year ahead will see necessity turn into further invention using technology to drive improvements in experience, commerce and communications.

4. Brands Unlock the Business Value of Social Communities

With many businesses disintermediated from customers, many brands saw 2020 as a year to take a fresh look at how their online communities could differentiate their brand, unlock growth insights, create direct customer relationships and drive preference and advocacy in their category. The past year truly saw the acceleration of social community as a communications ecosystem to social community as a business asset.

5. Taking a Proactive Stance Against Misinformation

According to this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, business is the most trusted institution and the only one that is seen as both ethical and competent. With misinformation (and disinformation) now a dominant concern for nearly every institution, business must act as an information guardian to flatten the misinformation curve by providing straightforward, unbiased facts and information to all of their audiences, especially their employees and customers. Business must also understand its own operational, commercial and reputational risk when it comes to misinformation and build and steward communities, maintain misinformation sensing capabilities and contingency plans to guard against organizational risk.

6. Executives Go Social

While certainly a trend prior to 2020, last year we saw many executives invest both time and energy into their social media presence as these channels afforded them the ability to speak directly with all of the stakeholders of an organization. Social platforms humanized these executives during difficult external events and allowed them to speak on behalf of their organization about both business and purpose during a year of global consequence.

7. The Rise of Social Entertainment

Despite news of misinformation, data privacy and the unintended consequences of increased screen time, the past 12-18 months may also represent a turning point in the role of social media, including gaming and streaming communities (themselves increasingly becoming more social environments) for entertainment. Platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Triller, Twitch and Fortnite, are increasingly blending their own creator and content capabilities with both new and sometimes even more traditional entertainment content (e.g. concerts), reshaping the way people consume social media. Twitch has signed musical acts, Triller is buying the rights to boxing cards and Fortnite is hosting concerts.

The intersection of business and entertainment has always been a rich one. It’s now a social one, too.

In addition to the above, I’m also spending a lot of time thinking about the evolving role of a company’s dotcom in the context of distributed commerce, and how the stories that brands publish online will need to be increasingly architected to connect not just to transactional data signals but also to earned, cultural and trust data signals.

What’s categorically clear from the last year is that permanent shifts in online behavior have required businesses, brands and organizations to accelerate their efforts in transformation, technology, platforms and communications.

As far as I can tell, there won’t be any slowing down.

Tristan Roy is Global Chair, Digital