From the economic effects and catastrophic loss of life brought on by the pandemic to the growing climate emergency, 2020 was year many would want to forget. But beyond the tragedy and uncertainly there were many positive stories of unity against adversity – and the digital marketing sector was no different. We take a month-by-month look back at how advertisers and tech giants alike adapted to a year like no other.
The year started with Google shaking up the ad industry with plans to block tracking cookies on Chrome in two years’ time. The move will have massive repercussions across the ad industry, leaving them to seek alternative ways to serve relevant ads to people online. Elsewhere, Amazon teamed up with Future Retail to take on FlipKart in India, while Facebook cracked down on misleading deep fake videos. CES was the first (and pretty much the last) major technology event of the year, showing off AI skincare assistants, virtual humans and loo-roll fetching bots. Hailed as TikTok meets Netflix, Quibi launched in January – only to shut down later in the year. Perhaps it was bad timing to launch a vertical video bite-sized streaming service for an ‘on the go’ audience…
By February, Covid fears had started take hold globally. Alibaba was helping merchants in China while Mobile World Congress in Spain was cancelled. Over in the US, all was still relatively normal, with the Superbowl producing another crop of blockbuster ads and Amazon expanding its cashier-less shops into full size supermarkets.
As the pandemic spread and the world locked down, the digital marketing world was left reeling. Amazon blocked non-essential items in their warehouses, YouTube and Netflix slowed down to cope with the surge in demand, and Twitter and Google started to direct staff to work from home. Facebook saw a traffic surge, but advertising dropped as brands pulled inappropriate ads and had to rapidly adapt to a socially distanced, remote working structure. New behaviours emerged: in the UK, nearly one million people tuned in live to YouTube to participate in morning PE with fitness coach Joe Wicks. In other news, Twitter took on Snapchat with ‘Fleets‘ (vanishing tweets) while Facebook made it Libra cryptocurrency more inclusive, set to go live in 2021.
As lockdown continued throughout April, adspend plummeted. Brands reacted fast, with Nike creating a ‘Living Room Cup‘, getting viewers to compete in home fitness games against sports stars such as Christian Ronaldo to do the most reps. Heinz sold online directly for the first time, with a 10 can bundle for key workers as food shortages hit supermarkets. Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey even donated $1bn of his personal wealth towards Covid relief efforts. Meanwhile Apple and Google made a rare pact to develop contract tracing technology for people’s phones, to help stop the spread of the virus.
As US elections loomed and Covid conspiracy theories spread, social media started taking a tougher stance against fake news. Donald Trump threatened to ban Twitter in the US after it flagged his posts as misleading. The economic costs of the pandemic were starting to emerge, with two thirds of brands pulling marketing campaigns due to the pandemic. In May, Facebook made some big industry moves, taking on Amazon with a shopping platform and buying meme stalwart Giphy to boost Instagram’s chat tools. Twitter also made the bold move of announcing that many of its employees were now allowed to work from home permanently, even after restrictions get lifted.
In June, Facebook was hit by a mass brand boycott, involving big-hitters like Coca-Cola and Unilever, over the social network’s handling of hate speech on the platform. Meanwhile, rival TikTok was enjoying a lockdown boom, opening up its platform to marketers with new tools for business. The iconic Cannes Lions festival was forced to cancel due to restrictions, instead hosting a nostalgic online look back at the best ads over the decades. As the BLM protests grew in the US, brand activism took centre stages, with Nike getting involved.
July saw the launch of a ‘Nasdaq of the East‘ stock market in Hong Kong, as Asia continued its rise in tech dominance. Continuing the trend, Google made a huge $10bn investment in its presence in India. Over in the US, four titans of tech, Zuckerberg, Pichai, Bezos and Cook were assembled by congress to face a grilling over the threat of digital monopolies, which made for fascinating viewing. Meanwhile Instagram launched its shop, billed as ‘Pinterest meets Amazon’, while Google looked to resurrect its failed Google Glass project by buying specs tech firm North.
A bidding war for TikTok heated up in the US – and became political as Trump tried to distance China’s influence in the US. Oracle eventually beat a joint bid from Microsoft and Walmart, as TikTok saw its global visits grow a massive 72% worldwide. Brand activism continued to grow, with Ben and Jerry’s wading into an argument about refugees in the UK.
As home working became the norm and high streets suffered amid fears of a second wave, Nike declared that it expected the shift to online sales witnessed during lockdown to be a permanent trend that would outlast the pandemic. In a similar theme in the UK, supermarket Waitrose partnered Deliveroo to deliver people’s grocery shopping as fast as a takeaway. Smart glasses looked back on trend, with Facebook partnering Ray Ban for some new tech due out in 2021.
In October, Facebook took on the likes of Amazon, Google and Sony PlayStation with a streaming games service, albeit with emphasis on socialising rather than high-end graphics. In China, livestreaming ecommerce took off in a big way, with AliExpress going global by offering a real time translation feature. Brands came up with all sorts of innovative ideas for a socially distanced Halloween, from robot doors to virtual parties from Dracula’s castle.
Audio ads were a big theme this year, as locked-down audiences sought familiar voices while they were working at home. In response, YouTube launched its first audio-only ad format for listeners rather than viewers. The launch of next-gen game consoles from PlayStation and Xbox also presented new opportunities for brands as esports continued to grow into a massive industry. In Asia, Singles Day was another blockbuster online sales success, setting new global records. But Alibaba founder Jack Ma faced difficulties, as his much-hyped float for payments service Ant was blocked by the government. In the US, Joe Biden beat Trump to become President-elect, as foretold by Google searches.
As the year came to a close, Warner Bros made the controversial announcement that its entire 2021 roster of films would be premiered online on the same day as cinemas. Facebook expanded its publishing ambitions, paying newspapers and magazines to license their content on the platform. The year ended with Zoom announcing huge rises in profits as video conferencing became the norm, but investors held back. Will 2021 see people back in the office? The announcement of several effective vaccines offered hope of a return of normal life.