My Growth predictions for 2021

In this post, I review my predictions for 2020 and set new ones for 2021.

"Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable", they say. That's why, at the end of every year, I spend some time thinking about what Growth trends could be relevant next year. I also evaluate my former predictions to improve the muscle, and you can't improve without feedback.

When I started to reflect on the year, I thought that the pandemic blew my predictions out of the window. Tobi often brings up Lenin's famous quote when talking about the Corona pandemic: "There are decades when nothing happens; and then there are weeks where decades happen." However, most of my predictions for 2020 held steady. I think that's a bit of a testament to the point that, for the most part, Covid accelerated trends instead of changing them.

2021 growth predictions

On a personal note

2020 was a good year to practice "how is this for me". I went through ups and downs at G2. I moved from San Francisco to Chicago (more about that, soon). I realized I was physically stronger in 2016 than in 2020 (blame an injury). I left G2 and joined Shopify. Some lowlights, many highlights. But one thing I always kept in mind when facing hardships was, "how is this for me"?

I started a paid membership (Tech Bound) in June and ended it when I joined Shopify in December. It was a fun experiment and nice pocket money. I made close to $1,000 a month just from a newsletter. A part of me wanted to find out how far I can push it, but I doubt I could have ever come close to the income I made from my main job. That's why I will keep writing (Growth Memo) and blogging but not on a tight schedule.

I already published all curated articles from 2020 last week. Here are the top articles I wrote in 2020 and the top podcasts I recorded.

My top 10 most read blog articles:

  1. The full guide to internal linking axioms
  2. 15 experts reveal the technical SEO trends for 2020
  3. 3 best practices of competitor SEO you should know
  4. Impact analysis of Google’s 2020 December Core Update
  5. Early Adopter Marketing – How startups get their first users
  6. Why I left Substack and the Email renaissance
  7. The nasty side-effects of Google Search Traffic
  8. The ROI of SEO – how to predict traffic and revenue
  9. How Google tests new content in the search results
  10. How to master the art of inhouse SEO

My top 10 podcast episodes:

  1. How to write copy that moves people with Eddie Shleyner
  2. The art of video storytelling with Sam Oh
  3. Making enterprise SEO work with Jared Gardner
  4. The ins and outs of Quora Marketing with JD Prater
  5. The state of AI and SEO with Christopher S. Penn
  6. Making SEO more inclusive with Areej AbuAli
  7. Widget links, goldmines, and Sergey Brin with Jim Christian
  8. Best-in-class content marketing with Aaron Orendorff
  9. Text is weak with Andy Crestodina
  10. How to grow your marketing career with Scott Tousley

For 2021, I plan to focus a lot on Shopify, write one weekly episode of Growth Memo, dabble a bit with vlogging, and keep recording podcasts. I don't have a set cadence for podcasts, but I want to change the format to make it stick out more. And lastly, I have 1-2 more projects in mind that I might tackle next year, depending on how much time I have.

Evaluating my 2020 predictions

First, see my predictions for 2018, 2019, and 2020.

The purpose of these predictions is not necessarily to be right but to assess and reassess my thinking. As such, the goal of making better predictions is not being right but becoming a better thinker.

In the last years, I scored my predictions on a scale of -2 to +2 and set a goal of stopping if I would hit a negative score. I'll not continue doing that because it creates a bias that distorts my judgment. Instead, I'll comment on my predictions and where I'm right or wrong and leave it at that.

So, let me start by commenting on my predictions for 2020, and then we'll look into what I think about 2021.

1. Social Media marketing will transition from organic feeds to closed channels

The idea here is that social media engagement transfers from feeds to closed environments like groups or messengers. The success of Clubhouse, Facebook's pivot from feeds to Groups and Messenger, Whatsapp's amazing growth to 2billion users, and the success of Community support this claim. So, I think I'm pretty spot on.

Facebook's news feed was an incredible success until they recently realized that the tide is changing. I think it's because of Dunbar's rule of 150, which says that humans can only maintain 150 relationships due to their neocortex's size. Feeds are overwhelming and draining to keep up with. And, it's really only social when you comment on other people's posts. Otherwise, it's just voyeurism.

2. Audio and video will be table stakes for marketers

Youtube videos and podcasts aren't new to marketers, but I think the lockdowns pushed this trend forward. Many marketers bought better audio and video equipment and produced much more rich content in my observation. If you want to reach and build an audience in 2020, creating videos and podcasts (or other audio formats) is table stakes.

When I spoke to Sam Oh on my podcast, he brought it to the point: "YouTube, I feel like, is just like engaging your audience; keeping them on the YouTube platform for as long as possible. It’s an attention platform. So if you can hold people’s attention for longer, naturally, you just start ranking. It’s crazy. It’s just crazy how fast it works. And in terms of like channel authority, like anytime we publish anything with the word SEO in the title, As soon as we publish that video will rank in the top three for like an hour or two, it just happens."

3. Companies will hire massive content teams

A year ago, I said that many companies would hire massive content teams instead of outsourcing. I couldn't find much evidence for this prediction besides Healthline, which has an editorial staff of ~50 people and the fastest growing health website out there (source).

While I see the cost of good content rising and think it makes sense to hire full-time writers instead of outsourcing content, I can't proof that this prediction is right.

4. Marketing will orbit more around omnichannel

The goal of omnichannel marketing is not just to maximize reach potential but also to stay on top of your customers' minds. As such, the hope is that 1+1=3. I think my prediction that omnichannel marketing becomes more important is correct. Hubspot lists a couple of cool case studies, even though they're not all "Marketing" or "Growth".

5. Purpose and opinions will become more important for brands

Bullseye! This prediction couldn't have been a better hit. Black Lives Matter and the Presidential Election offered many brands a chance to take a stance.

From Nike's Dream Crazy to Patagonia or Old Navy, public corporations displayed more leadership than many politicians in 2020.

6. The lines between personal and company branding will blur

Who still follows brands on social media except for a few exceptions like Wendys? We're going from feeds to groups and from brands to people. But people still represent brands.

The strongest examples are CEOs like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk. Other than that, I didn't find data that supports my claim.

So, I guess I was somewhat right here but wouldn't insist that it's necessarily new.

7. Experience and expertise will become more important for SEO

In my analysis of Google's December Core update, I pointed out that UX is a growing factor. However, "experience" is a broad term and can many things: design, layout, "time to answer", trustworthiness, etc. What I see is that more and more sites that have a poor experience drop in rankings.

8. Zero-clicks will grow

This prediction went kind of out of the window when Havas shut down Jumpshot, a major provider of clickstream data, in January 2020. It's barely possible to measure zero-clicks. So, was I right? I don't know!

9. Freemium and subscription models will expand for startups

Product-led growth (PLG) is certainly on the rise and, as such, I think this prediction is right. A lot of PLG is driven by a version of Freemium.

The hottest example in 2020 is Zoom, of course, but we can also judge this prediction by how successful PLG companies are compared to other SaaS companies with the PLG Index.

My 2021 Growth predictions

Now that 2020 is wrapped up, let's look at 2021.

The Micro-SaaS movement will show more $1M companies

Is a one-person business really a company? I guess so! Micro-SaaS is something like an SMB for SaaS, but in many cases, it's just a single person running it. Micro-SaaS companies are closer to lifestyle businesses than startups, but they're valuable.

They also have a big overlap with the bootstrapping trend. Some entrepreneurs don't want to take funding, and they want to focus on solving one small or medium-sized problem really well. Big trends always produce counter-trends. Micro-Saas, in some way, is the counter-trend to huge VC funding for hyper-growth startups. Another big driver seems to be the low-code and no-code trend that allows non-technical founders to implement and sell their ideas.

If you're wondering what that looks like, Indiehackers has a list of examples. Some of the most popular ones are Carrd, Storemapper, and Snappa. Dru Riley has a good summary as well. There is even a VC for Micro-SaaS: Earnest.

When you look at Scott Brinker's Martech 5,000, which is actually the Martech 8,000, you see how the SaaS environment explodes. It has a longtail with many companies being small and a shorthead with a few huge companies that will buy many smaller ones in the future. The big ones are platforms that carry most of the small ones. What I find exciting about this trend is that some of these Micro-SaaS companies will provide Growth tools, and they will be better than what we've seen before.

Indiehackers lists about 16 Micro-SaaS companies that make over $1M ARR and have one employee. My prediction is that we will see 2x as many next year.

Social commerce / algorithmic commerce coming to America

Social Commerce is already big in China and forecasted to be a $604b industry in 2027 globally. The idea is simple: you group up with some friends and watch a live feed that shows your products or bid on the same product and get a group discount.

I think it's going to be big in 2021 because that's what people would do before Covid forced them to stay at home. I expect an app (or several) to gain significant traction next year by providing a smooth social shopping experience.

Tik Tok will grow to a serious advertising channel other than Facebook and Google

Tik Tok fascinates me. Bytedance, Tik Tok's parent company, made $27b in ad revenue in 2020 and captured the second spot in China's ad market (more than Baidu). Of those $27b, 60% are coming from Douyin (Chinese Tik Tok), 23% from other apps, and probably 17% from Tik Tok, which is about $4.6b. My prediction is that Tik Tok's ad revenue will double next year!

Only regulation can really stop it. Trump tried to force a divestment but didn't follow through, and now nobody knows where the deal stands. It might not move forward at all.

Short-form video will continue to dominate

Youtube, Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, TikTok, Linkedin, Twitter - they all have short-form video formats. Even Spotify tries to integrate a story-like format.

Many think that short-form videos are an acquisition channel. The only case for which I see that being true is e-commerce. Selling products to your audience or social shopping to sell to a new audience on Tik Tok or Reels makes sense. In every other case, short-form video is more about audience engagement and retention.

Next year, I expect more brands to get creative with the format, more web stories on the Google Discover feed, an evolution of Fleets (or at least an improvement of the current experience), and Spotlight to be very successful.

Clubhouse will continue to grow and become an interesting brand building channel

Clubhouse, the audio-based social platform, has venture backing from Andreessen Horowitz and a valuation of roughly $100M. Clubhouse already has 600,000 registered users but will have to figure out monetization.

I think it's an interesting product that has the potential to become a legit social network - if Twitter doesn't copy it. The experience fits perfectly into 2021: audio because everyone is drained from Zoom calls, small groups, and exclusivity.

My prediction is that it will have a break-through year in 2021 with at least 3 million registered users.

Dinosaur brands will continue to die

Covid will continue to reward companies that made the jump to the digital realm and punishes the ones that didn't.

Heinz, for example, whipped up a Shopify store in 7 days when the pandemic broke out. That's just remarkable. Other brands already filed for bankruptcy: Century 21, Tailored Brands, Sur La Table, Brooks Brothers, Lucky Brand, G-Star, GNC, JC Penney, and many others. To be fair, their business wasn't in a good place before the pandemic, but when the world makes a sudden jump into the future, eroding companies fall apart. I think we'll see the death of at least 30 more dinosaurs in 2021.

Apple will not launch a search engine

My first anti-prediction! Opposed to many, I don't think that Apple will build a search engine - at least not a search engine like Google. I think the recent web crawl activity and patent registrations serve a different purpose, probably to build a search layer on top of Siri or something of the likes.

Surprisingly, Apple takes a lot of modern ranking signals like engagement and design into account:

  • Aggregated user engagement with search results
  • Relevancy and matching of search terms to webpage topics and content
  • Number and quality of links from other pages on the web
  • User location based signals (approximate data)
  • Webpage design characteristics

This, to me, is an indicator that we'll see something more integrated into Apple's ecosystem that doesn't resemble Google. Apple is the master integrator, so the logic fits.

Neeva and will take some market share from Google but the next Google won't look like Google. If Apple really wanted to provide a search engine when regulators break the deal between Google and Apple apart, there would be better ways to do this.

A privacy-first search engine would fit into Apple's values, but it's not something most people care enough about. Otherwise, DuckDuckGo would have significant market share.

The newsletter movement will grow and lead to newsletter fatigue

I've written extensively about the newsletter wave. Everyone needs to have a Substack in 2020 (and 2021). But I also think that we'll feel a lot of newsletter fatigue in 2021 and, as a result, more paid newsletters will bundle up. Everything is one example. TypeHouse is another. Substack already created a feed curator for their platform.

For Growth Marketers this means that newsletters can be a viable channel but only when they stand out, are well-executed, and have a strong brand behind them.

Happy New Year!