Eight predictions for 2021

Without further ado, here are eight predictions from across Stink Studios’ global offices for how the advertising and technology landscape will transform in 2021.

— (1) Content will feel more human

After 14 years, Keeping up with the Kardashians is airing its final season next year. It’s the end of an era; no other show has better reflected our 2000s obsession with reality television. Aided by the simultaneous rise of social media, stars like Kim and Kylie have transformed the entertainment landscape. We clamor for behind the scenes content, intimate at-home interviews, and vlogs featuring daily routines. Seeing Beyoncé on stage at Coachella was not enough; we also demanded Homecoming.

But increasingly, especially among Gen Z, the most talked-about celebrities aren’t celebrities at all. Trending memes on TikTok and Instagram reveal a deep interest not in watching a specific person, but a specific action. Tired of highly produced depictions of reality, audiences are instead turning to mundane micro-dramas of everyday life–what we might call “authentic spectacle.” For example: An unscripted reaction to a transformative face filter. Attempts at a skateboarding trick gone wrong, then just right on the umpteenth try. Tenderness from a partner, or precocious attitude from a child, neither of whom realize the camera is rolling.

We’re witnessing a similar sea change in more traditional media channels. Covid-19 was the unforeseen accelerant that forced every performer–from late night host to A-list actor–to set up a sound stage in their own living room. Rather than dismissing these low production efforts, viewers were charmed. (Pre-pandemic, actor Leslie Jordan only had 80k followers. After a series of unfiltered videos during quarantine, he’s racked up 5.5 million.)

This type of content takes us back to simpler times: less KUWTK, and more America’s Funniest Home Videos or MTV’s MADE. Next year, we’ll be seeking more of the same. Serendipitous moments over scripted theatrics. Feel-good escapism, over catty conflict. No longer do we need Beyoncé to release over 2 hours of documentary-style footage. In 2021, just thirty seconds of dancing on TikTok would be enough.

Danielle Kim and Leo Nguyen

— (2) The long tail will only get longer

It feels slightly absurd to make predictions for 2021 after the year we’ve just had. That said, there is one undeniable truth about last year: we all experienced the same mass event(s) and reacted to them in completely individual ways. This tension between “mass” and “individual” is interesting because it’s not just reflected in the pandemic or the election. It’s also found in every platform we’ve adopted within society at large.

Today’s major platforms continue to redefine how we communicate, behave, and shop. Exceptionally connected (Facebook) and extremely convenient (Amazon), these brands have scaled in both size and targeting. While this might lead us to believe that communities and commerce have flattened, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, our individualistic tendencies are demanding alternatives to consolidation–even when consolidation works in our favor. Commerce, culture, and conversation are increasingly showing up in spaces that feel almost underground by comparison.

Platforms that exist to enable smaller businesses, like Shopify (or even Etsy), are having a moment by knitting together niche sellers in a single marketplace, appeasing our desire for individual discovery while still delivering on the scaled features we’ve all come to expect.

The rise of Substack, OnlyFans, and Patreon signals market demand for expert analyses, niche conversations, and unique creator content that are built off individual relationships, but still have potential for broad reach. A platform like Bandcamp doesn’t compete with Spotify, but instead represents an additional channel for artists seeking to develop a close-knit (and arguably more sustainable for smaller artists) relationship with their diehards. Spotify offers the artist massive reach, but Bandcamp enables a more personalized connection to fans.

Meanwhile, accessible payment platforms like Venmo, Stripe, and Square are facilitating commerce for self-powered upstarts across the board.

Cultural gatekeepers that, just a few years ago, felt progressive, connective, and convenient are starting to feel very mass in today’s increasingly fragmented culture. In a year during which the mainstream felt chaotic, unreliable, and not truly reflective of our whole selves, platforms that celebrate niche communities, networks, and fandoms have grown both desirable and feasible.

In 2021, we’ll witness further proliferation of niche communities that celebrate and empower individual choice and interests–a return to a more idiosyncratic Internet, one that never really went away, but that has felt harder to find among the large platforms that have dominated this past decade.

Nate Skinner

— (3) Sustainability will stop being a nice-to-have

2020 has been a year of reflection. As we enter 2021, the global pandemic will continue to force us to reevaluate our ‘old normal’ and reimagine our ‘new normal’. Brands and businesses are no exception. They’re using this time as an opportunity to experiment with new ways of becoming more sustainable, and to find better ways to communicate their commitment to a more sustainable future to consumers.

From clothing retailers like Lululemon now including a ‘we made too much’ collection online, to online grocers like Ocado reducing food waste by delivering excess to food banks and converting inedible food into energy — we are seeing businesses shift towards a more innovative and sustainable future. But are consumers following suit?

For the majority of the population, climate change and sustainability is seen as one of the most important challenges facing society today. Gen-Z consumers are by far the most outspoken cohort, urging, or rather, demanding that brands make changes to reduce their impact on the environment.

However, there is still a tension between the collective community and the individual’s buying behaviour. What people say they do, is not always reflected in what they actually do, and this isn’t necessarily their fault.

The more sustainable choice is more often than not a luxury. Therefore, the feeling of doing good doesn’t beat price points or convenience and we can’t expect consumers to solve this problem on their own.

In 2021 we will start to see more brands closing this gap, whether that’s by making sustainability more accessible or connecting with customers on an emotional level and illustrating how their individual choices impact the collective.

We have seen the beginnings of this in 2020. Stink Studios was fortunate to work with Ocado on a personalised end of year film, highlighting how their consumer’s purchases contributed to a more sustainable future.

Alexandra Tyler

— (4) “Made in China” will come to mean something different

Chinese regionalism, so-called “China Pride,” is not a new trend, but it has been a hot topic that has grown and evolved since the pandemic. The considerable resilience China demonstrated gave the younger generations great confidence and China’s increasing importance in the global political and economic scene triggered an attachment of their national identity to China’s rich heritage.

This mindset sets the tone for new local artists in art, music, and fashion to rise up. “Made in China” will have a radical change in meaning. Local authenticity will be explored and heritages will be re-invented. Quite a few international brands chose to embrace this trend by creating limited edition product offerings or throwing unique events and shows that tap into China’s spectacular landscapes.

Katherine Lee

— (5) Avatars will become more virtual

Another key trend on the rise due to Covid-19 is the birth of the virtual idol, which has played a significant role in social campaigns and livestreams during the pandemic in China’s retail and e-commerce sector.

Brand ambassadors, i.e KOLs (key opinion leaders) / KOCs (key opinion consumers) are especially effective in helping brands stand out in the busy social media landscape. New technology including developments in AR & AI have given brands the ability to be represented by idols that were born in the virtual world. China’s millennials and China’s GenZ — a generation that is native to gaming and anime — are more willing to spend their time and money singing, dancing, and being friends with virtual characters. Brands use these virtual stars to transform their image from a collection of product names into a person.

Virtual idols also fit in perfectly with China’s e-commerce livestreaming trend. Brands can use these virtual stars to represent their products, creating a more innovative and interactive way to promote goods with fans. This creates a diversity of interactions and virtual events, such as borderless, live, 5G concerts or an interactive reality show for fans to play with.

Katherine Lee

— (6) Creators will continue to be big business

Although the last year didn’t reveal any deep dark underlying secrets that strategic marketers didn’t already have a sense of, what 2020 did was simply pour gasoline on the consumer trends that have already been in motion for quite some time. Some behaviors will stick, and some will fade, but for the most part, brands have learned a valuable lesson in how they compete for audience attention. In 2021, brands will double down on empowering their audience’s creativity and position their marketing dollars to lure the world’s top creators to their platforms with the appeal of profitability, personal brand development, and audience accessibility.

For advertisers, this means marketing these online creator tools to help audiences see how they can profit from the platform’s future, rather than forcing marketers to guess where users might want to go next. Brands like OnlyFans and Roblox have leveraged this key insight and doubled down on this audience empowerment strategy.

For creators who are building personal brands online, this has led to one of the more controversial trends that emerged in 2020 in the monetization of personalized adult content. OnlyFans has opened the gateway for lucrative NSFW material in an already saturated market that fans are unapologetically thirsty for, and it’s paying off big time for top creators. When a girl next door Disney star like Bella Thorne makes a million dollars in a single day, one could say that the thirst trap is finally paying off.

Although OnlyFans has significantly benefited from Pornhub’s massive audience exodus since the release of the New York Times article detailing disturbing and even criminal amateur content, the platform will find that in order to monetize a larger audience they’ll need to drop the NSFW image that they’re unintentionally associated with. In 2021, OnlyFans will triple its marketing spend in an effort to shed this shady image and educate the masses about the premium SFW content that fans don’t know they’re missing out on.

Yet, even though social media platforms have grabbed an unprecedented amount of site traffic, there’s still plenty of eyeballs to go around. The gaming industry has continued its juggernaut like growth and has positioned itself strategically in the market to compete for your attention. The industry’s evolution by creator platforms like Roblox has led to a more democratized gaming community. According to their original SEC filing, Roblox’s user engagement has ballooned to nearly 31 million daily active users, mostly under the age of 15 years old. “Roblox is a vast and expanding universe of developer and creator-built content. As of September 30, 2020, there were over 18 million experiences on Roblox, and over 12 million of these were experienced by our community. There are also millions of creator-built virtual items with which users can personalize their avatars.”

Roblox revolutionizes the gaming industry by allowing creators to profit off their creations. “Over 960,000 developers and creators earned Robux (platform currency) on the Roblox platform, of which there were over 1,050 developers and creators that earned $10,000 or more and nearly 250 developers and creators that earned $100,000 or more in Robux.”

Although user engagement with kids under the age of 15 spiked heavily and grabbed the attention of millions around the world, the pandemic paints a picture of customer behavior that is difficult to replicate in a post pandemic society. According to the Roblox SEC filing this is a major concern, “We have experienced rapid growth in recent periods, and our recent growth rates may not be indicative of our future growth or the growth of our market”. So, in 2021 Roblox will need to focus their user acquisition strategy to bring in more seasoned creators to develop mature experiences for gamers that no longer write in pencil. The need to appeal to an older audience is necessary for user growth and with new developer talent entering the space, Roblox is banking on the next big game to be created in its own backyard.

In the end, 2020 showed us that the ground that we’re standing on isn’t as firm as we thought it was. The world continues to shape shift in ways that we can’t exactly predict and brands have to keep dancing to stay relevant. Regardless, it continues to be clear that audiences still subconsciously know more about what they want more than a third party team of agency creatives and strategists ever could. The keys are in the hands of the creators themselves as they push the boundaries of platform creativity with little risk to the corporate brand positioning. For the rest of us, 2021 will be all about leveraging this insight and positioning marketing dollars to court those out there to find a space where they can be their weird selves and maybe make a buck or two while doing it.

Michael Quinones

— (7) Serverless websites will be on the rise

Yes I know, you heard that last year. And the year before that too. But this year I promise, is the year … of statically generated websites! And this time, there’s a twist. We will browse statically generated websites — that are dynamic. 🤯

The idea of static generation is a pretty old concept. One of the first static site generators, Jekyll, was created by Tom Preston-Werner when he founded GitHub in 2008. Back in those days, the process was pretty much manual, and targeted tech-savvy bloggers who were creating content in Markdown files.

While many explored the idea of static generation over the years — like Eduardo Bouças on David Walsh’s blog in early 2015, or Matt Biilmann, who wrote a piece about it after creating the popular static hosting company Netlify — it’s really in 2017 that it kicked into high gear. The reason behind this was the meeting of static generation and Javascript, via the HTML export feature that was added to the biggest JS frameworks. Nuxt, for example, shared a glimpse of this in early 2017 for the Vue developers, so did Next.js who implemented this feature in their React based framework the same year.

So, what changed?

In 2020, we saw the static generation deployment process embraced by the major Javascript frameworks, and native build support implemented on more and more hosting solutions: the serverless deployment.

Serverless deployment is a hybrid between static generation and a regular server environment. It allows us to render only some parts of our applications server side using lambda functions. We can then imagine a website that’s completely static, with a dynamic component that responds to a lambda function call on demand.

What does it mean?

Having the ability to dynamically render some elements of an application is a game-changer! It basically unlocks static rendering for projects that require high reactivity in their content — the best example being e-commerce websites.

Let’s go back to our usual static website installation. Every time we edit content in our CMS, we have to completely rebuild the application to reflect those changes. Depending on the size, complexity and hosting solution, the build duration can increase exponentially and delay updates from reflecting live. We definitely don’t want that to happen. Imagine your inventory count reaches 0 and yet your users are still trying to order that peel-off facemask because the UI doesn’t reflect the most recent data. Relying on a lambda function for this page fixes this issue without impacting the user experience or the developer experience.

So then, we are basically going back to… a regular server environment? Well, not exactly. The server, via our lambda function, will only be triggered for our product page in this case, and in addition to that it’s been reduced to a single Javascript function. The direct benefit of that is a significantly reduced server load, that allows for better optimization on the hosting provider side. This is why companies like Netlify, that specialize in static website generation, quickly integrated this feature, giving developers a better way to deploy serverless applications.

The static web is far bigger than an e-commerce example. The serverless concept allows us to reduce the server need for heavy applications, but it can also allow us to add server capabilities to simpler projects, like games or web experiences, or whatever else you come up with!

Thomas Boulongne

— (8) The inclusivity movement will expand to the fringes

To the delight of many, brands did a lot to be truly inclusive in 2020. Led by companies like Zappos, who launched a single shoe program for people with disabilities, and Rihanna’s FENTY, which nodded to the cultural diaspora by setting a new standard for foundation shades, all signs point to that trend expanding to more and more under-served corners of the population in 2021.

Be prepared for the aperture to widen. We will start seeing conversations shift outside of the obvious (like beauty and fashion) into other areas. Say, recruiting against conventional wisdom or proud, thoughtful design for folks with disabilities. Innovations typically heighten our expectations across verticals. This list moves fast and in inspiring ways.

Take for example Kyne Santos, the Filipino-Canadian drag queen and math influencer on TikTok and YouTube. In her videos, Kyne sparks interest in mathematics by telling riddles, giving lessons on the history of math and teaching her 790,000 TikTok followers how to spot misleading statistics in the media. All while dressed in high-glamour drag.

Or Floating Above Limits, a bathing suit collection by Spanish artist SiiGii, that’s designed to help people with sun allergies still be able to enjoy the summer.

Or even Lano for streamlining borderless hiring and creative agency Thinkerbell for launching Thrive@55 — an eight-week paid internship exclusively for applicants over 55.

There’s also Femitale, a loungewear brand that makes hot water bottles portable. Created by a woman seeking relief from endometriosis, these sweatpants and belly wraps are designed to help people suffering from period pain, endometriosis and backaches by letting them easily strap a hot water bottle or heating pad to their body.

I mean there’s even this trending hashtag #CartelTikTok for the nefarious.

If there is indeed something for everybody, how do we, as a creative studio, take inspiration from product innovation and apply it to UX design or the way we approach user insights? Who are we inadvertently leaving out, and how might we include them?

Sruti Dhulipala

A creative advertising and digital experience company.

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