What will be the big trends in PPC marketing and paid social in 2021?

In a normal year, PPC marketing is fairly unpredictable.

But 2020 was anything but a normal year.

Last year, nobody could have or would have predicted we’d be dealing with the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic throughout 2020.

Instead, our PPC experts were busy talking about trends like automation, audience targeting, and privacy.

Hopefully, 2021 won’t throw quite as many curveballs at those of you doing PPC advertising and paid social.

So what will be the most important PPC trends in 2021?

As part of my fourth annual look at PPC Trends here on Search Engine Journal, I asked some of the top PPC experts for their insights.

Here are the top 10 PPC trends you need to know for 2021 – from paid search, to paid social, to remarketing, and beyond – according to 32 experts.

1. Goodbye, Data

Obfuscation of data, unfortunately, will be a continuing trend in 2021, according to Julie F. Bacchini, President & Founder, Neptune Moon.

“Between Google Ads limiting access to search query data to the coming obliteration of tracking cookies as we know it, digital marketers are going to have to adapt in a pretty major way again in 2021,” Bacchini said. “The bottom line for 2021: be ready to be flexible.”

Amy Hebdon, Founder, Paid Search Magic, said similar.

“It’s been a slow burn for years, but this is Google Ads’ worst year on record for shifting away from transparency and limiting the data we have to make the best decisions for our accounts,” Hebdon said. “Barring any regulatory interference, we can expect Google to continue on this path indefinitely as it maximizes its own revenue and earnings.”

Brad Geddes, Co-Founder, AdAlysis, also expects Google to continue hiding data as it relies more on machine learning.

“I expect that trend to continue where Google forces advertisers to rely more on Google’s machine learning and data than on their own expertise,” Geddes said. “While this trend may help the small advertiser, Google will continue to hurt the larger and more sophisticated advertisers with these changes.”

So what can PPC marketers do to succeed in this environment?

“Imperfect data is no one’s favorite, but wise marketers will need to use incomplete data to see the signal from the noise,” said Mark Irvine, Director of Paid Media, SearchLab. “Rather than focus on the loss, wise marketers will still need to see what’s working best with the 80% of information they have and learn how to guide their campaigns to target more of that audience.”

According to Irvine, that means:

  • Writing more “good” ads than “bad” ads with responsive ad assets.
  • Reviewing patterns of search queries, rather than individual search terms.
  • Guiding automated bidding, rather than controlling bidding directly.


And, according to Michelle Morgan, Director of Client Services, Clix Marketing, it also means doing more with less.

“Companies are going to rely on PPC to drive larger portions of their revenue, while at the same time the channels are taking away functionality and data transparency,” Morgan said. “So we literally need to have a bigger impact for our clients with less control and insights into performance.”

Ben Wood, Strategy Director, Hallam, added that the erosion of hyper-specific user-level targeting will push more advertisers back to contextual targeting methods and raise the importance of compelling creative.

“The importance of effective persuasion techniques to sit alongside the precision targeting most of us PPC marketers have become more familiar with will be emphasized,” Wood said.

2. Understand Your Audience & the Buyer Journey

As Aaron Levy, Group Director, SEM, Tinuiti, puts it: the days of PPC marketers controlling every ad and every bid based on words alone.

What’s this mean?

“We’ll be forced to look at the whole picture of the audience we’re aiming for,” Levy said. “While I mourn the loss of data we were so used to from our friends at Google and Microsoft, I for one welcome the opportunity to be a better marketer, moving beyond just language-driven ads.”

In 2021, the most successful PPC marketers will be strategists focused on their target audience, said Kristopher Jones, Founder & CEO, LSEO.com.

“In an era where there is less control due to automation and AI, what matters is who sees your ads to ensure you’re driving qualified clicks,” Jones said.

Therefore, advertisers who align PPC marketing efforts with the buyer journey will come out ahead of the pack in 2021, according to Melissa Mackey, Search Supervisor, gyro.

“As an advertiser, expect to spend time thinking about your customer and how they decide to buy from you.

  • How long does the process take?
  • Where do they interact?
  • What information do they need?
  • What might they be searching for?
  • How do you measure success at each step?”


And many other PPC experts agreed, including Jonathan A. Kagan, VP of Search, 9RoofTops.

“The number one thing for everyone to do is get control of your audiences,” Kagan said. “Know who your target audience is. Know who is worth prospecting versus who is most likely to convert. Separate them, and manage them independently.”

With less information being available related to the intent of a potential customer, marketers will need to evolve their approach and think more about engaging the right audiences, said Justin Freid, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer, CMI/Compas.

“A tactical example of this is how we have seen high adoption of Bing’s ability to integrate LinkedIn data into their targeting,” Freid said. “Yes, intent is important, but knowing you are targeting a qualified lead/customer is of equal value. This will also help us begin to look at the LTV (Lifetime Value) of customer vs. a single sale driven through paid search.”

Purna Virji, Senior Manager, Global Engagement, Microsoft Advertising, believes that in 2021, PPC will go back to basics, which means putting customers and communities first and marketing with purpose.

She highlighted two areas that are important for reaching your customers:

  • Keywords: The goal here is to target potential customers based on their unique needs that map to the keywords they use to satisfy their unique dimension of diversity.
  • Images: Choosing imagery is an important part of the process of constructing a meaningful and inclusive customer experience.


What does it all mean?

Here’s how Kirk Williams, Owner, ZATO, put it:

“The business that invests well into learning:

  • Who their audience is.
  • What they care about.
  • Where they spend their time.
  • What they want to hear.


…can then build a PPC campaign strategy targeting those audiences (social) and how they are searching (search).

This will inform:

  • Landing page creation and content.
  • Ad creative.
  • Various Google Ads targeting metrics such as audiences, keywords, location, devices, and more.”

3. Even More Automation

Like it or not, ad platforms are taking away more control from PPC marketers.

Steve Hammer, President, RankHammer, believes this trend is going to accelerate in 2021.

“This will force us to rely on feeding better data back into the platforms,,” Hammer said. “That better data will need to factor much more than just binary metrics, even where we used to use them. Leads will need to consider quality and feed values back based upon this, or the platform will automate for those easy low quality leads.”

Robert Brady, Founder, Righteous Marketing, also believes we will continue to see the proliferation of more automation in PPC.

“So if you want greater success in your PPC efforts, get familiar with how the automation works,” Brady said. “Humans are still needed, but the platforms want their algorithms to have more leash.”

As pointed out by Pauline Jakober, Founder & CEO, Group Twenty Seven, results are the ultimate goal – regardless of whether they’re achieved by automated, manual, or a mix of both managed strategies.

“For areas of automation where we have lost control, PPC pros will likely have to accept, adapt, and move on,” Jakober said. “However, the positive side of this forced adaptation is that it will give PPC pros more cycles to focus on strategies that build brand awareness and brand affinity.”

Meanwhile, Frederick Vallaeys, Co-Founder, Optmyzr, said one of the big lessons learned in 2020 was that automation, when used wisely, can actually save the day when all else falls apart.

He believes advertisers will use automation to save time while finding ways to use human intelligence to manipulate these systems to gain an edge over competitors.

“For example, advertisers will spend more time building checks-and-balances for the machines rather than doing account maintenance with automations like Smart Bidding and Responsive Search Ads handling tasks previously done by hand,” Vallaeys said. “Advertisers will look for ways to get notified when these systems deviate from expectations, either due to shortcomings of the tools themselves, or because unplanned events in the world are messing up the best-laid plans.”

4. Diversification Will Become More Important

One unintended consequence of the loss of control in Google will likely lead to more companies shifting PPC dollars to other search engines such as Microsoft Ads, according to Brooke Osmundson, Director of Paid Media, NordicClick Interactive.

“This platform still gives marketers the robust data it needs to make sound strategic decisions,” Osmundson said.

Christine Zirnheld, Digital Marketer, Cypress North, said one of the most important things PPC marketers can do in 2021 to set themselves up for success is diversifying their skillset beyond Google Ads.

“As Google continues to move away from actionable data and more toward machine learning, it will be vital for advertisers to be well-versed in other advertising platforms that allow them more control over their spending, reach, and messaging,” Zirnheld said. “In order to do the best work we can for our clients, we simply can’t rely on Google Ads as heavily as we once did.”

Put simply: Diversification is key for a winning PPC strategy, according to Amy Bishop, Owner & Digital Marketing Consultant, Cultivative.

“The more diverse your media mix, the more nimble you can be,” Bishop said. “A diverse strategy puts you in a good place to capitalize on opportunities to scale and/or redistribute budget as needed in the wake of an unforeseen shake-up.”

Nikki Kuhlman, Senior Account Director, JumpFly, agreed.

“Test other platforms that help drive overall business,” Kuhlman said. “I’m starting to see this with clients more and more.

“I’m very much a ‘traditional’ PPC account manager, but have been talking with clients about diversifying their advertising beyond Google Ads Search and Display, and Microsoft Advertising. I’m also talking about testing YouTube, Verizon Media’s native ads, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, even TikTok if the audience fits,” Kuhlman added.

5. Harness the Power of First-Party Data

How data is sourced is about to be disrupted, as noted by Christi Olson, Global Media SEM Lead, Microsoft. This is due to changes in global privacy policies and restrictions to third-party cookies across browsers.

“Search marketers will need to focus on data in 2021 and work with their companies and agencies to develop a data strategy to maintain privacy compliance and usability of data in this new landscape,” Olson said.

“With how dependent marketers have been on cookie-driven targeting technologies, I believe that developing new solutions not reliant on cookies is the key 2021 priority for marketers,” said Ilya Cherepakhin, Head of Performance Marketing, Milestone Inc.

“Businesses are able to get greater accuracy because they can segment first-party data with great customization – as closely as needed to manage business goals and align with wider organizational needs, and brand objectives,” Cherepakhin added. “While daunting, creating first-party, data-driven solutions are well worth the investment since they benefit multiple digital channels.”

Ed Leake, Managing Director, AdEvolver & Midas Media, said search engines don’t want you to track anything meaningful anymore. So being in a position to recover a good chunk of your traffic data is a big deal.

“With server-side analytics, you greatly increase tracking accuracy and for the most part, the web browsers can do nothing to stop it,” Leake said. “Improving your first-party data, much like last year, should be a priority”.

6. New Instagram Opportunities

Akvile DeFazio, President, AKvertise, advises keeping an eye on Instagram.

“It is only a matter of time before they open up more ad placements for additional inventory through IGTV and Reels as they continue to quickly gain organic popularity,” DeFazio said.

Susan Wenograd, Director of Paid Acquisition, Nextiva (and Search Engine Journal’s Paid Media Writer) echoed this, noting that ad formats like Stories have done exceedingly well, and they’ve gone after TikTok formats by launching Reels.

“They are going to continue to find ways to monetize the real estate on the platform,” Wenograd said. “They also need to entice creators – something they haven’t historically done a great job of. …We will likely see continued experimentation here.”

7. Big Picture Strategy Will Become More Valuable

The industry changes fast. Knowing where to push, where to pull, and when is an important skill set, according to Bishop.

“As digital media geeks, most of us love to get lost in the data. But having a creative mindset and the ability to go big picture is important,” Bishop said. “As the cost of inventory rises, you have to determine how to make your investment work smarter.”

Amy Hebdon, Founder, Paid Search Magic, added that in 2021, the best defense will be a good offense.

“The better your campaigns are structured, the less important negative ‘whack-a-mole’ is to the success of the campaign,” Hebdon said. “Group your campaigns thematically, and have ads and offers that specifically appeal to your audience.”

“Target your market based on their preferences and behaviors, not just observed variance in the data,” Hebdon added. “And, of course, make choices that align with your objectives, not Google’s scores and recommendations.”

8. Perfect the Ad Message

How well you articulate your message will be super important in 2021.

As Irvine noted earlier, it will be more important than ever to write more good ads than bad ads.

Many other PPC experts echoed this, including Arianne Donoghue, Founder, Tempest Marketing.

Donoghue noted that in 2021 it will be important to have a renewed focus on understanding who your customers are as people, rather than as data points.

“The right person – at the right time, in the right place – but with the wrong message, is a missed opportunity,” Donoghue said. “The creative is what drives that emotional connection and ultimately gets someone to engage. We often forget that.”

That’s why John Lee, Learning Strategist, Microsoft Advertising said skills around ad writing and execution have never been more important – or necessary.


“Complex, dynamic, and responsive ad units. Think RSAs, DSAs, and native/responsive display ads. These ad types are amazing and are driving growth in our industry,” Lee said. “And success requires developing new skills around planning, creative writing, and testing.”

9. Always Be Testing

Speaking of testing – Navah Hopkins, Director of Paid Media, Hennessey Digital, provided probably my favorite quote in PPC Trends this year, and it is this: “get comfortable not being comfortable.”

If 2020 prepared us for nothing else, hopefully it prepared us for that!

Hopkins said the biggest trend for 2021 is to always be testing, and never get comfortable with what you think you know.

“We need to treat our campaigns as a kid with a new allergy – put each variable up to scrutiny and only allow newly ‘proven’ tactics to be part of your marketing mix,” Hopkins said. “If there’s one mantra we digital marketers need to have engraved in our hearts – it’s to test!”

10. A Great Mobile Experience

Surprised to see this in a list of PPC trends for 2021? Don’t be.

If brands want to win in 2021, they need to have an accessible site. This is, and will be, a huge area for 2021, according to Duane Brown, Founder & Head of Strategy, Take Some Risk.

“Despite the years of mobile being a thing, many brands still don’t have a website that has a great experience on mobile,” Brown said. “Many people have never visited their own site on a mobile device, let alone multiple devices.”

Discover More PPC Trends & Insights for 2021

We’ve only just gotten started. There are a lot more trends to discover in the rest of Search Engine Journal’s PPC Trends 2021 ebook. Ready for more? Click here to download Search Engine Journal’s PPC Trends 2021. You’ll get more insights and tips straight from these 32 PPC experts on how to succeed at PPC and paid social in 2021:
  • Julie F. Bacchini, President & Founder, Neptune Moon
  • Amy Bishop, Owner & Digital Marketing Consultant, Cultivative
  • Robert Brady, Founder, Righteous Marketing
  • Duane Brown, Founder & Head of Strategy, Take Some Risk
  • Ilya Cherepakhin, Head of Performance Marketing, Milestone Inc.
  • Akvile DeFazio, President, AKvertise
  • Arianne Donoghue, Founder, Tempest Marketing
  • Justin Freid, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer, CMI/Compas
  • Brad Geddes, Co-Founder, AdAlysis
  • Steve Hammer, President, RankHammer
  • Amy Hebdon, Founder, Paid Search Magic
  • Navah Hopkins, Director of Paid Media, Hennessey Digital
  • Mark Irvine, Director of Paid Media, SearchLab
  • Pauline Jakober, Founder & CEO, Group Twenty Seven
  • Kristopher Jones, Founder & CEO, LSEO.com
  • Jonathan A. Kagan, VP of Search, 9RoofTops
  • Nikki Kuhlman, Senior Account Director, JumpFly
  • Ed Leake, Managing Director, AdEvolver & Midas Media
  • John Lee, Learning Strategist, Microsoft Advertising
  • Aaron Levy, Group Director, SEM, Tinuiti
  • Melissa Mackey, Search Supervisor, gyro
  • Michelle Morgan, Director of Client Services, Clix Marketing
  • Christi Olson, Global Media SEM Lead, Microsoft
  • Brooke Osmundson, Director of Paid Media, NordicClick Interactive
  • Lisa Raehsler, Founder & SEM Strategy Consultant, Big Click Co.
  • Frederick Vallaeys, Co-Founder, Optmyzr
  • Purna Virji, Senior Manager, Global Engagement, Microsoft Advertising
  • Susan Wenograd, Director of Paid Acquisition, Nextiva
  • AJ Wilcox, Founder, B2Linked
  • Kirk Williams, Owner, ZATO
  • Ben Wood, Strategy Director, Hallam
  • Christine Zirnheld, Digital Marketer, Cypress North

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