These Trends Are Quickly Redefining Communications for Tech Brands

In 2020, science and technology shaped society in more profound ways than in any year in modern history. Business communications pivoted from a blend of in-person and digital to 100% virtual overnight after a global pandemic forced us to stay at home. Zoom and other remote technologies forever changed the way we work. Ecommerce, digital media and entertainment consumption exploded. Today’s tech enabled the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 to be produced, tested and approved in a matter of months. 

In 2021, science and technology companies need to carefully factor in several structural shifts — some that have been slowly simmering over the past decade and others accelerated by COVID-19 — that will redefine how they communicate with stakeholders. The following seven cultural and organizational trends in technology will have the biggest impact on tech industry PR and communications this year and over the decade to come.

Digital media consumption compresses attention. 

According to eMarketer, U.S. consumers increased their time spent with media per day in 2020 by more than an hour to 13 hours and 35 minutes, with adults spending an average of four hours on mobile every day. While online, we traverse an average of five devices and dozens of content channels — apps, social media, websites, news aggregators, etc. 

Such rapid media consumption can’t help but shorten our already dwindling attention spans. According to a Microsoft study, the average attention span decreased from 12 seconds to eight seconds between 2000 and 2015. While newer data on the length of our attention spans isn’t available, a Technical University of Denmark study last year revealed the continuation of this trend thanks to our rising addiction to mobile, social networks and video. 

Bottom line: People consume content in small bursts — tweets, headlines, and 10-second TikToks — and brands need to adapt to this reality. While there’s still room for long-form content, you need to know your audience, what they care about, and when and where to publish.

Digital news media becomes even more ephemeral.

Digital now dominates news distribution. According to Pew Research, 86% of people now regularly get their news from a smartphone, computer or tablet, greatly outperforming TV (40%), radio (16%) and print (10%).  

The acceleration of digital news creation and consumption means a shorter shelf life for earned articles on publisher platforms. PR teams labor for months over a story in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal only to have it lost in the digital ether within a day. According to Reuters, if a story is highly significant, the article will likely remain on its homepage for one to two days. Less prominent items are replaced by breaking news within hours.

Bottom line: While news media remains a critical medium, brands must look to social media to extend the reach and relevancy of their earned content. Liking and sharing the content is just the first step. Brands should reshare and repackage these stories, building on older content with new perspectives over time. 

Podcast listeners are more engaged than consumers of any other medium, with 80% of listeners consuming either entire episodes or at least most of them.

Podcasts become an owned content strategy.

Last year, there were plenty of signals that podcasts had finally gone mainstream. Spotify spent nearly $1 billion while acquiring a warchest of podcast content, including from leading networks like Gimlet Media, as CEO Daniel Ek predicted that podcasts will represent more than 20% of all listening on the platform. Amazon then bought podcast network Wondery for $300 million. According to new data from Edison Research and Triton Digital, 37% of Americans, or 104 million people, listened to a podcast in the past month. And the podcast market is expected to balloon from $11 billion in 2020 to $60.5 billion by 2027. 

Despite digital media shortening our attention spans, podcast listeners are more engaged than consumers of any other medium, with 80% of listeners consuming either entire episodes or at least most of them. This high level of engagement is why our clients Snowflake, Tessian, ThoughtSpot and Qualified have made podcasts a core pillar of their owned content programs. 

Bottom line: Brands not only need to factor podcasts into their earned media and advertising strategies — they must embrace podcasts as a central component of their owned content investments. 

Big Tech and techlash shape media sentiment.

As the economy collapsed in 2020 and unemployment skyrocketed, the biggest technology companies saw their valuations soar. Tesla’s stock price surged 740%, making Elon Musk the wealthiest person in the world. FAANG stocks grew an average of 60%, with Apple leading the pack at more than 85% growth and surpassing a $2 trillion market cap.

As Big Tech players become more dominant and pervasive in our daily lives, the public and media increasingly distrust them. According to Pew Research, nearly half of Americans believe major tech companies should be more regulated by the government, with nearly 75% saying they were not confident in digital platforms’ ability to prevent wrongful influence on the ‘20 Presidential election. This mounting distrust in Big Tech will continue to set the tone and tenor of all tech media. In addition, the issues impacting these companies and their users — data privacy, antitrust and diversity to name a few — will continue to set the editorial agenda.

Bottom line: PR teams need to understand that earning trust with mainstream technology media is a process that takes time and requires authentic alignment with the issues reporters care about. The media appetite for take-downs born out of Theranos, Cambridge Analytica, WeWork and other high-profile scandals also requires tech companies to be proactive and preemptive in managing their corporate brands well before their S-1s are filed. 

Mounting distrust in Big Tech will continue to set the tone and tenor of all tech media.

Brands can no longer separate themselves from social and political issues.

Last year marked a tipping point for corporate leaders speaking out about social issues and the unblurring of lines between profits and politics. Following George Floyd’s death and the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, almost every major tech company CEO issued public statements condemning racism and pledging to do better at diversity. 

Whereas activist brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia have built their businesses around strong political viewpoints, many tech companies like Expensify spoke out against President Trump during his failed reelection bid. In an email to 10 million users, Expensify CEO David Barrett urged his customers to vote against Trump, saying “anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong told his employees and the world that there was no place for politics and social causes at work, offering severance packages for anyone who wanted to leave. The policy ignited both praise and criticism from other Silicon Valley leaders and tech workers — and a number of very talented employees took him up on his offer. 

Bottom line: CEOs and their communications leaders need to establish clear policies and protocols now for how they will engage around critical issues. These standards will matter to their employees and other stakeholders in the future. 

Corporate behavior (not communications) drives reputation. 

Companies promised $35 billion toward racial equity last year. While brands should continue to pledge their commitment to advancing important societal causes, those that are all talk and no action will be called out. With a new media culture of accountability fueled by Big Tech and the emergence of stakeholder capitalism, corporate behavior will become much more important in shaping reputation than communication alone. 

Expect the media and other stakeholders, especially employees, to hold the most influential tech companies accountable for the platitudes they made in 2020.

Popularized by the leadership nonprofit Business Roundtable, stakeholder capitalism is the belief that companies should keep in mind every stakeholder — including employees, customers and communities — and not just shareholders. In 2019, nearly 200 of the Business Roundtable’s executive members, including CEOs at Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Salesforce, pledged their commitment to “an economy that serves all Americans.” With this shift, chief communications and marketing officers responsible for reputation need a seat at the table to shape corporate policies and pledges, not just communicate them. 

Bottom line: Expect the media and other stakeholders, especially employees, to hold the most influential tech companies accountable for the platitudes they made in 2020. There needs to be more than just a pledge; there needs to be follow-through. 

Stakeholder capitalism forces convergence of PR, CSR, IR, Crisis, and Policy. 

In January, we saw stakeholder capitalism in action when corporate America took a stand against Trump and rightwing extremists following the Capitol insurgency. Facebook and Twitter banned Trump from their platforms, AWS dropped its support for Parlor, and Airbnb cancelled all inauguration week reservations in Washington, D.C. 

With stakeholder capitalism building steam, the current organizational structure for corporate communications must adapt to become more integrated. Many silos still exist across communications functions inside large companies. For example, PR often reports to marketing, investor relations (IR) reports to finance, employee communications reports to HR, and policy reports to legal. 

Bottom line: Stakeholder capitalism requires all of these disciplines to better align. Their departmental leaders need to work more closely together under a single, coordinated stakeholder communications strategy. 

WILD CARD: Biden’s tech policies could usher in a new era of accountability.

In its first week, President Joe Biden’s administration has made fast work of overturning Trump-era policies and practices in everything from hiring to LGBTQ+ rights to disaster relief. There are strong indications that business regulation will be a top priority for the administration, but Biden’s appointments so far also include business-friendly leaders, so the real impact is still unknown. Either way, companies should act and communicate with transparency and accountability top of mind — not only in preparation for scrutiny, but because it’s the right thing for responsible businesses to do.