As is my tradition at the end of each year, I look back at what the past months have brought us (you can read that piece here) and I look forward at what the coming years will bring us. It is clear that the pandemic has had a huge effect on our behaviour and the way are channels are organised. But the trends that stand out, and the ones that will most affect us in the coming years are not pandemic-native only. These trends were already there, waiting to surface, and now they have ‘just’ been greatly accelerated. For me, the new COVID-19 reality has not so much brought about a 360° shift in customer experience as it has put a magnifying glass on what was mostly hidden until now.
In this blog you can find the 8 customer experience trends for 2021 that I’m looking forward to.
A long time ago, we had to ‘go to a place’ to shop. When the internet kicked in, we were able to shop from the comfort of our own home, and later even on our mobile phones outside of our houses. But we still had to ‘go’ to a place, albeit virtual.
Increasingly, we are moving into an era where everything is commerce and we will be shopping from our streaming channels, videos, social media and messaging and even from billboards in the street. Everything we see will have the potential to become a transaction. The store will be everywhere around us: E(everywhere)-commerce. This is of course a trend that comes straight from China, where people have been buying from social and other sites like Huya (game streaming), Dianping (Yelp for China), Meipai (live streaming platforms), Xiaohongshu (shopping reviews), Duoyin (TikTok of China) or Weibo (Facebook of China). But what has changed is that now Western players like Youtube, Facebook and Instagram have been jumping on that wagon as well. That amount will only rise in the coming months. I urge all marketers to investigate what this trend could mean for them. This is no longer some far away Eastern trend, it’s moving over here fast.
Every company is an entertainment company
The next few years we will see an immense boost to the entertainment industry, which will furthermore NOT be content to stay in its own lines. Further down the line, every company will become an entertainment company.
Of course, the corona crisis is also playing a huge role in speeding this process up. A great example of this trend is the Belgian KBC bank that bought the rights to broadcast soccer games via their mobile banking app. Their aim is to offer soccer fans a user friendly solution to follow their favorite team(s) by pushing all goals and other highlights in real time to them. McDonald’s too has staged a week of free events aimed at giving consumers “a little lift” following the ongoing cancellation of sporting and entertainment venues due to Covid-19 in October of this year. I believe that these are little trickles of a big stream that will be opening up in the coming months.
The rise of emotive technology
According to Harvard Business Review, “When companies connect with customers’ emotions, the payoff can be huge.” This ability to generate positive emotions in a customer – called brand intimacy – helps brands drive sales and customer loyalty. Today, companies have so much more data and input on their hands than they used to, to figure out what their customers feel: facial recognition, movement data, health data like heart rate and blood pressure, social media behaviour, etc. The leap from nudging people on the basis of their behaviour to influencing them on the basis of their emotions is an increasingly small one. And it obviously opens up a whole can of worms on the topic of ethical marketing, but that’s a very different discussion.
One of the ways that this power can be used for good, though, is to help tackle the current loneliness pandemic and the emotional health crisis connected with the corona lockdowns. So many people are socially isolated, worried about job stability, working longer hours than ever before, and spending more time than ever on social media. According to Business Insider, in April and June 2020 the prevalence of anxiety more than tripled during the pandemic (25.5% versus 8.1% in Q2 2019), and depressive disorder nearly quadrupled (24.3% versus 6.5% in Q2 2019) for US citizens. So it makes perfect sense that Microsoft plans to embed Teams with a series of “wellness” tools to address the mental health crisis These “Personal wellbeing experiences” will be added early next year: they will include “emotional check-ins” ( users can select an emoji expressing how they felt about the work day), a “virtual commute” (to allow time to reflect before and after workdays), and guided meditation sessions through a partnership with Headspace.
As mental health problems seem to be on the rise – ironically often triggered by social media – companies will start to zero in on affective or emotive technology in an increased way. Another small example is for instance the functionality in cars that warns the driver that (s)he is too tired to drive. I believe that programs warning private users or employees that they need to take a short break or do some meditation because their stress levels are rising, will become the norm.
Digital channels are moving to the next level
Teams evolving from a collaboration platform to one that monitors the wellbeing and productivity of employees is the perfect bridge for this new trend: as we have often been mostly confined to our digital channels in the past months, they have professionalized themselves at a speed that we’ve never encountered before. Teams is just one of many examples.
As a small example: webinars used to be these nerdy, pretty awkward shows with a somewhat outdated look and feel. But in the past months they have evolved into shows that have an almost broadcast-TV-like quality: green key usage with fantastic backgrounds, hosts that are fluent and experienced, insane virtual stages, a whole crew in the background making sure that there are no technical glitches, someone moderating the interactive chats,… This is a very different level than before the pandemic. And then there are the likes of Netflix and the BBC that are broadening their offer by zooming into educational offerings. Surprisingly, Netflix has also been testing a new audio-only feature for streaming video that would turn its shows into podcasts. A version of its Android app includes software code that suggests the company is testing letting users listen to videos instead of watch them, according to an analysis by tech publication XDA Developers. The aim is probably to offer an alternative to competing podcasts media services. Sometimes becoming increasingly professional, is offering less (audio instead of audio and video) instead of more, because that’s what customers want. I believe that this professionalizing and diversification of our digital channels will only increase in the coming years, most probably adding AR and VR into the mix to make everything a lot more ‘real’.
A local comeback
As sustainability concerns are on the rise ànd the pandemic has been forcing us to stay in our country, often even in our city, a lot of us have found a renewed appreciation for small local players. Even the bigger players, like Google seem to be recognizing this trend. The latter has for instance teamed with Channel 4 in a campaign to celebrate the British high street and encourage consumers to show some love to local businesses. And then there’s of course our renewed enthusiasm (well, basically because there was no other way) for “staycationing” in our own country, thereby supporting the local B&B’s and hotels who had of course lost most of their foreign guests.
I also love the examples of the local Chinese farmers that learned to promote and sell their own produce directly to the customer … obviously with a little help from the big players. China’s largest online retailers JD.com and Alibaba, for instance, helped farmers talk to millions of consumers confined at home directly using JD Live and Taobao Live, in exchange for a small commission. Both JD and Alibaba made the applications easier to use for farmers, helped them create an online shop and took care of distribution all the way to people’s homes.
There’s a definite move towards local reappreciation, but the small local players will need to move to a wholly different gear if they want to match the customer experience that the big players have been offering. Partnering with large platforms – like the above Chinese farmers – is something that we’ll increasingly see here as well.
Look for tailwind markets
If your market is one that has been going backwards, so that you have to continuously fight, there is no strategy in the world that can help you. Even if you have the best idea and the friendliest personnel in the world, you can, and probably will, still fail. I wrote already about this in my latest book the Offer You Can’t Refuse but this ‘market failure’ reality has only become more present and harsh in these past pandemic months. As tough as it may sound now, some markets won’t survive in the coming years, and – as tragic as it may be – fighting that will unfortunately not help.
Instead, I advise you to look for tailwind markets, that have the wind in their sails and where your strengths will allow you surf the market’s waves. So I believe that this is a crucial time to do some soul searching: What sector do you work in? Is it a sector with the wind in its sails? One that is constantly seeking new horizons? Where double digit growth is still possible? Or is it a sector that is struggling, sailing into a headwind? One where there is constant pressure on prices and margins? The sector in which you work makes a huge difference. Just know that there is nothing to stop you from searching for your own tailwind market. A fantastic example that I mention in my book is that of the Danish Egmont group, which was founded in 1878 as a one-man printing business and evolved into one of the largest content producers in Europe: from print books and magazines to films and television series.
Recently, the CEO of the company, Steffen Kragh, decided to steer a fresh course: ‘I am no longer interested in being part of a failing and highly competitive market. Our magazines, books and TV-formats are holding their own, but the competition is fierce, and will continue to be so. I want to be active in tailwind markets.’ So they decided to invest in growing markets like e-commerce and gaming. These are both tailwind industries where strong growth is still possible, even if they are highly competitive. Egmont was very smart about differentiating itself, though. In the field of e-commerce, first, they opted deliberately for niche categories – like products for parents, outdoor hobbies and kitchen material – where players like Amazon were less active. This portfolio now generates an annual turnover of more than 360 million euros for them. In the gaming market, they deliberately opted not to adopt a short-lived blockbuster strategy but to focus on older, more loyal and more affluent gamers than the players of, say, Fortnite. The Egmont case clearly demonstrates the benefits of tailwind markets. The company exploited its competencies as story-tellers to go in search of new market segments. Even if these segments already seemed to be well occupied, Egmont found a way to make use of its strengths to fill its sails with fresh wind, so that it could reap the rewards of fast progress, while always remaining true to its wider mission.
The rise of online Word of Mouth marketing
Real life interaction with family, friends and colleagues became extremely limited the past few months because of the pandemic. We’re working and living from home and most of us are keeping human contact to a minimum. And we’ll see this trend stick around far quite a while too in 2021 (possible even further). This reduction of face to face communication has (and will have) quite some impact on brands, now that the offline word of mouth is almost non-existent.
I believe that this evolution will only make online word of mouth increase in importance. Because that’s just how consumers work: we tend to rely upon the opinion of people we trust to make buying decisions. Now that our own close network is falling away, a lot of us are looking in the direction of influencers or online reviews when we’re not sure what to decide. So I believe that brands will spend an increased amount of their budget to get the word of mouth machine up and running again, online. Influencer marketing was already a fast mover: brands’ total influencer marketing expenditure in 2019 was $8 billion, while, at the end of 2019, is was expected to grow to $15 billion by 2022. I believe that the pandemic, and the lack of offline word of mouth, will boost that number a lot. Another crucial part of the online WOM will be reviews. And as the only thing that triggers great reviews is a great experience, the importance of great products and great services will only rise. Brands will definitely be on the lookout for new online ways to spread the word around in the coming months.
The Zero Customer Experience
In the next few years we will see the rise of the zero thinking experience, where customer outsource certain decisions to machines. A lot of people tell me that they are no fan of this evolution because it affects our choice, and our freedom. But if an open, smart and transparent algorithms are performing choices that sometimes give us stress, I see this as a good thing. Many players – like Panera with their MyPanera+ Coffee subscription and Citizen M with its subscriptions for remote workers and companies with distributed workforce – are jumping on this type of subscription economy business model.
We will see this amount only increasing, especially when combined with what marketing strategy expert Scott Galloway calls signal liquidity. “Signal liquidity” is the sheer volume of information that the social media platform TikTok is able to gather on each user. If you watch an hour of Netflix, for instance it gets about 3 signals from you – what did you pick, how long did you watch it and did you continue watching. The signal liquidity of TikTok is so that the algorithm gets several hundred signals an hour.
So why is that important here? Well, as Galloway explains: “Walmart’s investment in TikTok is an attempt to move to algorithmic content and zero-click ordering where you don’t pick stuff, they just use inputs to figure out what you want and then ship three boxes to your door twice a week with things they think you want and one that’s empty. You put stuff back in the empty box you don’t want and they pick it up and that’s more signals.” So it’s not just about zero-thinking/zero-decision subscription models, once combined with signal liquidity, this has the potential to become huge.
Steven Van Belleghem is a Customer Experience expert who has given more than 1000 presentations at events in over 40 countries. Some of the top companies Steven has worked with include Google, Mercedes-Benz, Disney, Microsoft, Booking.com, and Unilever.