After a year of constant global disruption, consumer experience hasn’t completely changed shape — but it is looking distinctly different.

As rolling lockdowns have limited real-world connection, technology’s role in brand interaction and purchasing has grown exponentially; sparking record levels of digital activity and fast-tracking ecommerce evolution by five years.

These shifts will drive lasting repercussions. Across every sector, businesses are now facing higher expectations of ease, speed, and consistency that look set to stay, especially when it comes to shopping. So, the question is: where do we go from here?

While crystal ball gazing might be hazardous in such uncertain times, industry leaders argue embracing proactive adjustment is crucial to success in 2021.

1. Streamlining multi-channel retail

Rayhan Perera, CEO and Founder, OneDash

Moving into the new year, it’s vital retail brands are able to deliver the immersive, interactive experience consumers crave. With the shift to online looking likely to stay – at least in part – brands must be able to reinvent themselves on a fully digital platform. This is where interactive, ‘shoppable’ technology comes in to help viewers feel as engaged and intrigued as if they were physically in-store. Those brands that can provide a highly engaging video experience going forward will be the ones to succeed in the “new normal”, enabling viewers to learn more about products, or even to buy them seamlessly, all without having to leave the video environment.

This will mean utilising technology that offers direct cart integration, as well as deep-level integrations with payment platforms. Artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision will also play a big role in achieving true interactivity – identifying products from relevant retail catalogues and auto-tagging them within the content to provide the consumer with additional information, as well as providing insight into consumer habits and preferences. Shoppable hotspots can then be created to give the consumer an immediately gratifying experience where the point of interest is next to the point of transaction.

Alexander Igelsböck, CEO & Co-Founder, Adverity

It has been a very challenging year and accelerated changes to consumer trends have resulted in retailers having to adapt quickly and rethink how to connect with consumers. A combination of the pandemic and resulting lockdown in the UK – along with many countries in Europe introducing curfews – has resulted in a shift to online shopping and has acted as a driver for new behaviours. With new consumer habits being moulded for years to come, successful retailers – of all sizes from large chains to small independents – will need to adapt to gain a competitive edge, grow revenue and increase customer loyalty.

As we enter 2021, retailers and marketers will need a strategy in place that allows them to remain agile in their engagement with consumers. This will mean managing a new wave of data and redesigning customer journeys to create a more convenient and seamless shopping experience. We expect analytics to play a key role in helping identify data trends and patterns before they become another needle in the haystack, providing more intuitive information about consumers, and subsequently helping improve conversion rates.

Pablo Dopico, Head of Brands and Agencies EMEA, VidMob

The boost that ecommerce has seen through this year has highlighted a number of issues facing consumers on their purchase journey. From sub-optimal mobile platform programming to overly-complicated cart integrations – or lack thereof – the issues have been thrust into the spotlight. The upside to this though is that it should have allowed brands to take stock and turn their attention to creating a more streamlined customer journey in 2021, leading to conversion optimisation particularly where mobile experiences are concerned.

We expect to see accelerated progress in the ways brands merge the physical and mobile store, so that customers can experience and access a physical store of choice from their devices, and benefit from services such as Click & Go, Click & Find and Click & Try. This combination of the physical and digital experience will allow consumers to shop the available stock online, and then choose to pick it up in-store within a short space of time. In addition, brands could track all products and display them on a store map so that each customer can find items online in advance or eliminate waiting times by booking a fitting room to try an item on.

It will be good to see how some of the impacts of 2020 have helped brands understand that investing in integrated digital-physical models is key for a streamlined customer experience, which can only benefit business growth.

Ross Caveille, Co-Founder, Acorn-i

It’s hard to overstate the extent of recent changes to buying behaviour with half of UK consumers saying they plan to avoid busy shopping areas in the long-term. The shift from bricks and mortar to online retail has been gathering pace for years, but 2020 saw exponential growth leading to eCommerce now accounting for 40% of retail revenue in the UK. Critically, most of these behaviours look likely to stick. As a result, the success of brands in 2021 will be determined by the extent to which they can shift their business models to cater to new consumer needs and preferences. This means expanded delivery services, click and collect options, and investment in other processes that serve digital-first customers.

Not only that, brands will have to understand how consumers behave across different online channels, and how these channels complement, and overlap with, each other. A customer might begin their journey on social media, research further on a brand’s own website, and then buy on Amazon. Only by taking an omnichannel approach to eCommerce will brands be able to truly understand changing consumer needs and deliver the desired service.

2. Following a controlled automation curve

Eoin O’Neill, CTO, Tug

Marketing strategies have had to continually evolve this year to meet changing consumer needs and ensure a good customer experience. In 2021, we can expect savvy marketers to continue to invest more time and budget in automated tools – using technology to combine user data and content to create a more personalised consumer experience across all channels. Marketing automation doesn’t just boost efficiency, it also nurtures customer loyalty and keeps audiences engaged. As such, we’re likely to see an even larger emphasis placed on this area next year as brands seek closer, more trusted consumer relationships in times of uncertainty.

Adam Singolda, Founder and CEO, Taboola

The future will be over-indexed by machines that help people live a better life across many daily interactions. However, in serious matters there are human problems that require humans to solve them with AI in a supporting role.

It is important for every tech platform that has meaningful distribution to take responsibility for the content on its platform — meaning that while they address the limitations of human review with AI support, they also compensate for the judgment calls AI may never be able to make.

3. Tapping broader avenues of engagement

Michal Marcinik, CEO and Founder, AdTonos

Without a doubt, 2020 served up some unpredictable challenges for the traditional consumer, with extended lockdowns and reductions in disposable income to name a few. This change in consumer behaviour led brands to rework their marketing strategies in an effort to build connections and drive engagement. At a time of increased connectivity, digital audio provided a screenless way to engage with audiences as part of their everyday routine. Be it asking Siri to open up the supermarket delivery website or instructing an Amazon Echo to play a ‘mood-booster’ playlist during lockdown.

The potential for digital audio will continue to increase into 2021. The perception of audio – and what it can truly achieve for both consumers and brands – is no longer confined to simply listening to music. Digital audio now serves a distinct purpose for the consumer and the rise of smart devices and voice-activated engagement introduces a two-way, interactive communication channel that fosters productivity. This idea of utility stands at the forefront of digital audio and we’ll see brands increasingly adopt this tactic to provide a well rounded experience for consumers.

Fernando Faria, CMO, Bidstack

We have seen some major changes to the retail landscape in 2020 and the competition to capture consumer attention has become fiercer than ever. At the same time, gaming has continued to grow in popularity, so it’s no surprise that gaming platforms are being seen as a new way for well-known high street names and ecommerce brands to reach their target audiences.

Until now it has primarily been big brands that have seen the commercial potential in gaming  – such as the Nike and Fortnite crossover, or specialised avatar skins from MAC or Venus. But for retailers who want to connect with gamers in smaller, more cost-efficient ways, in-game advertising is the most engaging solution. In 2021, we expect to see more retailers tap into this brand-safe and controlled environment by delivering native ads into spaces within games where gamers would naturally expect to see them, such as on billboards or ad hoardings within the gameplay.

4. Using data intelligence to power efficiency

Chris Hogg, Managing Director EMEA, Lotame

Data quality will be digital advertising’s “Marie Kondo” moment. As marketers and publishers accelerate first-party data collection, data quality will be the “joy” everyone is looking for. This is a win-win for everyone, including consumers. Out with the old and kluge players and in with higher standards — and standards! — for data across the board. As data quality improves, those players without the means to put up walls will lean into data enrichment to bring advertisers accuracy at scale when looking for their customers and next best customers. Those with richer, high quality profiles will see addressability soar.

Steve Carrod, Co-Founder & Managing Director, DMPG

In this current climate and beyond, it is essential to be thinking about the customer first. This sounds the most obvious choice, but in 2021 we’re expecting businesses to go even deeper into this approach and make it the year of the unified customer experience.

The path to achieving this isn’t always about clever data science or technology. In fact, the challenge many businesses face is that there is still a lack of understanding from the top down on how to unify different teams and tech to manage audiences in a single location. Because of this, the majority of businesses haven’t yet developed a true concept of their customer. Teams will often be working in silos using a mixture of analytics, conversion optimisation, Customer Relationship Management and Business Intelligence tools. The problem with this approach is that they will currently have multiple perspectives of a customer, with data stored separately in each of these tools, for example, some at a declared ID level, some against a cookie ID or some against a device ID. This tends to result in varied KPIs and targeting strategies across different departments.

In 2021, we expect to see more businesses embracing a cross-functional approach to understanding their customers across all digital touch-points, using real-time profile unification tools – Customer Data Platforms – in order to integrate with digital experience optimisation tools in a more unified and seamless manner. Putting the interests and unique behaviours of the customer first, to meet their expectations, will convert to business success.

Relations between companies and consumers are always changing. But the next 12 months will see them move at a much faster pace, with bigger and further-reaching implications than ever. Smart businesses should be paying attention to which way the winds are blowing now and striving to adapt their experiences for long-term effectiveness in the new different

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