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How to navigate the new digital reality

Kristin Cronin
Kristin Cronin
Head of Marketing US
12 min read
1 April 2021

The global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus changed our world in so many ways, seemingly overnight. People around the world stayed home for months (and many continue to do so now). Workers in every industry have been forced to figure out working remotely. Processes that were dependent on in-person physical or offline activities came to a grinding halt. The ability to operate digitally became not just a driver for economic success, but for societal success and even survival.

The pandemic has shown more than ever the value of digital. It has become crystal clear – the more digital a business, organisation or government is, the more resilient it is and the faster it can adapt to new situations. Digital safeguards jobs, essential supply chains, speed of support measures and delivers essential data and service streams to battle the current health pandemic. 

This article will share our recommendations on how you can embrace the new digital reality. 

But first, let’s look at how we got here.

The growing disconnect between consumer expectations and brands

Over the last five to ten years, as consumers have grown more digitally savvy and have shifted much of their daily lives and transactions to their devices, their expectations of the types of experiences they want from brands have grown disconnected from what many businesses have actually been delivering. Consumers were looking for consistent, intelligent interactions with their favorite brands, who should know who they are and what they want. While brands in some industries were making a lot of progress, such as retailers or media and entertainment companies, many were still struggling to fully embrace digital across every touchpoint with their end customers.

COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue. Not only were consumers left with no choice but to move their lives 100% digital, but companies had no choice but to meet them there or risk going out of business.

This has changed the game for innovation in many industries. Speed is critical, and the ability to innovate is non-negotiable. Recent data from McKinsey shows that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of eight weeks. According to a survey from Vodafone, 39% of businesses said they’ve accelerated their digitalisation plans in response to the pandemic, and 36% said the most common reason was because the pandemic highlighted weaknesses in their business model. 

Today this means that banks have moved to remote sales and services, and launched digital outreach to provide flexible payment plans for loans and mortgages. Grocery stores have moved to online ordering and delivery. Schools have gone 100% online. Doctors have embraced telemedicine as their primary way to meet with non-emergency patients. Even luxury retailers like Burberry have shifted more sales to e-commerce (showing growth of 22% year over year) and have had to reimagine their customer experiences not as single channels, but as blended physical/digital journeys. The same holds true across many more industries who have made great strides in meeting consumer needs over the last few months. 

Data also suggests that this shift will not slow down even once we are past this pandemic. 75% of people using digital channels for the first time indicate that they will continue to use them even when things return to “normal.” Forrester predicts that the banking industry, in particular, will continue to adjust to the new digital reality, as “becoming more digital is now seen as a way to boost safety rather than just boosting profitability. They are focused more on building resilience, automating more tasks and encouraging customers to maintain some of their new digital habits that require less face-to-face interactions. 

The rules around innovation and customer experiences have fundamentally changed. They will never be the same again. Returning back to the pre-pandemic world and way of doing things will likely never happen. Instead, companies need to capitalise on this moment in history and reinvent themselves to serve new customer expectations and find new growth opportunities. 

In order to thrive in this new reality, businesses must build out their digital strategy across four main areas:

Building better customer experiences (CX)

The most successful businesses put the customer at the centre of everything they do. That’s what makes the difference between a good digital experience and a great one. Embracing digital means experimenting and building digital capabilities with a continuous focus on customer value.

Being ‘digital’ means more than having a website. Consumers today have more choices than ever. If their expectations are not met instantly and fully, they’ll simply move on. Brands need to provide meaningful touchpoints along the whole digital customer journey. Seamlessly across all channels, with an unwavering focus on the customer. 

One good example is the company UPPAbaby, which makes innovative, high-quality strollers and car seats. The company is known for its exceptional customer service and wanted to extend that high-quality experience to its customers through a mobile app that could support the entire customer journey. The app and its high touch features, including live one-on-one video chat, captures the quality of care UPPAbaby customers can expect following their purchase.

Companies must look to digitise processes, products, services and transactions by designing customer experiences that are suited to the digital reality we are living in. That’s no easy feat, but there are ways to get there. 

Design sprints, as an example, help brands in all industries to accelerate innovations and launch new products and experiences that are validated with customer feedback before they are fully built out. Built upon the methodology first introduced by Google Ventures, a design sprint is a proven process to validate a product vision before committing development resources. These sprints allow brands to test out new ideas with real customers and get clear data and customer feedback from a realistic prototype built in just over a week. 

Additionally, brands must take a hard look at the way their products and customer experiences are designed. Digital must be at the centre of these designs. Complex experiences must be simplified. In the case of Etos, a popular drugstore chain in the Netherlands, the company had to supplement its offline success with an online platform that could match the same level of personal advice, inspiration and ease of use from their physical stores that customers were accustomed to. The new is proof that an attractive design and a fantastic user experience go hand in hand.

Your customer experience is also driven by your marketing strategy. To stay top of mind for increasingly digital consumers, your marketing must account for the full customer journey. Your marketing needs to be memorable, tailored, high-impact and real-time to give your customers what they want before they even know they want it. Leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as marketing automation solutions, can help bridge the gap between your creative marketing efforts and what your customers really want and need to hear from you. 

For SteelSeries, a manufacturer of gaming peripherals and accessories, including headsets, keyboards, mice, and mousepads, the company reached a point where further market share growth could no longer be achieved by investing in lower-funnel marketing activities. Instead, the company evolved its strategy to embrace the full customer journey utilising personalised creatives and machine learning and soon found a 127% increase in their return on advertising spend (ROAS). 

In the end, by learning more about your clients, their needs, their behaviours, and how they use your product or service, you’ll be able to create better-connected services and experiences to meet and exceed their expectations.

A digital team to deliver

The need to move quickly has never been greater. The current crisis has forced businesses to find faster ways to operate and faster ways to work with their customers, suppliers and fellow employees. For example, a global telco provider redeployed 1,000 store employees to inside sales and retrained them in three weeks. 

That wouldn’t be possible without digital. Digital will continue to drive speed and agility in businesses across every industry going forward.

Chemical distribution manufacturer Brenntag acknowledged this fact a few years ago and launched a startup offshoot of the company to act as a platform for working on new design innovations, as well as to allow Brenntag to be more efficient and prioritise their customers’ experiences. 

You can put your company and team in a better position to thrive in the new digital reality by adopting flatter, more agile organisational models and multidisciplinary teams. Teams with the right mindset for achieving fast results, and that test and learn quickly. Companies that have led the way in adopting these models have shown substantial improvements in both execution pace and productivity according to McKinsey, and this has only accelerated during the pandemic. Organisations in every industry are scaling up digitally by creating interdisciplinary teams that are directly aligned to the business’ digital priorities.

For example, the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, started up an initiative outside the structures of the bank to try to reimagine the process for entrepreneurs to apply for loans and seek financial assistance. The New10 initiative offers entrepreneurs the best of two worlds: the flexibility of a startup with the financial knowledge of a well-established bank. Now entrepreneurs can apply for loans, upload financial data, sign contracts, etc. all digitally through New10. 

By identifying business areas where digital execution velocity is needed, organisations can develop plans to staff and support them and make necessary changes to their operating model to ensure teams are built to succeed. 

Flexible technology platforms and architectures

Businesses need the tools and platforms in place to accelerate digital growth. Once your digital reality is live, these systems will support and enable your teams to continuously measure and evolve. Because the digital reality is here for the long-run.

One such example of a company embracing digital technology to accelerate growth is Indigo Ag, which is focused on increasing our planet’s capacity to produce food sustainably through microbiology, machine learning and digital technologies. In order to reinvent agriculture, the company created software to support farmers every step of the way, from planting to crop harvest, delivery and payment. 

For technology to be a real driver of innovation and growth, businesses need to strike a balance between modernising their existing investments while capitalising on new innovations. Scalable platforms, API’s and flexible solutions drive revenue, flexibility and speed. Technology should no longer be a burden but a competitive advantage to successfully build your digital business. By serving a top-of-the-line digital customer experience, you put your business at the forefront of technology and at the top of its game.

With speed and agility being more important than ever, the key to success is to digitise specific business processes rather than attempting a complete digital overhaul of your tech systems. One example would be to take a look at your web and app strategies, as these are areas that can enable fast and scalable development, helping to unlock greater control over your users’ digital experiences.

Businesses should also be reevaluating their technology roadmap and looking at planned upgrades and updates to their existing software to ensure it aligns to the digital strategy that has become abundantly necessary in the last few months. This requires a keen understanding of your business challenges and your requirements to create a robust and flexible architecture that will help you serve your customers. For Johnson Matthey (JM), a global leader in sustainable technologies, there was a recognised need for an updated, more powerful content management system (CMS) to help futurise the company’s digital presence. The company’s digital estate was decentralised and disparate. With a business focus on adopting a digital-first approach, a centralised CMS (in this case, Sitecore) for all products, services, markets and languages was needed.

Selecting the right tech partner is one of the most important decisions a modern business can make. The CMS, CRM and e-commerce platform markets are broad, and navigating the various offerings can be a challenge. But it’s important to choose a solution that will marry the long term and short term goals of your company and give you the tools to succeed both in a consumer-facing capacity and at an operational level. 

The time is now to build and accelerate your digital business

The need to digitise processes and customer experiences has been apparent for years, but it took a global pandemic to really accelerate the digital transformation of every industry in every part of the world. The idea of returning to a pre-pandemic “normal” is becoming increasingly far fetched, but in some ways maybe that will end up being a positive thing. Maybe the strides made in digital innovation during this challenging time will improve our lives so much that we won’t want to go back to the way things were before. 

So, the time is now. To build for speed, flexibility and customer experience. Going forward, businesses need to be in a position to quickly react, respond and adapt, and those businesses with a strong digital foundation will find themselves in a much better position to do just that. 

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Head of Marketing US

Kristin Cronin