With public safety the priority in these trying times, commerce has taken a back seat as companies grapple with myriad issues, from work-at-home policies and layoffs to suspension of operations and outright shuttering.
A key concern for businesses is how to respond to a new reality that threatens to change the face of customer relations long after the pandemic dissipates with the prospect of people spending more time at home.
Such a shift in behavior is expected to be a major determinant of how companies might conduct business. As a result, digital marketing has emerged as potentially one of the most powerful tools.
According to many observers, whether or not the economy slides into a global recession is largely contingent on how businesses react. With disrupted supply chains, manufacturing slowdowns, employee shortages and flagging consumer demand, companies are cutting growth forecasts and jobs at an alarming pace.
As large gatherings such as sports events, concerts and business conventions are canceled, digital marketing has become a logical pivot for many businesses of all sizes.
While digital marketing has been around a while, the coronavirus pandemic could push businesses to shift marketing dollars to digital strategies and online ads, and “think long and hard about digital transformation,” says John Lincoln, CEO of Ignite Visibility and digital marketing professor at the University of California San Diego.
Supply chain delays and bottlenecks caused by manufacturing complications leave brands at a loss. According to Bruce Biegel, senior managing partner at Winterberry Group marketing consultancy, “the e-commerce sector has never experienced a crisis on this level, with so much direct-to-consumer business and so much focus on ordering and shipping.”
At the same time, the fact that consumers are staying home should expand the reach of brands that already conduct the majority of their marketing digitally. “What happens if, all of a sudden, your commercial audience is going to be at home more?” says Biegel. “It doesn’t mean they don’t want to buy those things […] they’re going to turn to online.”
“Whether out of boredom, necessity or both, we’ll likely start to see an uptick in people shopping from phones and laptops,” says Lincoln. “Long term, new shopping habits could take hold as people become more comfortable browsing and buying online and frequenting physical stores less.”
“If we come to a point where we must [continually] avoid stores or other public places, it [would invariably] boost e-commerce, especially for packaged consumer goods and those purchases we can’t postpone a few weeks,” says Frederick Vallaeys of Optmyzr, a leading ad-tech company. “That would, of course, have a big impact on digital marketers, who could compete for the purchases of consumers who have not been frequent online shoppers.”
Another boon for the e-commerce sector is it can be conducted remotely. “I am very happy that as a digital marketer I can do my job from home,” says Dana Tan, senior manager for global SEO at Under Armour sportswear. “Grocery store clerks, food service workers and many other people don’t have this luxury.”
When the pandemic subsides “new habits may breed substantial long-term gains for online retailers, as well as digital advertisers and affiliate marketers that bring in new traffic,” says Tan. “The real opportunity is to focus on developing transparent messaging across the board.”
Marketing is all about communication, and businesses that will be best equipped to cope with the implications of COVID-19 will understand that honesty and transparency regarding products and services must supersede traditional impulses that can be aggressive, exaggerative and disingenuous. Companies also are being advised by marketing professionals that this crisis is a good opportunity to run digital awareness campaigns aimed at reaching casual internet users.
Communication strategies will take center stage as businesses try to keep pace with developments. Ahead of any specific digital marketing tool, the primary focus should be on a strategy that is “best prepared to mitigate losses that may arise from cancellations, nonrefundable ad spots, supply chain issues and so on,” Lincoln says.
Marketers will need to have honest conversations about hitting goals and cost-effectiveness. “It might be a time to dial things back and do some spring cleaning,” says Natalie Barreda, a senior manager at T-Mobile. Brands also should start thinking about how they can leverage marketing to address issues caused by COVID-19, such as store closures. “Having great customer service and a strong e-commerce experience is imperative during times like this,” she says.
Trends and tips
There is a greater urgency than ever to explore creative ways to enhance the bottom line. Digital marketing is predisposed to an array of fast-changing and consistently advancing tools and outlets.
The popularity of buying online and picking up at the store (BOPIS) has exploded during the pandemic and seems poised for ongoing growth. However, “cart values for mobile BOPIS orders are 39 percent lower than for desktop, shipped orders,” according to a study by Quantum Metric, a customer experience analytics platform. The study recommends focusing on cross-selling as effectively and cohesively in-store as online to boost revenues and resilience.
Crowd-sourced workforce initiatives are gaining traction as “68 percent of companies increase their use of open-source deployment for more and more brands to turn to loyal followers to build content and engagement,” said the Quantum Metric report. Premium homeware brand Williams-Sonoma, for example, acquired 3D and augmented reality platform Outward to offer 3-D product imagery to online shoppers.
The ability to use “big data” is becoming ever more apparent. With a large amount of information available on consumer purchasing habits and more, as well as mounting concerns over privacy, “eTailers” and businesses “need to increasingly focus on tools that offer a single, accurate version from the customer’s point-of-view of their digital journey with the brand,” according to Tamara Gaffney, Quantum Metric’s vice president of decision insights. She says businesses should ensure that new data tools strengthen in-depth analytics that results in “decisions that support and enhance a deeper relationship between the consumer and the brand.”
Focusing on employees’ experience is an important way to improve productivity and customer engagement. “Seventy percent of workers report having to enter the same data in multiple systems to get their jobs done. Ultimately, the best customer experience comes from the entire organization, from shipping to returns to fitting rooms, acting in unison to pivot quickly to satisfy the customer’s informational needs,” said the Quantum Metric study.
The employee experience point is critical because it revolves around communication. As a result, businesses should devote at least as much time and resources to improving employee-facing technology as they do to customer-facing technology. That might involve using integrated help desk and software offerings to encourage and develop seamless communication among diverse parts of the business when serving customers. This is a prime solution for enhancing both employee and customer experience.
Finally, a leading digital trend involves downsizing teams rather than people. With the rapid growth of the direct-to-consumer business, building cross-functional teams are crucial.
Transformative changes altering businesses and industries in lasting ways, akin to a Fourth Industrial Revolution in the view of many experts, are responsible for a “tremendous metamorphosis in the way our workplaces and the world work,” wrote Bernard Marr of Enterprise Tech in the March issue of Forbes.
In the new world of “Industry 4.0,” as he terms it, smart tech, interconnectivity, AI, and advanced learning are changing entire professional fields, such as marketing. Marr highlights four key technological developments.
The first of these is big data. “Ninety percent of all data in the world was generated in the past few years and it is invaluable for business,” says Marr. Experts say we now have the specialized tools to accentuate and accelerate the manipulation of these vast reams of data, including machine learning and AI. This results in “more granular consumer insights” as it becomes more intuitive, personalized and case-specific. This has become the core model for such companies as Netflix, Disney and Facebook, which are at the vanguard of utilizing big data to better understand and cater to consumers.
Another important trend is the interconnection of smart devices, creating the Internet of Things. Such an ecosystem facilitates a seemingly endless collection of data on almost anything, meaning that marketing materials once produced exclusively by content creators can now be outsourced to machines.
AI and machine learning are key factors for the trajectory of digital marketing “as technologies that use the prolific data we have fueled the ‘Industry 4.0’ intelligence revolution,” says Marr. Exceeding the capacity of human intelligence in numerous ways, AI will continue to engender ultra-customization and “micro-moments” when people reflexively turn to a device to act on their needs.
Capitalizing on these moments when decisions are made and preferences shaped, informs an effective type of marketing that can offer consumers what they want, as well as when and where they need it. Companies “that succeed in doing so are using the latest tech to take advantage of micro-moments in a customer’s life,” says Marr. “It is direct digital access to consumers that allows for this ultra-customization.”
Finally, tech tools of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) have broad applications for digital marketing, giving companies an entirely new method of engaging consumers. MR takes AR to another level and allows users to manipulate digital objects to provide “extended reality engagement that can allow shoppers to try before they buy no matter where they are located,” says Marr. AR, VR and MR create an “extended reality” to achieve a more adaptive, insightful and relatable customer experience.
Digital marketing today means the era of mass profiling has passed. Marketers now have at their disposal a huge number of data points to determine subtle intricacies about individual user behavior, enabling them to facilitate experiences with razor-sharp precision and efficacy. Ultimately, hyper-personalization — understanding the nuances of customer personas and intent at a deeper, more intimate level by leveraging the above-mentioned tools to craft unique user experiences — has become a holy grail for the world of digital marketing.