2020 has been a year packed full of highs and lows – and the digital landscape is no less turbulent. The virtual experience has come into its own in the past 12 months, with lockdown powering up impromptu acts of solidarity and protest with a momentum all of their own.
Against this highly-charged backdrop, brands can no longer lurk generically on the sidelines of social debate. Instead, they need to find ways to be part of them, opening up digital experiences that are more personal and purpose-driven than ever before.
With community and locality emerging as core values, brands must cultivate deeper relationships with their audiences, forging a bond that is grounded in relatable and relevant content. This should be teamed with peerless, well-timed delivery on multiple platforms at once. Here are four key trends to look out for in the year ahead:
1. More of the human touch
Machine-based interfaces are set to become more natural and personal, as brands leverage data via as many different avenues as possible to get closer to their customers. User research, analytics, behavioural mapping and social listening can all be used in combination to get under the skin of target audiences. Who are they and what drives their decisions? What brands do they ally with and which do they avoid? What trends do they embrace and which issues rile them up?
Building a deep-data picture like this – with cybersecurity to match – enables brands to keep pace with evolving customer behaviours and gives a deeper engagement to personalization efforts. For example, if an online retail brand is able to identify a customer’s interest in wellbeing, it makes sense to show pop-up windows on check-out that highlight a new line of protein shakes or yoga mats, or post links to a blog about virtual workout events.
Heading into 2021, we’ll see brands use multiple data tools to move ever-closer to their customers, bridging the gap between machines and humans. In this way, they’ll examine micro insights via a macro, industry-wide lens – to stay ahead of the curve rather than merely keeping up.
2. Moving from me to us
One silver lining of Covid-19 is the impact the crisis has had on community and locality. We’ve seen a huge rise in neighbours and businesses coming together to support one another – and at a high level of user experience, this translates to a shift in focus on “us” rather than “me”. Forget the filtered perfection of that once-in-a-lifetime holiday selfie: the celebration of individual aspiration we saw in 2019 is being edged out by a renewed appreciation for togetherness and locality.
This trend towards locality will hit home in 2021, offering a great opportunity for brands to be part of community conversations in a way that feels authentic and meaningful. For example, an online retail app might choose to partner with a local bookstore to feature a book of the week – as recommended by a brand community member and featured with a special discount. If the idea took off, it could be further expanded in the form of a monthly virtual book club.
Live, interactive content – Facebook Q&As with company co-founders, VR art exhibitions, lifestyle calculators or webinar polls – will provide plenty of scope for drawing communities closer together, too. And let’s not forget the impact of an imaginative partnership, either. If consumers are struggling with overloaded supermarket chains, could local businesses join forces to provide a doorstep delivery of homegrown or handmade produce? This taps into the current enthusiasm for community and locality while also providing a neat facilitatory tool for consumers stuck at home (not to mention a feel-good PR angle).
3. The rise of content burnout
With online audiences soaring under lockdown, and an influx of advertisers clamouring for attention in a reduced, digital-only space, content saturation is reaching an all-time high. Given that consumers are getting used to brand presence in personal channels (on social media but also via messaging platforms such as WhatsApp), content creators will have to work harder to combat content fatigue in 2021 and avoid people “scrolling past”.
One way brands can form a quick yet visceral connection with potential customers is by homing in on the values behind their purchasing decisions. With purpose-driven consumers on the rise, especially among generation Z, online shoppers are actively scanning for brands that align with their ethical beliefs.
For example, brands could make good on the relationship between brand loyalty and values, such as sustainability, by building barcodes that track a product’s origin and delivery journey. Given that audiences engage more profoundly with content from other users, user-generated ideas could also work well, eg launching an Instagram competition to design eco-friendly packaging solutions.
In a year where social and racial justice has dominated the headlines, brands can also use content to broadcast their protest voice. However, the gesture has to be rooted in authentic action: think of the Facebook boycott by brands including Ben & Jerry’s earlier this year, in protest at the platform being used “to spread and amplify racism and hate”.
From refugee rights to body positivism, we’ll likely see brands take up the charge of value-driven content more in 2021, with a data deep-dive again helping to inform the nuance of what different audiences truly care about.
4. Omnichannel comes of age
The growth of omnichannel is driving the need for more aggregation, curation and alignment of offerings in 2021. Brands will need a joined-up approach with better understanding of cross-channel journeys. Rather than churn out more content for different platforms, headless content management systems are emerging as a key piece of architecture for content agility: helping existing content reach further and more reactively across multiple platforms in a global sphere.
This rising demand for smart and cost-efficient solutions mirrors the fact that navigational, commerce and engagement structures are evolving through screens more than ever. Savvy brands should look for the best new ways to connect with audiences via screen technology, while also weighing up the potential of emerging tools such as voice control, gesture control and AI.
While inventions such as haptic technology and digital fragrances are fun to create buzz, however, a winning omnichannel strategy is more simple: it wheels the focus back to the customer. How can you capture decision-making at an earlier point in the chain? As well as looking at the broader omnichannel picture, how can you help your audience find joy in smaller, more personal moments – eg via an app that lets you virtually try out jewellery or make-up? Brands that break ahead in 2021 are those that can tackle the omnichannel challenge both efficiently and with great imagination – using data-led insights every step of the way.
This year has made it more imperative than ever for brands to respond nimbly to a series of almighty curveballs. Amid the disruption of Brexit and Covid-19, we at Appnovation have made a number of high-profile tech hires, allowing us to shore up our digital presence in Europe with a full-service offering.
With capabilities that stretch from engineering to design consultancy, performance analysis and on-demand service support, we’re in a strong position to enable the kind of customer intuition that lies at the heart of the emerging trends we’ve discussed. No matter what digital KPIs you have in mind for 2021, knowing and engaging your audience via design-led experience is vital. Finding the right tools to do this will form a strategic anchor for the volatile landscape ahead.
Originally published in The Drum.