(Originally published on The Drum, December 2020)
I don’t think anyone would argue that 2020 was a turbulent year for commerce, and that’s putting it mildly. But among all the gloom we did see some glimmers of sunshine that point to brighter days to come.
Certain retail trends were already in place during 2020, but because of the pandemic they were accelerated to a much higher degree than anyone would have expected – progress that would normally take five or six years was achieved in just five to six months. Irrespective of how we move forward from Covid, it’s clear that these trends are here to stay, and should inform the 2021 marketing strategy of any commerce company.
So what are these trends? Let’s take a look.
With the pandemic causing store closures around the globe, and reduced footfall at other times, brands didn’t deal with their customers on a face-to-face basis in 2020 nearly as much as they used to. But that doesn’t mean that need has gone away – lots of customers prefer the personal touch that only a one-to-one interaction can offer. Brands might not be able to see their customers in the flesh as much as before, but they can still offer a hyper-personalised experience through channels like messaging apps. This is why we’re seeing chatbots that are becoming more and more sophisticated, more customisable and capable of more personalised interactions. And if the bot can’t serve the customer’s need adequately, it can connect them with a real-life agent, bringing them as close as possible to replicating an in-store experience.
In many ways, dealing with a brand this way is actually better than doing so in person. Each time the customer interacts with the brand, the bot or agent has access to the customer’s history, so they won’t have to explain their issue again every time they reach a new level of interaction with the company. It removes a lot of the frustration customers currently experience each time they are passed from one customer service agent to another. And it also helps build a more personal relationship between brand and customer.
This kind of service doesn’t just make the customer’s day – it’s good business. Having an effective sales channel is obviously very important, but instilling brand loyalty by keeping customer satisfaction levels high is at least as vital, if not more so. It’s what differentiates a good customer experience from a bad one, and will hopefully help 2021 bring more economic stability. You might not be able to see your customers in the flesh, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get under their skin and find out what makes them tick.
Chatbots had a bit of a faltering start, but they are quickly becoming more advanced and ever more capable. And brands are cottoning on. By 2024, the global chatbot market is predicted to be worth $994 million. It makes perfect sense – not only can a chatbot quickly and effectively solve the vast majority of customer queries, it can also be personalised to take on your brand’s attitude and tone of voice. Hence a skateboard brand’s bot will sound very different to a bank’s. Or it should, anyway.
Chatbots also allow brands to stay open 24/7 (which consumers increasingly expect), have lower operating costs, and can be used for transactional channels as well as customer care. Expect to hear a lot more about chatbots in the year to come.
There are many advantages to connecting with customers through a messaging app as opposed to a brand’s own app. It’s cheaper for the brand than investing in all the R&D and the constant maintenance and updates required for a standalone app. These costs are considerable at the best of times, but during a worldwide economic downturn brands are really going to feel the pinch.
But perhaps the biggest advantage is that you are meeting your customers on a platform where they are already active – you are going to them, rather than making them come to you. Because who wants to download yet another app? It’s more convenient for the customer, and because it’s a ready-made solution, it’s more cost- and time-effective for the brand. Everybody wins.
A lot of brands were caught unawares by the pandemic, and those without substantial digital operations already in place really struggled to meet customer needs. Having a ready-to-use platform like messaging apps was essential in helping them connect with their customers. It definitely won’t be the only channel brands use to touch in with customers, but it will definitely be one of the key ones throughout 2021 and beyond. One estimate puts messaging apps’ current reach at 1.7 billion people, set to grow to 2.7 billion by 2027. Can you really afford to miss out?
Consumers are tired of years of scandals and cover-ups – they want brands to be honest with them. According to one study, 86 per cent of US consumers believe transparency from businesses is more important than ever. But this isn’t cut and dried, especially recently: people’s priorities tend to change during an economic crisis; their thinking becomes more short-term and individualistic, rather than long-term and benevolent. They’re concerned with surviving the here and now, rather than what the world will look like in 50 years’ time. But with vaccines starting to roll out and an end in sight to the pandemic’s economic turmoil, people’s priorities will change again. Hence the huge importance on brand transparency and having a social conscience.
What if buying goods and services was as easy as chatting with a friend? With today’s technology, it can be.
Chatbots and messaging apps are known as a great way of providing customer support, but what’s less well known is their enormous potential for enabling commerce. There are now payment features within chatbots, so customers can finalise the transaction and go through the entire sales flow within a bot – you never have to leave the messaging app. But it’s never at the expense of customer service; indeed, by integrating the CRM tools into the bot, you as a retailer can offer customer care and after-sales care through the same channel as your retail solution. That way, you’re touching base with the customer at all points in the marketing funnel, from prospection all the way through to transaction and post-sale engagement. You’re giving them one dedicated space where they can not only buy your product, but also solve all their queries, just as they could with an in-store sales assistant.
For example, Viber’s Business Messages proposition offers File Sharing, which lets businesses and customers exchange files through the messaging app. That means the business can send invoices, warranty documents, booking confirmations, membership details, price lists and more. Everything is on the customer’s phone in a single conversation thread – there are no confirmations to print out or lengthy email chains to search through.
Checking into a hotel? Just find your reservation details from within the messaging app on your phone. Doing it all through one channel is so much easier than switching channels from bot to website, to email to phone, and so on. It’s about easing the customer journey, and in the process, instilling brand loyalty.
As we come out of the pandemic and into a new normal, retailers will have to enhance their sales efforts, and it’s essential they enable this two-way messaging with their customers. Bricks and mortar retail will take a long time to recover – these vaccines aren’t a silver bullet to ending the pandemic – so it’s important to keep up this focus on digital. Using messaging apps provides a very real answer to this need.
This last trend encapsulates all of the above. Brands will continue to embrace the new, frictionless commerce which is native to enabling technologies like chatbots and messaging apps.
Despite the fact that non-essential businesses (like a lot of commerce brands) have been affected worldwide by the pandemic, we have seen an increase in the use of messaging by brands of around 30-40 per cent in some cases. Couple that with an increase in active bots of about 20-25 per cent, and the picture is clear: a lot of businesses are choosing to diversify the channels they use to connect with consumers. We can’t claim just yet that messaging apps are the only channel they use, but 2020 clearly shows a predilection towards conversation and two-way messaging, rather than traditional push campaigns.
Here’s to 2021, and brighter days for us all.