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Customer engagement. It’s a loaded word in 2021. Why? Mostly because customers expect so much. They want to be engaged personally, on their terms, 24/7. And they don’t want it to be annoying, either. This puts new worries in front of CMOs and has brought privacy and transparency to the center of attention for companies seeking to deliver experiences at the speed of customer demand. If you’re struggling with finding the right balance of customer engagement right now, know this isn’t something that isn’t causing issues for your peers. It’s a big challenge. One that I’ve tracked closely, which drew my eye to a recent study by cloud communications and customer communications platform, Twilio, which just released its State of Customer Engagement Report for 2021. The data provided an opportunity to look a bit more closely at the state of customer engagement—with some specific insights about how the difficult pandemic period in 2020 impacted how companies are engaging their customers and prospects. I was also able to identify some important trends and insights to help us look ahead at what companies can do to strengthen customer engagement in the future.
What Did We Learn About Customer Engagement Trends During COVID?
First, it’s time to accept once and for all that most engagement moving forward is going to be digital. COVID didn’t start the trend, but its acceleration of digital transformation did push digitization from “should” to “must” for almost all businesses. According to Twilio’s findings, 96% of respondents felt that not digitizing would have hurt their business once the pandemic started. What’s more, 95% also said they plan to continue investing in digital customer engagement even when the pandemic is over. As I see it, the biggest surprise may be that 5% of companies don’t plan to continue investing in digital. It’s hard to imagine that their transformation is complete and that stopping investment makes sense.
The second insight that caught my attention looks at meeting customer desire for more interaction with the brands and companies they buy from. Based upon the data, your customers need more engagement in their journey. It seems that many companies are intending on following suit. More than 60% of those surveyed said they planned to increase the average number of digital touchpoints on the customer journey. That’s significant because these touchpoints—if successful—need to be designed strategically. It doesn’t just mean sending a few more emails or follow-up surveys. It means considering how and where your customers are looking for more significant support, meaning, or interest from you, their chosen provider. The best companies will add the “right” touchpoints—not just more of them. It’s critical to note this “Right touchpoint” philosophy as too many of the wrong touchpoints turn customers and prospects cold toward an organization.
Third, due to the increased amount of digital customer engagement, most companies found that they were also able to glean greater insights about their customers. This is 101, sure. But it bears repeating. Digital interactions bring insights. And insights when acted upon bring revenue.
This demand for greater customer insights is why so many companies turn to technologies like Customer Data platforms to manage data and optimize the customer journey. Many tech giants like Microsoft, Salesforce, Twilio, SAP, SAS, Oracle, and Treasure Data have focused on delivering omnichannel insights. The need for thoughtful adoption of CDP and more in-depth customer insights through data will continue to gain importance as the above-mentioned privacy issues are explored, and more regulation is implemented. Companies will need customers to opt-in to more of their communications. Gleaning insights from unstructured data and social platforms at a low cost could become harder. This is an inflection point for many brands that want to engage customers but haven’t created intense loyalty.
What Customer Engagement Trends Can We Continue to Invest in Moving Forward?
Of course, history is valuable, but it’s only so helpful to understand trends of the past. Many companies, CMOs, and business leaders should be paying attention to how certain trends will impact the(ir) world of business moving forward. In the study, the data identified some key trends to pay attention to going forward. Here are a few takeaways and some analysis of how these trends impact business and how leaders should think about these trends.
- Personalization … at the consumer scale. This isn’t remotely something new. However, it is something that consumers are expecting more and more, and due to the vast amounts of new data being created because of digitization, even smaller companies should be able to offer it in meaningful ways. And yes, I’m talking about more than personalizing one’s name in an email campaign. I’m talking about personalized product recommendations, preventative maintenance messaging, channel-specific advertising. It’s time to get on track with personalization. Several of the aforementioned tech companies use AI and ML to glean insights and recommend the next best action for customers. Turning to technology to be able to deliver on the promise of personalization will be table stakes this year.
- Video. And not just the streaming kind. Consumers like video communication. This past year, almost all of the respondents agree that video communication accelerated more than any other media form. It makes sense. If we can’t be there with people in person, we do the next best thing: we create videos of us talking / doing / showing / teaching. Even though we’re getting closer to “opening up” the economy, I do agree that this trend will likely continue reopening. Too many companies have learned that they can save money by doing video in lieu of live events and training. And the trend of saving money— while never the primary way to accelerate a business, won’t be going away any time soon.
- Digital engagement will grow in heavily regulated industries. In the past, heavily regulated industries like healthcare and finance may have found it difficult to engage customers electronically. But coronavirus forced them to find safe ways to serve their customers, and customers aren’t letting go of those methods any time soon. I’m talking about remote health meetings, text-based check-ins, app-based investment opportunities. If HRIs were nervous about jumping into digital before coronavirus, they’ve officially gotten past those fears. This will put pressure on the IT department and the board to deal with those sticky compliance and privacy rules, but the tech industry is working hard to address this. In my recent Forbes piece focused on privacy and transparency, I mentioned confidential computing, which the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, and more are heavily invested in as one of the ways companies are looking to tie compliance heavy data and workloads to be more accessible for those that need it. For instance, financial services and healthcare will need to keep delivering services and customers want a secure but more streamlined method of customer engagement. If it isn’t clear yet, the privacy and compliance focus will grow quickly in 2021.
While 2020 was all about rapid transformation, 2021 will be about continuing that transformation with purpose. Adopting tech tools to your infrastructure and martech stack will become a key enabler for businesses to deliver personalized touchpoints. Using technologies like customer data platforms that digitize data, organize schema, and make it useful across the organization will be a focal point. Also, continuing to utilize video to create and deepen connections when face to face remains impossible for a little while longer makes sense—and this practice will long outlive the pandemic.
Improving customer experience will continue to be critical for businesses looking to win market share and maintain market leadership, no matter what industry. The pandemic proved that disruption could come in any form, but the organizations focused on customers embracing the best of technology, and people will be the ones that last.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.