The new era of engagement in a virtual world

Simon Gill

Chief Experience Officer, Isobar EMEA

If there’s one truth we can all agree on, it’s that humans are amazingly adaptable. And despite the abrupt and widespread shift to our way of living this year, we find ourselves adapting to a world of working, socialising, shopping and entertaining in purely digital contexts. 

While we’ve been heading along this path of transformation for a while, the rapid acceleration in digital behaviour presents many implications for brands also needing to adapt. But where to start? Well, there are three key areas of digital engagement that brands should consider if they look to both maximise their value and build stronger, more meaningful relationships with their customers in this new world.

1. Conversation 

In the early days of web 2.0 and social media, when online conversation was new, we would marvel at the opportunity to join in, connect and co-create. But along the way, many brands and businesses looking to drive efficiencies stopped listening and gradually reverted to a world of broadcasting while endeavouring to reduce cost per contact. In response, consumers found new ways to raise their voices and be heard, often to the discomfort of brands. What had been promised as a new way of brand building and customer involvement then juddered in many areas to a halt. 

Referred to by some as a “Black Swan”, the dramatic impact of Covid-19 has driven brands to test the efficiency of their systems. For those lacking the ability to hold meaningful conversations with customers, customers are left feeling lost, abandoned and frustrated. Never before have we faced a test of this scale on brand value and loyalty.  

Clearly, it's during these challenging moments that a conversational approach is most needed, the ability to switch from an automated or pull model to one where an agent or representative can listen, process and help. In fact, we know that businesses who have adopted a conversational approach see 30-40x on their ROI, serving their customers better, improving NPS and building a richer understanding of what their customers are not only doing but also thinking and feeling.  

These conversational approaches play out in a number of ways, be that web chat, in-app chat, integration with iMessage, Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat or through Voice and smart speaker interfaces. But regardless of channel, the best approaches see conversational design being played out across multiple touchpoints and integrating template responses with chatbot AI and human intervention. It's an approach that’s been successfully adopted by the like of Burberry, O2, T-Mobile and Babylon Health and we see it as an important way for brands to stay relevant in a chat-based customer experience.

2. Community   

In the words of Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. So being stuck at home, often alone, reminds us of the many things we take for granted. Community in the physical space is clearly one of them - be that at work, in the local area, at hospitality venues or simply visiting family and friends.  

This physical community lies in stark contrast with our ability to become part of an online community, where our passions and interests bring us together irrespective of demographics or physicality. While it would be clichéd to suggest that we're all sat at home on nerdy forums, I'm sure we’ve spent time with a group of fellow enthusiasts online that comforts or interests us. I've been indulging my own interests in Drum and Bass, Electronica, Digital Art and cryptocurrency, from which I gain stimulation, solace and connection. For others, it could be football, skincare, the news or health reports.  

Increasingly, it's these individual passion points we identify with, helping us navigate the proliferating media choices we’re all now presented with. We naturally identify with the brands that are active within them, for their support, values and generosity. In a similar way to the aforementioned conversation trend, it's this ability to listen, converse and react in an authentic manner that engenders connection through shared values.  

Many strategists talk about the “brand flip”, where businesses work with their customers on building the brand together through community-based models, rather than building a brand to attract customers. Leading brands like adidas and Nike have fully embraced this approach, with the adidas Creators Club helping consumers feel part of something bigger. The club gives consumers access to the latest products, services and trends, while their #HomeTeam campaign provides advice, exercise video tutorials, inspiration and uplifting stories, helping its customers and fans deal with being stuck at home while instilling a tribal sense of belonging. Driving product sales is of course central to this strategy, but it feels wholly appropriate and supportive of the team, rather than a forced sell. 

Other examples include Isobar's work for Tivoli, where we flipped their business model around and developed a new program of behavioural trigger communications and a new loyalty program catering specifically to year-round-customers.

It's my belief that the brands who have built or serve a community are also best positioned to be able to authentically react and grow with their customers during and after this social and economic lockdown. Donations to charities or health services made on behalf of the community, for example, feel appropriate rather than reactionary or cynical. These are activities that are truly reflective of the brand promise and associated values. 

I would therefore encourage brands to understand their online audiences and how they form communities, how can the brand be invited in, how can they help service and invest in the community, how best to show value and demonstrate action against its own values. Whether it's the creation of a branded community or involvement in an existing community, or a combination of both, brands need to recognise their ability to engage with people's lives in more meaningful ways. Not doing so would be to accept obsolescence and certain death.

3. Commerce 

On the walls of the School for Communication Arts (SCA 2.0), there is a poster that states 'We sell or we die' as a constant reminder to its students, that selling is a critical part of the job and that creative communications are there to drive action. While commerce might seem a dirty, uncreative term to some, it's at the core of what we do.   

At Isobar we have carried the torch for Brand Commerce for several years now, recognising that technology-driven media has brought the point of inspiration much closer to the point of transaction. With our increased levels of screen behaviour as we stay home, this has undoubtedly increased, with seeing, wanting, evaluating and purchasing all happening within one customer journey. We see brands adopting AR imagery/animations, WebGL previews, richer imagery, interactive chat and social markets to reduce friction further by facilitating payment within the host interaction point.   

This style of brand commerce interaction can become an integral part of one’s campaign. A great example is Firstborn's work with adidas x Champs Sports that takes prompts from a network of local influencers to hunt down the point of inspiration to find the product drop. This is great learning as retailers will look for new ways to position themselves in line with people's shifting locations and behaviours. And with customers increasingly turning to D2C with easy-to-choose, easy-to-pay experiences, the changing context of the customer journey - be it actively looking or open to trigger - will force commerce teams to better combine data, technology, experience and creativity to more effectively reach their customers.     

Whatever the coming months may bring, whether that’s a tightening of the belts or a party like there’s no tomorrow, it’s safe to assume that digital commerce will only continue to grow. There will be further innovations in product exploration, virtual products, pre-sale preview, partial ownership, subscription services and new ways to pay. Which makes for an incredibly exciting and creative time for brands.