Digital might be personalised – but it is not yet socialised

(c)iStock.com/Maksim Koval

We are social animals.  In a world where everything is a click away, when day-to-day living, work and even social interaction can be done purely online, many of us still want, and need, to feel the attention of another human being.

There is no ignoring that online retail is part of our lives - a recent IMRG Capgemini e-Retail Sales Index claimed that online sales grew by 16% to £ 91bn in 2013, accounting for 21% of the total retail market, with Christmas sales rising to 18% to £ 11bn.

However, I am going to put my neck on the line now and say it - digital is not the be-all-and-end-all.  Online is omnipresent and will continue to play an ever-increasing part in our lives, but people love experiences. Digital enhances this experience, but customers still want the human engagement.

Where we see this lack of the human interface most clearly is when it comes to buying ‘experiences’.  How many of us buy our gig tickets, holidays, theatre trips etc. online? The majority.  However, as a gift, a link to a website to print off your own ticket feels somewhat devalued. It’s not about the customer experience, it’s about the cost and convenience.

Roger Wade, the founder of BoxPark, a pop mall in East London that combines online and experiential, commented at a recent roundtable event we held, “Sometimes the old ways are not always wrong.”

Paul Halliwell, ex managing director of TalkTalk and now running his own digital start up consultancy pointed out at the same event, “The point is the product, whether the experience of purchasing is digitalised or not.” “There is a division between things that are easily digitalised in the current marketplace, and things that aren’t. People still want experience, but technology hasn’t quite caught up,” continues Rob Lawrence, former Executive Creative Director of Razorfish and Accenture Partner.

It all comes back to customer experience. As Bertrand Duperrin, digital transformation lead at Emakina France says, “Customer experience is the process through which a business creates value through interactions with customers. Linked to the way the business states its mission and its culture, experience must be unique and differentiating."

And this is where many brands struggle. Digital transformations for many enterprises come from pain points for the brand, not the customer. They are process driven, rather than customer driven.

For brands this presents the challenge of being omnipresent. Being evolved to the point of personalised.  For some, the experiential experience far outweighs the digital experience. Simon Hopkins, from digital media strategists, Turner, Hopkins, reflects on buying vinyl in record shops such Rough Trade. “I had a relationship with music retailer, Rough Trade, which I don’t have with Amazon.” The physical environment not only embodies the brand, but bonds the audience, creating a sense of engagement, an ownership and a loyalty, that its digital counterpart is unable to emulate.

Customers want to feel loved and showing this love online is hard. Your local corner shopkeeper might order in your favourite type of cheese for you weekly, but how does a brand like Amazon know whether your last purchase was for you or your mother? Personalising email shots, remarketing and “If you like this, you will like this” cookie trails can all annoy rather than engage customers with their insincerity. 

Brands need to be agile, they need to be responsive and yet they need to be genuine - both off line and online. They need to listen to their customers - all of them - and respond in a way the customer wants, where they want and when they want. Incorporate pop up shops if customers want a look and feel of your brand, offer them both an online experience with the convenience of an offline delivery like the ‘Click and Collect’ schemes.

Different mediums can give us different things and yes brands need all different channels firing on all cylinders, but there is no doubt that there will always be a role for the human touch with customers and that technology will continue to be the facilitator rather than the driver in the customer journey.

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