To say customer behavior and expectations have changed significantly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic risks understates just how dramatic the past year has been. The results from a recent Sitecore survey of thousands of global consumers and marketers show that a revolution is underway in terms of the future of customer experience.
Over three quarters (77 percent) of UK marketers fundamentally changed their customer experience strategy in response to the pandemic. Most report positive results from strategy changes 75 percent feel “more connected with their customers.” In addition, 74 percent of marketers say they made more progress in building their technology stack in the past year than the prior three years. Unfortunately, many of these gains come at a cost: 71 percent of marketers admit they relied on short-term fixes rather than permanent innovation, and 74 percent say the past year was the most challenging time in their career. Most marketers, understandably, want to address evolving these short-term fixes before moving onto other priorities -- particularly at midsize enterprises.
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Investing in tech to combat the pandemic
Several trends underlie these contrasting data points. The first is the most clear-cut: Covid-19 accelerated the pace of digital transformation. When the pandemic hit, most companies raced to assess and build on their digital offerings, as online platforms became the main, or even sole, way for customers to engage with brands. As a result, many organizations focused investments around existing platforms and their ecosystems, particularly customer relationship management (CRM) systems to provide a source of truth for customer data to respond to evolving customer needs and ensure positive interactions and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tools to help automate and streamline operations and manage resulting data.
During the pandemic, most marketing teams were able to utilize and take advantage of these core platforms. However, CRM and ERP stacks only go so far in meeting marketers’ needs since they provide only a partial understanding of the customer. They don’t offer a more nuanced customer view that enables brands, for example, to recommend the next-best marketing action based on a lifetime of interactions.
Put simply, the prevailing technology and tools used by many companies are not purpose-built for delivering a connected experience that delights customers across every channel and touchpoint. That became especially clear at the beginning of the pandemic, when organizations needed to focus on ways to protect topline revenue by expanding sales of existing products to current customers due to other sales channels fundamentally changing or disappearing (overnight in some cases, as storefronts closed due to public health orders). Existing tools frequently were not up to the task, resulting in organizations struggling to create experiences that were compelling enough to punch through the noise and inspire action.
Putting in place a long-term digital experience strategy built around the customer
To overcome this, and create relevant, convenient, and memorable experiences that build customer loyalty, content is key. While we may not always call what we see on a website or in an app or email ‘content’, we all know that the images, videos or articles that we engage with online encourage a reaction from us as consumers, whether we find something interesting, emotional, or inspiring. The best digital content evokes a physical reaction such as a purchase or an emotional response. Brands that put experiences first have been trying to create these kinds of responses for years, but it can be difficult to manage due to the innate complexity of digital environments.
It is worth getting right, however, because it’s what consumers actually want, especially after a year of lockdowns and upheaval that has set high standards for digital customer experiences. In the UK fashion sector alone, for example, 57 percent of shoppers expect to shop mostly or always online in the next six months, compared to only 28 percent before the pandemic.
Most consumers now also expect brands to know and understand their shopping history and habits, and provide a consistent experience online and offline, catering to them as unique individuals. Beyond this, 86 percent of UK consumers also want to be rewarded by brands for their loyalty, likely speaking to a desire not just for points, but for recognition. This comes as nearly half (46 percent) of UK consumers have become less loyal to brands than they were prior to the pandemic. Cleary, delivering personalized content that rewards customers for their loyalty is key for attracting and retaining customers who are more discerning about online experiences than ever before.
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Delivering quality digital experiences everywhere it matters
Delivering on that vision in a digital-first world starts by knowing the customer, through having access to data about their behavior, as well as being able to tell the right story through relevant content to generate a feeling to motivate action – and ultimately inspire a purchase. For marketing teams that want to develop and build their technology stack with this in mind, there is a challenge ahead.
Despite vast progress and advancement being made in online customer experience and e-commerce over the past year, many CMOs and CIOs still face difficulty forming a holistic strategy that spans marketing, sales and service. To meet every need, they are often forced to piece a martech stack together from dozens of siloed solutions across different platforms. In the worst-case scenario, this siloed technology can cause what really matters – creating and serving the right content to customers to tell a unique story that speaks to each individual – to get obscured, as executives try to get a handle on the basics.
This is why having end-to-end solutions in place can be so beneficial. Being able to integrate existing ERP and CRM systems into a purpose-built digital experience platform that can bridge every consumer touchpoint from content to commerce enables marketers to focus on what matters.
The success of this type of digital experience is clear from brands that were able to respond quickly and effectively at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. When the pandemic hit in 2020, many Sitecore customers went from primarily being brands that consumers experienced in-person or through intermediaries to being digital-first by necessity. Others like Deloitte Digital and Johns Hopkins were thrust into new public health roles, ramping up content-led initiatives. In each case, having Sitecore to connect the dots helped to power deeper personalization from content to commerce -- and experience-led growth.
Over a year on from the beginning of the pandemic, organizations are now looking at how they can reorient around customer experiences, which now often begin online. Brands need to continue to modernize operations and meet customer experience expectations that have changed dramatically – effectively, the customer that was expected to turn up in 2030 turned up in 2020.
To meet these rising expectations for exceptional customer experiences, there must be a greater focus on having the technology and infrastructure in place for marketers to do their best work, from content to commerce. With customers being more digitally savvy than ever, having the flexibility to deliver against their needs across every channel in an intelligent and integrated manner is critical.
The pandemic revealed that marketers who were caught short, without the right technology in place, frequently struggled to innovate and upscale digital capabilities. As we emerge in a post-pandemic world characterized by constantly changing consumer expectations and sales channels, getting the technology foundation piece right takes on increasing urgency.
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Jill Grozalsky, Product Marketing Director, Sitecore