Will the digital boom bring lasting change or is it a temporary trend?

What will stick from the great digital transformation? Campaign editor-in-chief Gideon Spanier gauges opinion among marketers

Will the digital boom bring lasting change or is it a temporary trend?

For many brands, the pandemic forced innovation.

As online expanded to fill gaps in shutdown societies, marketers spoke of advancing their digital journeys by five years or more in the space of a year.

That change was radical - and seems to be permanent - according to research carried out by Campaign and Epsilon at the start of this year: more than three-quarters (78%) of respondents believe the 2020 digital shift marked a permanent transformation.

They put their money and energy behind it, with the majority (79%) investing in their online offering in 2020 as a result of this move of consumer spending to online. Most invested in digital marketing (70%), followed by website functionality and experience (60%) and staffing (33%).

We brought together a select group of marketers to interrogate their own experiences and insights into whether change is truly set to last or is simply a temporary shift. And how to adapt.

First impressions last
Many customers tried digital for the first time during 2020, bringing new growth to online flower retailer Bloom & Wild.

“As a digital-first brand, we doubled growth expectations in 2020 and are retaining those customers,” says Charlotte Langley, its VP of brand and communications. “While frequency is down from the first lockdown, new habits have been formed.”

Jemma Williams, director of brand and marketing at Dunelm, says consumer fear of buying big tickets items online has been eroded. The retailer is continuing to build online by helping to make purchases more considered and by adopting a community strategy.

“When shops closed, we moved from commerce to community. We needed to talk to people in a different way and think about our content,” Williams says. “We now have community at the heart of our strategy.”

Focus on the experience
With travel shut down for large parts of the pandemic, holiday company On the Beach took the time to refocus on the consumer experience, says chief marketing officer Zoe Harris.

“The challenge was to come out stronger than we were two years ago. Covid was a time to reimagine what the business is and change the relationship with customers.” 

Katherine Madley, VP marketing at Game Stores, which operates across Africa and is part of Walmart-owned Massmart, says the company had advanced ecommerce in some areas but not in others when the pandemic hit. A hard lockdown in South Africa which restricted what retailers could sell, as well as where they could sell it from, meant it scrambled to get systems in place through innovations such as building a partnership with Uber Eats in just 11 days. 

“E-commerce was like a balloon. It inflated rapidly from 5% in 2019 to 15% in 2020, but it’s now down slightly to about 7.5%,” she says.

There were winners and losers among brands’ responses to the pandemic. “How prepared you were will determine how you retain those customers,” notes Ellie Gauci, global strategy officer at VCCP. “Some brands could have benefited more if they had been ready for it.”

Fishing for loyalty
Whether brands benefited or not, the notion of loyalty has become no less important as time has moved on. Epsilon commercial director Ben Foulkes notes that obtaining a second purchase from consumers is the new battlefield and points to the rise of “spearfishing” among consumers.

“Offline you engage with brands but online it’s really quick. Websites are built to go from homepage to purchase as quickly as possible so you don’t spend time engaging with the brand. People may not even know they’ve bought from you – you just fulfilled a need in that moment,” he says.

Balancing brand with performance is a challenge, adds Harris. Everything is geared to getting the purchase now rather than converting in a month or so.

“With holidays, browsing is part of the experience. Is our job to get them to the hotel as quickly as possible or to entertain and delight them for an hour so that when they get to the point where they need to book they will?”

It is important to ensure that every touchpoint with the consumer has an emotional driver, Langley believes, even if it seems transactional.

“If approached with care, then you can start building a relationship with transactional emails,” she says “We work hard on our copy to ensure people know we treat their purchase like it’s our own.”

There go the cookies
Just as brands are getting their digital act together, the cookieless future threatens to upend the apple cart by robbing increasingly digital brands of a key tool. 

Getting to grips with first party data and consent management is now the order of the game, Foulkes acknowledges. 

“Every brand’s website is a data mine of signals and most brands are using about 2% of it. Businesses need to look at the value exchange they give for that data.”

O2 highlighted the value of its Priority service during the pandemic when live experiences were closed, with a shift to gaming, including a Priority zone in Fortnite, Gauci points out.

“A lot of our clients have been talking about membership and subscription for the past few years. Elevating the value exchange to feel more like membership is the smart move,” she says.

Ryan Thomas, director of client development at Epsilon, believes talking to people as individuals is becoming easier post-cookie with the introduction of an identity solution.

"With an accurate and scalable identity solution, you can have the right conversation with the user wherever they are," he says. "How we are talked to in the online-and-offline worlds should be the same.”