Customer Experience trends are bigger and better for 2019. Artificial Intelligence (AI) tops the list, with a virtual army of app developers working around the clock to help us excite, entertain and educate our clients. With AI, shopping will be more highly personalized than ever, potentially quashing any lingering doubts that customer service and experience are very different animals. But in order to emphasize experience, we’ll need to better understand the customer and how s/he relates to the brand; knowing what s/he purchased on Monday won’t cut it.
Although the onrush of AI and related technology will make navigating Customer Experience more challenging in 2019, you’ll be glad you made the trip. Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the following trends.
Customer Experience Will Be Delivered with A Brand Purpose
Providing a more pleasurable experience through signature scents, luxurious décor and beautiful music encourages consumers to remember us and return, but when the experience helps them make better buying decisions, it takes on purpose. One powerful way to accomplish this is to help customers physically grasp the usefulness of our merchandise for a given situation. Quality outerwear retailer Canada Goose figured this out and has been installing cold rooms in its flagship stores so customers can try on its coats in the conditions they were designed for. It’s like a walk-in freezer: cold inside, but warming the prospect up through a very cool experience. The store is no longer a place merely to display products, but to provide brand experiences that are simultaneously engaging and practical.
Larger Phone Screens = New Opportunities for Delivering Content
As our smartphone screens increase in size, fresh products, markets and opportunities are taking advantage of the new real estate. Apple recently acquired Next Issue Media and its “Texture” app, which some describe as a “Netflix for magazines.” For $10-$15 monthly, subscribers have access to a bonanza of popular magazine content. Tubi, meanwhile, is a video app with a significant focus on the Android phone market. The service delivers free, ad-supported film and TV content from major studios. For brand advertising, one of the most exciting opportunities is in mobile gaming. To date, brands account for only 15 percent of the lucrative ad spend in mobile gaming apps, but that’s set to change. Gamers are increasingly open to ad-driven content, and according to Adweek, today’s mobile apps “are integrated with customers’ devices, ensuring publishers and advertisers can leverage key data signals to seamlessly connect a relevant message to the right user.” It’s clear that as our smartphone screens grow, so do the options and benefits of mobile advertising.
Brands Develop Secret Apps for Superfans
While “superfans” may be a small subset of your customer base, they are disproportionately important to brand success. Target, Adidas and Ralph Lauren are among the brands that employ “secret” apps to cultivate relationships with their most devoted fans. Interaction with customers on these apps produces a wealth of insight into preferences, values and motivating factors while rewarding and inspiring their loyalty. Adidas’ Tango football (soccer) app delivers an array of video challenges that gamers and hardened street footballers alike find addictive. Nike meantime has released Nike Unlocks for NikePlus members, delivering such experiential content as fitness and meditation classes, mood music and augmented reality-driven encounters with new and in-concept products. If you’re a Ralph Lauren devotee, the fashion giant’s new Polo app has everything you’ll need to shop its worldwide collections plus unique, limited-edition merchandise not available in stores. For 2018 Lauren teamed up with another institution with roots in the Bronx—the New York Yankees—to create vivid experiences for fans of all (pin)stripes. Superfan apps will be a Customer Experience game-changer in 2019. Don’t take your eye off the ball.
Voice Chat Conveys Warmth and Personality
Text messaging is convenient: you send a text and the recipient reads and responds to the message in due course. It’s perfect in many situations, but voice chat makes any conversation come to life. It’s your voice, with your tone and inflection. It’s more personal and it helps avoid the misinterpretation that can occur with text communication. An app that’s hoping to conquer this space is Zello. Described as “the push-to-talk mobile app that redefines the walkie talkie,” Zello aims to let you talk to friends and colleagues “next door or around the world.” Zello offers free personal and paid professional versions and stresses its usefulness in teamworking. As you might expect, Apple is also in on the action. A walkie-talkie feature included with the watchOS 5 software update allows voice chats on your Apple Watch. It’s too early to predict the extent to which walkie talkie-style digital communication will impact the Customer Experience, but expect to hear a lot more about this development in the years ahead.
Podcasting is the New Future of Media
Podcasting is one of the fastest-growing forms of digital media in the world. According to Forbes, 13 years after Steve Jobs called podcasting “the next generation of radio” that vision has been fulfilled. More than 80 million Americans now listen to podcasts regularly per Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2018 report, which asserts that the medium’s “share of ear” has doubled in the last four years. It’s not just Apple’s commitment but Google’s that is propelling such widespread adoption. As reported in Pocket-Lint, a new Google app for Android—the company’s first dedicated podcast player—provides access to over two million podcasts. Google plans to apply AI in a number of ways: offering automatic subtitling, on-demand language translations, improved search functions and a smart suggestion engine. So what’s in it for brands? First, relative to other performance media the costs of producing a podcast are low, with few barriers to entry and an accessible audience for relevant, free programming. Check out branded podcasts from GE, eBay, ZipRecruiter, Basecamp and Sephora, and if you don’t want to produce your own podcast, advertise. SmartAsset explains the advantages podcast advertising has over other digital media: “When you listen to a podcast, the host or hosts generally read out the advertisements … there are no annoying pop-ups, auto-playing videos or intrusive ad breaks that are loud and out of sync with the tone of the program.” There’s no easy way to skip ads in a podcast and—for now—it’s a buyer’s market.
Projection Mapping Creates an Immersive Experience
Projection mapping lets firms engage customers in unique and often mind-blowing experiences. State-of-the-art projection mapping tech allows imaginative image and video content to be projected onto 3-dimensional surfaces—a big leap forward from flat, monotone walls and screens. As David Title, Chief Engagement Officer at Bravo Media, an experiential marketing studio, explains, “Projection mapping has a unique ability to transform an environment in ways that traditional screens and LED arrays simply can’t deliver. With an ever-increasing demand for immersive experiences we expect to see projection mapping used across industries, from retail and hospitality to real estate and public spaces, to engage, inform and delight. “Words we most often hear from spectators are “exciting,” “amazing” and “unforgettable,” and creative brand marketers are testing the possibilities across a range of industries; among the 60+ examples linked at GES are Southwest Airlines, VW, New Balance, Pepsi, LG, H&M, Mattel and Harrods. Although full-blown projection mapping “events” are out of reach for organizations with limited marketing budgets, there is enormous incentive for tech firms to produce applications that small to midsized companies and nonprofits can afford. Brainstorm your dream application, and if you find it too costly at today’s rates, treat it like the weather in New England and wait a minute.
Paid Loyalty Programs Gain Deeper Engagement
The traditional “free” customer loyalty program is here to stay but paid and VIP programs are trending at the top of the pack. Research shows that loyalty program members who pay or purchase to belong are incentivized to follow brand messaging, utilize member benefits and share personal information beyond the contact basics. Along with the more obvious perks and benefits, fee-based programs have been demonstrated to create a sense of exclusivity not found with the free variety. The result is something akin to true loyalty, and brands such as Amazon, GNC, Hilton, Bed Bath & Beyond, GameStop, Sephora and Renovation Hardware are making hay. Amazon has been remarkably effective in convincing affluent customers to pony up $99 annually for a Prime membership—an astounding 82 percent of U.S. households with annual incomes exceeding $110,000 are members—and these members are spending 250 percent more annually than non-members. (Amazon’s recently announced increase to $119 yearly should have relatively little impact on these numbers.) LoyaltyOne tells us that “sixty-two percent of consumer respondents said they would consider joining a fee-based rewards program if their favorite retailer offered one.” Among Millennials, the numbers are even more compelling, with “75 percent of 18-24 year-olds and 77 percent of 25-34 year-olds saying they’d pay to belong.” Enough said.
AI Moves from Personalized to Predictive
AI lets firms use the information they collect about the buying habits of a given client to create a more personalized experience and predict future actions. Predictive consumer analytics is not new, and neither is Amazon’s use of it. As early as 2010 Jeff Bezos described “business intelligence and data analytics, machine learning and pattern recognition, neural networks and probabilistic decision making” as among the techniques and technologies the firm was already exploring to build its customer base. A pioneering Amazon application allowed the etailer to predict when a caller was checking on an order, prompting the system to bypass superfluous auto-response options and get him directly to the information he was after. The company never ceases to build on such innovation. In February 2018, Wired spoke with Amazon VP of Devices and Services David Limp about a reported transformation in how Amazon predicts which and how many customers will buy a new product. “I’ve been in consumer electronics for 30 years now, and for 25 of those forecasting was done with [human] judgment, a spreadsheet, and some Velcro balls and darts,” Limp said. “Our error rates are significantly down since we’ve started using machine learning in our forecasts.” United Airlines, Netflix and Spotify are some other notable brands applying AI algorithms to their customer data and creating win-win outcomes.
Regardless of industry, businesses need to continually assess how customers view the experience they deliver. And while we know consumers prefer self-service and that firms can reduce overhead by using AI to address that preference, we need to be mindful that when a customer hits a wall she wants a human being to intercede. Therein lies the prize, because the human element will continue to be the key differentiator between your company and the competition. So stay human, and remember: the customer is still king, and in the tech-driven experiential age, Customer Experience—not service—is the king-maker.