Industries Ripe for Messaging Adoption Through COVID-19, Part One: Retail

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Our lives have changed drastically over the past few months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way we communicate is no exception. In the first few weeks of March, the number of business communications sent via SMS increased by at least 32% compared to the same weeks of January according to SMS.to data, as fewer in-person interactions between brands and their customers created an intensified push to digital communications.

The rise in digital communications will only continue to grow as industries adapt to the new contactless standard, which requires brands to embrace new digital use cases to drive the customer experience and stay competitive. SMS and messaging will be a key channel to support communications strategies — even before the pandemic, research showed SMS open rates were as high as 98%, compared to just 20% of all emails. Gartner believed this was partly due to the number of messages a typical user receives for each type. Users needed to wade through far more email than SMS. And that was before COVID — now personally and professionally we contest with much more email every day.

In the COVID era, the industries I believe are ripe for SMS and messaging adoption, as part of an omnichannel communication strategy, are retail, healthcare and the public sector. In a three-part series I’m going to share my advice for each of these industry verticals as to how they can maximize the potential of SMS in the customer experience journey. Let’s start with retail.

When you think about how retail companies have had to adapt to digital strategies as a result of COVID-19, the obvious use case that springs to mind is curbside pickups. With people unable or less inclined to enter stores, curbside pickups have surged over 200% during the pandemic. SMS provides an easy way to manage appointment scheduling and keep shoppers updated. But retail SMS usages go way beyond providing logistical updates.

Every retail marketer knows that having a comprehensive customer communications strategy is about building relationships with customers wherever they are, and however they want to be communicated with. Right now, that means finding more people online on their mobile devices versus in stores. More than 65% of online shoppers said they are browsing or buying from their mobile devices right now, and 71% of US adults said they planned to do more than half of their holiday shopping digitally this year. That makes SMS a prime channel for retail marketers to explore in order to increase online traffic, generate leads and sales, and more.

Like any communications channel, SMS needs to be used well to be an effective support to marketing and sales, particularly given consumer sentiment around COVID-19. The areas where I’m seeing brands achieve SMS success for marketing and sales are:

Sharing details of new product launches. You might know that a new product launch is relevant to a customer based on their past spend or interest, but when people can’t see and touch products in stores, messaging can still help you connect consumers to your goods. Rich Communication Services (RCS) messaging gets consumers as close as possible to a real-life product. Unlike a static text message, RCS provides the ability to share high-quality images and videos as well as links so if you’re sharing a new fashion collection, customers can see the patterns up close and the way the material moves, all from the comfort and safety of their phone. Meanwhile, marketers get to drive anticipation and excitement, increase visitors to their brand’s site, etc.

Incentivizing spend. There’s actually an appetite among consumers to shop right now. Mitto conducted a COVID-19 survey asking what types of messages consumers worldwide want to hear from brands during the crisis, and all regions ranked special offers and coupons the highest (over availability of services, product updates, satisfaction surveys and more). Retailers should use SMS to incentivize consumers such as by offering cart abandonment incentives, early bird offers, holiday promotion alerts, etc., not only to lead them to purchase but to keep them opted-in through the rollercoaster that is 2020, and beyond.

Everyone knows customer experience doesn’t end at the sale. While this has been an undeniably hard year for retail and it would be easy to focus on using digital communications strategies for marketing and sales, the role of messaging for customer support shouldn’t be overlooked. In today’s environment, quality customer service is really important and retailers can’t afford to pick and choose the channels they use. They need to offer them all.

Especially now that more users want to engage in mobile-first communications with brands, I’m advising more retailers to meet customers on their preferred chat apps like WhatsApp. In Facebook’s study “More than a message”, 53% of the respondents said they are more likely to buy from a company which provides customer service via chat on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger than one that does not. Just think that in the past many brands’ idea of customer support felt more like customer hassle to the consumer. The concept of using a chat app as a channel for customer support is relatively new, but it makes sense. There are no waiting loops — it allows customers to get their questions answered on a continuous thread at their own convenience. Plus it helps reduce expensive contact center costs for the retailer.

All in all, if I summarize why prioritizing digital communications is important now, it boils down to this: COVID-19 has been a bitter pill to swallow, but (without wanting to trivialize the situation) lemons are bitter too and out of them you can make lemonade. If you choose, you can adopt new strategies to reach the potential of changing consumer habits, such as leveraging more digital communications now that everyone is at home and ready to buy online. SMS is one way retailers can turbo-boost their communications and support to customers, and give them a great advantage heading into this year’s most important quarter.

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