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With not long to go until Black Friday rolls around, brands and retailers are figuring out how to stand out in today’s overly saturated marketplace. The pandemic made it more difficult for brands to get their message and product offerings across in line with evolving consumer demands. The move online has not only created a more competitive space but also affected the way consumers shop and interact with brands.

‘Connecting the dots of the customer communication journey’ – a panel held as part of The Drum’s Digital Summit – considers the key challenges confronting marketers and suggests ways to improve customer experiences and align touchpoints. With that, the future buying power and influence of Generation Alpha – those born in the 2010s – is also being questioned as marketers consider their inherent use of technology and how that will impact the industry’s evolution.

“The pandemic has clearly had a huge impact,” says James Stokes, UK&I enterprise sales head at Infobip. “It resulted in a sudden change in customer experiences, meaning consumers now have higher expectations.”

Customers are less tolerant than before and won’t accept a bad customer experience, with Stokes warning: “If brands aren't living up to their expectations, they will switch to one that does.”

This means that brands need to question whether they are serving customers with what they need and be realistic about how they’re perceived. Stokes encourages marketers to reprioritize the customer by focusing on real-time interactions to ensure that information is fed to them at the right time through the right channel. That way, consumers are more likely to have a seamless customer journey, where they can consume and browse services easily and understand what the brand stands for.

“Customer experience now needs to focus on real time interactions, and speaking with consumers at the right time, in the right way using the right channel,” he says. “And it’s based on the consumer’s preference rather than brand preference. With more channels that people can speak on, brands need to be there to address and communicate with individuals across each of those channels, while providing a consistent experience across all of them so that you live up to your brand promise.”

Getting the logistics in place

Emily Hakner, associate director of products at Ask Bosco, agrees and cites consistency across channels as vital for elevating experiences and avoiding frustration to match customer expectations with reality. In theory, this may sound simple but in practice, it proves a little more complicated. For example, many marketers struggled to get the logistics around returns policies right during the pandemic – and continue to do so.

“Being able to buy something and return it easily is important – brands need to get this right and establish live chats across social platforms to speak directly to consumers to resolve problems,” says Hakner.

Stokes stressed that brands who don’t have the ability to return goods in a stress-free and functional way aren’t likely to receive return buyers.

Naturally, there are many elements to the returns process but being transparent with consumers is crucial. Denise Sakuma, vice president brands, marketing communications and merchandising at The Lycra Company, talks about the importance of syncing up front and back-end processes.

Naturally, there has been increased strain and added complications around importation and exportation during the pandemic and new Brexit regulations in the UK – making it especially difficult for companies with poor e-commerce capabilities and limited tracking facilities. Sakuma encourages brands to improve managing consumer expectations although she’s optimistic about the industry’s quick response.

The power of technology

Technology can also be useful for facilitating and accelerating processes. Brands should aim to provide richer experiences across channels like WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat and Google Business Messages that can easily embed multimedia functions.

“Some of these services have in-built automation which can take care of the returns journey within their services,” says Stokes. “Perhaps a QR code can be sent to somebody to print off or a returns receipt can be displayed direct on the mobile phone? Brands need to personalize experience using richer channels to remove friction and benefit in the long term.”

In situations where brands can speak directly to consumers, Hakner notes that personalization can also work within a sales context and recommends investing in training for these sorts of exchanges to ensure that the technology complements the retailer’s services to improve the experience and drive the sale.

Knowing the targeted consumer well will help to tailor the experience to them, but retailers should also bear in mind that tech and communication systems may vary across sectors and regions – China for instance has a lot more firewalls in place. Sakuma says: “Brands have to think about all these dimensions and respond accordingly. And we should expect them to continually change in future, as they have done in the last decade.”

What about Black Friday?

As Black Friday looms – with some brands extending their sales windows to alleviate the pressure – it can feel daunting to know how to prepare. Using richer channels to engage customers and automate conversations where possible will help with answering queries efficiently.

Stokes suggests identifying new methods for rolling out longer term, such as setting up product-led campaigns to target cart abandoned items or bringing visual propositions to life.

Hakner encourages retailers to focus on their tech stack to ensure nothing goes wrong on the big day and think whether there are any strategies that can be employed to increase consumer engagement. She cites Amazon which is dropping different products on different days to keep people returning to the site.

But above all, Black Friday draws crowds in for its heavy discounts – something Hakner stresses needs to remain to captivate consumers: “There's a lot of research that goes into Black Friday; people wait to buy bigger goods that they want to in the run-up to Christmas. Price is a really important touch point especially in the economic environment that we're living in, so factor that in before going live.”

As shoppers are becoming younger and more tech-savvy, brands inevitably will have to adapt and respond to keep up. Buyers are increasingly expecting multi-dimensional interactions with retailers so it falls on brands to remain digitally focused and digitally minded, even looking ahead to forecast what trends will land next.

If brands can simplify their offerings, remain consistent and be clear on their messaging, they will have a chance at standing out in an already saturated space.

Watch the full panel discussion here.