COVID-19 Has Forced a Pivot to Digital-First. Here’s How Companies Adapt

The global COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed the way brands engage with their customers. As people comply with stay-at-home orders, they have no longer been shopping in stores, traveling long distances, visiting financial institutions in person, or leaving their homes much at all. Instead, they have increased their reliance on […]

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The global COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed the way brands engage with their customers. As people comply with stay-at-home orders, they have no longer been shopping in stores, traveling long distances, visiting financial institutions in person, or leaving their homes much at all. Instead, they have increased their reliance on e-commerce, home delivery, subscription services, and staying local. In response, brands are shifting their focus (and budgets) from acquiring new customers to retaining and cultivating loyalty in existing customers.

Even so, “business as usual” is nothing but usual anymore. Shifting reopening plans and an uncertain future make it difficult for organizations to predict how to adapt. The bottom line: Across all industries, the customer experience and digital experience have finally converged. That won’t change. Gradually digitizing operations is no longer enough. Let’s look at how a few industries have been impacted dramatically by these shifts, and how any organization can move quickly to pivot to a digital-first business.

Dramatic 2020 Pivots Become Permanent

With stay-at-home orders and gradual reopening plans, retailers were one of the most impacted industries by coronavirus. Even still, two-thirds of consumers increased their online shopping during the pandemic. Many wary consumers still aren’t sure when they’ll return to stores, so online remains their primary shopping channel. 

Equally impacted is higher education. Some universities have reopened this school year with restrictions, while others are entirely virtual. Some are embracing hybrid models to give students flexibility. Many question marks still linger about a second wave of the virus and what will happen with a potentially fully digital instruction model. In these cases, replicating the in-person experience with a personalized, online education will be crucial.

Finally, on the front lines of the pandemic, the healthcare industry has been under pressure to deliver more services to consumers via telehealth and online sources. With a surge in demand on under-resourced and understaffed hospitals and healthcare facilities, online services such as chatbots and digital assistants present an opportunity to answer personalized questions on routine services, billing, and more. In other words, 24/7 needs for digital services are increasing, and show no signs of slowing down.

Beyond these industries alone, nearly every organization has been impacted by the 2020 digital transformation rush. Those that have not made moves to adapt stand to lose market share to competitors, suffer customer retention and loyalty fallout, and even face potential bankruptcy.

3 Strategies for Pivoting to Digital-First

The organizations who have adapted best to rapid digital transformation have three things in common: 

  • They look at data from their current customer base to drive change.
  • They use personalization to replicate in-person experiences.
  • They’re set up for rapid change with their technology stack. 

First, using data from the existing customer base is the best way to understand what’s happening with your individual organization. Macro trends are great ways to read the tea leaves about what’s happening in the industry. Organizations should combine these larger trends with intimate knowledge of customers to drive retention and loyalty. 

For example, many financial services institutions like retail banks have had to adapt to dramatically changing customer needs. Macro trends show that customers are in crisis, while micro-trends (such as a surge in online search patterns in a specific area) can determine exactly which new digital offerings can help a struggling restaurant owner or homeowner who needs flexibility in payments. Customer data also can help determine the right campaign targets for marketing, as well as drive personalized web experiences for customers to get the answers they need quickly.

Second, personalization can help customers who are accustomed to in-person interactions adapt to online experiences. In many cases, a personalized digital experience can be even more delightful. For example, a customer may be accustomed to shopping in the grocery store for a baking item, searching online for recipes, and calling a friend for help. Now, a baking company could provide a one-stop destination for shopping, as well as recipes, online cooking shows, baking tips, and more. Rather than focusing on the transactional, the brands that can get personal are rewarded with increased customer engagement and higher conversion rates. 

Finally, digital transformation efforts in the past were multiyear efforts that were complex and difficult to execute. Today, many digital transformation efforts pop up seemingly overnight. To put this in perspective, less than three months passed between when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States and the moment total or partial shutdowns were ordered. It took Uber close to seven years to provide more daily trips than taxicabs in New York City. 

While Uber’s digital infrastructure and unique regulatory challenges couldn’t have been addressed in days, having the right technology can help the vast majority of organizations move fast to pivot to digital-first businesses. The most critical thing technology can do is to be flexible. Flexibility can represent itself in a service that responds to a surge in demand without slowing down. Or it can mean that a marketing team can read patterns in customer data because systems from different vendors are interoperable with each other. Perhaps most importantly, technology must enable the organization to move fast to spin up new services or change existing ones in response to customer demand. 

While the rest of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 are still uncertain, what’s clear is that the only constant is change. Want a silver lining? The digital changes organizations set up today are accelerating digital transformation efforts that otherwise would have taken years to complete. The way an organization responds to a crisis now can help it not only survive, but thrive for decades to come.

Lynne Capozzi is the chief marketing officer at Acquia, where she oversees all global marketing functions, including digital marketing, demand generation, operations, regional and field marketing, customer and partner marketing, events, vertical strategy, analyst relations, content, and corporate communications. Capozzi has held a variety of senior marketing roles in the technology space, including at JackBe, Systinet, and Lotus. She is also on the board of directors at the Boston Children’s Hospital Trust and runs a nonprofit through the hospital.

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