robot dancing with disco ball , title - The Future is Now?

By Scott Logie, Chair of the DMA Customer Engagement Committee and MD, Insight at REaD Group

I recently had the privilege to chair the DMA’s Future of Customer Engagement event in Bristol. I lived in Bristol for nearly 10 years, loved the city and still do. It’s a vibrant, cultural hub with great art galleries, restaurants and gig venues. It also has a very active marketing community and that was evident both in terms of the 60 plus people who came along and also the wide range of speakers at the event itself.

The event was built around some research we have done as the Customer Engagement Committee. We’ve done a lot of research over the last few years and in all the studies have taken some time to focus on what the likely future trends are in terms of areas that consumers would like to use to engage with brands. Tim Bond, from the DMA research team picked out 4 key trends:

Chatbots – those virtual assistants who help you on-line. One of the key stats that Tim shared was that men were more likely to want to engage with chatbots than women (36% v 26%). As a middle-aged man, this didn’t surprise me, anything to avoid talking to real people. The sooner these are used to replace doctors, customer support teams and dental nurses the better!

Voice – generally seen as Alexa or Siri but really any voice activated device at home or on the move. The key reason given for using voice commands was convenience which makes sense. My worry here is how freedom of choice is retained as more and more decisions are left to devices to make.

Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality – using devices to bring locations or products alive. This is clearly one of the most exciting aspects to consider when looking at any future trends. Something we all (‘we’ two thirds of us) express interest in but the challenge here is how you move from something that is a gimmick to something that adds value.

Gamification – using competition, goals and targets to incentivise customers to change behaviour. As a Fitbit obsessive I really get this but haven’t linked any of my goals to a product yet. There are insurance companies, and banks as well, giving rewards to customers who can prove behaviour change – live healthy and pay less for insurance – why not!

In addition to the research we had a panel discussion around these four topics that drew out lots of areas for discussion, but for me the key point was that while tech is maybe driving some of the change we are seeing, tech alone is not the answer. This then brought us back to one of the main principles of the whole Customer Engagement campaign – to show that the brands that will win in terms of building long term loyal relationships will combine tech, data and creativity to achieve this.

The next three sessions were really testament to this. First of all, Ian Hughes from Consumer Intelligence showed how insurance companies from around the world are, right now, breaking down barriers and allowing consumers to buy insurance in ways that suit them. The main driver for this is putting the customer in control – so no more need to buy a large one-off insurance policy for your car when you only use it 3 hours a week; or using life insurance to purchase policies that can provide a real-life event for those left behind rather than just paying for the funeral. Interestingly, most of the innovation was being driven from outside of Europe and North America.

Neil Mackin from Amazon Web Services then presented on two topics. The first centred around how AI and Machine learning are impacting on lots of areas within Amazon – from distribution and warehousing to recommendation engines and next best offers. The second was what Amazon are doing to make a lot of the algorithms they develop available for use by brands, universities and just ordinary people. They are often derided as being the example of all that is bad with online retailing, killing our high street. However, the impression I was left with was one of a book retailer becoming a tech giant and using the work they do responsibly and sharing the learning.

The fun and informative final presentation was from Lovehoney, the UK’s largest on-line retailer for sex toys and lingerie. They are a real South West success story and grew out of observations made by marketers on what products were going to sell in the future and, guess what, sex sells! In addition to being probably the only presentation I have sat through where a full range of wild and unmentionable *ahem* toys were discussed repeatedly, the thrust of the session was really how well structured Lovehoney are around the customer – from staff training, product reviews, product testing, email comms and on-line interaction they showed how the customer is key to everything that they do.

In many ways that summed up for me the key takeaway from the really excellent afternoon, which is that all the tech in the world is useless unless you know the customer, know what they are like, what they want and then provide that to them in the most convenient way possible. As the world changes and what we see as traditional marketing dies away, the winners will be the brands, and the suppliers and agencies that support them, who really take that lesson to heart. Being personal is knowing the end customer, and ensuring the engagement matches their preferences using whatever technology and content that is available to do so.

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