Opening that digital door: 4 critical checkpoints for companies

Social media, digital engagement, online conversation – they’re not buzzwords as much as a deemed necessity these days. But where I used to encourage companies to jump in and get their toes wet, my thoughts on the space have changed slightly over the years.

Yes. Digital engagement can offer some incredible long-term rewards, but be prepared to do it properly. The first couple of years you’ll be fighting a continual battle to stop your engagement efforts turning into a “Guest Book” of nightmare proportions. Give an audience a voice, and the first thing you’ll hear are the complaints. But there are a couple of things you can be aware of as you go into the space.

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Here are four digital checkpoints to examine before you open that first “Hi, welcome to our space! What can we do for you?” sentence in cyberspace.

1. Congregation and community – the expectance of engagement
In the increasingly fragmented world of brands and messaging, we’re going to see more and more people grouping themselves into niche communities around content and utility that is immediately relevant to them. The long tail of the Internet provides the perfect platform for small groups of people to share their interest in specific topics or services. Look at the growth path of any popular Facebook group to understand the trend: zero to hero overnight, and then wane away slowly as the “next thing” comes along.

Human beings have this strange need to be treated as individuals, more so in the digital age. They want to be heard, they expect you to listen and they want to feel invested in your brand. Otherwise, you may as well be competing with the vegetable aisle. Does that carrot look good? It looks OK. Buy it.

Usually, business has tried to satisfy this need by providing friendly telephone touchpoints (or the beloved old Contact Us form) where traditional engagement can occur. It’s becoming expensive, and we’re starting to realise that when a greater cost is incurred – there damn well better be a bigger bang-for-buck on the horizon.

For example, you have a problem with a brand, you phone its call centre, you happen to get a delightful call centre agent who sorts your problem out. It costs the company a fortune in infrastructure and creates a warm, fuzzy feeling between customer and call centre agent. No one else knows about it. No one else will. Digital Rands not working quite as hard as they should?

The true allure of digital engagement (and the most frightening component) is the ability to turn these negative customer experiences into positives ones – in front of the entire world. Target the niche communities and engage with your customers on their level. The carrot-loving people with red hats and two cellphones? Yup, there’s a niche community out there waiting for your vegetable brand.

Opening the doors of your brand to transparent community engagement enables a company to create a multitude of additional, relevant touchpoints. Now you’re looking at a brick-and-mortar office, call centre, online chat room, niche forum presence, social media presence and more, with the digital components of these touchpoints costing a fraction of the traditional ones. If there’s one way to cut through the clutter of modern life, it’s to build the infrastructure to have those niche conversations. Not only with your current customers, but with the customers of the future.

If you can do that while wearing a red hat? All the better! And of course, the niche conversations are immediately more relevant and therefore present slightly less risk than broad-based engagement.

2. Bricks to clicks (without losing the human touch)
Sigh. Bricks to clicks. Who else is bored of that buzz term? Has it happened? Not really. Blame technology infrastructure, communications infrastructure, the education system or whatever you like… we’re still going to be reliant on traditional structures for a while to come. That doesn’t mean we have to stop trying. There is something quite special about building up the confidence to purchase a product or service online, entering those credit card details and having the whole process play out as smoothly as possible. We don’t really use travel agents to book local air tickets anymore, do we?

Why aren’t we moving as fast as expected? In my opinion, the biggest problem is that digital channels have lost the human touch. In an immature Internet democracy like South Africa, if anything goes wrong, customers crave the warm body to fall back onto – or shout at, if you like!.

That could be a call centre, a one-hour turnaround email assistant or even “live help” on the digital property. Whatever it is, when we feel unsure, we need another human to reassure us. Until our digital services can get that human touch back, sales will remain small and targeted to the “digital native” space – those geeks and technology adopters who will always be ahead of the pack, but unfortunately don’t pack enough volume to make up good business numbers.

Has your business got its “warm body backup”?

3. The art of simplicity: complex is no longer cool
A billion websites, a million media messages, thousands of magazines, hundreds of TV channels, a couple of social networks, a plethora of flashing banners, one times partridge… and a pear tree.

The digital world we live in is becoming increasingly complex and cluttered. In space, as they say, no-one can hear you scream. Isn’t it amazing that technology was invented to streamline our lives, making things easier to cope with. In effect, it has achieved the opposite – making communication and information so easy that we’ve become flooded by the very channels we created. In this media mess, the modern digital customer strives for simplicity.

Task-focused browsing is the name of the game. If a customer comes to you to buy a widget, move everything else aside, leaving only the simplest and easiest way for them to purchase that widget. Lifestyle, brand, content, added value – these all sits in the engagement space now. Those who want to engage, will. But to keep the sales ticking over, remember what you sell or provide in the first place. And provide that service above all else.

If you’re battling to see how this fits in, take yourself through the Amazon purchase process, and compare it to yours. There’s room for improvement, but Amazon make a pretty good benchmark for online acquisition. And while you’re soaking that in, go challenge your web forms. Do you really need that ID number and the date of birth?

Brave companies will start allowing registration into their services (and eventually product purchase) using existing social profiles such as Facebook and Twitter. Why have two usernames when you could have one? All in the name of simplicity!

4. Life on demand: the rise of mobile
Marketers in South Africa are only beginning to scratch the strategic surface of what can be accomplished on our most pervasive digital channel. In 2009, I attended a fascinating conference, Mobile Web Africa, in which I was struck by the unexpected, yet pioneering “we don’t really know but we’re trying” attitude of SA’s mobile experts.

Our digital attention hasn’t been fully focused on the mobile channel, but don’t worry, we’re a nation that catches on fast! The always-on, information-on-demand nature of the mobile device is changing the digital scene in ways we have yet to imagine. If I can “Google” an answer to my question in 0.5 seconds, why does your call centre take two days to get back to me? These are the questions the mobile youth are going to start asking as they enter the consumer force. And these are the questions your businesses are going to have to answer as we move into the next era of connectivity.

You’ve heard the back-of-cigarette-box stats? Ten million mobile Internet users in SA. Five million Internet users in SA. One in six Google searches in SA originate off a mobile device. MXit has 15 million+ users. They go on. All pointing to the fact that the appetising numbers, the glimmer of some real digital “volume” on the horizon, all sit in the mobile space.

What makes it harder is that we’ll need to design mobile content, services and applications to the most fragmented market of all. The base-level user with SMS. The mid-level user with MMS and rudimentary WAP. The high-level user with a feature phone (camera and perhaps 3G). The smartphone user with a mobile computer in his/her pocket. And you thought you just needed one website?

Just remember, the reward meets the effort required. Mobile phones are the payment devices of tomorrow – and if you can sell, and sell easily on them, those 35 million active SIM cards might just become your customers.

As a pilot for engagement, mobile devices are tantalising. How about a customer feedback mechanism through short code SMS? You then have the choice of getting back to them or not (it’s a reality) – but at least you’ve opened that door.

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