I’ve been focused on the power of digital media for more than 12 years, and its promise is clearly continuing to grow. There will be more change, more disruption, more reshaping, more connecting– all of which will lead to a broader, deeper, and more rewarding landscape for communicators than ever before. As always, however, this growth must be tempered by careful thought, planning, and collaboration that encompass the entire organization- from intern to CEO, from customer to supply chain, from local to global.
Here in the Middle East, we’re now seeing digital transformation really evolve from a trend to a central component of business strategy. Any business that does not place digital firmly at the center of its growth strategy runs the risk of increasing irrelevancy in the eyes of its customers and the market at large.
Today’s interconnected world demands a level of commitment to digital that will leave laggards far behind in the battle for the hearts and minds of the 21st century consumer. The Middle East holds so much potential for digital transformation that I can’t wait to get working with clients on these- here are the most exciting trends I see coming to prominence over the next 12 months.
1. Real experiences, real-time
Social is all about sharing. Sharing special moments and everyday smiles with friends and family. According to e-marketer’s 2016 Social Media Penetration report, 40% of the time spent by smartphone users in MENA is social time– mainly on Instagram and Snapchat. It’s that spur-of-the-moment connection that’s important– not the perfect outfit or the classic pose. Video is a really important component of the real-time experience –it’s not just words or still pictures, it’s gestures and expressions– that makes people and connections real.
Brand managers wanting to showcase real-time content in their communications need to plan well in advance. Be confident in your brand’s personality and value proposition, then match those characteristics to the best-fit communication channels and content styles. Really paying attention to these kinds of details at the planning stage is what separates the great marketers from the merely competent.
According to Forrester, consumers are being hit with an estimated 5,000 pieces of promotional or branded content every single day. While the ability to reach consumers at such a huge scale introduces new opportunities for brands to engage and create improved customer experiences, it is also harder than ever to resonate through the noise. But make the right connection with your audience, and your brand will stand out.
2. Going beyond reality
Immersion will be the new consumption, asserted JR Little, Global Director of Strategy at Essence Digital in a recent post on LinkedIn; anticipating that close to 40 million people will own some kind of virtual device by the end of 2018, he expects the 2020s to mark the beginning of the Age of Virtual.
If anyone still doubted the power of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to connect with consumers, the success of the Pokémon GO app has laid those doubts firmly to rest. Once the sole province of the hardcore gamer, these technologies are now front and center for mainstream consumers, providing new ways to connect and deliver unique, memorable interactions.
Marry these new opportunities with the growing popularity of workplace gamification, and I expect to see gamification go from footnote to core business strategy. At Edelman, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on research in this area, so look for a strong roadmap next year that will bring together workplace gaming, artificial reality and virtual reality to build employee engagement, retention, and enhanced customer experience.
3. Homegrown digital superstars
Digital is mature enough now to have grown beyond the need for superstars from afar. Ease of connectivity plus social relationships equals accessible influencers, and that’s a model that’s gaining importance in MENA. According to BPG Cohn & Wolfe, more than 70% of UAE residents aged 18-40 will poll their circle of influencers before making a purchase, and up to 50% of all purchasing decisions involve word-of-mouth recommendations. So identifying and targeting those influencers with the right messages/ offerings presents a powerful marketing opportunity.
With the huge amount of content-based messaging assaulting consumers from all corners, those consumers are becoming more and more skeptical of corporate voices in that content. They want to hear the voices of real people, people they can relate to, when they’re looking to make a purchasing decision. From fashionistas to soccer moms, category leaders are spreading across the web, sharing experiences and promoting brand partnerships. These simple personal-level recommendations and referrals can have a huge impact on brand offerings in the market.
Brand messages delivered through these peer influencers have a 38% higher retention rate than traditional product advertising.
4. Beating the ad-blockers
Mobile ad-blocking browser add-ons are increasing their market penetration as fast as digital advertisers are filling small screen real estate, with more than 6.4 million in use in UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia alone, according to e-marketer’s 2016 Ad Blocking survey. So “traditional” digital advertising isn’t going to get businesses to where they need to be.
It’s time to get creative and build the kind of campaigns that act like part of the social conversation, not like a hard sales pitch– another reason that targeting peer influencers is so important.
5. Wearing the web
Smartwatches like Apple Watch and Pebble are just the beginning. There are now fitness wearables for many different sports and activities –golf, cycling, swimming, running– as well as all kinds of gadgets to monitor different aspects of health. Research firm Frost & Sullivan is expecting wearable shipments to double over the next few years in MENA.
And with growing ubiquity comes growing marketing opportunities. Companies can start to pick experiencebased channels to deliver their messages. Have a new line of running shoes? Push the benefits through Bluetooth headphones designed for runners and invite direct feedback via an app embedded in the runner’s media player.
Banks are getting in on the act, too. August 2015 saw The Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD) launch the CBD Active Saver app, which rewards users with higher interest rates on their saving accounts when linked to a Fitbit or Jawbone activity tracker device. Higher interest rates and transaction limits are tied to the number of steps the user takes in a day, set as daily goals of between 5000 and 15,000 steps, in the app. Interest is accrued according to the customer’s average monthly balance.
Calories burned are also being used to help feed the hungry. In February 2015, Fitbit partnered with Feeding America to donate 1.5 million meals to the hunger-relief charity. Using the FitForFood program, individuals using a Fitbit device were encouraged to collectively burn one billion calories and turn them into donated meals. Anyone with a Fitbit could opt in to take part at no extra cost.
India’s GOQii fitness-tracking wristband connects users directly to a real-world personal trainer to push them to reach their exercise goals. Data from the wristband is collected by the GOQii mobile app and shared with the personal trainer, who analyses the information and provides personalized tips and encouragement.
6. Real-time messaging, all the time
Thanks to the near-universal presence of smartphones, texting and instant messaging have merged into a seamless, all-encompassing communication environment. By 2020, e-Marketer expects there to be more than 173 million mobile messaging app users in MENA and a staggering two billion around the world. Businesses that are not embedded in those conversations will to all intents and purposes not exist.
At this year’s F8 conference, Facebook announced that Messenger now supports bots. It’s easy to imagine the potential for messaging app bots to transform the way brands communicate with customers over social networks:
> Customer service is always a good place to start reaching out with positive brand messaging. Brands can open personalized, real-time conversations with customers by inviting questions and concerns. Messaging apps can even bolster in-store customer service for buyers with questions on the sales floor. Hyatt is using WeChat to reach customers in China- in 2015 alone, the hotel chain received more than 50,000 WeChat messages, of which 60% was regarding on-site stays and 40% regarding bookings.
> Paul McCartney teamed up with Line to release his own collection of exclusive stickers; they even come with specially recorded soundbites (that can of course only be heard on the app!)
> Personalize new product launch announcements and special offers by using geolocation data in tandem with bot-based messaging to reach potential buyers when they’re close to a participating store. Taco Bell is using Snapchat to draw customers in; 80% of its audience opens the snaps and 90% watch the brand’s videos (some of which are up to five minutes long) in their entirety.
> Facebook themselves partnered with retail brands Everlane and Zulily to test the new messaging capabilities. Using only the chat app, customers can receive order confirmation, track their purchases, and even modify and add to their order- all without ever having to go through the retailer’s website. A similar partnership with Uber also allows users to order rides right on the Messenger app.
7. Video, video, everywhere
Over the past few years, it’s become clear that video is the mobile communication platform. Sharing words is the 21st century equivalent of books and radio. Mobile video is television and Hollywood. Sharing an experience through words takes a little thought and effort on the part of both the communicator and the recipient; real-time video, on the other hand, can take all participants right inside the sharing experience. And it’s clearly an experience that resonates in MENA– over 310 million YouTube video views happen everyday, making the region second only to the United States in mobile video usage.
What does this mean for businesses? Well, five years ago, companies were spending 80% of their digital marketing budgets on content creation and only 20% on content promotion. Now, those businesses’ customers are doing most of the content creation, freeing the business up to apply their creative muscle to promoting and leveraging that content to differentiate their brands. That’s a big switch around.
8. Seamless content delivery
Multiple device ownership – computers, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, and the ever-growing Internet of Things– is ratcheting up users’ expectations of content. According to Google, 78% of people believe owning multiple devices has improved their lives, but that belief is tempered by an expectation that the content delivered to those devices is optimized for quality of appearance on each device. If your content is not delivered through an adaptive interface that tailors the user experience for that user’s device, it will be ignored. It’s the 21st century equivalent of delivering cinema-formatted movies to televisions without changing the aspect ratio, and it’s simply not acceptable for today’s users.
9. Social conscience meets brand marketing
Simon Mainwaring noted in a recent Forbes article that 71% of consumers would help a brand promote its products and services if a socially beneficial cause or purpose was attached to that brand. I call this Marketing 3.0, or Know Your Why, and one might even say it’s a first step into a post-consumer driven marketplace, where brand values become more important than brand products.
Research has shown that associating a brand with helping a social cause like global warming or child hunger relief can positively impact not just the image of the company but the profitability of that brand– even more so if those profits are fed back into support for that cause. Here, again, shared social experiences can be beneficial– think video-based contests to come up with new ideas to save energy or increase food production.
10. E-commerce becomes me-commerce
Here’s where those personal circles of influence come back into play. The e-commerce sector in MENA has soared well past the $10 billion mark, and much of the recent growth is coming from the influence of individual social networks– particularly when it comes to fashion. You just have to look at the impact of locally produced shows like House of Bazaar, hosted by Harper’s Bazaar Arabia and Fashion Forward at d3 to see the power of “people like me” driving the engagement and ultimately sales of brands both locally and internationally.
So what does all this mean?
In many ways, it’s a stark reminder that the customer is still king– and a much more powerful king than ever before. Ensuring the optimum customer experience at any and every touch point must be the goal of every digital marketer in 2017. A top-notch customer experience is quite simply the best way to keep customers engaged with a brand. And it’s no longer a one-time experience– anywhere and everywhere a customer can interact with a brand, that experience must be consistent, it must be appropriate, and it must be positive.
Data and analytics are essential keys to success on this road– know where customers are coming from (social media platform, blog, or any other online experience) and streamline the interaction in those high-traffic areas. Keep a laser focus on removing the potential for friction and enhancing the experience for every customer, regardless of where they are on the journey. So, what will you be doing to enhance your customers’ brand experience in 2017? Keep us posted.