The year ahead for customer engagement

Chris Pearce: the chief executive of TMW Unlimited
Chris Pearce: the chief executive of TMW Unlimited

It's not the tech itself that will prove most interesting but how it helps us to better understand and influence consumers, Chris Pearce writes.

So many sources of respectable insight were proved so catastrophically wrong in 2016 that it’s a brave soul who commits to anticipating the year ahead. With that in mind, here’s to a perfect nine predictions.

1. You won’t believe these predictions for engagement

Most customers’ attention spans will be so reduced that only MSN-style listicles will continue to engage in any true sense. (LOL)

2. My bot doesn’t understand me any more

According to Gartner, the average consumer will soon have more interactions with bots (often unwittingly) than with their own wives, husbands or partners. When you consider that Facebook’s combined WhatsApp and Messenger now see three times the traffic of daily SMS volumes, it’s clear that brands that do not provide a compelling messenger service are missing out on key influence moments in many customer journeys.

As ever, though, the smart brands in 2017 will work to seamlessly integrate these experiences with other digital and human-assisted channels.

3. The woman who I’ve been seeing… she’s an OS

OK, perhaps we won’t see quite the level of emotional engagement that Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly exhibits in Her. While he falls in love with his hyper-intelligent OS, Samantha, we do at least see in research that being able to converse with automated systems can significantly improve the customer experience.

Conversational user interfaces (talking to machines to get answers to questions) are only going to improve and become more pervasive, be that via mobile, virtual personal assistants, in-car entertainment systems or any other connected device.

Brands will need to get better at literally having a voice that is genuinely helpful without causing the unintended frustration and disengagement of early Siri and Cortana experiments.

4. My name is Chris and I’m a digital addict

On-demand interaction across multiple digital environments will become ingrained and addictive. This will continue to drive extraordinary customer expectations of service and delivery while placing more pressure on brands to cope with the fragmentation of channels and interfaces.

5. Pokémon gone

While the peak of the hype cycle has long been passed, Pokémon Go did at least highlight the power of augmented reality to enhance a physical experience. The layering of digital information on to the real world is a great way for brands to deepen engagement and will continue to grow.

6. Virtual reality not matching the hype

Conversely, I believe virtual reality and associated headsets, while growing, will remain niche in 2017 and struggle to provide true brand engagement at scale beyond experiential events. That is until the costs come down substantially and the ergonomics of headsets improve.

7. Rise of influence algorithms

We are all familiar with the contextually relevant nudges that the likes of Amazon deploy to help influence purchasing behaviour. But I believe we will see the best of behavioural psychology and neuroscience combining with the usual big data sources to create behaviour-changing algorithms. Interestingly, the more progressive brands are experimenting on their own people first.

JP Morgan, for example, in an effort to reduce its considerable legal bills, has deployed such an influence algorithm in an attempt to both predict and more positively affect the ethical and moral decision-making of its staff.

8. Cracking the communication code

The esteemed Paul Feldwick appears to relish the statement, "The quest for certainty and the creation of highly effective advertising are mutually incompatible." I predict customer engagement models will evolve to help reduce this incompatibility.

Put simply, I believe there have only ever been two models of how this stuff works – message transmission (variously described as salesmanship, persuasion, cognition) and Robert Heath’s subconscious seduction (working via affects, feelings, emotions).

Often they are opposed, sometimes conflated or simply misunderstood, which only adds to the frustration. It is in the area of understanding memory and memory management that a third model will emerge to build on and successfully combine elements of the first two.

We know from Daniel Kahneman that the memory of an experience is a more powerful predictor of future behaviour than the experience itself and the two are rarely the same. So obsessing about delivering great experiences is not enough.

Through repeated interactions of contextually relevant content, we can actively refresh and manage a consumer’s memory of a brand experience and affect it for the better. Thereby going one step further than the already tough job of lodging a brand into memory (Byron Sharp’s mental availability). It is these more positive, managed memories that will drive future purchase intent and behaviour.

9. Who’s afraid of Byron Sharp?

Talking of Sharp, I anticipate that his much discussed work How Brands Grow is finally understood as not so threatening to the customer engagement world. Most brand marketers are not so binary as to believe they need to focus on either penetration or loyalty as a growth strategy.

They, of course, do both and the real fun starts with the more delicate balance of deciding what resources flow to support which need, when and why. Equally, what Sharp calls the new attitudes to communications, such as building and refreshing memory structures or emotional responses, are exactly what the future customer engagement model sets out to achieve and more.

So the quest to understand and influence humanity will continue – and all the tools of artificial intelligence, marketing automation, big data etc will allow us to do it a little more intelligently than last year.

Chris Pearce is the chief executive of TMW Unlimited.

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