Retailers are striving to compete in an increasingly competitive landscape, in which technology is changing the way products and services are purchased, both online and offline. As consumers become increasingly comfortable adopting new technology, agencies need to innovate to deliver digital strategies for their clients that take advantage of the opportunities presented by such technology. So, how can they achieve this?
We brought together tech leaders from some of the UK’s top digital agencies to talk about how they see the future of eCommerce. Leading the discussion was Laura Bailey, iomart’s eCommerce Channel Manager.
What are the gimmicks and which technologies have staying power?
Laura kicked off the discussion by asking the group which technologies are here to stay.
One agency in particular said they were investing heavily in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to understand buyers’ motivations and perceptions of messages. They have been using NLP to refine marketing campaign messaging and, increasingly, for web development.
Eye tracking and headsets that measure brainwave activity were discussed as a useful tool, particularly for web development projects when looking at how users interact with webpages. Research using this technology has found that for fashion brands, using human faces in adverts increased conversions compared to images of clothing where the head is cropped out.
The group agreed that psychology and knowing your audience was key to engaging on a personal level and achieving true personalisation – a key focus for eCommerce brands going forward.
Augmented & virtual reality
Augmented and virtual reality appeared to be viewed quite negatively by the group, possibly because it’s often applied badly. Plus, there are so many barriers to entry in terms of cost and the perceived ‘hassle’ for the consumer to use the technology.
One participant suggested that the type of applications VR could be used for may be more useful for B2B rather than B2C, partly because users in work environments are more likely to persist with a frustrating task to achieve the desired outcome. For example, a geographically dispersed team of engineers working on a product could use VR to share designs, utilising the ability to grab, rotate, zoom and test prototypes.
However, the group acknowledged that experimentation with AR and VR can be a valuable learning experience and is viewed positively by consumers and the press. It can almost making brands look slightly ‘edgy’ – at least for now.
Voice controlled technology was highlighted as something that is potentially useful for many different applications. For example, Amazon Echo devices could be used in hotel rooms to control the lights, TV, air conditioning and to order room service.
The group agreed that with the advancement of Natural Language Processing with AI and machine learning that voice control will become ubiquitous in everyday life. However customers’ data concerns need to be addressed. Many are worried that devices such as smart TVs could be ‘spying’ by recording their conversations and processing the data.
Do you see the shift to buying online extending to all sectors?
Laura asked whether the group thought that consumers would become comfortable enough to start buying big ticket items such as cars online.
A number of attendees had experience in the automotive industry and said that yes, the ability to customise the car’s design online and create a ‘mock up’ of their new car was attractive to high end car buyers. It’s proven that consumers assign a higher value to something they feel they’ve created, resulting in a rewarding experience.
The importance of continuous data
The availability of data is key to the strategy for these types of brands. Knowing when, where and what the consumer is looking to purchase allows effective targeting when the consumer is making a decision.
The automotive industry was used an example to explain this. Previously, dealerships and automotive brands were only engaging with consumers around every five years, when they were looking to buy a new car. Smart, or connected, vehicles now collect approx. 750MB of data per second. This is highly valuable information that can be processed and interpreted to predict buyers’ intentions.
But brands need to put an innovation framework in place to turn these insights into ideas, being careful to draw correct assumptions. Data should be collected in real time and findings should be actionable. Businesses must use this increased capability to become adaptable to change.
Will the high street survive?
We’re actually seeing many online stores launching physical stores, showing that many consumers still want to see and feel the products in person before they buy. However, brands are reducing the number of physical stores in favour of larger ‘flagship’ stores in prominent locations.
To stay relevant high street stores need to integrate technology into the shopping experience to make it more interactive. Technologies such as beacons and NFC could have their uses but need to evolve as they’ve been around for a while now and haven’t taken off.
It was agreed that payment needs to be seamless to encourage higher spending. Most of the group predicted that brands will skip mobile wallets and gift cards and go straight to using contactless technology to avoid the investment.
What’s the future for agency technical teams?
The group identified the widespread adoption of ‘the cloud’ as a key component in delivering clients’ digital strategy as it allows them to be agile and scale on demand. Even the most cautious organisations are now comfortable moving their data to the cloud, realizing that it’s not necessarily safer on-premises. A key concern was the ‘point of no return’ – whereby once data is moved, it’s difficult to bring it back. Some clients were maintaining multiple instances out of fear, however this appears to be less common now.
Many agencies are utilising public cloud and tools to build infrastructure that enables portability between different cloud providers. Docker in particular allows brands and agencies to avoid lock in, and therefore reduces risk, when developing applications for the cloud. These tools also facilitate the automatic of the deployment of applications, amongst other efficiencies, that could be a professional threat to people whose jobs rely on managing their own infrastructure.
Whilst the group admits that cloud services have the potential to shrink their IT department, they acknowledge that this type of change in the tech industry isn’t uncommon and that jobs will be created elsewhere.
“The days of the developer are numbered”
A slightly controversial quote but one that, upon further discussion, appeared to have some merit when referring to the digital agency environment.
The availability and increased functionality of marketing automation platforms has meant that marketers can build new webpages and launch campaigns with little or no dev involvement. And with agencies are completing fewer major platform builds, the group predicts that many dev jobs will move into the vendors.
Some argued that developers will still be required for more complex projects but that skills are changing. Backend integration development is moving to the frontend, which has become more sophisticated, meaning that frontend engineers have been forced to improve their programming skills.
It was suggested that jobs will simply move up the ‘value chain’ as they did during the industrial revolution. However, with jobs now starting to be replaced by machine learning, the question was asked whether in the future we’ll simply apply machine learning to machine learning and eliminate our jobs altogether?
How can agencies help organisations to adapt?
The rise of technological integration
Business need platforms rather than separate modules for different tasks but this takes time and requires specialist skills. Software vendors (eg. Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce) are working to create comprehensive cloud platforms but this often takes years to achieve.
It’s clear that the various systems used by agency clients need to be integrated but this is often done badly by unqualified individuals. It’s common to see ‘forced’ API development and APIs that are not scalable, either because it’s complicated or expensive. Poor API development and unreliable systems continue to be a problem.
Breaking down business barriers
However, the biggest obstacle to completing digital projects didn’t appear to be the technology, it’s a lack of common goals across the business.
Agencies often find that clients lack a mutually agreed business case and strategy which means that, in many companies, departments operate in silos and every decision has to be escalated to the CEO for approval. To combat this, technologists must have business acumen as well as technical knowledge to navigate these complex situations.
The group agreed that organisations are lagging behind customer expectations in terms of how they’re using technology. To truly innovate they must map customer touch points across departments and understand the customer journey, rather than simply copying their competitors.
And on that important point we decided to close the discussion. We’d like to thank BIMA and the agencies who came along, we hope you found it as informative as we did.