While 2020 may have left many brand marketers scratching their heads and seeing stars, the year that was offered all of us an opportunity to possibly see what the future holds for customer experience, brand engagement, and the evolution of loyalty programs.

This past year has been an accelerator the likes of which we have never seen before: advancing trends including contactless interactions, curb-side delivery, and numerous data metrics that kept marketers busy sifting through — and analyzing — to discern what was important, and what was just numbers.

At the onset of this new year, Loyalty360 sat down with various thought leaders in the loyalty, customer experience, and engagement industry to ask them what their teams and clients will be focusing more on in 2021, and — more importantly — what trends and opportunities they see growing moving forward.

While we heard back from many leaders on a variety of topics, there were three trends that kept appearing in nearly every response:

  • Data Integration: the ability to pull data across channels to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the consumer, powering contextualized messaging and maximizing the ability to meet ever-increasing customer demands – driving customer loyalty.

  • Hyper-Personalization: the ability to deliver the most relevant content on products and services, and compelling offers with information tailored to each customer, takes personalized marketing a step further in the evolution of consumer engagement.

  • Agility: the ability for brands to rapidly, continuously, and systematically evolve and adapt to ever-changing market conditions, both internally and externally. Those who can respond to emerging opportunities with innovative solutions will do well moving forward.

While there are many more topics to consider in 2021 for a variety of specific industries, we’ll start with these top three trends and bring you the reasons behind why they are top-of-mind for so many brands and technology experts – and how to deliver on all three to engage your consumer, increase customer lifetime value, and cultivate loyalty.

Trend #1: Data Integration – Utilizing Data to Optimize the Customer Experience
 
Sandra Sydlik, Marketing Specialist at Stuzo
Customer demands are rapidly evolving, and real-time experiences are key. It’s important that retailers maximize the efficacy of messaging and offers by delivering the right message, to the right customer, at the right time.

Successful retailers will utilize data collected — in real-time — to understand customer spend and behavior and Steer the Wallet to their brand using cross-channel experiences that empower the customer with choice and flexibility in how they engage.

Generally speaking, the most important data for retailers to know about their customers can be broken into three overarching categories: 1. Behavioral data (transaction history, share of wallet, etc.), 2. Demographic data (such as PII, age, family, etc.), and 3. Emotional data (i.e., satisfaction, affinity, preferences).

Utilize a Progressive Profile Build approach to collect data the retailer needs to take immediate action upon and build the customer profile purposefully, over time. Offer mutual value exchange, where customers receive something for sharing information with the retailer. This enables the retailer to acquire and take action on up to 3.5x more data and optimize the customer experience.

As customer data is collected, it’s important that these data points are stored against a Unified Member Profile. While generic third-party data could be valuable in certain applications, it does not facilitate the personalization of the customer experience on a 1:1 basis.

Learn more at stuzo.com
 

Jujhar Singh, Chief Operating Officer and General Manager of Salesforce Industry Clouds

Loyalty programs offer a powerful vehicle to acquire customers and capture valuable customer insights. However, this rich data is not being effectively used to drive experiences based on true understanding of customer preferences, affinities, and behaviors to build an emotional connection with the brand.  Analyzing the data is the key to building better loyalty programs that offer the level of personalized experiences customers expect.


As consumer expectations continue to evolve (and because they are very aware that they’re sharing their data with companies in exchange for personalized experiences), loyalty programs also need to change to adhere to these new expectations.  
 

Next generation loyalty programs are all about driving highly personalized, contextual, and dynamic experiences.  And creating this kind of experiential loyalty program requires brands to harness data and leverage it across every customer interaction. 

Learn more at salesforce.com

Jatin Gera, Director & Business Head – Americas, Capillary Technologies
The concept of using data to power customer experiences is not new, but many brands are still implementing tactics rooted simply in a user’s spend, recency or frequency.

In order to truly optimize your customer’s experience, you must have a sophisticated 360degree customer view.  Non transactional data from every point of a customer journey is critical. Social media, in-store, mobile, online, geolocation, search and brand engagement are critical behaviors to understand for both known and unknow customers.

In addition to comprehensive data, brands must leverage machine-learning to stay competitive in a world where real-time isn’t fast enough. Predicting a customer’s next move, influencing their decision & delivering a personalized omnichannel experience is guaranteed to increase a customer’s lifetime value and brand affinity.

Attempting to achieve this level of personalization outside of machine-learning and automated analytic practices is futile. Brands need a sophisticated CDP plus advanced engagement & journey orchestration tools built with propensity engines that are continuously learning and pushing brands to the right next move.

Customer data turned into powerful insights is critical throughout your entire company and must be available at every customer touchpoint from consideration to purchase to customer service and especially in the hands of associates.

Learn more at capillarytech.com

Bennett Gamel, VP of Product Management at SMG
The integration of disparate customer data sets has become a critical role in delivering better customer experiences. Customers are more connected than ever and interacting across a host of new and evolving touchpoints.

While most brands have adapted by standing up multiple listening posts, these efforts often become siloed—quickly leading to disparate systems, disjointed strategies and ultimately disconnected customers.

Brands need a centralized reporting platform that acts as the single source of truth so they can spend less time looking for information and more time using it to increase engagement and drive customer loyalty.
 
Learn more at smg.com

Marlon Bowser, Founder and CEO at HTK Limited
A growing focus for marketers this year will be the ability to act on customer data more intelligently, to drive personalisation and optimisation. That means - unless you’ve got a large budget and the technical expertise to build something in-house - you’ll probably end up investing in some kind of software that helps you manage, analyse and apply your data.
 
But marketers need to be careful here - like any buzzword, the terms “customer data platform” or “data management platform” get thrown around quite liberally, because there’s not a lot of clarity on what those platforms are actually meant to do. 
 
So, when you’re choosing a platform, ignore what it’s called and focus on the outcomes - does it allow you to unify customer data from all your relevant data sources? Can it apply that data across the channels you use with ease? And, most importantly, can it put insight or intelligence around the data and how it’s applied? Keep the focus on the particular use cases you’re trying to achieve to ensure you choose a platform that’s fit for purpose.

Learn more at htk.co.uk

 
Trend #2: Hyper-Personalization – Shifting from Blanket to Hyper Targeted Offers to Drive Engagement
 
Rob Fagnani, Head of Business Development and Operations at Formation
Today, marketers view hyper-personalization in terms of content and targeted offers. But this approach, whether starting with segmentation or micro-segmentation, only translates into customizing creative or messaging (first names, points, images or maybe a recent purchase). This doesn’t go far enough. These are simply Band-Aid fixes or small incremental steps that get us nowhere closer to true personalization. 2021 is the time to think big.

Hyper-personalization falls short if it does not include personalization of the offer. The difference between personalized messaging and personalized offers is that offers adjust to what you want the customer to do and what incentive they receive for doing what you ask. Doing this at an individual level creates the kind of engagement and experience you need to build trust and loyalty.

Learn more at formation.ai

Luke Smith, Director of Business Development at Baesman
Marketers have forever been trying to bring the most relevant messaging to the customer.  Using data that is relevant and unique to the prospect is going to shift customers from top of funnel awareness to post purchase satisfaction in record time through higher and more effective engagement.

The problem until now has been the cost and speed of delivery. Technology now exists to support these specific communications across all channels: SMS, email, social media and print.

Now more than ever it is imperative for marketers to be more relevant than ever before and focus on driving one-to-one communication with customers, because every customer has specific needs and expectations for products and services THEY choose to buy.

Hyper-personalization will deliver more meaningful communication based on their specific interest, leading to higher customer loyalty and sales.

Learn more at baseman.com

David VanWiggeren, CEO of Drop Tank
We find brands are accessing more and more data but translating that data into meaningful engagement is a challenge.

The gap often occurs because technologists and creatives are separated within the brand, and among the loyalty brand’s vendors. When designing new offers, new campaigns or new loyalty programs altogether, we recommend using small, seasoned and empowered teams of 3-4 individuals, with at least one system architect, one product manager, and one loyalty marketer.

That combination can lead to awesome and executable ideas. Loyalty truly is a marriage of science and art.
Learn more at drop-tank.com

Susan Frech, CEO at Vesta
Marketers know personalization is important to consumers. For your best consumers, your emotionally engaged loyalists, it can be make or break. But these days, every consumer wants to feel special and seen, to know that the brands they are investing in are invested in them in turn. Offers, content, and communications that aren’t highly relevant - or even worse, that are wrong - can cause lasting damage to your consumer connections. 

Effective and hyper personalization at scale can be a challenge however. The solution? Creating a digital framework that encourages and captures zero-party data. This proactively shared information goes beyond the standard age/gender/household income/purchase history that most marketers are accustomed to, delivering a window into your customer’s values, preferences, and lifestyle. The richness of this data can allow you to create experiences that achieve the level of hyper-personalization that truly resonates and engages.  

As many consumers continue to social distance, it is essential to offer unique digital experiences. Lasting loyalty will be built not from transactional offers like discounts, but by using owned data to create highly targeted and compelling engagement opportunities that show that the brand is listening and cares about its customers. 

Learn more at vesta-go.com

 

Sandra Sydlik, Marketing Specialist at Stuzo

In order to drive loyal behavior and to differentiate, retailers need to use behavioral, demographic, and emotional data in an intelligent way to inform loyalty program mechanics. “One size fits all” loyalty mechanics are not working anymore. 

Our research has found that over half of loyalty program members agree that “special treatment is important” and over 60% want to receive special offers that are not available to other customers. 

Taking a customer-first approach is crucial to building long-term loyal buying behavior. Many retailers are too focused on delivering the next product offer to trigger the next purchase. However, this is a very impersonal approach that will only meet the retailer’s short-term revenue objectives. 
 

Rather than focusing on the next purchase, retailers should focus on delivering the right message at the right time that makes the customer feel special, valued, and appreciated. This approach will build trust with the brand and will drive long-term profitable behavior and emotional change.
 

Learn more at stuzo.com

 
Trend #3: Agility – Remaining nimble and flexible as customer behaviors evolve
 
Robert McClarin, Customer Engagement Partner at Brierley
As the pandemic subsides, 2021 will be the pivotal year Brands realize they must do a better job of ‘listening and responding’ versus ‘pushing’ out promotional messaging. Consumer behaviors are evolving: consumers are switching to brands that provide personalized, relevant, and mindful engagement.

According to the PwC “Experience is Everything” report, 59% of all consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience. Consumers are moving away from companies that continue to blast them with the promotional fire-house and spam them with cold-hearted regularity.

To become agile, leadership Brands will move away from ‘campaigns’ to build an always-on engagement engine focused on creating and humanizing brandful dialogues--messaging that embodies their brand in every interaction. They will move towards real-time interactions that fill the engagement gap between their traditional ‘bribe’ campaigns, on one end, and their high-touch, low-reach ‘brand experiences’ on the other.

More than ever, brands will create the agility and flexibility to meet their consumers in the moment with empathy, value, and reassurance. Cultivating authentic, brandful relationships with consumers can be highly profitable; future growth is in the engagement gap.

According to a Deloitte study, brands that shift to customer dialogues and authentic relationships (customer-centric) are 60% more profitable than those that are not.

Learn more at brierley.com

Tom Caporaso, CEO at Clarus Commerce
Consumer expectations change quickly, and the pandemic has accelerated that process. As 2020 tested retailers’ patience, it showed their resiliency through agility. Retailers displayed great agility in 2020 with things like curbside pickup, BOPIS, and digital-first strategies.

But for 2021, companies need to shift that agile mindset from reactive to proactive.  Brands should increase their operational agility and prepare for changing consumer behavior and new trends. It’s one thing to launch a loyalty program with benefits your customers want. But that process doesn’t end after they sign up to become members. This is where your company shows how agile it is by evolving your program over time. The “set it and forget it” mentality for a loyalty program won’t work if you want to retain your members for the long term.
Getting people to become members of your loyalty program is important. But getting them to stay by providing meaningful and valuable benefits is more important in the long run. Customer expectations and technology change so quickly now that brands must figure out what benefits members might want in the future, and not just react to current pain points and needs.

Any type of loyalty program should go through these steps after launch. The more you can provide value to your members by evolving your program, the more customer loyalty you will retain. Stay agile but be proactive about it. This companywide mindset will serve your company well and help your customer retention efforts.

Learn more at claruscommerce.com
 

Bennett Gamel, VP of Product Management at SMG

Operational agility is key in meeting evolving customer expectations. This has never been more evident than during the pandemic. Experiences like online and mobile ordering, curbside pickup, contactless experiences, and BOPIS (buy online pickup in store) were common pre-COVID, but the pandemic has accelerated customer adoption. As customers interact with brands in new ways, brands need to be flexible and committed to listening, adapting and responding accordingly. This includes internal practices as well, as employees are often the first feedback channel for creating better customer experiences.

Learn more at smg.com


Rebecca Bolton, Director of Client Strategy at Prizelogic
While Agile Marketing isn’t a new concept, the 2020 pandemic underscored why marketers need to adapt quickly to be successful in the face of change. The pandemic may be an extreme example, but there is a long list of reasons why loyalty programs need to be agile including competitor activity, distribution changes, recession risk, changes in consumer behavior, program budget shifts and cost management.

Agile marketing enables marketers to react to change in order to remain relevant and successful. The foundation of agile marketing requires real-time insights and visibility. While loyalty programs often have vast amounts of data, it’s not about quantity, but rather turning data into actionable intelligence.

For this reason, marketers are looking to evolve their loyalty databases into customer data platforms (CDP). CDPs unify disparate databases to provide a single, unified organizational view of the customer allowing brands to be more nimble in defining and reacting to customer behavior changes.

They eliminate bureaucratic data access challenges, empowering marketers to instantly access and understand data to better inform marketing strategies, optimize program performance and facilitate stronger customer service.

Learn more at prizelogic.com

Christian Selchau-Hansen, CEO and Co-Founder at Formation
COVID-19 pushed brands to ramp up their digital offerings overnight, and as consumers spend more time online, their expectations for relevance, value and frictionless online experiences have only grown. Which is why old segmentation strategies don’t work anymore.

One of the reasons is that it’s difficult and resource-intensive to create segments around a consumer preference or behavior, and those pre-pandemic preferences or behaviors have become irrelevant. To reach customers based on new and evolving preferences and behaviors, marketers must become more agile. They need to target customers and experiment quickly and easily.

Additionally, the agility necessary for meeting this new demand is near impossible with traditional segmentation. Instead, you need to lean on artificial intelligence and machine learning to continuously optimize for consumer demand and relevance.

Learn more at formation.ai
 
Emerging Trends: Escapism
Tamara Oliverio, Senior Director of Loyalty & CX at Epsilon
Consumers are looking for something more than offers and promotions. They’re looking for experiences and emotional connections. Something to distract them from their everyday.

As more people are poised to stay at home during Q1, loyalty will be built by ensuring you engage on the right channels with appropriate emotional experiences.

And of course, by creating contactless loyalty with customers. This means focusing on top-notch experiences that don’t require in-person interactions, like curbside pickup and app ordering. 

Read more here.

Emerging Trends: Brand Focus
Susan Frech, CEO at Vesta
Finding ways to communicate your brand purpose and beliefs in an authentic and meaningful way will be an important trend to prepare for in 2021. 

More than ever, people crave a sense of belonging and to identify with like-minded people. This sense of self-identification extends to the brands that consumers support. Consumers are increasingly supporting - and boycotting - brands for their actions and alignment with their values. Vesta’s recent Brand Sentiment Navigator study revealed that 42% of consumers would switch brands if they discovered a brand they were purchasing did not align with their politics or values. Taking a proactive approach to upholding and promoting your brand purpose is an opportunity to utilize mutual beliefs as a bridge to forming lasting emotional connections with your customers.

Learn more at vesta-go.com

 

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