2012 was certainly a busy year for customer experience managers. Web access turned into a pervasive part of life for the average consumer, meaning they “went online” differently than in the past and also had much higher expectations of the quality and convenience of their online experience.

For organizations that proactively responded to the changing online customer environment, there were substantial advantages to reap in terms of collecting customer data, refining and optimizing messaging and site design, improving customer satisfaction and conversion rates and generally providing a superior level of customer service. Let’s take a brief look at nine key customer experience trends that developed during the past year.

Online Anywhere, Anytime

As mentioned above, the Internet has become so pervasive that people don’t think they are on it anymore, even when they are. An online study by Forrester Research of 58,000 U.S. adults found that in 2011, people were spending an average of 21.9 hours a week online, while in 2012 they were spending an average of 19.6 hours a week online. According to Forrester, this figure does not reflect a decrease in the time consumers are spending connected to the Internet, but the fact they always have connected devices and are always online, even when they don’t really realize they are -- such as when they check in at a location on a mobile phone.

The customer doesn't think like most organizations. They are just doing stuff; keeping in touch with friends, solving problems, living their lives, trying to get some work done. Neither online nor offline, neither content nor apps. Companies had to start responding to this mindset by eliminating internal silos and adopting a true “cross-channel” mentality where customers could seamlessly continue their experience across desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets and even personal entertainment devices, or even have a simultaneous experience via multiple channels and devices at once.

Let Your Site Design Respond to Consumer Devices

In response to pervasive online access, particularly the rise in consumers using mobile devices to go online, the responsive design methodology of designing websites picked up traction in 2012. As explained in a May 2012 CMSWire webinar, "Optimizing Mobile Customer Experience with Responsive Design," responsive design is a way of creating a digital experience that adapts to seamlessly deliver content suited to the device context of a user’s screen size, operating system or orientation.

In responsive design, site layout adapts to multiple screen sizes and morphs, changes and rearranges content in a way that is optimal for device resolution. Responsive design involves designing a site at different “break points,” or standard screen sizes, that allow designers to accommodate many different devices at once.

Based on the strategy of using only one codebase, one content platform and one URL to manage user experience across all devices, responsive strategy tailors content to a range of screen sizes using a flexible grid system that allows content to contract and expand based on a particular device’s resolution. In addition to providing an optimal experience to customers regardless of how they choose to engage with a site, responsive design is much easier to manage and update on the back end and by using a single URL provides improved SEO results.

It’s All Just Semantics

Semantic Web data is represented using a technology standard called Resource Description Framework (RDF). RDF is a graph (web-like) structure that links data elements together in a self-describing way. The meaning of RDF data, in contrast, is part of the data itself. This means that wherever Semantic Web data goes, details about it (i.e. metadata) are always immediately available.

For the customer, this provides a richer and more intuitive online experience as semantic links enable them to quickly discover relevant content and have relevant content automatically served to them. As the Internet became more of an extension of the “real world” and less of a separate entity in customers’ minds during 2012, it became more important for enterprises to semantically link customer-facing data elements, and this importance will only continue growing in 2013.

Live From Your Website, It’s Chat

Live chat became a must-have customer service option for companies looking to maximize customer satisfaction in 2012. By allowing customers to immediately engage with a customer service agent, live chat offers a more convenient and streamlined experience than phone-based customer service. In addition, customer live chat questions can be automatically routed to higher-level subject matter experts, expediting correct answers to customer complaints and inquiries. No wonder 44% of online consumers say that having questions answered by a live person while in the middle of an online purchase is highly important, according to Forrester Research.

Internally, live chat is cost-effective as chat agents can handle multiple queries at once, reducing headcount, and the infrastructure is less expensive than that required to support call center operations.

The Business Side of Social

Businesses have started to embrace social media as a way for them to not only market their products and services, but connect with current and potential customers. For example, the Social Media Report 2012, recently released in collaboration between Nielsen and NM Incite, indicates 70% of social media users said that when looking at products over social media they do so to see what others are saying, 65 percent do so to find out more information about the product and about half said that they post comments, questions or concerns.

One of the most important ways that customers and businesses connect is through social care, the social media version of customer service. The most popular way that social care happens is through a company’s business or marketer's personal page on Facebook, but other ways include through Twitter handles, blogs and YouTube.

Customers find that being able to connect not only in real-time, but in an efficient and consumer friendly manner helps social media improve their relationship with businesses as marketers and other business representatives seem more approachable.

Fun and Games for Profit

“Gamification” was one of the top buzzwords in the world of customer experience management during 2012, but beyond the hype lies some real potential to enhance the customer experience in a way that increases both loyalty and conversion rates. Gamification is about taking the things in games that motivate us, such as goals, competition, milestones, achievable challenges and rewards, to encourage us to be productive and engage in one or more desired behaviors.

According to Gartner, by 2014, more than 70% of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamefied application. Gamification provides rapid or instant feedback, provides customers with clear-cut “rules of engagement” that reduce frustration in trying to navigate a site, produces a compelling narrative that encourages regular repeat visits and provides the satisfaction of completing challenging but achievable tasks that grow in complexity as the customer continues engaging with the game. Who said you can’t make a profit while you’re having fun?

Know Your Customer (Like Never Before)

In 2012, sophisticated analysis of online data allowed marketers to drill down into individual consumer wants and needs as never before, allowing them to "microtarget” customers with highly personalized experiences. A great example of in-depth microtargeting is the successful efforts by the Barack Obama presidential campaign to target individual voters.

As has been widely reported by many news outlets, the Obama team “established a huge analytics group that comprised of behavioral scientists, data technologists and mathematicians” to perform microtargeting. The Obama team built individual voter profiles that drilled as deep as magazine subscriptions.

The Obama team then used these profiles to arm door-to-door canvassers with targeted profiles of individual voters they were visiting (delivered via mobile device), as well as instant transcripts that could be quickly altered based on real-time feedback from canvassers. Microtargeting data was also used in email strategies.

In terms of driving early voting, the Obama team went as far as analyzing the one million Facebook users who downloaded the Obama app, determining who had friends in swing states with demographics that likely made them pro-Obama, and asked those users to send their selected friends messages reminding them to vote early. A large early vote turnout for Obama has been largely credited as a key in his victory.

Analysis in the Nick of Time

Real-time analytics became a reality for digital marketers in 2012, allowing the customer experience to be refined and tailored as it happens. As Forrester analyst David Aponovich recently told CMSWire in a discussion of real-time analytics, data visualization and executive dashboards, which consume volumes of faceless data and literally put a face to it, in the forms of charts and graphs that don’t only inform, but which also guide marketing leaders to make better decisions, rapidly and effectively, became available to digital marketers in 2012.

“The question is where these tools will be sourced: will they be an extension of existing platforms, like web content management systems and analytics systems, or will they be created and delivered by third-party developers and integrated with existing software solutions,” asked Aponovich before concluding, “Either way, growth of data visualization to help make more informed marketing decisions more quickly is a win-win for marketers and their organizations.”