Digital transformation is itself always transforming, and this year — more so than ever — we will see a surge in businesses making major changes to their digital operations in an effort to boost customer engagement and smooth IT processes from within.

I think seven trends now demand consideration from organizations across industries. While some require restructuring in both short- and long-term business plans, the marketplace won’t be kind to organizations that fall too far behind.

1. Contextual Targeting

The methods by which businesses harness data to target customers and to understand (and ideally improve) the customer experience are expanding. Analytics have evolved to the point where systems can now recognize not only the demographic categories that customers belong to, but also the specific context in which they browse products or shop. This enables contextual targeting, which can lift digital businesses in two ways.

First, it increases a company’s capabilities for utilizing data to pinpoint exactly where an individual is on his or her customer journey, and it facilitates the use of that information in engagement efforts both pre- and post-purchase. This is important because, for most companies, the relationship doesn’t end when a customer decides to make that first purchase. Instead, rich customer experiences should connect seamlessly into commerce and transition into post-purchase touchpoints (for example, customer portals and self-service systems). The accumulated information would then support a more comprehensive view of the customer.

Second, because contextual targeting doesn’t track customers by using their personal information — but instead achieves personalization through highly specific contextual information — it offers a far less intrusive method of understanding customers than behavioral marketing does. It also steers clear of privacy issues. This is more important than ever in light of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other upcoming regional rules and regulations that will require companies to safeguard individual privacy — and which may carry significant penalties for failure to comply.

When regulations limit efforts to target by audience, contextual targeting offers a compelling way forward.

2. Security

Speaking of privacy and security concerns, data breaches involving customers’ personal and financial data have been a near-constant presence in the headlines in recent years. So, as businesses more heavily invest in digital payment technologies and other digital business platforms, they need to explore new security systems. Whether you use biometrics, blockchain or other new security tools, you cannot neglect customer trust. It’s just not a risk that is worth taking. The benefits of new digital payment systems cannot trump the need to safeguard private data.

3. Wide Area Networks

Most organizations today must provide reliable connectivity among far-flung offices and teams while also maintaining stalwart security controls. That is a dual challenge that new software-defined wide area networking (WAN) technology can handle. This is absolutely the year to look into — and likely adopt — software-defined WAN technology to provide communications networks that much more easily connect offices across sizeable geographic areas while enhancing the handling of data, data traffic, system architecture and more.

4. Transparency

Consumers increasingly want to support businesses whose values align with theirs. Therefore, they are demanding greater transparency into business practices, partnerships and policies — especially those that address the handling of personnel issues. To meet these rising expectations, businesses would be smart to adopt a mindset that embraces transparency as they formulate their digital strategies.

You should demonstrate openness wherever possible — particularly at the B2C level.

5. Chatbots

If you’ve been neglecting the chatbot revolution, it’s time to reconsider.

Learning Opportunities

Chatbots and other automation tools are hitting their stride, they are no longer emerging technologies on the cusp of the mainstream. They are now beyond the novelty stage and should be viewed as viable components of customer experience and engagement strategies. Customers are only going to expect more interactive technologies from businesses going forward.

Digital businesses recognize that we are approaching a tipping point, and many are adopting chatbot technology so as not to be left behind. That rise in adoption will spur further innovation as both software vendors and user organizations work to make interactive customer interfaces increasingly personal and effective.

6. ‘Millisecond Marketing’

It is now possible to match customers with personalized ads in a matter of seconds (or less).

The companies that engage in what has been dubbed “millisecond marketing” are utilizing artificial intelligence (AI), complex algorithms and a growing collection of automated tools that make it possible to respond to customer data and marketing opportunities faster than ever.

These automated systems use historical customer data and a breadth of narrowly targeted advertising options to optimize marketing opportunities on an individual customer basis. This can take a great deal of analysis and decision-making out of human hands (er, minds) and allow for custom, personalized advertising to be delivered at speeds well beyond what human marketers could achieve. No offense to humans, of course.

7. Unify Marketing Costs Into a Cost-Per-Experiment Metric

In an effort to gain more understanding of their ROI and achieve apples to apples comparisons of ad buys across different channels and ad types, more businesses are translating cost-per-impression (CPM), cost-per-click (CPC), cost-per-lead (CPL), cost-per-pixel (CPP) and other metrics into a cost-per-experiment (CPE) measurement.

A CPE will measure the many different marketing efforts and their related expenses that went into creating a specific asset to find its true ROI. For example, the CPE of a new webpage will calculate the total cost of content writing, design, programming, social media promotion, Google AdWords and anything else that was done to drive traffic to and create a lead from this new page. The advantage of this strategy makes the most of a wider array of marketing efforts — while achieving greater clarity into their success.

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