A commissioned study out today, conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of MediaMonks, has found that the next phase of digital transformation is virtualization, a process that includes “creating distinct, digital environments in which customers can interact with brands.”
In the early stage of the pandemic, virtualization mostly took the form of livestreaming events. We’ve had our hand in making some: when we took BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival out of Prospect Park and onto the world stage, we were able to extend its audience globally while creating a more intimate viewing experience. With Pride marches canceled due to the pandemic, Netflix was able to unite the LGBTQ+ community through stories and culture, asking people to share stories of their own.
The future rests on much more than translating experiences and touchpoints into digital.
But these activations did more than simply try to recreate the in-person experiences that inspired them: they wielded technology and data to infuse experiences with new value that could only be achieved through digital.
This gets at the heart of what virtualization truly means. Marketers must re-energize their teams and deliver upon new opportunities to engage with consumers across channels and throughout the brand ecosystem. This requires brands to rethink how audiences connect with one another in virtualized worlds–environments in which people and brands increasingly exist today.
What Brand Virtualization Is — And Isn’t
A major distinction made in the research notes: “The pandemic has popularized the term ‘virtualization,’ but many efforts are just a small step.” Other areas of virtualization include virtual and remote production, connecting data across the customer decision journey and simply making the brand available to consumers across channels and platforms. These capabilities enhance every part of the brand ecosystem, including but not limited to events.
This makes the difference between experiences that feel inferior to their in-person counterparts versus innovations that enhance the customer experience, resulting in indelible experiences that weren’t possible before. When the pandemic hit, finding a way to recoup on existing event plans was top of mind for brands who wanted to show they can continue engaging with consumers digitally without missing a beat. This was an adaptation out of need; data from the study shows that “56% of decision makers reported shifting in-person events into digital ones.”
But brands shouldn’t stop there. Much like how digital transformation of old has put brands in a CX rut, failure to move beyond this initial investment in virtualization can make it tough to stand out and deliver differentiated experiences—for example, a livestream might look and feel no different than many other digital events or, in a worst-case scenario, a workplace videoconference.
Brands Are Facing an Urgent Need to Broadly Transform
Before the pandemic exposed gaps in digital customer experiences, brands had taken a slow and incremental approach to digital transformation that didn’t always deliver on its promise. “The past decade has been defined by perpetual digital transformation: brands put it in the ‘important but not urgent’ category, consultancies made money on consulting rather than creating, and brands focused on laying technology pipes over enhancing the user experience,” says MediaMonks CMO Kate Richling. “Then COVID happened, serving as a stress test for how transformed brands actually are––revealing just how effective, and necessary, brands’ investment in all this time, money and resources have been.”
In 2020, the very notion of digital transformation has transformed. Likewise, marketers are shifting their priorities to accelerate digital, better align brand promise with customer experience and more. Research from the study indicates a drastic change in marketers’ priorities between the start of 2020 and today, with new focus on digital experience offerings and omnichannel digital experiences to engage with consumers anytime, anywhere.
Next Steps on the Path to Virtualization
Moving beyond initial steps to virtualization requires brands to strategically rethink how audiences connect with one another in virtualized worlds—the space in which brands and consumers increasingly find themselves today. Brands must look toward building discrete ecosystems and environments that drive culture and connect with consumers on an emotional level.
Powered by data and infused with relevance, virtualization enables brands to deliver content on par with that which consumers actively seek out and enjoy. It’s through the totality of these experiences that consumers fall in love with brands, says MediaMonks Founder Wesley ter Haar. “The hyperadoption of new user behavior has rapidly changed how we use tools to create and connect,” says ter Haar. “These changes offer an opportunity to become part of the conversation in interesting and meaningful new ways.” But they also require new skillsets, prompting marketers to switch focus and reskill their teams.
For example, Forrester’s study found that “Currently, only 23% of marketing leaders strongly agree that they are able to use analytics to understand how marketing’s performing, and only half reported their firms are using customer lifetime value as a key KPI to track their success.” This gap in data maturity makes it harder to follow the consumer across ecosystems—online and off—to lend value when needed.
As brands seek to build creatively differentiated customer experiences across investments in virtual events, extended reality and virtual content production, they must not only hire for new skillsets, but also negotiate new KPIs that focus on long-term brand health. The commissioned study, which you may access to read below, lays out several areas where marketers aim to invest and digitally mature as they finally deliver on the promises of digital transformation.
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