The world has changed. Possibly forever, but certainly for the near future. The most obvious change – digital connection as an everyday imperative – isn’t as much a change, however, as it is an acceleration. Thanks to the global pandemic, all luxuries of digital separation are now gone. We’re now more tied into and dependent upon our accounts, phones, and computers. The physical world has become the luxury, organised into narrow margins of allowance, into what’s permitted on any given day.
What we considered normal is behind us. We’re heading into new territory, in which more onus is placed on digital communication, and more responsibility on companies to get it right.
2020: a defining year
Experience changes people. New perspectives are developed, attitudes re-evaluated, and expectations redefined. This year is unprecedented in its reshaping of communication and brand interaction. Our newfound solitude has brought newfound introspection. For the first time, consumers have reason to pause their consumption – of content, products, and services. The pandemic has helped further a broader search for meaning, an attempt to discover identity in an age in which identity is purportedly amorphous, often precarious, and certainly problematic.
What line there was between the physical and the digital – with the latter being secondary to the former – is now harder to discern. Humanity has always adapted to new circumstances. This time, fortunately, we were prepared for that adaptation, with a means to connect that is fast and accessible. It might not be able to mirror the in-person connection that we seek to replicate, but it does offer a reassuring facsimile. Across the board, the lines have been redefined; the digital has supplanted the physical within most traditional territory.
For the most part, this represents an escalation of patterns decades in the making. The increase in online sales – in the first six months of 2020, online sales in the US increased by 30.1% – is the most immediate consequence. With both the possibility and desirability of retail shopping rapidly depleting, audiences are shopping more online, bringing more of the conversation into the digital space and expanding the territory for new dialogues.
With new landscape comes new opportunity – and new pitfalls
With activity on social media platforms up – in general, the use of all tech has jumped considerably – digital communication strategies are pivoting their focus. The opportunity is bountiful. The adage is to go where your audience is. Now, it’s fairly easy to predict where your audience will be on any given day, and for the foreseeable future. Working from home, simply being at home, connecting with loved ones from home all entail the same points of interaction, the same windows into the wider world, or lanes down which a more targetted appeal can be made, and connection established.
The increase of digital communication and audience attention – stay-at-home audiences have more time to dedicate to their devices – comes a commensurate increase in message saturation. The stakes have never been higher, nor the competition as fierce. Yet therein lies the opportunity: most struggle to know how to communicate. Many brands will promote the same message, the same signalling, and ultimately sacrifice genuine connection in favour of imitation. Unable to repeat the behaviours of the past, many communicators now mirror the behaviours of another, to the point that audiences struggle to differentiate. When there’s no recognition, there’s no connection; intimacy comes from trust, which is reliant on our belief that those we’re communicating with are authentic and individual. As our faith in institutions and governments falters and the refuge of local community drifts further away, brands and corporations have an opportunity to begin new, more meaningful dialogues and connections. More and more, audiences look for trust, emotion, authenticity, dimension, and substantiation of messages – and the ethics they encapsulate – with action.
We have to return to basics, to discover the messages with which audiences meaningfully connect and not only respond to. We’ve recently talked about how first connections underpin future loyalty and determine whether behaviours are repeated. This has never been truer than now; with so much said yet so little said with intention, meaning, and authenticity, both digital communication and brand vision have to be more focused, refined to the point that each employee can articulate their intention.
The danger, and what to navigate
As with all new territory, the opportunity is paired with danger, with new obstacles to navigate and awareness to cultivate. Big-budget, rapid-fire communication without intention will continue to fail to meet the expectations of an audience bombarded by messages and increasingly fraught with existential and social anxieties. Continually connected, audiences are savvier than ever. Rather than resisting brand communications, they’re turning to them with greater expectation: of action, meaning, and alignment with their values.
This can be seen in the growth of ‘micro’ influencers: those with evident and meaningful connections to the products they’re promoting, rather than those with a broader, mass appeal. When audiences search for meaning, that meaning has to come from more than prestige and lifestyle mirroring. Targeting smaller communities with meaningful connection and promotion will only become more impactful. Authenticity has to be established in the mind of the customer before an emotional connection is made, and it is these connections that drive meaningful and substantial engagement. Audiences want to act for their own reasons and gravitate towards brands whose vision, messages, and actions align with their beliefs. Celebrity is no longer enough precisely because it frequently – if not invariably – lacks authenticity.
The role of a digital communicator is evolving. Equal to the growth in opportunity is the increase in responsibility. As audiences turn to their digital spaces for emotional connection – partly to replace that which has been lost elsewhere – companies must now engage differently. We all turn to the familiar in times of uncertainty. In a world profligate with digital messaging, the familiar is – or can be – the brand, that which holds steady and remains true to a vision: a strong voice echoed over the noise. Precision is key, and emotion is essential. Be assertive, accurate, meaningful, and, above all else, human. Through refined strategy, become the voice, the comfort, your audience requires.