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Four Digital Experience and Commerce Trends That Shaped 2021

2020 was the year marketers stood up ecommerce and digital experiences at lightning speed, and in 2021, marketers were challenged to make every interaction online and offline seamless. We were challenged to create experiences that put consumers in the driver’s seat, re-engage customers who stopped engaging during the pandemic, prioritize consumer privacy with data collection, and start marketing to a new generation of customers.

Let’s walk through a whirlwind overview of the past year and its impact on marketing strategy.

Ecommerce expansion

After months of being restricted to exclusively digital experiences, consumers wanted options when brick-and-mortar stores opened their doors again. Especially as the pandemic continues, personal shopping preferences remain fluid depending on an individual’s comfort level. Consumers want to be in the driver’s seat by choosing when and where they shop your brand’s products and how they choose to purchase.

To meet this need, brands had to evaluate their current commerce experiences for adequate payment options and user-friendly interfaces, as well as efficient and transparent shipping and delivery. As they upgraded their experiences, brands also expanded shopping options with headless commerce – an ecommerce architecture that separates the front end and back end of a commerce application. The retail and consumers goods industries also added endless aisle to their hybrid shopping arsenals by allowing shoppers to search online for in-store product placement and availability.

Even brands in unexpected industries, like certain sectors of consumer goods, added commerce experiences to their websites as the definition of a DTC model began to shift. The value in ecommerce is no longer solely based on the transaction, but also in how the first-party data you collect can be leveraged. DTC is allowing brands to take control of their relationship with customers and provide personalized experiences that weren’t previously available. But today’s consumers are more cautious. As demand for customer data increased, so did their concern for privacy.

The data collection shift

Customer data is a mine that leads some brands to do anything in hopes of striking gold, and as the marketing industry accelerated it’s data-collection capabilities over the last decade, there were no regulations to keep anyone in check. After noticing a pattern of unethical practices, consumers demanded that their privacy be protected, forcing lawmakers and tech giants alike to implement ethical boundaries to data collection.

The most noteworthy conglomerate business to place restrictions on how marketers obtain and use data was Apple. At the WWDC on June 8, 2021, Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) as a new feature in its iOS 15 release. When enabled within the Mail app on any Apple device, MPP stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. This does three things:

  1. Prevents senders from knowing when an email is opened
  2. Masks consumers’ IP addresses so online activity and location can’t be tracked
  3. Allows users to keep their email address private with the Hide My Email feature

New legal boundaries to data collection were also put in place with statewide data privacy acts passed in California (2020), Virginia (2021), and Colorado (2021), with more states sure to follow. Each act has different parameters that qualify a business to comply, but all emphasize consumers’ right to access, correct, delete, and opt out of data collection from marketers.

Both the Apple iOS update and new privacy policy emphasized a cookieless future and the need for brands to build their own first-party databases. Industries, like consumer goods, started to understand that they are at a major disadvantage without a way to collect data online. This led many who hadn’t already invested in a commerce website to make the shift to DTC, knowing that the ROI isn’t in the sales made online, but rather in the value of the data they can leverage. Thus, the data collection shift was also a shift in how brands interact with their customers.

Emphasizing customer retention

Whether for poor digital experiences or pandemic-related concerns, many brands lost loyal customers as societal priorities shifted. The challenge in 2021 was to re-engage customers who stopped buying products in the initial stages of the pandemic and then retain them. We saw two strategies that increased customer retention throughout the year: subscription services and gamified experiences.

The world saw a rise in subscription services as it provides convenience and reliability for consumers who consistently use the same products. And the service offers steady monthly revenue for brands, as long as their distribution, shipping, and delivery models work for individually scheduled shipments.

For customers who needed a bit more to be woo’ed, gamification was a great place to start for re-engagement. As we observed last year, the experience has become just as important to consumers as the product price and quality. Gamification is a strategy that provides consumers value even before they purchase the product. It combines engagement drivers with game mechanics to collect data while also providing educational and/or entertaining experiences for the individual. The more someone interacts with these gamified experiences, the more first-pary data is collected for building the relationship with personalization.

Marketing to Gen Z

A new relationship that brands had to consider over the last year was the one they have with Gen Z consumers. It’s time for marketers to recognize Gen Zers as B2C and B2B decision-makers or risk losing their business altogether.

While marketers know not to generalize an entire generation, there are a few defining characters to consider. The most prominent callout for Gen Z is that they are the first digital-native generation. They are comfortable in digital-first channels, expect innovation from businesses they work and interact with, and demand transparency as consumers and business decision-makers.

As the generation that grew up only knowing a world that was deeply influenced by the internet, Gen Z expects authenticity with marketing tactics, brand values, and social impact. This up-and-coming generation is holding us all to higher standards across the board, and I’m here for it.

If you plan to level-up your digital and commerce experiences to meet the evolving expectations of this new marketing landscape in 2022, let’s chat. My team and I at Merkle are helping brands across the nation revolutionize digital messaging and experiences like never before.