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2016 was a year that most people want to forget. However, it was the year artificial intelligence (AI) took a great leap forward; not only into mainstream media but also into our homes.

xAs Trump enters his First Term as President, it is worth noting that not all the soothsayers got the results wrong. Those who watched ITV’s live US election coverage on 8 November might recall that the broadcaster’s AI; EagleAi, called it for Trump long before the tide visibly turned. It dredged through a mountain of social media posts, photos, videos, comments, searches and press coverage in search of patterns and connections, and seemed never to harbour any serious doubts about the outcome.

Another AI system, the Mumbai-developed MogIA, which analyses data from Google, Twitter and Facebook, also predicted a Trump win on the basis of 20 million data points. South African company BrandsEye, armed with 37 million social conversations, mostly from Twitter, tipped Trump too, having previously predicted Brexit.

So while opinion polls and mainstream media were failing to notice massive electoral upsets unfolding, AI tools crawling the social web were able to locate revealing and unfiltered truths. The interesting aspect for brands should be that fast-maturing AI power is in the thick of this, and yielding the most valuable insights.

So, the question for marketers must surely be: if political pollsters can get it so wrong without warning, how flawed might brands own qualitative consumer research - the focus groups, the commissioned studies, the small-scale social listening - actually be? AI-driven listening offers local and global windows onto trends, conversations and narratives that indicate our real attitudes and hint at our future behaviour. On top of this, AI interfaces are becoming simpler for companies to access too. In the US, Colgate-Palmolive has spoken of its use of AI to guide its R&D efforts, using machines to gather the detailed consumer behaviour data that traditional research methods couldn’t find. Retail is another sector where AI is already being used to offer online customers an in-store ‘personal shopper’ experience. Outdoor clothing retailer The North Face are already out of the blocks, in conjunction with IBM Watson, they are using AI to help consumers find the perfect jacket for their next adventure.

Google Analytics last autumn launched automated insights that highlight and illuminate trends and sales spikes for brands online. Companies with their own data analysts, Google suggests, can use such data to scale up their ambitions, and those without such a resource can effectively use Google as a virtual analyst. Consumer uptake, however, is important, because the more data AI platforms churn, the more potent and sophisticated they become. Virtual assistants such as Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri and newcomers like Viv are getting smarter. And as mobile is currently the leading delivery channel, we can expect AI growth to be genuinely exponential. All the indications are, in fact, that AI is fast extending its reach into many other areas, not least our homes. Much hyped last year, but now clearly flying, are household AI interfaces such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.

At CES in Las Vegas, it seemed that every brand was announcing Echo-integrated products, whether baked into new TVs or offered as standard in every room of the delegate-packed Wynn Hotel. However, machines are still a long way from taking over the world, and we still require data scientists in order to process all this information. But what this does offer for brands is the ability to move faster with consumer needs and desires. Marketers are already working closely with clients and their data to help influence their advertising, AI will add an additional layer of insight...the future is bright if we learn how to harness the data.

There are a million digital trends happening. The ones that really matter in 2017 are driven by two unique forces. Simplification and experience.

Ensuring simplicity is the hardest thing to do digitally and it continues to drive innovation. Meanwhile continued adaption of social media and the content that powers it fuels a renewed desire for experience over ownership.
Making It Simple

Yes, digital in 2017 means robots can drive cars, translate text and win at chess, so it’s no surprise that artificial intelligence is something that marketers are thinking about as they look for more ways to sell stuff better.

The opportunity here is driven by the simple fact that people want to buy stuff more easily, and brands want to help them do just that. Bots offer up the possibility of enabling brands to ensure a better and more consistent customer purchasing experience which is now being dubbed, “Conversational Commerce” by Uber’s Chris Messina.

All people have to do is ask for what they need. Instead of searching, FAQ’s, and navigational menus, customers can be guided to the information they need in a quicker, simpler, and more human (irony alert!) way. 1-800-Flowers has a dialogue-based commerce experience within Facebook Messenger that represents the company’s many brands and sites without shoppers having to do anything but ask. So this could mean an improved customer experience, unlimited scalability, and improved customer intelligence.

Now there is a bit of an elephant in the room. It can be tiring to type into your smartphone to re-up on your kitty litter. There has to be a better way. And there is! Amazon Echo and its baby sister Echo Dot were best-selling products this past holiday season, using voice assistant Alexa to make shopping at home easier than clicks. Alexa is an open technology, so any product can connect to it, and countless new gadgets showcased at this month’s CES announced plans to take advantage of this. Should you stop Facebook promotion and go all in on Alexa? Probably not.
Experience Over Ownership

Research shows that a hit of endorphins from making a purchase is far shorter than it is for an event that creates an ongoing Facebook engagement. This is because humans place far greater value on engagements with friends because these 100 likes add to our ongoing legacy for our individual brands.

Social media has turned experiences from one-on-one moments to moments that give us social equity and far greater than any purchase. This impacts almost every sector with a new focus on living in the moment rather than having the North American ideal of the big house, two cars and a white picket fence.

vr experience digital trends

Smart brands are learning how to tap into this trend. No longer content to simply upend the global hotel industry, AirBnB is upping the ante through its Experience Host program where the company states that one can “Create unique experiences around your city, and earn extra money by bringing others along.” Sounds pretty cool to me, and I’m not even a millennial (Just missed it by a couple of months or so).

The catch is that sometimes we still need material things to enable these experiences. Not to worry, there are services that take care of that for us now. Enter LA-based startup Joymode. Need everything to host a movie night in your backyard, or embark on that once-every-5-years glamping trip? No problem. Joymode has it covered. Get everything you need for your own perfectly Instagramable curated experiences.

Understanding this shift towards experiences is a key success factor for 2017, and agencies and marketers would be wise to understand how this creates new opportunities.
Putting Experiences Into Action

The shift towards experiences bodes well for marketers to continue to experiment with VR, AR and Mixed reality. These technologies are ushering in the democratization of experiences, enabling anyone with access to a VR headset to experience pretty much anything that can be thought up. Now that VR headsets are available by several major manufacturers we can expect to see more brands jumping on the bandwagon.

Of course, the downside of this is we can pretty much count on 2017 also being the year of the “Did-that-really-need-to-be-in-VR” VR experiences. Anyone remember Flash circa 2005?

Another experience that marketers may want to challenge in the new year is that of the branded mobile app. Yes, it’s true that demand for apps is at an all-time high, and that there are more people carrying more devices, and using them more often for more things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to figure out a cross-platform, multi-app strategy for your brand.

In fact, on average, people use only 27 apps per month. According to Nielsen that figure has been holding steady for the last few years. Nielson also released that the top 8 most used mobile apps of 2016 are all owned by Facebook or Google. Next down the list, there’s a couple of apps published by Amazon and Apple. So there’s not exactly a lot of room for membership, in what has shaped up to be a very exclusive club.

Beyond the domination of smartphone’s home screen by a few key giant players, key trends like the rise of bots will also contribute to less apps being used. While there are still times when an app is apropos, it makes sense to seriously scrutinize whether there is a need for a native mobile experience.

I don’t hold a candle to Nostradamus, nor do I have a crystal ball, but even aging digital marketers, like a clock, are right two times a day. When we step back to understand these advances in technology and shifts in cultural norms and their impact on consumer behaviors, we can avoid the trappings of just looking for the next bright and shiny object.

How satisfied are you with your online conversion rate? When asked this question, only 1% of companies responded ‘very satisfied’.

It’s not surprising. The average conversion rate of large UK e-commerce sites is around 5%. This means that for every 100 visitors to your site, only five will buy from you. Smaller sites and lesser-known brands are likely to have much lower conversion rates.

An entire industry has sprung up to address this problem. Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) can be defined as the process of increasing online sales by following a data-driven approach. The aim is not to make large-scale changes, but rather to shoot for a series of incremental gains. In the long run, all those “almost nothings” stack up.

Some people are attracted to CRO by claims of simple changes that led to massive results, such as the famous button change that produced an additional $300 million in the first year. Be warned. What you don’t read about is the thousands of cases where those small changes didn’t have any impact.

To be successful, website optimisation should be approached from a different angle. Conversion rate is a reflection of what visitors are doing on the site. If you think of it that way, you should not be concerned with making changes to a page, but rather with influencing people’s behaviour. These are the questions that should drive your optimisation agenda:

• How can you get more of those “non-converting” majority of visitors to buy from you?
• How do you get customers to buy more regularly?
• How do you get them to spend more when they do buy?

This approach requires you to get under the skin of your customers, understand their motivations, their reasons for buying from you and, importantly, reasons for not buying from you. Here are four easy things you can do to help you achieve this:

1. Get to know them with an email survey

An email survey is a great way of getting to know your users quickly. It’s easy to launch, cheap or inexpensive and can generate a large number of responses.

The questions you ask will depend on what you are trying to learn from the exercise, but here are some ideas:

• How would you describe our site/product/brand to a friend?
• At which shops or online stores have you shopped for the product you most recently purchased from our site?
• Why did you buy from us and not another website or shop?
• What do you like about Competitor X?
• What do you like about us compared to Competitor X?
• What has been the best / worst thing about your experience as our customer?
• Thinking back to the last time you shopped on our site, what concerns did you have?

SurveyMonkey is a popular service, but some alternatives include Typeform and Google Forms.

2. Understand their on-site behaviour

Email surveys are good at gathering demographic and attitudinal data, but weaker in terms of behavioural data and exposing usability problems. On-site polling is a better way of sourcing that information. Usually, it takes the form of a question that slides in from the bottom of the webpage. Tools to consider are Hotjar, Qualaroo, Queryz and Informizely.

These polls can be annoying, so limit it to one or two at a time. Open-ended questions are often more insightful. One of our favourites is posted on the payment confirmation page: “Was there anything that almost put you off buying from us today?”

3. Usability testing

Some of our most powerful insights have come from watching users interact with the website. This is known as usability testing.

Use an online panel-based service such as whatusersdo.com or usertesting.com to get started quickly. You define a task for the user to perform, and within hours you should have videos showing how people use your site, as well as where and why they may be getting stuck.

4. Draw insights from a/b testing

An a/b test shows the original page to half of your visitors, while the rest of the audience sees the page with your changes. This side-by-side comparison allows you to determine with a high degree of confidence whether the changes are having the desired impact.

What many marketers don’t realise about a/b tests, is that it’s a great way to learn about your visitors. Whether your variation performs better or worse than the original, you can learn something from the experiment. Ask yourself why the change you introduced may have caused the detected shift in behaviour, and what that tells you about those visitors.

Tools to look at include VWO, Convert.com, and ABTasty. On the enterprise side, consider Optimizely, Qubit and Sitespect.

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