Saturday, 22 November 2014

Thinking Aloud: The Need of a Unified Environment in Engagement Management

For ages, enterprises have been operating in the landscape of diverse software solutions. These diverse (or more correctly - distinct) solutions are seen in every other mid to large scale enterprise.Most of them are ERPs, where the very purpose was to bring about centralization of data & more importantly consistency of purpose in the enterprise.However, as the time passed by, firms’ expectations from the software changed. Very few ERP implementations have retained their homogeneousness over time. There are a large number of transaction management applications, CRM applications& a recent crop of mobile apps that enterprises had to inevitably deploy. And guess what, most of these softwares are supposed to perform the task of traditional core business operations for a company. Exponential growth of Loyalty & EM (Engagement Management) genres has resulted in addition of yet another variable to the equation. Till what extent can our firms absorb different software to satisfy newer functional needs?

EM (Engagement Management): 
Multiple Platforms & Consistent Experience  -  Fallacy?

Loyalty& Engagement Management are thought to be the recent genres (at least from software perspective).Thus, as the genres evolve,companies are preferring separate solutions on ad-hoc basis. Such individual solutions are then ‘integrated’ over time. Naturally, this gives rise to the less-than-ideal scenario of highly heterogeneous solution to the overarching problem.

Granted, these diverse solutions solve different problems on the EM (Engagement Management) canvas & that too quite convincingly. Just to get an idea, some core problems in EM space & different tools needed to solve them are mentioned ahead --  1. Tracking of customer transactions/interactions via various tracking mechanisms depending on channels (but then again, in this case alone, several types of solutions are possible depending upon the chosen method to track customer activities).  2. Analyzing the buying behavior,with the help of various data mining & analytics engines.  3. Gamification of the target process (progressive incentivization softwares or separate gamification engines are needed for this).   4. Designing & operating loyalty programs/schemes needs its own loyalty software (with point conversion engines & participant account management).   5. Managingcustomer engagement/communication activities requiring special software which would integrate the communication getaways to facilitate bidirectional interactions as well as perform measurement of communication activities.

Now, if we look at the 5 areas mentioned in the previous paragraph, each of them is so big that a separate platform could be required for it.And market is ready with a lot of such platforms.  However, adopting separate platforms for each EM function increases the probability of messing up your information warehouse. This messy information warehouse proves to be of little use when you want to pull out insights. Data doesn’t match up, information is in a very scattered form & seeing all this, stakeholders tend to lose patience & ad-hoc programmes are designed just for gathering the relevant information needed at that point. Then, to save the day, a large flurry of integrations & information tunnels are built, which require a lot of architectural & developmental changes.

What causes this colossal breakdown of information pyramid? Well, on the lowest level there are data mismatches, which many times cause digital identity crisis(think of any old govt. program to realize what I’m talking about). Then there are data format mismatches. A very simplified example of format mismatch would be presence of alphanumeric characters in one platform & the other platform lacking support for it. From a high-level perspective, this tends to happen because individual platforms gather data for different purposes (the distinct business functionthey were bought to do). And this high-level mismatch more than often percolates down to ground level. One of the initial premises for Engagement Management is to give a consistent brand experience to the members. Hence adopting such approach of heterogeneous solutions becomes a strategic fallacy.

Now, let us make a case for a unified platform. What could a unified environment offer? First of all, it would bring about a reduction in integration & development costs for sure. For software architects, so much of time goes into deciding what data to pull from where & how to format the data. With a homogeneous platform, this burden would surely be reduced. Secondly, a unified environment would offer much easier impact analysis when making changes. The impacts of proposed changes have to be analyzed in only single platform. Not in tens of them. Then, since developers are more likely to get comfortable with the idiosyncrasies & structure of one platform, the (unified) platform would be easier to maintain. Then, filtered data which is much more accurate would be gathered. This is because data would be gathered for the exact intended purpose.  No force-fitting of data from one platform on the other.  Since the environment is unified, it would be easier to train resources. This would result in reduction of computational & operational redundancies. Billing & cost tracking & appropriation would be much more simplified. Lastly & vitally, there would be a consistency in brand messaging & experience throughout the engagement lifecycle.

Wait, there is a risk, you say? Too much power given to one vendor? Well anyways you are likely to use one vendor per major function. If that co. messes up, that function of yours is gone anyway. And who knows what impact it may have on the other functions because of your integrations & data dependencies?We rest our argument for a unified environment. But we’re not a bunch of impractical idealists. Please go through our acknowledgement below.

Acknowledgement: We acknowledge that a cent percent unified environment to address all EM needs of a brand/company is probably asking for too much. One would still have to ride on that bumpy road of APIs, integrations & data migrations (oh, those ETL programs!). However choosing a platform which provides a high degree of uniformity (wherein a platform would cover as much of the engagement canvas as possible), would go long way in evening out of most bumps, making the ride far smoother.
Hey, as the title says, this is just one team’s take on the topic. Do share your thoughts for mutual enlightenment.   

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Why You Shouldn’t Track Only Online Customers

                          Online shopping is the ‘in’ thing today. The online business is booming & giving impressive growth numbers. Naturally, companies have identified the utility of online business presence & have acted upon it by creating strategies that place paramount focus on this channel. Keeping all that in mind, online shopping is still tiny compared to the brick & mortar channel. Sure, online is winning the fight, but the battle is yet to be won. The numbers given in this article from WSJ proves as a sufficient illustration. And it’s going stay this way for a significant amount of time. Who knows, we may even see a new twist in the paradigm. My point being, marketers need to look beyond all the hoopla & avoid the catastrophic mistake of ignoring their offline customers. They’re still going to be your main source of revenue for years to come.

Brick & mortar retailers are increasingly becoming aware of the threat from E-commerce & are trying some tricks of their own. There are a few fundamental differences between online customers & offline customers. Online customers have many choices, all of them at the tip of their fingers. They face many distractions than a brick & mortar customer, too. While on web, a customer can be easily distracted by an impressive advertisement from another store. Moreover, switching costs for an online customer are next to nothing. He is likely to get the same information on every other online store & since the overall shopping experience is roughly identical everywhere, it becomes very difficult to retain an online customer.   On the other hand, offline brick & mortar customers are far less likely to switch outlets. This is because all the outlets of the brick & mortar variety are not that easily accessible to everybody. More importantly, it is very difficult for the online stores to compete with their brick & mortar counterparts in terms of providing diverse shopping experiences. The sheer range of shopping experiences (combination of tangible & intangible aspects) that a physical store is capable of providing gives it a vantage point for retaining customers.  
Hence, we can conclude that offline customers are more likely to remain loyal to an outlet. So, it makes a lot of sense in taking efforts to engage & retain the brick & mortar customers. Consider this on the backdrop of huge sales numbers in physical retail, and any reasonable marketer will direct at least some attention to his offline customers.
One more reason for our rejuvenated interest in tracking offline customers is simply because now you can do it. Technology is available that enables a marketer to track physical customers with very little expenses. I believe the specific industry is called ‘In-Store Analytics’. With the advances in communication technologies (especially wireless communications like Beacon & Wifi), it is now possible to track a really wide range of activities of the physical customers (You may visit our blogs – Tracking Customer Activities (A Process-based Approach) & The ‘Geeky Side’ (Technology) of Customer Engagement). The advantages of using In-Store Analytics & Intelligence solutions for tracking offline customers cannot be emphasized enough. The share of brick & mortar retail in the total retail sales is too large to stop innovating in that area.           

Decoding the Customer Behavior – Numbers or Intuition?

Watched (actually re-watched) a movie recently. The movie was Moneyball, released in 2011, starring Brad Pitt. This got me thinking about one of the oldest & most discussed topics in business – Number-based decision-making vs Intuition-based decision-making.  
Let me first summarize the movie for those who haven’t seen it yet. In the movie, Brad Pitt is a general manager of a baseball team with very low budget. With his best players being poached by other bigger clubs, he realizes that the game is ‘unfair’ & optimal solution won’t be obtained by conventional means. So, he adopts an entirely new approach of scouting players on purely numeric basis, thereby assembling a team to satisfy the statistically calculated numerical requirements of the team. The approach proves to be a successful one & we witness a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of his team. Over the course of the movie, before the success, we see many senior personalities in baseball warning him not to ditch the traditional methods of recruiting players based on a scout’s intuition & experience of the game. 

This got me thinking about one of the most fundamental debates in business – numbers vs intuition. In this article, let us have one more look at both the approaches from our perspective of decoding the customer’s buying & loyalty-related behavior. Let me state at the beginning itself that strong cases can be built for both approaches. There is no single approach that is universally applicable at all times.

In the number-intensive approach, most of the decisions are made purely on the basis of numerical data. Thought process of Billy Beane, the character of Brad Pitt in movie Moneyball can be used as a quintessential illustration of this approach. In the context of understanding customer behavior, customer data for various customer activities needs to be collected (you may visit our article on this topic here).  Then, we have to identify the trends & patterns that will guide us in the decision-making. This data can act as a solid backup to support your decisions. This is especially true if the decision backfires later on. The analyzed data proves to be of a great help when explaining the decisions taken to the stakeholders. Generally, such trends, patterns, percentages, ratios etc. are compared with the past calculations & technically analyzed at great length. Hence, it does tend to result in informed decisions. However, there are some downsides to this approach. Most of the times (especially when end-customers are involved) data is not collected for the entire population. Only sample data is collected which is a very small subset of the entire population. These samples are then extrapolated to get the picture of entire population. Thus, in effect, the preferences & choices of few people are applied to entire population. This could result in mismatch with a lot of expectations. Furthermore, it is impossible to measure every customer activity. Thus, numeric data may not be present for many important parameters, such as perceptual mapping of the product in consumer’s mind, tendency of the customer towards brand advocacy etc. Hence, number-intensive approach is useful when you want to measure tangible things & for existing products. 

In Intuition-based decision making, decisions are taken on the basis of the marketer’s knowledge of the industry. So, domain expertise of the decision-making team takes a prime importance. As discussed above, numerical extrapolation doesn’t always give a clear picture of the diversity of preferences. Furthermore, only market experts can get the hang of the complex social & emotional dynamics as well as other unusual market specific factors. This becomes particularly apparent when products/services for which customer behavior is to be gauged are of novel nature. In case of disruptive products & technologies, there’s really no alternative to intuition, since past data is either absent or inapplicable. Such gut-feeling based decisions are less mechanical & they tend to foster creative thinking, which is sometimes desperately required in customer engagement domain. As creative & righteous as this approach may seem, it has its obvious downsides. In intuition-based decision making, it becomes very difficult to explain the underlying basis of decisions since there isn’t really a scientific basis for decisions. If such decisions don’t work for whatever reason, it becomes troublesome to justify them. Also, objectivity of the decision-maker is a crucial aspect, without which such decisions may be subjected to personal whims or preferences of the decision-maker.
Now, if you were to implement a CEM solution, how should you select a platform that takes care of both the scenarios? You should always go for the platform which will give you all the data, trends, patterns, graphs & summarized dashboards plus other analysis tools to suggest the possible decisions. On the other hand, the chosen platform should allow for flexible decision making via manual interventions & highly customizable criteria.  So, while choosing a platform, ideally you should look for thorough numerical assistance (via dashboards, graphs etc.) as well as flexibility for customized decision-making with manual interventions. At Birdvision, we have developed our CEM platform on the foundations of similar thinking, handing over the control of the wheel to the user. By the way, the debate of Numbers vs Intuition still goes on. Do share your thoughts with us to add to this debate.  

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Amazon Firefly – A Great Alternative to Product Tagging?

Loyalty & Engagement market is evolving at a great pace. Naturally, this process of evolution has had a head-on impact on the scope of the market. Loyalty & Engagement programs are no longer designed only for end-consumers, but loyalty is solicited from your distribution channel partners too. There weren’t any doubts ever on the impact of the supply chain & distribution channel partners (Distributors, Wholesalers, Retailers etc.) on end-sales of the products. However, somehow marketers weren’t looking beyond discounts & service support to gain loyalty from their channel partners. Even today, most of the distribution chains in the consumer electronics industry depend on these two tactics to keep their channel partners loyal. But, this does not solve the broader problem. Even if we assume that they manage to keep their channel partners loyal, they do not really promote sales. The best way to drive sales within the distribution channel is by turning the channel partners into your ‘extended sales force’.
Traditional discounts are discontinuous. They generally occur once per bulk purchase transaction by channel partner. If we can somehow find a way to link each & every primary, secondary & of course tertiary sale (which is generally the end-sale to the customer) to give incentives to channel partners, it would be great engagement method. How to do that? Two words – product tagging.

Product tagging is perhaps the only method of tracking the sale events of a product through various levels of the distribution chain. Uniquely coding the products to account for each tier in the chain seems to do the trick. Here’s the catch – Product tagging is extremely difficult in real-life once the product comes out of the factory automation environment. And in actual practice most of the tagging has to be done outside these automated environments – in the warehouses or shipping bays. It tends to become exponentially difficult when there are multiple tiers of codes (for each tier in the distribution chain) or there are many SKUs in the company’s assortment. Lack of skilled labor in the warehouses & packaging departments just compounds the pain. 

Here, I’ll try to propose a highly ambitious solution to this tagging problem. And the solution is – don’t tag the products! Before you begin to question my mental condition, hear out the last piece of the puzzle: Amazon’s Firefly technology. Amazon has been working on real-life object recognition through intelligent image & sound processing for better part of a decade now. As you may be aware, it has very recently launched its own phone, the Amazon Fire phone which contains this breakthrough feature called Amazon Firefly. Amazon Firefly’s premise is that it claims to be leaps & bounds ahead of other technologies in the field of object recognition. You just have to press the ‘Firefly button’ provided on the Fire phone & it will turn on its sensors (camera, microphone, GPS) to recognize whatever object you are looking at (image recognition) or  listening to (sound recognition) or a mixture of both. Thus product tag (unique code pasted on the product packaging) is out of the picture since the mere event of scanning & recognizing the product through the Firefly feature can be used to identify the product. However, we have to make a major assumption here. We’ll assume that sale has happened even if customer just scans the products, regardless of tracing the actual sale. Still, the next thing that I’m going to point out may very well be the workaround for this issue. Amazon has opened the SDKs for the Firefly technology for developers to build their applications around it. Of course there is going to some usage fee involved, but developers will have the power to add unprecedented level of intelligence to their applications. 

Applying this to our context of product tagging, we may build an application which will recognize the unique serial number or barcode or QR code present on the product to establish the proof of purchase. And these serial numbers can very well be added to the product in the factory automated environment. There is another way which could bypass product tagging altogether if we force the customers & channel partners to complete the purchase transaction only through the portal or application specified by us.
We have to make another assumption – availability of Fire phone on a mass scale. Only time will tell validity of this assumption. For now, we can do nothing but get mesmerized by the technology & hold our breath for it to solve the painful product tagging problem.   

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

CEM in the age of mobile

As the Indian economy grows, competition in almost every industry is also growing, making it difficult for companies to retain customers and remain profitable. It has become difficult to influence customers through the traditional ways of push marketing as there has been information overload of all these mass advertisements. Thus, people have become immune to these marketing tactics. The solution to this problem is establishing sustainable competitive advantage by implementing comprehensive Customer Engagement Management (CEM) strategies. CEM tries to create an emotional bond with the customer by providing positive and personalized experiences at every touch point.  But, just the realization of this concept by companies does not automatically result into a solution. Customer expectations are changing rapidly with the increase in the number of options and there is an urgent need of a CEM solution that truly focuses on the customer.
There has to be a shift in the age old mindset of ‘spray & pray’. Monetary resources that are not being used productively in traditional marketing approaches like TV commercials, newspaper ads, billboards; etc could be utilized more effectively by putting them towards engagement programs that tend to deliver the desired results. Engagement program becomes more important when you consider the fact that cost of acquiring a new customer is approximately 5-10 times more than selling to an existing customer and the existing customers spend 67% more than a new one according to Inc. Magazine. 

Engagement domain, despite coming into focus recently, is itself having a paradigm shift. Most of the surveys are suggesting that for CEM, a continuous touchpoint is needed as a main communication channel. In today’s world, I don’t believe that there is an engagement channel which is more personalized & instant than a mobile phone. Thus, mobile phone becomes a prime option in the list of preferred customer engagement channels. Mobile penetration is rapidly growing in India with customer base of around 773 million active subscribers according to TRAI. In fact, India is only next to China when it comes to the number of mobile subscribers.  As mobile becomes the easiest way to reach a customer, it would play the centre stage around which all Customer Engagement Strategies will be built. With Smartphone penetration in India hovering around 10 percent and quickly growing, it will also play a major role in the scheme of things in the future. Presently, SMS should be the preferred communicating channel for different engagement programs being run by the company along with the usual emails and web portal. The SMS should contain personal identifiers so that it becomes more engaging and cuts across the plethora of SMSs that the customer gets on his phone. SMS could be used to keep the customer updated about various parameters of the engagement program such as - start of the engagement program, targeted offers, points earned and redeemed (if it’s a points based program) & many more aspects. The program could also use inbound SMSs to register the previously unknown customers into the program. For example, say an electrician buys an electric fan and SMSs the a unique code pasted on the box to a specific number and in this way he is registered in the engagement program run by the fan company.
There are many aspects that constitute a successful engagement program. Different engagement stages like enroll, engage and encash should work together seamlessly and should provide excellent user experience. The enrollment process should be frictionless so that there is no attrition at the enrollment stage. There should be unique journeys for all participants and their experience should be gamified for maximum engagement. Also, the participants should be able to choose the rewards themselves from a catalog which can be both online in the form of a web portal as well as offline like displayed as posters or given as a booklet. By sending personalized SMSs and providing the flexibility for the customers choose their own gifts from the points earned, the engagement program becomes highly personalized.
Customers here can be both internal such as employees and external like channel partners (dealers, distributors, retailers etc.) and influencers like mechanics, painters and electricians and of course end consumers.
We have a platform that allows you to run both online and offline engagement programs for the known as well as unknown customer base. Click here to reach us.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Will Beacons be the ‘guiding lights’ of Customer Engagement? (2/2)

In the first part of this article, we saw the possible uses of Beacon in typical retail stores. With the ubiquitous nature of the technology (it is present in most of the iPhones [] & applications are being developed for android platform also []), beacons won’t be found only in retail outlets. It is imperative that such an impressive & energy efficient technology would be used in many other sectors. To name a few of them – security applications, events, conferences, home automation etc.  

In the security landscape, beacons could be found in applications similar to RFID tags, with the ability to do many more things. You could create a geofence, tag valuable items in an area & keep on continuously polling them with the help of beacons (this is very similar to other proximity sensors, except beacons have a much larger range & bidirectional communicational ability). Whenever that item is taken outside the geofence, we can set a certain steps of actions to be taken. The other (inverse) variant of this application is the ability to set restricted areas. You can set triggers/alarms when an item enters a pre-set restricted area. One other application of geofencing might be to disseminate information only to devices/people located in a particular area.       

This ability to send the information selectively based on micro-locations of recipients opens up yet another domain – use of beacons at exhibitions, events, conferences etc. Now when you stand in front of a particular stall, you’ll receive information pertaining to the products & services of only that exhibition stall. Similarly, whenever a notification is to be sent to a group of people present in a particular area of an event (Ex. The attendees in a particular conference room could be sent notifications relevant to the ongoing session in that particular zone/area), beacons could be the way to go.  Also, beacons provide the unique ability to have peer-to-peer communications of like-minded people. For example, at a tech conference, you can identify the people having similar prime interest as you (e.g. wireless technologies) & meet them to have a personal dialog with them. It would be of a great help in cutting through the crowd at such events/conferences & converse with people with whom you actually want to exchange ideas. The ability of beacons to provide a context would give unparalleled levels of engagement & greatly efficient user experiences.     
Deployment of beacons may look tedious to marketers, but they stand to gain great advantages from them. For retailers at least, there will not be any major changes in their business processes. The technology could very well complement their existing marketing communication framework. Even so, they can gain following benefits from beacon deployment: 1. Granular Trends & Preferences: With beacons, buying/behavioral trends & preferences would be available in such a great variety & granularity that it would give an almost complete picture of the customer’s physical behavior within the retailer’s premises. For example, retailer can get the data about the products searched, time spent in various sections of the outlet, number & frequency of visits to the outlet etc.   With proper analysis of this data, retailers would be able to draw trends & judge preferences like they’ve never done before. 2. With such near complete profiles of their customers, it would be possible for retailers to take informed decisions on various value added services. Retailers would be able to fine tune their offerings to the actual behavior of customers, not the needs perceived through the surveys. 3. Campaigning would also become easy for retailers as they will be able to send instantaneous offers to the shoppers present in the outlets. The ROI on beacon investment is looking quite optimistic.
However, for all above possibilities to become a feasible solution, many pieces of the beacon jigsaw have to fall into place. Platforms for beacons are yet to flourish & there is great need for their growth. These platforms are going to act as drivers for the adoption of this technology. Many retailers would not want to develop their own platforms as it involves a huge amount of work & a great deal of risk. Furthermore, as with any technology, a fair amount of resistance is to be expected from the customers. Beacon applications may seem quite intrusive on the surface & customers may have privacy concerns. Also, something needs to done about the auto-activation of beacon feature in the mobile devices. Customers cannot be expected to turn on beacon every time they are in the vicinity. Inversely, asking the user to keep their beacon signal always on may make the users prone to security issues.
All things considered, beacon technology is definitely an awesome development in the customer engagement & location-based targeting domain. Sure it’s still in the nascent stage, but it is definitely heading towards becoming a great addition to one’s communication repertoire. Beacon industry is still taking shape, and Apple Inc. seems to have taken a lead, but beacon (Bluetooth 4.0) inclusion in android is rapidly gaining ground & that is bound to make the market fiercely competitive. However, the question, ‘Will Beacons become the guiding lights of customer engagement?’ remains unanswered for now.        

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Walking The Tightrope Between “Driving Repeat Purchase” And “Rewarding Loyalty”

I recently received an offer for INR 100 discount on my next trip on Meru Cabs, India’s leading cab dispatch company. To redeem this offer, I’d need to enter a certain code when I used the company’s mobile app to book my next ride.
My first reaction to this offer was, “How the heck am I supposed to remember this code when I book my next ride?” Meru Cabs doesn’t operate where I live. While I do visit the cities where it does, it’d be several weeks until that happens. Trying to remember the code until then is asking for too much. Of course, I can always ruffle through hundreds of pictures on my smartphone gallery to locate this offer when I place my next order. But that’s too much trouble for saving a hundred bucks.
So, this offer joined the heap of so many others that I regularly toss out because they’re irrelevant or unredeemable or both.
This got me thinking why Meru Cabs couldn’t automatically apply this discount whenever I made my next booking without requiring me to remember a code. If it did that, I’d surely come out feeling that the company rewarded my loyalty. Since that’d be a major goal of any customer engagement program, shouldn’t all companies including Meru Cabs follow this approach?
Should they? More importantly, will they?
Maybe not. Because, in addition to rewarding loyalty, brands have another important CEM goal, and that’s to “drive repeat purchase”. That goal can’t be achieved by automatically applying the discount on the next order – after all, what’s the guarantee that there’ll be a “next order” at all?
It’s ironical how, in trying to drive repeat purchase, a brand misses out on the low hanging fruit of rewarding loyalty.

While both goals are valid, there’s often a conflict in trying to achieve them simultaneously. Some degree of tradeoff is required. Crafting targeted offers to fulfill one goal at a time could be a good place to begin the tightrope walk between the twin CEM objectives of “driving repeat purchase” and “rewarding loyalty”.
Contributed by: S. Ketharaman

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Will Beacons be the ‘guiding lights’ of Customer Engagement? (1/2)

Today’s era is being touted as golden era for customer experience. If you don’t believe me, just do a google search for ‘golden era of customer’ & within first few pages, you will see my thoughts resonating. Admittedly it is somewhat true that every 5-10 years marketing people call that respective period as the era of customer service, but that is generally due to a new customer service product or a new method of customer service. The role of technology in customer service & customer engagement has seldom seen any radical changes. However, in today’s scenario, intense competition & advances in technology have propelled customer engagement to another level. Recent case in point is Beacon technology.

Beacon technology can be technically called as an application of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Beacons are generally used as low energy transceivers that can be used to -- locate a mobile device in an indoor environment, as well as to send & receive some transactional messages. Even though this is achievable fairly easily through WiFi networks, it is not considered to be an efficient option considering its huge energy consumption. Mass adoption of beacon technology can certainly take Internet of Things (IoT) to the next level. When our regularly used mobile devices are equipped with indoor location services & transactional messaging capabilities with other devices in the proximity, a huge amount of applications are possible, and not just in customer engagement, but everywhere. This discussion however, skews a little bit towards the customer engagement domain. Many folks newly introduced to the technology believe that beacon is the same as iBeacon by Apple. Apparently, that is not the case. Many companies, like Apple, are introducing their own platform for harnessing the capabilities of the technology (see Gimbal by Qualcomm -; as well as Estimote). Apple just happens to have a large share of day-to-day use mobile devices (iPhones, iPads), which are ideal for beacon deployment.  

Now it’s time to have a peek into the actual capabilities offered by beacons. In my view, the primary benefit of beacons is to provide geolocation-based communication. This involves recognizing devices in the proximity & start a bidirectional communication with them. The applications of this technique could be indoor location tracking & location based targeting. For example, indoor location tracking can help retailers massively in product placement. It could give some really granular information about physical behavior of the customer, like time spent in each aisle, avg. time spent in a specific section/department of the store etc. Location based targeting could enable retailers to present the customers with some really relevant offers depending on the aisle or shelf near which the customer is standing. Wouldn’t you just love it when you are standing in the aisle where all bath products are kept & you receive a notification on your mobile about a combo offer on soaps & shampoos? That would be contextual marketing at its best.

However, while marketers are trumpeting this advertising aspect of beacons, brands & retailers are missing out on a rather important aspect – awareness. How would you let the customer know about your product not before, not after, but at the exact moment when he is actually standing the aisle looking to buy something to address that particular need? Beacons! When you can connect with your customer’s phone through Bluetooth inside the store, you can offer your entire range of products to him/her at that instant. We all have gone through that embarrassing experience of having to ask store helpers multiple times just to get to the right shelf. Now, you could have an electronic map of entire store at your fingertips! Furthermore, that map may come with search-navigation functionality to navigate you to the correct shelf. Not only that, it could offer detailed information about every product that is present on that shelf, with the reviews of fellow customers! That is something no store associate can provide. If I wanted to buy headphones or a bread packet or a T-shirt or a cereal box, I would just have to search in the particular category & the app (yes, this would most probably require a dedicated app that connects to the store database) would offer me a list of all the brands for that product type, with the shelf no. on which it is kept & directions to navigate to that shelf. Also, if the app can be connected to the store inventory database, it could even show the number of items presently in stock.

Most amazing thing is that all this is not just a daring dream of the distant future anymore. Beacon technology could make it possible & is really doing it some of the developed countries. There are many more applications of beacons rather than just in brick & mortar stores. Watch out for the second part of this article as we try to discuss some more applications & other aspects related to the technology.                  

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Gamification in Customer Engagement Management

Gamification is the use of game techniques for non gaming purposes. Humans are hard wired to compete and thus gaming has become a hugely popular and profitable industry. Gamification does not mean that systems are becoming full- fledged games but just few game elements are being included in them. The common elements of game mechanics are: points, levels, leaderboards, badges and quests. Gamification is finding many uses like making websites more engaging, driving loyalty for brands and encouraging desired behavior through incentives and real-time feedback.

Often the objective of gamification is to make the system more enjoyable or more efficient and further increase the loyalty, fun, revenue and engagement. The term engagement defines the connection or the bond the customer shares with a product or a service. There are no clear metrics to measure engagement and page views or unique visitors may not tell the true story behind engagement of users with products, services or websites. The benefits of engagement are increased brand loyalty, positive word of mouth and increased sales.
 At the heart of success of the games is a concept called flow. The experience of flow is often defined as a spontaneous joy while performing a task. To create a highly engaging gamified system, we must harness the power of flow. The unique thing about gamification is that most of the times, the rewards have little or no monetary value. According to a Gartner report, 70 % of the top 2000 companies in the world will have at least one gamified application by 2014. But India is far behind with less than 10% of Indian Corporations using gamification.  

Successful applications of gamification: The successful examples of gamification have been Samsung, Nike and Khan Academy.
Samsung created user-generated content by rewarding users to participate in discussion with other users, reviewing products and watching videos. The rewards included unlocking batches, moving up in levels and chance to win Samsung products.
The world’s largest athletic footwear and apparel company Nike created Nike Plus which is a social running app. The Nike app can be downloaded into android phones and iphones and it captures the distance, pace and calories using phone’s inbuilt GPS. The runners can also upload data and connect with other runners. 

Khan Academy also used gamification techniques very effectively. Right answers give an instant happy face as well as movement on multicolored progress bar. Answer the questions quickly and you are awarded with “Picking Up Stream” award worth 100 points which you can share on Facebook or Twitter. Another gamification element is its recommendation system that recommends courses based on the student’s learning characteristics.
Being a buzz word, many companies are trying to implement gamified systems. But implementing it goes beyond badges and points. The organizations must keep the business goals for long term in mind while designing the systems. Further they should add the fun elements to otherwise routine tasks. They should also provide differentiated user experience.    
Gamification is already producing great results wherever it is properly implemented. Well designed game mechanics have already produced significant improvements in brand loyalty & employee motivation levels.  Gamification experts are encouraging people to involve game mechanics wherever possible, even in personal life, to make those mundane daily tasks interesting. There are increasing examples of people becoming fitter, healthier, more skillful, and more knowledgeable with the use of gamification. Customer Engagement Management (CEM) genre is developed with gamification at its backbone. With exponential increase in its adoption, expect gamification to be a major part of our professional & personal lives. So, did you measure how many minutes it took you to read this piece? Can you do better next time?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Rise of Omnichannel & Traditional Indian Retail

I happened to come across some news about the retail industry in India. It’s a fairly recent survey about retailing in India that estimates that Indian retail industry is likely to touch a staggering Rs. 47 Lakh Crores by 2016-17, while exhibiting CAGR of 15%. While these were some really huge figures which had me stunned for a moment, it wasn’t really that unexpected. After all, India’s population is well above 120 Crores & to fulfill demand of such a large number of people, retail industry has to yield such numbers. However, that is not exactly my point. I want to touch upon the fact that Online Retail (e-commerce)  is rising with CAGRs at least 2.5 times that of overall retail industry & this has genuinely scared many of the traditional brick & mortar stores. I have one word for them ‘Omnichannel’.

There’s no need here to start another story on how cut-throat the Indian retail market is. In this battle to gain a larger share of consumer’s wallet, retailers & brands are continuously searching for new ways to increase the interactions with customers, or at least they should be searching if they want to thrive in this IT-enabled marketing storm.  Customer touchpoints are at a premium not just in India, but all over the world. But this is not new, as this white paper from Winterberry Group ( explains, the India spawned in the minds of some Y&R executives as early as 1972. They called it ‘The Whole Egg’. From then on, concepts like ‘Multichannel’, ‘integrated marketing’ evolved over the time. However, there was (& there still is) something lacking. While these terms talk about unifying marketing communications of various channels, there was little consideration about unification of customer experience. That is exactly what omnichannel aims to achieve. Such channel-agnostic approach could very well be the holy grail of omnichannel. This unification of customer experiences is what I’ll refer to as omnichannel for now (unless it gets radically changed). Premise is really not that difficult to understand. Technology has enabled brands to provide customers with many touchpoints, both physical & virtual (with highly interactive platforms, it’s hard to even differentiate them anymore). Omnichannel approach aims to unify customer experiences across these touchpoints, so as to have seamless switching between them, many times without the customer even realizing of a channel switch. It differs from multichannel, in that omnichannel doesn’t talk only about unification of communications; it talks about integration of entire retail process, right from information & communication to actual completion of the buying transaction.
Now that we have an essence of what omnichannel is, let us explore how our traditional retailers can apply it to their advantage. If you’re still confused about ground level impact of omnichannel, just go through 1st para of this article- As the article goes on to explain, our traditional retailers can start with approach of white-labeling their activities. A simple e-commerce portal can be a good start. Also, whenever an e-commerce or any web site is built by the retailer, I cannot stress more upon the mobile optimization of the site. Many people are going to access the website from their smartphones & customers will quickly lose interest if they are faced with poor alignment & navigation issues. To take the mobility even further, retailers might do well to build a specialized mobile app. Not only does it add one more touchpoint to your repertoire, but it also helps a brand consolidate the brand image, enhance it by giving great service & gives an ability to communicate latest info about new campaigns, changes in the offerings & processes & so on.  To take the mobility further, retailers can also incorporate QR Codes, WiFi & Beacon technologies in their selling process. QR codes present special opportunity for customers to have faster, hassle-free checkouts. WiFi & Beacon technologies help retailers locate/track the customers & offer a personalized experience inside the physical stores. Sending personalized offers through emails & SMSs is another important aspect of omnichannel. Custom notifications at the right time can really preserve a customer’s connection with the brand/store, giving him/her the ability to continue the interaction with the firm. 

While implementing all above channels, it is drastically important to integrate them. Customer shouldn’t have to repeat the process which he/she partially completed over one channel when he/she switches to another channel.  There is no time to wait; omnichannel has already entered in Indian market.  We can find the corresponding examples in this presentation - However, small & medium retailers seem to think of it as a white elephant which only wealthy retailers can nurture. They back off from the domain altogether & don’t look at individual components of it which they can handle currently. That is not a very advisable thing to do, especially since technology is quickly penetrating the Indian market. Traditional retailers, who are already concerned about their growth, would be better off embracing the concept of omnichannel. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The‘Geeky Side’ (Technology) of Customer Engagement

In our last article, we focused on the basics & procedural side of customer engagement. You will find us repeating the basics of CEM many times over. That is because many organizations get so lost in jargons, buzzwords & day-to-day deliverables that they often let themselves get detached from the foundations of CEM – customization/personalization, accessibility, responsiveness & active 2-way communication. While procedural aspects may prove vital for designing the overall engagement program & for drawing the high-level information flow diagrams & process flow diagrams; it is of paramount importance that one is aware of different technological options available to them.

So what are the technological options available to you if you want to create a customer engagement management program? The answer depends on a particular procedural aspect you are designing. In other words, technology choices depend upon the particular problem you are trying to tackle. Optimal choice of technology would be different for different processes (enrollment into the program, targeted marketing, interaction, reward redemption etc.). Since a specific technology can be used in many processes, it is only logical for us if we consider each major process at a time & then explore the technological options for it.
Let us discuss the process of enrollment or registration into the program. At Birdvision, we have been talking about ‘frictionless enrollment’ for quite a while now. Whenever customers face any kind of friction while registering or enrolling into the program, there is a high probability that they won’t bother with it.

Until customers recognize the real benefits of participating in a customer engagement/loyalty program, the program is essentially an auxiliary thing for them. Unless the audience is properly ‘gamified’, only the core services of the brand are necessary for them & customers may feel they can do away with such perceived supplementary services. Hence we feel that enrollment process should be multi-modal. Possible technological choices are Web, IVR (Interactive Voice Response), SMS, USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) & mobile apps. In web registration, there are 2 scenarios: you can either give a portal so that participants can self-register; or the CEM software can be connected to POS (Point of Sale) of the merchant so that participants can enroll at the billing/checkout counters of merchant’s outlets. However, the latter option involves a painful process of integrating the CEM software with the POS systems of each merchant. Also, making participants self-register via a web portal could involve some falloffs since some customers may already consider the CEM to be a supplementary service which they don’t think is worth the effort. If a CEM system is taking participants’ mobile no. as a unique identifier, then registering via IVR, SMS & USSD may be a viable option. Still, we feel it’s necessary to provide multi-modal enrollment to increase the probability of new registrations. For participants having smartphones & mobile internet, providing mobile app is not a bad option. It provides the brand with a continuous touchpoint while accruing convenience & mobility to the participant.
The next process aspect to be considered is interactions/transactions & targeted marketing. This incorporates transmission of personalized messages. For this, timely & accurate offers must be sent to the respective participants. The best approaches in such scenarios where time & accessibility are of immense importance are SMS, Voice Call & mobile app.  If one expects the customers to check their email inboxes or web portals to get the targeted offers, then the communication loses most of the time & place virtues. Hence, SMS & voice calls are your best bets. However, with avg. mobile user getting flooded with so many spam SMSs & voice calls; we cannot stress more upon the importance of incorporating personal identifiers & succinctness of the information. Otherwise, customers will simply ignore/block the calls & SMSs. Mobile apps are also important for the instant notifications. Nowadays, apps can even send push notifications on smartphones based on various parameters. Still, mobile apps have some limitations. These apps require appropriate permissions from the app user & an active GPRS or 2G/3G internet connection. Moreover, many such apps need to be launched by user manually or they necessitate a service to be run in the background. Without these conditions, such mobile apps may render themselves useless. However, these mobile apps when used properly can bring fantastic new possibilities for the marketers as well as users. A participant can easily check his/her points balance, learn about new ways of earning more points & discounts, seamlessly redeem the points (often in a contactless manner!)& get recognition within participant community as well as on social networks in the form of virtual badges & rewards.
Lastly, let us shed some light on a novel aspect of targeted marketing. Until very recently, targeted marketing was only based on profiling a customer through gradually collecting information. This still being the prime function of targeted marketing softwares, there is an increasing tendency to create dynamic segments based on location of the customer. Make no mistake; these are not those fuzzylocation advertisements where you are presented with the local ads when you are present in that city or town. Location tracking technologies have become so accurate that they can send you targeted offers when you are just a few tens of meters away from the respective outlets or they can incredibly pinpoint your location to just a few meters to offer you the ads & discounts depending upon the isle that you are walking down inside the store. In descending order of location pinpointing accuracy, I think the technologies used are GPS < WiFi < Beacons (I’m no expert in this subject so please feel free to correct me!). GPS can roughly pinpoint your location to a few hundred meters, while WiFi & Beacons have the capability to determine your location & confine it to just a few meters. This gives endless opportunities to the marketers. Apple has recognized this & they have taken a lead the development of ‘Beacon’ communication by incorporating the beacon signals in its iPhones. Apple is also supporting the development of apps that could use Beacon services. A beacon is nothing but a Low-Energy Bluetooth (BLE) signal that can communicate with the devices recognizing such signals. Many times it is difficult to get GPS signal connectivity inside the stores& hence tracking locations of customers could be difficult. In-store beacon devices can communicate with the beacon signals sent from mobiles of the customers to pinpoint their locations. For this purpose, specialized devices (mostly transceivers) for beacon signal transmission & reception are coming up. These beacon devices have to be fitted intelligently throughout the stores so as to cover all the important areas. In future, many more applications of beacons are expected to launch.

 To round off this topic, I’d like to point out that though organizations have adequate technological tools at their disposal, using them intelligently & fine-tuning them to your market & target audience is not an easy job. As far as I know, that bit is still dependent on human intuition, clarity of thought & vision. Words of advice - “Integration of technology is the means to achieve something, not the end goal.”

Monday, 5 May 2014

Tracking Customer Activities (A Process-based Approach)

Today, every other brand wants to have loyal customers. However, many organizations don’t realize exactly how difficult it is to run a good loyalty program. On top of that, it is exponentially difficult to effectively engage your customers. With the advent of newer light-weight personal communication technologies & customers becoming more mature as a result, operating loyalty programs is simply not good enough nowadays. To create a truly binding relationship, the customers must be engaged with your brand. Great customer engagement requires customization & personalization. In our last article we saw how to achieve this by capturing information of a specific category called PII (Personally Identifiable Information).  Now let us see some underlying procedural aspects involved in customer engagement & respective challenges involved.

So, to have constructive dialogue with customers, we need to track various customer activities, gain insights & then reward the desired behavior. We can divide this activity tracking process into following parts: capturing, storing, analyzing, protecting & applying.  Let us individually study the challenges posed by each one of these parts. First challenge is “capturing” the transactions. The key challenge here is capturing all the pertinent information about the transaction (like purchase amount, products purchased, time of purchase, retailer/outlet etc.), without sacrificing the speed of transaction. This information can then be used for analytics & predicting behaviors. Standing in long queues just to earn some points (which are anyways just a fraction of the purchase total) for a loyalty/engagement program is not acceptable to the customers. Hence capturing the right info at right speed is important.
Second challenge is “storing” the captured information. Information collected through activity tracking must be stored in proper way so that it is quickly retrievable & accessible to various stakeholders in a layered manner. Format uniformity should be well thought out so that data is practically useful for multiple platforms. Connectivity of the data-generation & data-dissemination points is required to efficiently transfer information. Some properties like Timestamp, Retailer ID, Customer ID should always be associated with the information. The next challenge is “analyzing” the data. Here, one has to make a critical decision about real-time processing or batch processing based on volume & speed of incoming data as well as cost of technology implementation. The analytics engine should be able to derive proper insights from the data to give the engagement levels of the customers. Engagement related statistics typically include new product trials taken, repeat purchase rate, avg. purchase amount, no. of dialogues with the brand, feedbacks/surveys given, brand product range knowledge, product knowledge, new referrals brought in etc. Analytics engine should be designed by taking into account all these requirements.
Fourth challenge in tracking customer activities is “protecting” the data. As we may be aware, protecting the sensitive customer information should be the cornerstone of any system design, if that system is to inspire any kind of trust. Customers won’t give the data with same vigor if they are not sure about the privacy of the data. Even if India lacks stronger laws on digital data security, trust is one of the prime catalysts to the acceptability of any campaign/program. Then there’s the challenge of “applying” the insights obtained from ‘analyzing the captured & stored data’. Timely messages in the form of targeted offers & personalized messaging are the most visible results. Other benefits which are not so direct for the customers are minor tweaks in the product features & product offerings based on customer engagement data. The advanced analytics would be of not so much use if brands cannot derive actionable conclusions from it.
This process will of course vary from product-to-product, brand-to-brand & sometimes it could even vary from a customer segment to another.  In our previous article, “The Friendly Spying That Maximizes Value”, we have already mentioned how tracking of customer activities & rewarding them could drive the desired behavior. We could even go ahead & claim that it is possible to cultivate communities of similar interests via such brand engagement initiatives. Companies are already doing it. Check out the community of runners/joggers or community of footballers created through Nike’s brand engagement efforts (Also see Nike Fuel+ gadgets while you’re at it!). The experience is so awesome for customers, that switching to a competitor’s product becomes almost impossible for them. Next, let us delve into the technological aspects involved with tracking customer activities. In our next article we’ll try to address that perspective. Till then, keep spying on your customers (don’t curse me though if you get incarcerated)!