Prepared or not, businesses have had to accelerate their digital transformation efforts practically overnight, or over a couple of weeks, because of COVID-19. And in the process, the pandemic has also exposed how unprepared many businesses were for such a transformation. Consider that only 21% of companies think their organization-wide digital transformation is complete, while 22% of businesses aren’t transforming at all.

For industries that aren’t digitally adept, digitizing their operations while maintaining as smooth an experience as possible for their customers poses a significant challenge. Businesses that can adapt will survive, while those who fail to embrace digital transformation will be soon left behind. As consumers increasingly turn to digital channels first, marketers will play an important role in maintaining connections with customers as we all navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead.

View from the top:

  • The COVID-19 crisis accelerated business’ digital transformation efforts. Many organizations had to rapidly adjust and, in some cases, digitize their operations in a matter of weeks.
  • As the voice of the customer, marketers are investing their resources into digital channels to stay connected with their audience and anticipate the needs of their customers.
  • Data analytics and social listening are two skills all marketers need to strengthen to succeed in a digital-first environment.

Consumer behaviors can change overnight

COVID-19 has made two things very clear. The first is the importance of maintaining one’s digital shelf. Stuck at home, customers are using the internet more than before to buy the goods and services they need, with 88% of consumers pre-researching their purchases online before committing. And brands that have neglected their online strategy are learning firsthand the difficulty in trying to get their name in front of shoppers today.

The second observation brands are waking up to is the speed at which consumers can change their behaviors—and their reluctance to go back to buying as usual. For many brands before COVID-19, ecommerce was a complement to customers’ usual shopping habits. But now? It’s instinctive for customers to turn first to the internet to buy the things that they need.

Research shows consumers are increasing their adoption of digital services across a number of industries, from banking to entertainment. Online grocery sales, for example, have grown 10-15% since the beginning of the pandemic and 20% of shoppers have left their primary grocer in favor of one with better ecommerce offerings. Now that customers have gotten a taste of the convenience online shopping provides, why would they want to rush back to the way they used to shop before?

Questions to ask to keep pace with customers’ agility

As the voice of the customer, marketers play a crucial role in maintaining their brand’s connection with its audience. This means meeting consumers on the digital channels they frequent most and creating new customer experiences that have a positive impact on both buyers and retailers.

With future online purchases among first-time ecommerce customers expected to grow 160%, marketers need to be able to visualize the entire digital customer journey from the onset. To guide the development of consumers’ online journey, marketers need to ask themselves questions like:

  • What channels are customers using to learn about new products and services?
  • Which digital campaigns are converting?
  • Where are customers dropping off along the buyer journey?

Consumers are changing their shopping behaviors to address their immediate needs. If your business can’t evolve at the same speed, customers will simply look for a competitor that can.

Three digital adjustments marketers can address first

In this new normal, digitizing a business’ entire operations is the only way forward. For marketing teams, the move to a primarily ecommerce environment means strengthening these digital skills as soon as possible:

  1. Data analysis. With more marketing efforts and customer activity online, measuring a campaign’s digital performance and understanding the data behind the creative is more important than before. Lean on your analytics team to help you make sense of the numbers and ask questions so you better understand why certain efforts perform better than others. Data reveals what messaging converts and what falls flat, and empowers marketers to double down on the digital campaigns that support their organization’s goals. It can also tell marketers which platforms they should be using to get in front of their core audience and how customers use social to inform their buying decisions.
  2. Social listening. Confined to their homes, customers are taking to social to discuss both their positive and negative brand experiences, as well as what they need from brands during this time. And to keep track of those conversations, marketers need to lean into tools like social listening. With listening, marketers can identify topics relevant to their target audience and discover the root causes behind consumers’ changing behaviors. They can also use listening to uncover where customer experiences are falling short and what opportunities to capitalize on to stay ahead of the competition. Above all, social listening empowers marketers to tailor messaging, campaigns and communication strategies to reflect the expectations of their customers.
  3. Remote leadership. There’s a very real possibility that most workforces will be remote the rest of the year, so businesses need to focus on implementing tools and rituals to support long-distance productivity. Marketing leaders especially will need to address the challenges that come with leading a remote team that is used to in-person collaboration. Take the time to check in with the members of your team, ask them what they need to do their best work and what support they need from leadership. When marketers are set up for remote working success, they’ll be better equipped to serve and support customers in any circumstance.

There is no going back to the way things were before

The reality is that COVID-19 has altered the way we do business for good. Prepared or not, the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformations of every kind of business and it’s unlikely we’ll revert back to the way things were pre-quarantine.

We’ve seen firsthand how quickly our audience’s behaviors and expectations can change. We cannot keep talking about digital transformation as something that can be put off for a later date. The rapid shift to digital will inevitably strain marketers’ ability to execute, but it’s a change that is necessary for our long-term success.