Why Emotional Engagement Is the Heartbeat of Digital User Experience – and What Retailers Can Do to Enhance It

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By Richard Palmer, Head of Strategy EMEA at digital consultancy Appnovation

In today’s cluttered online retail landscape, competing brands are akin to prime-time TV dramas. In order to stand out amid thousands of channels and choices, a new show must have wow power (a star-studded cast) and be technically state of the art (great cinematography, strong production values) on its side. But these ingredients mean nothing without a strong emotional pull to draw in new viewers – and keep them there.

Similarly, retailers operating in a digital-first space must craft a customer experience (CX) that is unique and operationally slick; but also one that is grounded in an emotional connection with consumers. It’s no longer enough just to track shopper behaviour or capture insights in a scattergun of score-based surveys. Brands need to have an intrinsic understanding of why their audiences behave as they do. What values drive them to shop in a particular way or gravitate towards one brand at the cost of another? How can CX be developed to reflect and augment this feeling?

Capturing this level of emotive experience in a digital solution doesn’t require some epic Game of Thrones-style effort, complete with flashy theatrics (and the odd dragon or two). Indeed, the ability to exceed customer expectations with a deeper sense of resonance is more of a science than an art. A carefully curated approach, it involves strategic development around a series of key pillars that garner inherent engagement and trust. These include:

1. The Power of Empathy

The harsh reality is that, as much as retailers like to think they know their audiences, only a third of customers actually feel understood. To reduce that disconnect, brands can use

a concept Wharton professors Christian Terwiesch and Nicolaj Siggelkow call “automatic execution”: in other words, solving potential problems before the customer is even aware that they exist.

Partly this involves harnessing tech in a way that brings concrete benefit to consumers’ lives. For example, with customers increasingly valuing the safety, speed and convenience of self-checkout services (read on McKinsey), supermarket giant Sainsbury’s recently launched a SmartShop Pick & Go concept, which allows shoppers to stock up on items from a physical store using scannable QR codes – eliminating the need to queue or even open their wallet. Read about it here on Sainsbury’s site. The fact that nearly 50% of customers are now willing to pay for drone delivery may also be an interesting avenue for retailers to explore.

Meanwhile, Asda customers can now return parcels from more than 100 of the UK’s most popular retailers at the same time as receiving their grocery deliveries. Customers in select locations can now hand back any unwanted items to an Asda home shopping driver when accepting a grocery order – without the need to visit a returns location. These initiatives are empathetic at core, because they recognise that people are often busy and time poor.

Empathy can also come into play by listening more intuitively to what customers need. Regular interviews and qualitative surveys, where customers can fully express themselves, for example, are far more meaningful than typical score-based surveys, which can often miss how a customer truly feels. The same goes for developing a process whereby insights from front-line staff are embedded into product development. Nobody knows customers better than the sales and service teams who deal with them on a direct and daily basis, after all.

2. Personalisation With Immersive Benefits

Empathy feeds into personalisation, too: three quarters of customers are likely to make repeat purchases based on a quality personalised experience. Data is central here; and we know that consumers are comfortable with sharing their data as long as there is a clear benefit for them.

So, brands should use data to wrap their experience around an individual, in a way that recognises how a product is useful to them. Music streaming service Spotify creates a golden standard in this respect, using audience listening data to curate hyper-personalised playlists which adapt in response to a subscriber’s changing tastes.

Brands don’t need a powerhouse data lake on their side to reap the impact of personalization, though. The core task lies in building a unique, relevant experience – not just demonstrating that you know someone’s name and where they live.

Many smaller subscription platforms are gaining an advantage with this framework, using a model that is naturally tilted towards personalization with benefits. Plant supplier Beards & Daisies lets customers choose houseplants based on minutiae such as whether they’re “unkillable” or not; or if they’re pet friendly or even air purifiable. Meanwhile, beauty gift service Birchbox sends customers monthly products based on their type of skin, hair and personal preferences.

3. Deliver Trust, Not Excuses:

Trust is the most complicated element of emotional engagement in retail and it’s also one of the most volatile: it only takes one bad experience for over 30% of people to walk away from a brand (even if they previously trusted it).

Trust matters because it makes the retailer or brand’s relationship with consumers stickier. But what is this trust based on? At one level, it is about authenticity and delivering on a promise. Brands like Harley-Davidson, Rolex and Walt Disney all stand for something. M&S, which regularly ranks among Retail Week’s consumer-voted list of most trusted retailers, is rigorously “responsible, fair, decent and truthful” in its product-sourcing processes.

Trust also has a critical digital experience dimension. When users engage with brands via ecommerce channels they want to have a consistent and sincere experience. If they don’t get it they will leave and probably not come back – even if the brand in question is one they previously trusted. What this tells us is that ‘trust’ has become inextricably linked with the resiliency of a brand’s digital landscape. Customers want to know that retail solutions will work as expected and that involves deploying new updates regularly and testing constantly. One MACH Alliance report found that while IT leaders believe it’s important to deliver CX improvements at speed less than half were satisfied with their ability to do so. Exceptional customer experience is enabled by a platform that allows for experimentation and constant change, so customers can trust that systems will work the way that they’re supposed to.

4. Build Holistic Satisfaction:

Buying a product doesn’t necessarily mean a customer likes the retailer selling it. The product may be great but the sales staff could be rude. Or the website may be poorly designed. The crucial takeaway is that retailers need to think beyond product, delivering a holistic experience that engenders satisfaction. Brands that align their digital and IRL ecosystem around a specified point of value, creating a seamless omnichannel experience, will not be easily replaced in customers’ affections. Nike excels at taking a holistic approach to delivering satisfaction. The Nike Run Club app allows customers to join a club to track their distance and share triumphs. The products are locked into a wider, positive movement that serve to reinforce customer connections with the brand.

Likewise, boutique travel company Flash Pack offers group adventures for people in their 30s and 40s, based all over the world. The product is not just a one-off holiday; it’s also about building a global community of like-minded professionals, who connect through friendship and a love of experiential travel.

Over half of consumers now feel online experiences are more important than in-person ones – so it’s more vital than ever to imbue a new generation of digital journeys with deep-rooted emotional connection. This involves weaving together empathetic, personalised and trustworthy interactions that look beyond the product alone. In turn, this will speak to customers’ underlying values, with a holistic experience that is not just another show – but instead the box-office blockbuster of retail.