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Digital trends of 2021: A good factor for economic growth

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

As one eventful year gives way to another and new ways of working, collaborating, integrating, harnessing technology come into their own, some of these developments can be clearly seen debunking older systems to hone the contours of a new economic and social setup. As businesses double down on trailblazing efforts of established monoliths and nimble startups, some distinct patterns and future-focused practices emerge that could help you negotiate the challenges of shifting market realities in the year ahead.

Here’s a go at the digital trends of 2021!

1. The era of 5G capabilities

Era of 5G capabilities

The 5G-era opens up a blitzkrieg of opportunities in areas that can leverage higher bandwidth that supports IoT, immersive technologies, online and mobile-based experiences.

Website speed optimization will be a key performance factor, and Google Chrome notifying users of slow speed while loading its app is a step in that direction. Our growing comfort level with social media and apps has set off a new trend in conversational marketing, while AI-assisted chatbot just raised the bar in resolving customer queries in real-time.

Phase of digitization

5G capabilities can empower healthcare in a deeper way as medical practitioners make a cross over to telehealth appointments, where telemedicine gains over other delivery modes both in accessibility and affordability parameters. Retail will brace up for a new phase of digitization wherein even smaller businesses will reap gains from lower upfront costs while others can make a leap in NPS and footfall performance. In the context of online education, it can also help underpin relationships among various online student communities and teaching networks as virtual classes make headway.

Advertising trends could veer towards platform-specific ephemeral content and targeted ad campaigns and strategies for apps. Real-time advertising that caters to voice searches and micro-moments built around helping users access information, or make a purchase decision is picking up steam as is the speed and quality of video streaming.

As per eMarketer, the estimated digital video ad spend could be to the tune of $22.18 billion in the U.S. market.

2. The expanding ecosystem of E-commerce

Expanding E-commerce ecosystem

The e-commerce ecosystem today includes influencer marketing, user-generated content, selling avenues, values/cause-driven branding for sustainable products, and many others that blend convenience with affordability and a personalized online experience. Videos on social media, especially as the mainstay of Instagram, have an instant connection with customers for everything relevant in their context including recommendations on real-life topics while 360-degree product viewing is a must-have for experiential marketing.

Diversified marketplaces offering to help sellers launch their businesses on exclusive platforms (Amazon, Jet), for instance, Sellbrite’s multi-channel listing software could be the next best successful model to replicate. We clearly view these as a precursor to a trendsetting culture of increased personalization and unspooling of big-ticket budgets for influencer-driven marketing.

The influencer market is estimated to be worth around $6.5 billion (up from $4.6 billion in 2018), and the industry of social media influence is predicted to be worth between $5 and $10 billion by 2020.

In the often challenging arena of B2B, we predict a full-bodied push northwards as it responds to the challenges of creating a unique user experience that allows customers to access information through digital channels (dedicated vendor website) with minimal human (salespeople) engagement.

As per Statista, global retail e-commerce sales for B2B could reach $1.1 trillion in 2021.

Making investments in AI-assisted technologies, taking heed of industry influencers, being on top of industry research and trends, actively employing analytics to assess customers’ behaviors, and scanning the environment for competition and strategizing are must-dos for businesses in this space. 2021 will be no exception to this!

3. Increase in cloud IT spending and Software as a Service (SaaS)-based products

Increase in Cloud IT and Software as a Service (SaaS) based products

Cloud tools and services have set a singular precedent in enabling the smooth and speedy transition to remote working, refurbished business models, integrated supply chains, cohesive professional networks, and much more. Etsy’s leaning towards Google Cloud to ramp up e-commerce operations and Moderna’s ingenuous use of AWS to push COVID-19 vaccine research are highly inspiring.

Coming good on the cost-efficiency, scalability, and on-demand proposition, cloud solutions, and SaaS solutions, in particular, have enabled companies to make a sweeping change in their adoption of IT applications that form the backbone of their business operations. While the Salesforce model remains a prized success story, newer and innovative offerings by SaaS vendors, subscription-led pricing model, faster deployment, and diverse resources, security features, and value-ads present a strategic intent that lends itself to business functions much beyond sales applications and even into the public cloud sphere. Its success with budget-stricken SMBs and startups as well as enterprise-level large-scale projects is a major reason for the spur in SaaS acquisitions in 2020.

We see this trend stretching well into 2021 along with a spike in funding cloud-first initiatives, inter-departmental collaboration for IT-budgets, and higher revenue pouring in for cloud providers.

As per Gartner, Software as a Service (SaaS) will comprise the largest market segment for end-user cloud IT spending – estimated to grow approximately (16 percent) to $117.8 billion -- application infrastructure services (PaaS) is expected to grow (at a higher 26.6 percent rate) to about $55.5 billion.The growth for PaaS has been driven primarily by the constant need to access high-performing and scalable infrastructure via modernized and cloud-native applications by the remote workforce.

In a related scenario, edge computing empowering our life experiences with sophisticated devices and enhanced connectivity could metamorphose into a bigger reality. As mobility companies ramping up with new business models leverage the deftness of edge vendors on the back of robust AI-enriched and 5G-supported environments, more use cases in 2021 will emerge, possibly some involving playing competitor to cloud vendors.

4. Rise of businesses with automation functionality and AI-informed selling strategies

Rise of businesses with AI and automation

Today, the demand for an optimally-designed digital experience is relatively high on the uptake and consumer sentiment is likely to favor AR/VR enabled technologies that offer immersive experiences.

AR, VR, and all forms of extended reality could see a movement from the sidelines into the mainstream arena as automation exposure could well go up by 10% to 12% from the current 36% consumer base, as per a report, thus penetrating nearly half the US online adult population, contingent on a targeted and a conscious marketing effort.

Automation tools have already made inroads in B2B sales and bring a productivity enhancement angle to the buyer-seller dynamics with fast results achieved. Deploying sales tools that upload activity/interaction data in CRM will free up time for sellers to draw insights about buying patterns and channel preference and to engage with buyers in a more holistic way. A leading survey finding shows almost 57% percent of B2B players are firm about making investments in AI and automation.

Artificial Intelligence and Automation

The enabling effect of AI is already visible in Martech, mostly during the initial and later stages of the buying cycle, such as advertising bids or the next best solution in a sales enablement scenario. The use of chatbot and virtual assistant technologies by some B2B sellers, although still fledgling, is a sure sign of future trends shaping the digital channel preference of potential buyers.

As per Forrester's report, more firms are likely to deploy machine learning and Robotic Process Automation bots, and Employee experience (EX) automation to manage office tasks such as customer support and document extraction.

From informing workforce strategies to aiding healthcare outcomes, the far-reaching potential of automation and AI technologies is still waiting to be unleashed, a strong reason why AI makes it to our top-of-the-mind trends for 2021 and beyond!

5. The ubiquity of Customer Experience

Customer Experience (CX)

Businesses that swear by a holistic approach put customer experience at the core of their operational and marketing efforts. Aligning their products and services to the needs of the customer is much what a business can aim for, but arming employees with CX tools and helping them optimize them to deliver the wow experience can be a great differentiator.

2021 could see the coming together of CX competencies and technology-enabled marketing initiatives and be the deal maker for brands that have tread this space. Globally recognized companies harp on the indispensability of high-quality digital data of customers and their ability to monetize these assets.

Consumers lap up personalized products and services and respond to the most attractive price points with the most optimized delivery times. Though customer satisfaction takes a more comprehensive approach, data-enriched tools can be empowering for customers as well as opening up communication streams to voice their opinion and level of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with businesses and regulatory agencies.

As much as 25% more brands can achieve advances in CX quality in 2021.

6. Exploring the deep depths of Cybersecurity

Deep Depths of Cybersecurity

In 2021, insider incidents may be a pain point for companies undergoing major changes due to the pandemic. In the times of redefined work models, some users may transgress security control, raising serious concern for tracking company data breaches.

As per Forrester's research, related underlying factors may lead to an increase from 25% to 33% in 2021.

Keeping employees satisfied and building high morale will be a deterrent to the malpractices by internal staff who steal critical information.

IoT devices are vulnerable to data threats and security breaches. Equally so is cloud-based infrastructure and to this end, it may necessitate stringent security protocols with improved testing features.

We recommend integrating an employee-friendly and privacy-respecting culture and abiding by fair labor practices as the basis for a proactive cybersecurity action plan.

7. Improvement in employee experience and redesigning HR framework

A fallout of the pandemic is the concern related to the future of work, which includes trying out new formats of remote working to a hybrid model to employing temporary workers (health care and others) to powering routine tasks with automation.

Employee Experience and HR Framework

2021 may see companies catapult employee experience enhancement (EX) and training models into a flagship strategy aligned to talent acquisition and retention goals. CIOs who were interviewed were upbeat about making increased investments that can positively make firms try out new ways to collaborate and go one up in accessing information with added layers of security while maintaining consistency on technology-led modernization and simplification priorities.

HR leadership will have their hands full in the area of employee wellness and compliance, as occupational safety may need to be recalibrated with EX as an enabler to the quality of work-life post-pandemic. A trend that will necessitate novel ways of navigating the uncharted waters of the pandemic-induced crisis is in managing human capital as it will involve much more than coordinating remote work, that is, the rise in “work-from-anywhere” demands may dictate the quality of talent acquisition and possibly set off a competition for hiring the best resources in line with the new regulations.

In Germany, McDonald's and ALDI created a wave by actioning a staff sharing plan which involved deploying McDonald’s workforce from closed outlets to ALDI stores to service the latter’s increased customer demand.

Employee transition costs could be managed in a similar way by redeploying people with comparable skill sets from industries with dwindling demand (e.g., airlines, hospitality) to those experiencing growing demand (e.g., retail, logistics) as an interim plan, such as moving baggage handlers in airlines into a logistics role in distribution companies.

8. Embedding purpose-driven values in a firm’s DNA

Purpose driven values

Some actions go beyond expediency and dovetailing an overarching values-oriented theme in a firm’s culture and processes may prove to be a lifesaver!

Ingenuity is the keyword here and companies that go all out to show that they genuinely care about their customers in a pandemic have possibly discovered the best way to build goodwill and make inherent connections with their customers while also serving their altruistic ends.

To aid in accessing coronavirus data by its stakeholders, Tableau Software developed a data resource hub based on robust case data. LinkedIn offers free access to its premium features for employees in small-sized businesses to explore employment avenues. Sustainable-footwear brand Allbirds provided free shoes to frontline healthcare workers. This is a trend that we expect will push brand values and new information into the limelight in 2021 and for companies to redesign their purpose, as the world veers towards businesses with a soul.

Survey results by Deloitte show that 79% of respondents had more top-of-the-mind recall for purpose-led companies that showed their mettle in engaging with customers and communities alike in very thoughtful ways during the covid-19 outbreak.

9. Blend of online and offline retail experiences

Omnichannel commerce experience

Retail is positioned to leverage the best of both worlds, combining the nimbleness and convenience of online retail and the human touch of offline retail. Two complementary approaches of ‘web-rooming’ and ‘Show-rooming’ drive home the point. ‘Web-rooming’ involves retailers displaying their products in an online showroom but making them available for sale in physical stores. ‘Show-rooming’ allows customers to view products in the store, but requires them to make online purchases at a lower price. Whether it is the in-store experiential models or the full-throttle live streaming of a retail event, 2021 could be the year to optimize the perks of omnichannel customer engagement via the mobile, web, and social platforms.

As per a recent survey, a high percentage of consumers said they favored digital channels for interaction and purchases and a still higher percentage of respondents stated they will continue to rely on digital technologies in the future too.

10. Responsible attitude to inform workforce data mining

Data mining (Workforce data analytics)

For company leaders, collecting employee data analysis across skillsets for gaining a productivity edge, and engaging the workforce better may have a rebound effect. The workforce data analytics is expected to propel the human capital management market, as per CAGR estimates, in the zone of $1 billion by 2023. However, there is a catch and companies run the risk of encroaching upon workforce best practices.

With the power of possessing so much data comes responsibility. This ethical integrity or the lack of it can be the ultimate giveaway where breach-induced mistrust may eat into revenue growth. 2021 may see a crackdown exercise by regulators and legal authorities to instill a level of confidence and awareness regarding employee privacy.

In 2021, revisiting workforce policies and fulfilling requirements to set expectations around workplace privacy standards, and communicating the same is just the way it could pan out for many companies in the US.

Feeding customers soul-fulfilling and emotional needs

This makes a wild card entry in our list as several companies have gone the extra mile to bring joy to help customers live out wholesome experiences from the comfort of their homes. Telcos' stepping up with free unlimited data for a fixed period and entertainment companies such as Walt Disney's online streaming of movies at a preponed date and others scaling up to offer digital shows and virtual tours were heart-warming gestures.

Organizations providing online life coaching sessions, guided meditation, and soul-inspiring content that can be viewed on an app and online services such as contactless food delivery, shared rides, digital financial services felt like a godsend during the pandemic. Literally and figuratively!

It is indeed possible to go beyond a company's product portfolio to cater to essential products such as face masks, hand sanitizers, and personal protective equipment and be a change agent. Finally, we’d like to ring in the new year by saying that it couldn't have gotten better than putting it simply, like Coca-Cola’s brand message “staying apart is the best way to stay united” did.

At Pravaah Consulting, we let your business ride the winds of change and steer your business forward by offering newer perspectives and gauging the veracity of ideas that can help balance and sustain a world comprising shareholders, target audience, and local networks and communities.

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