The pandemic sucks. Bold statement. I know, I know.
Our relationship with COVID-19 feels like the most toxic relationship you could imagine. Once we think we’re close to done with cancellations, quarantines and masks, one of those pesky little variants pops up and forces itself back into our lives. We grab our belongings (I imagine them strewn across the front yard like a scene from act two of a romcom) and we all uncomfortably settle back into another phase of the pandemic.
Just as they were in early 2020, people are yearning for human connection, and it’s changing the way they spend money and engage with brands.
Do you remember those early days in March and April of 2020, when we were all so desperate for dopamine that a little box from Amazon.com felt like a holiday? How about the new wave of solopreneurs and emerging brands that created products like beard grooming kits and card games and suddenly went viral on TikTok?
Small businesses started selling gobs of products through distribution channels that had been largely dormant or inaccessible before we were all forced to spend our whole day inside, online. Their customers on the other end just wanted to feel some excitement, some connection with a community they were yearning for.
As we fluctuate in and out of the pandemic, many of those consumer trends are here to stay. Your brand’s customers are getting sick of artificial intelligence, chatbots and automated experiences. Automation isn’t the enemy, but we’ve gone too far; 75 percent of customers want to interact with a real person more as technology improves.
The brands best positioned to succeed in e-commerce in 2022 and beyond are those that recognize the need for a “human in the loop.” Show your customers that you actually care about them, or risk getting left with a bunch of sweet technology — and no loyal customers.
A Changing Marketplace
Quick, a relevant flashback to my youth.
I was raised by a single mother. We didn’t have a lot of money, and growing up wasn’t always the easiest. My mom, the patient matron saint that she is, spent any spare time crafting to make ends meet with the desperate goal to keep the harsh realities of being near-homeless as distant as she could from us. Unfortunately, she couldn’t always make enough to keep basic utilities on because finding physical spaces, or networks to sell into, was really difficult back then.
As we’ve grown into a world where commerce can happen literally anywhere at any time, I often wonder what life would’ve been like for my mom if she had access to Etsy, Shopify, or any of the myriad of e-commerce tools we have available today. So many solo or small businesses thrive on these tools — even more so since so many people started new hustles during the pandemic.
That’s my long-winded way of saying that e-commerce tools have leveled the playing field.
Big brands no longer have the dominance they used to. Any solopreneur can learn the alphabet soup of e-commerce and marketing acronyms (ROAS, CTR, CVR, etc.) and start getting their product in front of people’s eyeballs.
How can your brand differentiate itself as the marketplace for every product gets increasingly crowded? Glad you asked: stay with me.
Human Connections Matter More
For a while now, everything in marketing has been trending towards automation, bots and computers doing work for us. It makes sense. Robots scale much better than humans do, and companies can cut costs and time by automating basic activities like customer service.
That trend just isn’t going to cut it anymore, especially not after what every consumer experienced over the past two years. Sometimes you have to do things that don’t scale.
What brands gained in efficiency they lost in personality, connectivity and, really, humanity. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. A human connection, and a real sense of community with your brand, are going to be valuable qualitative metrics that power future success.
Think of a high-end store like Nordstrom. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for the top-tier service the store associates provide. As human connections gain importance, brands have to invest time and resources into making their customers actually enjoy the shopping experience.
Optimization to Automation: 'Human in the Loop'
I’m not saying we should start a war with all the robots. That doesn’t help anybody, and I’m not even sure we’d beat them (I’ve seen enough dystopian future movies). Automation is still necessary; it just needs to be augmented and checked by real, empathetic humans.
Brands have to start with the end in mind. Ask yourself: What optimization am I trying to achieve? Do I want to increase revenue, get better return on marketing spend, or increase conversions? Instead of automating everything, and then figuring out what you want to do, focus on your goals and ask yourself how automation can help you get there.
That’s where the idea of a “human in the loop” comes into play. Human expertise can help you understand and analyze whatever you’ve automated — and the data that comes with it. In a customer service sense, prioritize the spots where human connection is necessary for a positive brand experience. When you can, automate.
Be Human for Your Customers
It all comes back to the subtitle: Show your customers you give a sh*t about them.
The e-commerce marketplace looks different than it did two years ago, and there’s new profiles for both buyers and sellers. There’s always going to be a place for automation and bots, but your brand can’t prioritize those things over a human-led customer experience.
Everyone’s relationship with the pandemic is toxic. Customers deserve a better type of relationship, and your brand can provide that by keeping a human in the loop.
Zach Holmquist is the chief product officer at VoyageSMS, a SMS marketing and message commerce platform.
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Zach Holmquist is the chief product officer at VoyageSMS. He was previously a Senior Director of Product at WeWork, as well as CTO and Co-Founder of Teem, a flexible workplace tech startup that WeWork acquired for $115M. Zach has a passion for building products from concept to completion and growing customer-facing solutions and relishes in the creativity and disruption of startup culture.