Why relationships are essential in today’s online world and how technology can help you develop them

The value of data underpins most digital strategies – if you can encourage a customer to share information, corporations believe they can monetise it. But is profit the way you should be viewing data? That is an incomplete view. Data is also the best way of listening to, and understanding, your customers. The term ‘digital empathy’ is one that all companies should have as a pillar of their communications strategy, helping form good business relationships.

What is digital empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In a digital world, it is how your digital touchpoints understand and react to the feelings of the person engaging with them.

When meeting face-to-face, empathy is shown by authentically understanding and responding to people. In person, it is easy to build connections through shared experiences as humans instinctively pick up on non-verbal cues, such as fidgeting hands or shifts in body position, to understand others. In a digital world, where technology excludes some of these traditional cues, how can you understand – and show that your customers that you understand?

Let’s have a look at four rules of digital empathy, using data observation to help you understand your online visitors in real-time and engage with them in a meaningful way. This approach can shift you towards building meaningful business relationships.

Rule one: Understand the value of a relationship

The benefits of relationships in business are well documented: through relationships, a business can gain new customers, retain existing ones, and transform customers into ambassadors through positive interactions.

Relationships are key for every business; the adage ‘people buy people’ continues to resonate with customers around the world.

When you’re face-to-face with customers, conveying human care is simple – eye contact, a smile, for example – and conveying your humanity across digital channels can be just as simple by using technology.

In real-world relationships you use body language and other non-verbal cues to ascertain the depth of the relationship and build familiarity over time; you can respond to their immediate needs, as well as construct a longer relationship which lets you react to deeper and ongoing needs. In marketing, you should be aiming to do the same.

Your brand value increases alongside positive consumer sentiment; how consumers feel about and connect with your brand is linked to their shopping behaviours. If you are pushy in your marketing messaging, promoting only what is important to you as a brand and not reflective of the customer’s needs, you will lower consumer sentiment and are less likely to sell successfully. You are also unlikely to build long-term relationships with loyal customers.

Building relationships needs to be a long-term intention, where you serve your customers well and react appropriately to their needs. It’s a two-way street, a communication; it’s not a push or broadcast of information from you to them.

Rule two: Measure at the level of an individual

Relationships are two-way, and this is no different for brands. Consumers expect brands to engage with them on their level, to meet their needs and deliver to their expectations. The vast array of personalities and traits of individual consumers can make this an ongoing challenge, but by ignoring this engagement, your behaviour is threatening damage to the value of your brand.

It’s important to understand at which stage each customer is at in their sales life cycle, and their personal preferences or needs. This can be achieved by aggregating and interpreting the right level of first-party consumer data.

Monitor and interpret signals from your customers so you understand, in real-time, who they are, their interests, their behaviours and motivations. Insight is essential, but not enough on its own – you need to act on your findings. Digital empathy requires customer insight, and acting on this with the appropriate engagement.

Segmentation is not enough. For a strong business relationship – one built on digital empathy – cohorts need to be not only coupled with business rules, but scaled for the entire audience, as individuals. Understand individual users and the complexity of their behaviour, so you can respond to the entire audience at the same time, but in a variety of ways unique to each individual.

Rule three: React to needs now, not later

Digital empathy requires you to demonstrate that you acknowledge your online customer and their needs, and you’re willing to try to provide this to them. By using what you know about each customer to provide real-time customisation, meeting the needs of what they are trying to achieve in a way they understand, your technology is helping you be digitally empathetic.

Companies that don’t practice digital empathy fail to understand a large part of their (still anonymous) audience. Creating emotional connections across all your engagement points is expected. By connecting with your users’ needs in real-time, you can deepen your business relationship, and encourage users to move to the next stage of their buying journey. You remain central to their purchasing decisions.

Retail often works on past purchases and databases – such as a supermarket sending you an offer to buy eggs as you normally buy them every two weeks, but hadn’t done so for a few months. AI is self-learning and identifies the customer on their journey, making tailored recommendations for purchase at a moment that will trigger action.

Despite the technology being used in other sectors, in travel there remains a need to better understand the customer in real-time and how to react to their behaviours and intent. Unlike retail brands, travel purchases do not benefit from a high frequency of engagement. By using smart technology – which learns in every moment, by every action – travel companies can build digital empathy and drive meaningful business relationships.

Rule four: Show why your action counts

As PWC summarises in their Consumer Intelligence Series: “Give customers a great experience and they’ll buy more, be more loyal and share their experience with friends… What truly makes for a good experience? Speed. Convenience. Consistency. Friendliness. And one big connector: human touch – that is, creating real connections by making technology feel more human…”

Truly understanding your customer is not about simply offering a discount or a promotion. It’s about presenting the most relevant product or course of action for that moment in their customer journey. You need to demonstrate that you’re listening, and that you recognise their immediate needs.

Draw conclusions from insights and action them. Tailor the content – words and images – they see. Recognise trigger points and personalise an offer to those who have booking intent but are predicted to need a nudge to convert; this can be a very powerful tool in the hands of an ecommerce manager.

You can review how some travel companies are providing the support and inspiration their customers need, moving them through the sales funnel, in our recent blog posts: How travel brands can use AI to cross-sell online and Wait a second! Using AI to prevent churn without burning profit.

Digital technology brings great advantages over its analogue counterpart. In theory you can address all customers at once at the level of the individual. The system has “perfect” knowledge of products and is unbiased and unrestricted. This can make it seem overwhelming, but by following these four rules a technical solution can be attuned to meet customer needs at scale in a customer focused manner.

Digital empathy – as your entire digital strategy – should not revolve only around what you as a company get out of the engagement. Success is also measured by what your customers receive, and the value they perceive. Customers expect you to understand them – and this will be the biggest benefit to your bottom line.

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