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This year’s Collision Conference, which took place virtually from June 23–25, featured more than 32,000 attendees from 140+ countries, including VCs, researchers, athletes, musicians, founders, and titans of industry, all of them exploring the role of technology in a changing world. Here are some key themes from those conversations.

What a difference a year makes. At last year’s edition of Collision Conf, the focus was on the struggles brands face as they attempt to keep up with a fast-shifting business and technology landscape. Staying ahead of that curve has always been a central focus of Collision, but no one who gathered last May in Toronto for the event could have predicted the sheer speed and scale of the changes confronting marketing, growth, and engagement teams today.

As Tian Wu, Corporate Vice President at Chinese technology giant Baidu, said, “The outbreak of COVID-19 greatly impacted our daily lives and the businesses around us—it literally stopped everything.” And while there are more complications and challenges facing today’s world than just COVID-19, marketers are still operating in a landscape fundamentally unsettled by the pandemic, making advance planning essential but also extremely difficult.

This year’s edition of the conference, which took place virtually from June 23–25, featured more than 32,000 attendees from 140+ countries, including VCs, researchers, athletes, musicians, founders, and titans of industry, all of them exploring the role of technology in a changing—and changed—world. Here are some key themes from those conversations:

1. Embrace Your Customers’ Desire Paths

Capturing consumers’ attention has always been a struggle for brands. As we’ve moved from a world defined by mass media outlets like television networks to one made up of various digital devices, platforms, and channels, finding ways to cut through that noise and build strong relationships with people your organization serves has only grown more complex. While the focus of these efforts has often been on customer-focused messaging campaigns and the tools—such as segmentation, personalization, triggered messages, and more—that can provide recipients with more relevant, valuable experiences, there’s another side to the customer/brand relationship: The brand journey that each customer makes for themselves.

During the conference, Grant Ingersoll, the CTO of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organization, foregrounded that customer-led journey when talking about the way that readers make their way through their digital encyclopedia’s millions of entries. He noted that while the structure of the site serves to funnel readers to particular entries, different types of readers have different behavior patterns. For instance, Wikimedia has found that readers of STEM articles tend to come in, gather information from a given article, then depart, while humanities/culture entry readers tend to engage more deeply with a given topic.

Because each user has their own goals from engaging with the site, there’s no one way to move through Wikipedia; however, by charting these millions of individual journeys, digital “desire paths” that speak to how your audience actually prefers to engage. The existence and prevalence of these sorts of desire paths online are a reminder to brands that:

  • Not every customer interaction is going to fit neatly into the traditional marketing funnel
  • Automation and AI can play a role in supporting better customer journeys, as it already does at Wikipedia—but it’s important to be careful to avoid over-personalizing experiences to the point that your brand experience feels like a marketing echo chamber
  • Customers have their own unique preferences when it comes to how they engage and brands should ignore them at their peril

2. Use Technology to Support Brand Humanity

Whether speakers at this year’s conference were talking about data collection, eCommerce, or cybersecurity, one fact consistently shown through as subtext in nearly every conversation: That people the world over are really struggling right now. Those struggles aren’t all the same, but it’s clear that brands looking to market to consumers in today’s challenging environment need to be even more thoughtful about how they’re choosing to do it.

In his talk on the work his company is doing to humanize mobility and innovation, Youngcho Chi, President and Chief Innovation Officer at Hyundai Motor Group, said that Hyundai was responding to today’s world by focusing on “human-centered innovation; it means we want to look at how people want to live and move, and how we can shape an inclusive environment.” He noted that Hyundai had found that taking a more human-focused approach to serving their customer meant ensuring that they were asking critical questions—including the potential positive or negative impact that the work they’re considering will have on society—before moving ahead around new initiatives.

For marketers, the fraught situation that most consumers find themselves in today makes it even more important to find ways to bring a “human-centered” approach to their customer engagement efforts. It’s always a bad idea for brands to serve up irrelevant, frustrating, or otherwise broken marketing experiences to their customers, but doing so when so many are facing economic, cultural, or public health challenges is especially problematic.

To avoid that outcome and provide thoughtful, empathetic experiences to the customers you choose to engage, it’s important to foreground brand humanity. Customers today expect communications that are understanding, friendly, comforting, personable, and reassuring. And they’ll reward brands that provide those kinds of experiences—and snub the ones who fail. Research conducted by Forrester Consulting found that consumers who perceive a brand’s customer experience as “human” are 1.8X more likely to feel satisfied with that brand and 1.9X as likely to recommend it, compared to brands that don’t meet that bar.

3. Pay Attention to the Changing Data Privacy Landscape

Even before COVID-19, it’s been a busy few years in the world of data privacy and security. From the enforcement of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to numerous privacy breaches and scandals, including Cambridge Analytica, we’ve seen personal data become a flashpoint for brands of all verticals and regions.

This year’s Collision brought home that this shift is still very much in progress. While consumers are increasingly focused on the use of their personal data by brands, Stijn Christiaens, Cofounder and CTO at Collibra, cautioned that many people are still unclear on the full extent of the personal data that can currently be tracked digitally and noted that the use of this data needs to be governed by empathy and ethics, with every brand making thoughtful decisions about how they leverage customer information so they’re not violating user trust.

In a conversation about what data protection looks like in the COVID-19 era, Internet Society President and CEO Andrew Sullivan acknowledged that some of the pandemic-related contact tracing initiatives currently being considered would likely have been considered beyond the pale in years prior, but suggested that shift didn’t represent a wholesale move away from privacy concerns by consumers. Ultimately, he argued, people want control over their data and while they may be willing to share access to it in order to help guarantee public health or to support a more effective customer experience, they aren’t giving up claim to that data when they do so.

Final Thoughts

We’re in a time of flux—not just for marketing, but for nearly every aspect of modern life. For brands, part of planning for the future in this kind of highly unstable environment is admitting that you don’t know what the future will hold. Instead, you have to look at the situation and the data in front of you each day, make the plans you can, and ensure that you’re well-positioned to shift or rethink your customer engagement approach when the facts on the ground no longer support your current approach.

For a deeper look at how COVID-19 has unsettled the customer engagement landscape and key data points on what effective marketing looks like today, check out our overview, COVID-19: The New Rules, By The Numbers.

Todd Grennan

Todd Grennan is a New York-based writer and editor. When he's not writing about mobile marketing, customer retention and emerging technologies for Braze, you can find him trying to read his way through every Wikipedia article related to World War II.