The Future of Personalization
When future generations look back at the current pandemic period, they will see – among other things – a turning point in the way people live their everyday lives. We had already gotten accustomed to computers and phones, but social distancing, travel restrictions, and lockdowns forced us to fully replace in-person interactions with purely digital ones.
Humans are a social species, but with each passing month, we became more and more accustomed to this unnatural status quo. Though most of us instinctually long to be in the presence of other people, we are effectively training ourselves to replace real social experiences with the digital simulation of social media. When the pandemic truly ends, we may not be able to simply ‘flip a switch’ in our minds and revert back to the way things were.
Indeed, people may soon find that they are no longer satisfied with either distinctly physical or digital experiences alone, but instead seek out a blend of both. As businesses adapt to a post-COVID world, many are designing their in-person shopping experience to more closely resemble an online transaction – and vice versa.
Interactive displays in shops and restaurants are becoming almost as common as personalized chatbot communications on e-commerce sites. Moreover, in many countries it’s now possible to go for long stretches without any cash, as paying with a swipe of a card or a scan of your phone is faster and easier than fiddling with bills and coins.
As this integration becomes more fine tuned, customers that enter through the front door or open a website will soon find a seamless integration between in-person and digital elements, customized to fit with their own behavior and preferences. New technologies will enable a more bespoke experience, while bringing the real and virtual worlds much closer together.
Below is a short list of themes to look out for as businesses redesign their customer journeys to suit the needs and expectations of shoppers in a post-pandemic future:
Omnichannel marketing – The magic of machine learning lets platforms identify individual users both online and in real life, in order to deliver personalized recommendations and promotions suited to their specific needs. Interactive displays both in-store and online can shape the shopping experience according to your precise customer profile.
Augmented reality – Advanced mobile devices can overlay virtual objects on top of reality. For example, after scanning your body, an app can help you ‘try on’ virtual clothes and order the real thing, customized to your measurements. Similar techniques are able to project furniture into your home, and enable other forms of digital ‘try before you buy’ experiences.
Affective computing – “Emotion AI” or affective computing refers to the ability of computers to mimic and react to human emotions the same way that a real person might do. From virtual salespeople to customer guides and even conversation partners as you browse items, affective computing can adapt to your personality and preferences.
From wearable devices to home appliances and other items in the IoT network, increased connectivity allows for personalized experiences across multiple platforms. Imagine, for example, one of your devices hearing from your voice that you have a stuffy nose. It then sends a signal to your web browser, which recommends medicine or treatment the next time you open the app. These sorts of capabilities enable personalized attention and recommendations, delivered seamlessly as appropriate.
The best of both worlds
This type of hybrid future, where the digital and physical collide, was perhaps inevitable. For decades, science fiction stories gave us visions of androids, holographic chambers, seemingly magical gadgets, smart computers, and more. All we needed was time.
But the pandemic has catapulted us forward years – possibly even decades – toward the integration of digital technology with even our most commonplace habits. ‘Movie night’ increasingly means Netflix-style home streaming (curated by an algorithm, of course), meetings and classes have switched to Zoom, conversations are held via social media, and even restaurants are handing off many of their meals to delivery drivers.
Normally for such changes to cement themselves in popular culture, society must wait until a majority of people have grown up with the relevant technology at their fingertips. But the pandemic forced the older generations to adapt in ways that they would otherwise have been highly reluctant to do.
For example, COVID-19 represents an acute danger to the elderly. And so, faced with the choice of living in solitude or staying connected via the digital world, huge numbers of seniors chose the latter. Social media statistics reflect this massive demographic shift:
People aged 65+ were the fastest-growing group of Facebook users in 2020. Snapchat – a platform designed to appeal to the young – likewise saw the highest growth rates among its oldest users. This level of adoption among the elderly would have been impossible to imagine under normal conditions, though the pandemic made it all but inevitable.
With all age groups increasingly ‘logged in’ to the digital world, businesses are now able to take greater advantage of the personalization opportunities that such connectivity allows. Furthermore, the economic disruption caused by the pandemic has provided businesses with a natural opportunity to refine their sales approach, based on adaptations already made during the period of social distancing.
In short, the pandemic has led us to an unusually fertile moment where supply, demand, and opportunity are all perfectly aligned to create a generational shift in culture. By a stroke of luck, the technology needed to see it through – though not perfect – is good enough to show us what’s possible.
This rare combination of factors means that the dawn of a new era in business is just around the corner. There will be speed bumps, of course – particularly as businesses also face the hard task of climbing out of a pandemic-induced recession. But through innovations like omnichannel marketing, augmented reality, affective computing, and spatial web technology, our digital day-to-day experience is about to get a lot more personal.