Customer experience and engagement trends for 2021
Last year, my fellow G2 analysts and I made predictions about the digital trends we believed would transform the software industry in 2020, from AI and analytics to social media. However, none of us could have predicted the tumultuous year brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past 10 months, the pandemic has been changing the way we live and work; from remote work to virtual classrooms, businesses across all industries have been finding ways to adapt to a dramatically different new normal.
Here at G2 research, we’ve been observing these shifts in the market as they manifest through traffic patterns, search trends, review counts, and innovative new products and software categories. In my day-to-day work covering the marketing and customer service markets at G2, a picture has begun to emerge of the software trends that will shape customer experience and engagement in 2021—and it’s all about the virtual world.
Virtual and hybrid events will be the new standard
In May 2020, the growing need for businesses to pivot from in-person events to virtual ones led to the creation of G2’s new Virtual Event Platforms category. Earlier in the year, a dramatic spike in Google searches for the term “virtual event platform,” paired with large jumps in traffic to G2’s software categories for remote work tools, made it clear that businesses were looking for a solution to maintain their event programs in the midst of the pandemic.
Turns out there may be some truth to that old Field of Dreams adage: “If you build it, they will come.” Since its launch, the Virtual Event Platforms category has seen astronomic growth. At its creation, the category held a mere 15 products with a negligible number of reviews; after all, most platforms’ virtual event features were newly developed and released in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses. As of November 10, 2020, the Virtual Event Platforms category on G2 boasts 67 products, including a mix of startups like Remo Conference and Hopin as well as more established vendors, such as InEvent and Splash.
It appears that buyers have plenty of choices when it comes to finding a virtual event solution, but it would be difficult to make any decisions about selecting the right one without peer reviews. Thankfully, as sellers have flocked to G2 to list their virtual event software, so too have reviewers emerged in droves to leave their feedback on these new tools. In the past six months, users have left nearly 500 reviews for virtual event platforms.
Even after it’s safe to resume in-person events in the future, evidence suggests that their virtual counterparts will continue to thrive. Though the virtual experience is inarguably different, businesses are beginning to realize their potential, including broader reach and lower budgets.
In a review for Hopin, Christopher S. writes, “All of the conferences for our programming community were cancelled this year due to COVID. Hopin has allowed us to create a conference that allows for the interaction we all missed, and, arguably, makes it better because we can pull in attendees from around the world (and save on travel budgets, to boot!).”
Event software vendors are in a unique position to capitalize on a growing market for hybrid events. As organizations are embracing new technology for virtual events, they will undoubtedly want to continue in-person events whenever possible. However, this opens up an exciting opportunity for hybrid events, which can attract both in-person as well as virtual attendees. InEvent, for example, began as an event management platform for in-person events. While events were being canceled due to COVID-19, InEvent quickly released new features to allow their customers to pivot to virtual. This background in traditional events may serve them well in the coming months.
Reviewer Ben P. writes that InEvent “provides security to my clients knowing they can change the event from an in-person, to hybrid, to virtual event instantly as conditions around the pandemic change.”
As coronavirus cases continue to surge and local governments reinstitute tighter restrictions on travel, business, and social gatherings, it looks like virtual events are here to stay in 2021. Businesses that once may have chosen to postpone their events must consider the long-term impact of the pandemic. In-person events are not likely to resume in the near future but expect to see more businesses testing hybrid events when it is safe to do so. For those that rely on events to engage customers and provide value to sponsors, virtual event platforms will be a necessity.
Your customers are online: Digital engagement will help you meet them there
Throughout 2020, stay-at-home orders and remote work policies have ensured that consumers spend more time at home than ever before. Hence, it’s no surprise that the use of personal devices like mobile phones has also increased. According to GlobalWebIndex, 71% of internet users surveyed reported spending more time using their smartphone since the start of the pandemic, while 46% reported an increase in laptop time.
Around the world, consumers are using personal devices for working, shopping, schooling, and entertainment. This, in turn, means that consumers are increasingly likely to interact with a business through digital channels—for example, shopping through a website or app, following the company on social media, or interacting with customer support through live chat. In fact, in the same GlobalWebIndex study above, 43% of respondents said they were spending more time on messaging services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and 42% said they were spending longer on social media in general.
While “contact center” may bring to mind traditional customer service channels like phone calls, email, and chat, many cloud-based solutions today are omnichannel, enabling businesses to communicate with their customers through their preferred channels, including social media, messaging services, and text messaging. This year and next, another important feature for organizations to consider is the ability for their customer service teams to work remotely. Since they are built in the cloud rather than hosted on site, cloud contact centers make it possible for a remote workforce to continue supporting its customers wherever they are.
Depending on a company’s size, industry, and age, a full contact center solution may not be necessary. However, businesses impacted by the coronavirus must still find tools to communicate with quarantined customers. One solution for this is SMS marketing. According to Zipwhip, 77% of consumers prefer texting over any other messaging channel, and since all smartphones come with a built-in texting app, it’s an extremely reliable form of communication. As the impact of COVID-19 gives rise to new and changing restrictions on shopping, dining, and services, SMS marketing is poised to help businesses deliver stellar customer experiences.
In a review for the SMS marketing platform EZ Texting, users Charles & Stacy P. write, “During the pandemic/shutdown, our business pivoted to more direct-to-customer delivery… As we managed to get our contacts to grow, we used EZ Texting as part of our outreach to existing customers as we focused on new customers on social media. The approach worked well because we were able to tell customers when we were nearby and that helped spur some impulse purchasing.”
Next year, expect to see more businesses adopting new tools to support digital customer engagement—they will thrive because of it.
Do more with less: AI and analytics for customer experience
As businesses increase interactions with customers through digital channels—especially social media and messaging platforms—they must prioritize improving customer experience (CX). At the same time, reductions in budget and staff due to the pandemic are forcing teams to do more with less. Due to this convergence, expect artificial intelligence (AI) to become a must-have solution for marketing and CX teams. AI, particularly machine learning, allows marketing teams to process vast amounts of customer and campaign data. When AI is embedded in marketing analytics tools, marketers can generate predictive insights, dive deep into customer personas, improve campaigns, and optimize budgets.
As AI becomes more widely available and less costly, there will be fewer barriers for mid-market companies and small businesses to leverage this powerful technology. Microsoft recently launched a free service, the Digital Marketing Center, which uses AI to help businesses automate and analyze their ad campaigns on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Microsoft Advertising. There are also many other free marketing analytics tools available through free trials or starter packages, including Salesforce’s Datorama, OWOX BI, and Morphio.
On the customer service side, G2 launched a new category for experience management (XM) software earlier this year. XM solutions provide all the same features of a survey or enterprise feedback management tool but add enhanced capabilities for closing the loop on customer feedback. Shortly after the creation of this new category, a new trend emerged: We noticed a growing number of solutions that focused explicitly on the analysis of customer feedback without replacing a company’s existing tools for feedback collection.
In response, we launched the Feedback Analytics software category in October this year. These products leverage natural language processing (NLP) to analyze sentiment, key phrases, and trends across all feedback channels, like social media, surveys, help desks, and reviews. With consumers increasingly engaging with businesses through these digital channels during shutdown, customer service and marketing teams alike will harness the power of feedback analytics to bring together all digital channels, promoting a better understanding of customer perception and improving CX.
To succeed in 2021, businesses will seek out new tools and methods for engaging their audiences digitally, such as through virtual events, social media, and SMS communications. Next year will also be AI’s time to shine, as vendors add more machine learning capabilities to empower businesses of any size to optimize digital engagement and customer experiences.
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Stephanie is a senior research analyst at G2 concentrating on marketing and digital advertising software. Prior to joining G2, Stephanie spent four years in B2B marketing and event management at an independent publishing company. This experience nurtured her passion for understanding how technology can help solve the unique challenges small businesses face today. Stephanie’s areas of interest include brand perception, customer experience, SEO, and local marketing. She received her BA in journalism and Spanish from Marquette University and in her spare time enjoys reading, gaming, and trying new vegetarian restaurants.