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Why do digital experiences disappoint customers, and what can brands do to improve them?


A recent study found that 65% of digital experiences are not meeting consumer expectations. 

18th Dec 2020
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There is science behind why we instinctively prefer physical experiences to those in the digital domain.

In a 2017 study for the Journal of Consumer Research, a team of psychologists established that ‘physical’ experiences evoke a tacit human connection that digital experiences often fail to deliver. Physical products and experiences also fulfill a “need for control” and ownership that the digital equivalent struggles to replicate.

The upshot being – humans place more value on physical products and experiences, meaning digital has to work much harder to elicit the same kind of neurological response.

Lockdown experiment

In many ways, 2020 has been a watershed year for putting the science of physical vs digital experiences to the test.

With a large proportion of the global population forced indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic, adults’ internet use surged to a record average of 4 hours a day. Twice as many video calls were being made and one in three people were watching online video more than traditional TV. Our purchasing habits shifted exponentially online.    

Most brands have worked tirelessly to create a digital environment for their customers as a result of COVID-19, however it appears not everyone is satisfied with the results.

A recent study by CMO Council stated that 65% of consumers felt digital experiences were not exceeding expectations.

Crucially, much of the frustration boiled down to human connection, with 50% of respondents declaring a need for greater human involvement in digital engagement.

“We believe the pandemic has exposed brands’ digital shortcomings as well as stymied digital innovation,” explains Tom Kaneshige, chief content officer at the CMO Council.

“When the pandemic hit, consumers were forced to digital channels. Unfortunately, lots of companies had only given lip service to digital transformation, which meant their digital experience wasn’t where it needed to be.

“When consumers couldn’t get their needs met, there also wasn’t seamless transition to traditional channels. There’s a myth that it’s all digital, all the time now. When digital fails to answer a consumer’s question or perform a service, it’s paramount that a real person can step in and bridge the digital divide without the consumer having to repeat themselves.”

When digital fails to answer a consumer’s question or perform a service, it’s paramount that a real person can step in

Understanding behaviour

Given the speed at which brands have had to transform their digital offerings in 2020 (by as much as 6 years in some cases), some failings may be forgiven. However, Erin Fenn, EVP for Intouch Insight, says that finding the balance between human and digital is something that has been a priority for most businesses since the proliferation of the internet. 

“A growing proportion of consumers today know that when they are engaging with businesses online, many of these interactions are driven by AI or other automation tools.

“Although great for business efficiency and triggering activities for your teams, solely leaving it up to the bots to engage with customers can leave a lacklustre impression. What’s critical here is to strike the right balance between leveraging automation and adding a personal touch. Let the AI handle the basics, but trigger human intervention when there’s deeper complexity.  

“When planning the content you need to support your digital experiences, it’s vital you’re adding value to these touchpoints by increasing personalisation in your messaging and ensuring it’s easily consumable. Enrich each and every interaction to make them feel more human by capturing your brand personality and offering added-value that delivers on your brand promise.”

Indeed, the CMO Council’s How covid has changed the channels of engagement research found that personalised experiences can bridge the gap between physical and digital, with 44% of consumers highlighting a desire for more personalisation online.

And this is backed by online behavioural expert Dr. Liraz Margalit, who explains in Pyschology Today that at the root of many issues around digital is a brand’s inability to use the behavioural data at their fingertips in order to provide more personalised experiences. 

“In order to gain a fuller understanding of customers’ digital experiences, businesses should ideally be able to analyse customers’ behaviours and decisions as soon as possible after any online activity, especially activities that involve negative experiences.

“If you don’t take action promptly after negative experiences, it may be too late. When a memory of an unhappy experience gets cemented in a customer’s mind, the damage is done. Disgruntled customers leave, and there’s little chance that they will ever return.

“Ideally, businesses should be collecting data and acting on insights in real-time, or as close to real-time as possible.”

Turning negative experiences around

Whilst creating positive digital experiences continues to be work in progress for many businesses, as Margalit explains, dealing with the fallout from a negative experience is just as pressing.

Erin Fenn believes this is what currently separates brands that are seem as doing digital ‘well’, vs those that are seen as laggards. 

“Whether online, in-person or over the phone, the key to turning any negative experience around is timeliness. The difference between an online interaction vs in-person is that it is much easier to ignore a complaint or issue when the customer isn’t standing there right in front of you.

“Technology can actually be a magic bullet here that you can leverage to effectively remedy digital experiences. By automatically triggering a human intervention in response to a negative comment, poor survey score or cancellation request, it takes the burden off your team to monitor all these different sources of feedback, and keeps them focused on what matters most: your customers.”

“Whether online, in-person or over the phone, the key to turning any negative experience around is timeliness

It’s no coincidence that in the CMO Council’s How covid has changed the channels of engagement research, the most valued traits of a brand’s digital communication with consumers came out as being ‘the ability to escalate to a live person’ among 50% of consumers.

However, even then, there remain some key psychological ingredients missing from many digital experiences that brands must work to correct, especially around the purchasing journey.

“The decision to buy a product is a result of a number of subconscious behavioral processes,” says Dr. Liraz Margalit.

“This means that businesses that want to shape customers’ final purchasing decisions should aim to accommodate those behavioral processes and develop ways of understanding as many of people’s subconscious pathways as possible during their online interactions.”

Erin Fenn explains that there are three critical components for any business that wants to improve this side of the digital experience: Listen to what your customers are telling you, analyse and interpret that information alongside other business, and make sure you act on that information in a timely manner. Fenn also believes that this can be most easily applied to the online purchasing journey, as a starting point: 

“As an example, a retailer selling toys online learned that customers wanted to buy back-up battery packs or chargers. Rather than letting them go to Amazon, this retailer was able to uncover these insights which enabled them to update the check-out process to offer the buyer the most relevant add-on, thus increasing their average sale price, moving more inventory, and ultimately making their customer happier.”

Given the fight it is up against to offer equal or above-value over physical experiences, any nudge a brand can give to lift the digital experience and make customers a little happier should be welcome.


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