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Re-think, Re-imagine, Prepare: How To Face The Oncoming Virtual Century


Accenture Interactive chief strategy officer Baiju Shah on why the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated our cultural shift towards all things digital, and how organisations should adapt

Re-think, Re-imagine, Prepare: How To Face The Oncoming Virtual Century

Nothing accelerates human history like a pandemic. The recent Travis Scott concert series in Fortnite counted over 27.7 million (physically) socially distanced humans, coming together virtually, in what may be a blueprint for a new type of interactive concert event.  

The story of the 21st century so far has been one of steady and incremental step-changes towards a digitally-led future, but Covid-19 has brought that reality closer than ever. This year has seen digital places, interactions, brands, and value all being legitimised as much as, if not more, than their analog equivalents. 

Among the countless upheavals and changes brought about by the pandemic has been an acceleration of a trend over two decades in the making. It’s a worldview that says, quite simply:

“If I Can Do It Virtually, I Will.”

That thought process has evolved so far because of advances in technology and culture, but is now universally adopted due to necessity. 

The enforced shift to virtual working, consuming and socialising is fuelling a massive shift to virtual activity for anything.  In our new reality, there are experiences that we sorely miss.  But there are plenty of experiences we no longer have access to and, frankly, do not miss (my commute, for one).  In addition to that, there are also new experiences we will try, like and continue post Covid-19.

There’s no question that times are changing, but it’s down to us to decide how we change with them. 

Turn And Face The Strange

Across the world, businesses are showing us the value of both forward planning and adaptability. In China, for example, ZTE and Remote Telecoms designed a 5G-powered system enabling remote consultations and diagnoses of Covid-19. 

Countless companies are showing us how to adapt to a constantly evolving normal. On a single day in mid-March, internet use in locked-down Italy surged by 30%. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the likes of Disney and Universal releasing their films ahead of schedule on digital platforms, fitness instructors leveraging Instagram and other online streaming services, and universities from Harvard to Innsbruck switching to digital-only lectures. 

On the other hand, a lack of contingency planning has left some industries reeling. For the retail sector, capacity constraints became an issue, and one with serious consequences for people who can no longer get to the supermarket. This is the result of the ‘endless aisle’ not yet being a reality for this level of demand as companies have repeatedly deferred prioritisation of full-scale digital commerce transformations. The silver lining is that the lessons we’re learning today will leave us better prepared in the event of a second wave of the virus. 

Another change that we’re only just scratching the surface of is the change in our values and worldview that’s underway right now. Logically, we can expect to see an increased desire for something ‘real’ as a result of our current digital dependency. In that sense, we should be investing in experiential in order to cater for the inevitable explosion of culture and activity that follows the lifting of lockdown once this crisis has passed. 

However, we should also consider how our current behaviours might redefine our notion of what ‘real’ is. A small example would be how we’ve become suddenly far more likely to share personal stories at the start of work conferences. It may well be that we will see ‘virtual’ experiences, such as virtual arts or virtual commerce, increase in value over physical. 

How Can We Adapt?

The steps we can be taking to make sure our businesses are future-fit break into two categories: what we can be doing now, and what we should do once this crisis is behind us. Generally speaking, we should be looking to virtualise our experiences and means of delivery wherever possible whilst not writing off ‘real’. We should think about new experiences and spaces that are not bound by the limitations of ‘real’ in the physical sense, and about how virtual and real experiences can complement one another. Make a distinction between functional and deeper human needs - markets for the latter will emerge over time, while the former will drive demand now.

What We Should Be Doing Now: 

Shift Customer Connections Online: Let’s leverage virtual platforms to connect customers with real-life experts, places and events. Think how we create social trust in people who meet virtually.

Roadmap the need for your products and services, now and next: Continuously engage customers and employees to understand how your products and services need to evolve during the shutdown and immediately after. Determine where reassurance will be needed that a service is reliable and safe.  Establish how you will stay in contact with customers who may become more irregular for the time being. 

Test Immersive Strategies: Reimagine virtual communications, commerce and brand experiences that leverage social and other AR/VR/web platforms for engagement and delivery. How can we convey the sensory aspects of shopping in stores digitally?

What We Should Be Doing Next:

Re-think Consumer Understanding: Traditional demographic-led segmentation approaches need to be re-imagined. Leading brands are using new expressive segmentation approaches to fuse traditional segmentation with human-centred research, providing a much more holistic picture of market growth potential and how customers think.

Re-imagine Experiences: Individuals, families and social groups are all sources of creative innovation, and are adept at hacking new ways to live. Already, people are responding to COVID-19 by innovating for themselves. Watch that innovation closely and use it as a source of creativity for innovation in what products and experience you provide.

Prepare A Post-Covid Strategy: We should define our business strategy for when customers come back out to play, anticipating new behaviours and values. Rethink what role your brand and service can play while consumer values of transparency, health and safety reign.

According to psychologists, it takes as few as 18 days to form a new habit. This means that the world that emerges from this crisis will be profoundly different to the one that went into lockdown. 

All evidence points to a virtual future that’s democratised, on-demand and a place where we can all thrive - in every aspect of our lives. The pandemic has made us all more open to new ways of doing things. Let’s jump in and embrace it. 

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Accenture Song, Thu, 07 May 2020 09:05:09 GMT