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2020: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
We’ve all learnt a lot of new words this year - from furlough to superspreader, and circuit-breaker through to lockdown. It’s been a pig of a year and nothing within this article takes away from that. But, even absolutely garbage years offer us opportunities to improve. So what’s happened?
As the year has progressed and we’ve all become amateur virologists (more on that shortly) we’ve seen apparent shifts in behaviour, some that are permanent (maybe) and some that will revert when a vaccine is readily available.
Throughout everything this year, one thing has remained constant. Data. Lots of it. Presented in varying ways. But, at the core of every decision made, and at the heart of every explanatory press conference. It’s fair to say data went mainstream this year.
We’ve seen the Government deploy a Voice of Customer programme, with collection and response live on TV, be that through a pre-selected question or a live TV link. And not a ‘would you recommend us to your friends and family’ question to be seen. Thank God. And we’ve seen more data-heavy slide decks than anyone ever wants to see.
So, what lessons can brands take from life in 2020? I’ve created a simple list of catchy phrases to help brands (and agencies, and me) save themselves from falling into the 2020 trap as we move into the bright new dawn that is 2021. Or 2022.
It’s not what you say; it’s the way that you say it.
Whilst this heading isn’t entirely true, it has a nice ring to it. And, is almost self-fulfilling in its usage. Think back to one of the numerous press conferences this year and you’ll remember slide-decks, walked through by experts from SAGE and elsewhere.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that sometimes these presentations were tough to follow. The slide below is a good example, prefaced, when presented, with the phrase ‘this is a complicated slide’. If you ever create a slide deck for a general audience that has that preface, maybe rethink it.
I remember seeing this slide live and thinking ‘I don’t really know what this says, and I look at data for a living. How is the general public supposed to take anything from this?’ I then noticed the blue rectangle at the top of the slide that is the important narrative. That, to me, looks like it was added in a fit of panic when no-one outside of the slide creators knew what it was supposed to say. It’s the same message that the visualised data is trying to show, but the audience (normal people) understand ‘hospitals will be overwhelmed on day x’.
Something more like this…something the audience can quickly digest and understand. Drawn from data, but not beating them over the head with your legit data skills.
When we work with data, we’re in a privileged position that we often overlook. We have the raw data, we know the nuances within, and we know what it tells us. But the audience doesn’t unless it is visualised effectively and comes complete with a straightforward narrative. Data allows us to tell a story. But it’s not the story.
In a remote world, everything we look at exists on a screen. Most meetings, at this point, live on Zoom/Teams/Skype, and we spend our days looking at the lovely (?) digital faces of our colleagues or shared screens.
If you’re presenting data, whether it’s campaign results, lead volumes or product returns, consider how you translate data. Can you visualise it simply, with a clear message alongside it? Or, can you just deliver a clear message, and provide a data pack for your audience?
The simplicity of messaging is critical in all walks of life, and it is entirely relevant to the presentation of data. If you can say something in five words, or five slides with graphs, say it in five words. Save your audience, save some carbon and deliver your message in a more straightforward, more concise way. Make 2021 the year where you use storytelling to deliver your message, not hideously complicated visualisations.
Post hoc ergo proctor hoc.
One for the Latin buffs amongst us. Or West Wing aficionados. Post hoc ergo proctor hoc - ‘after this, therefore because of this’. Correlation equals causation. ‘This’ happened, then ‘that’ happened, so ‘this’ causes ‘that’. I overpromised when I said ‘catchy phrases’.
In 2020 terms, the whole year has mostly been framed by arguments about where viruses emerged from, who ate what animal that caused a virus and who said lots of silly things on Twitter and then found themselves unemployed. We’ve seen vaccines discussed and dismissed by people who believe lizards run the world, and heard countless stories of Joan down the road having a vaccine, and then witnessing a python devouring her cat. Vaccines cause snakes to eat cats. Post hoc ergo proctor hoc.
Most of these arguments against legitimate science have relied heavily on correlation and shouting as loudly as possible in the hope that no-one looks at the actual data and thinks ‘are we blaming cheese for people dying at the hands of their bedsheets’?
Within brands and agencies, we see this a lot. Not the cheese thing, but case studies and charts showing a piece of functionality going live, and then revenue skyrocketing. 2020 has been a challenging year in this regard, as lockdown has benefited several brands who, without the external factors, may well have had a bad year, or a vaguely decent year. With the pandemic, they have seen sales explode. Think Zoom, Hornby and Logitech.
It’s challenging to extract external factors from experience changes if a process of experience testing isn’t in place. With reliable testing running, external factors become less problematic, and a genuine view of what does and doesn’t work for your users becomes clearer. Without testing, the urgency from a pandemic can mask issues, and when we ‘go back to normal’, those issues will still exist, and the intent-filled audience likely won’t.
There will be brands who fly in 2021 and beyond, and there will be those who fall back into pre-2020 ruts. The winners will be victorious because they have adapted with urgency to consumers increasing digital maturity but appreciate that the entire customer experience needs to be perfect and will need to change again into 2021. The losers will fail because they assume, by some default, that consumers will continue to shop as they are now, even when we emerge from lockdown. I have seen numerous charts showing massive year-on-year growth because of Covid, but what happens next?
Just because a lockdown led customers to you, will they remain customers when they can leave their house? Was your post-sales experience up to scratch or did the supply chain let you down and actually, that customer will never use you again? Has the thing that delivered you considerable increases in customers put so much pressure on you as a business that your new customer base has decreased because the service provided was sub-par?
Look beyond the soaring customers and consider what this means for your future growth. Those customers may be advocates, or they may be detractors, who now won’t shop with you in the future. That growth curve that assumes exponential growth may now contain customers who have been let down by a site crashing, deliveries not arriving on time or customer service lines being overwhelmed. A spike in customers in 2020 does not guarantee a surge in customers in 2021. Conversely, it could mean the opposite if the end-to-end experience has been problematic.
These next few years are open season for attracting a post-Covid consumer - don’t allow exciting growth charts fuelled by external factors to mask opportunities to improve.
Good things come to those who test.
I’ve spent the last few years annoying every single colleague and client about the need to test experience changes and to understand the impact of your work on your audience. And then 2020 happens and the importance of testing is...everywhere.
We’ve seen vaccines developed in record time, with studies across countries and thousands of samples considered. A test and trace programme implemented to try and quell the virus. Everything centres on testing. We’ve been guided by science in the UK. Whatever your view on the validity of modelling, testing and its benefits have been pivotal. We (largely) trust experts to run experiments with the right sample sizes, and we (largely) trust the MHRA to validate the data behind the much-vaunted results.
Over in the marketing world, experimentation and testing are still (outside of some of the major players) sometimes practised and often misunderstood. We’ve all become experts in R numbers, data trends and virology. We trust numbers, they permeate our every thought this year. But we’re still making huge changes to journeys and experience based on our collective expertise and the loudest voice in the room.
This will always be the case, but I’m pleased that, as an industry, we are starting to see this reducing. We’re slowly realising that digital is a playground for testing. As this change happens, we start to see conversion optimisation (CRO) rolling out more widely but...not always correctly.
If you don’t know the sample size you need for a test, and the minimum detectable effect you need to witness for to know a test isn’t underpowered, or how to spot type errors in your data...well... think of it another way. We would all say we aren’t having the Covid vaccine unless the trial data is watertight. We say ‘bad VW’ for tweaking emissions figures. And we love that WD40 has a ‘test and learn’ backstory. But, when it comes to CRO, marketers happily accept an increase in conversion rate when there have been 13 visitors, and six purchases between them.
2020 should teach us that accurately reporting on data is vital. But, it’s also essential that we understand that data in the first place and don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by beginning a journey of experimentation and ending it by delivering pointless tests that can never provide significant results. Give yourself the gift of risk mitigation, experience iteration and actual impact assessment this Christmas by building experimentation into your business. Not sure how to achieve this? Just ask...
Reducing highly complex issues down to one number is...problematic.
I had a message this week from my parents, telling me that the R number is 0.9 yet we are still in Tier 3. Their question - ‘how can this be?’
No, my parents are not statisticians, or virologists or whatever the word is for someone who knows the causal impact of an R number fluctuation is. This is where the ‘simplicity of messaging’ argument I’ve made comes back to bite me.
There is such a thing as an oversimplification. Falling into that trap can remove all nuance from data and become a fixation for your audience. Everyone I talk to has an opinion on the R number and what it means for society. About three of them are qualified to voice that opinion. For the rest of us, we know one and above is terrible, and anything under one is good. We ‘think’ we know…
It’s easy to scoff but, within our industry, we do the same thing - hello NPS and CSAT. We like to reduce heady concepts into single numbers and then try to extrapolate meaning from them. If used as a rough indicator of trends, there’s no issue. If viewed as the ultimate measure of quality without qualification or insight, it becomes a vanity metric. And it shouldn’t be - ever. It’s your customers’ experience and satisfaction, and if you don’t correctly measure it and act on it, outside of a check box, you’re going to be in trouble in 2021, 2022, 2023 (you get my point).
Consider the metrics you spend the most time looking at - do they genuinely help you understand what is happening in your business? For example, conversion rate - a metric we can improve within hours for any company on the planet because it’s gameable. On its own, does it give you a view of business performance? Or, do you need a selection of metrics to provide you with a snapshot of business health and trends? It’s the latter. And that can be tricky for brands to objectively agree, as different stakeholders invest in metrics that they use and care about.
You have one chance to come out of Covid and set your business up for a period of recovery and growth - don’t let data be the thing that holds you back. Use Christmas and the New Year to take a step back and consider every metric you currently obsess over. Do they give you what you need? Do you have a real world view of business performance and opportunities and the right narrative alongside it? If you think you could improve it, now is the time. <
Consumer behaviour has (sort of) changed forever.
No-one is going to go to a shop ever again. Everything is now e-commerce. There is no such thing as a physical store anymore, it’s all robots and augmented reality at home, visualising a baked bean tin in your cupboard. That last bit would be fun, but the rest is hokum.
What we do know is that more people are shopping online, out of necessity. People will go back to shopping in retail outlets but we can’t roll some things back. Department stores were in trouble before this, chain restaurants were already haemorrhaging cash, over-reaching high street brands were suffering. In just a matter of days we’ve seen Arcadia, Debenhams and Bonmarché crippled. For almost every brand, digital experiences will be critical into 2021 and beyond. They were always going to be though it’s just that Covid has supercharged this. Don’t believe that? Pretty sure a small company called Amazon was doing quite well before all of this.
The reality is we’re looking at a convergence of experiences, consistency across interactions and meeting user needs no matter where they happen to interact with you.
“What you’re going to find is a store that is much more geared towards an integrated omnichannel experience,”
It’s tempting to look to technology to bridge this gap between physical and digital and that’s absolutely the right thing to do. But, technology will only get you so far, and it can often appear far more impressive than it is. Use Siri or say Hey Google and see how many times it falls over. A lot. Google Duplex is impressive. But so is ringing and booking your hair cut. You think, and somehow your vocal cords create a sound that another person hears, understands and acts upon. The phone tech is fantastic, but it’s a conduit for actual human experience and not a replacement.
Personalisation is much vaunted as the way to create an experience that delivers the personal touch in a disconnected transaction. And it does help, but it’s not a silver bullet. Think back to when we shopped locally. It wasn’t that the storekeeper knew your name, and inserted it as many times as possible in a conversation. The beauty existed in familiarity, community and the safety of shopping somewhere where if they didn’t have something, they’d get it and hold it for you and maybe phone you to tell you they had stock. That is not the same as sending an email with someone’s first name in it.
Our job in digital experience creation is to interact with customers in a way that represents the brand’s vision and delivers a seamless connection between every other channel. Personalisation helps, but the initial experience, post-sales and the initial brand campaign need to be on point before that is even a thought process.
Human beings aren’t as complicated as we like to tell ourselves we are. We want people to know our name, to know enough about us to help us and make us feel secure, but not too much so that it becomes an invasion of privacy. Digital experiences don’t suddenly need to replace physical experiences. Consumers don’t want to do everything online. But when they do something online, they want it to require zero thought, and feel like second nature, just like it does when you walk into Tesco. That’s what your experience needs to replicate. You need an experience that doesn’t feel like an experience; it feels like something someone has been doing their whole life.
Don’t try and reinvent the wheel in 2021 to deliver for these new human beings (who are the same human beings you served before Covid). Just make sure your experience delivers for your users. Same advice as in 2019. Same advice as in 2030. Listen, act, improve.
Nothing beats genuine human-to-human connection.
Zoom - once just the only word in Scrabble that I could use a Z in - has emerged this year as a cause of fatigue, and the thing I’ve spent the most time talking to since March.
It, and other systems, offers a seamless route to connecting with my colleagues and family, and it’s been a lifesaver for the business because we’ve carried on delivering quality work in our spare rooms. But, it’s not...the...same.
Technology enables human interaction, but it doesn’t replace it. Or replicate it. And this needs to be a central focus in 2021 and beyond. Our travel clients tell us that next year will see ‘trips of a lifetime’ and ‘luxury trips’ jump to the top of priority lists. A year without any physical experience builds demand, and the next few years will see that realised across sectors. Where does that leave digital experience? Honestly? As the enabler and connector, it was always supposed to be.
A digital experience needs to draw from and augment the physical interactions customers have with your brand. It needs to be a precursor to and conduit for that interaction, and deliver it in a way that meets and exceeds user needs. But as anyone who has tried a digital escape room this year, it would do well to stay away from trying to replicate it.
The ‘next normal’ will change several things. Hopefully, the first thing will be that we stop arbitrarily sticking words in front of ‘normal’. And lots will stay the same. But let’s use this time of change to refocus on what works, and what has worked for decades. Human-to-human connection, robust data turned into killer insight and making life better for our customers. And not calling that ‘Humaning’. That is the key to supercharging 2021 and beyond.