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Why a digital-first mindset is now essential

By Julio Taylor



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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September 18, 2020 | 10 min read

We’re in the midst of a generational shift when it comes to consumer behaviour, with the majority of the population now millennial or younger. But for the first time in history, they are also digital natives. They have never known life without the internet. What does that mean for your business?

Hallam wax lyrical on the importance of cultivating a digital-first minset.

Hallam wax lyrical on the importance of cultivating a digital-first minset.

We’re in the eye of this perfect storm. An impending recession, an attitude shift accelerated by the pandemic and rapidly changing population with increasingly high expectations when it comes to digital and the experiences they consume.

What is happening right now is the clearest and most severe warning sign to any business (of any size) that it’s finally time to take digital seriously. As seriously as any other part of business.

It’s now official that the UK has entered into an unprecedented (that word again) recession as the UK economy shrank by more than 20% between April and the end of June. Now, the debate centres on what the recovery is going to look like.

Will it be V-shaped? W-shaped? U-shaped? All of these are established economic models for recessions, and while it is difficult to say which of these it is going to be, there is one huge factor behind it that businesses – of all sizes – need to start thinking about: the digital experience as an essential component of any type of recovery.

During the last recession in 2008, businesses that were already in bad shape struggled to recover – and that will be true again.

But there is one fundamental difference between then and now: businesses that embrace change and adapt their products, services and marketing strategies to match the new digital-first standards of their changing audiences will be guaranteed better chances of success than those that stand still and wait for things to return to normal.

Hallam wax lyrical on the importance of cultivating a digital-first minset.

Over a decade ago, recovery plans largely relied on the eventual return of established business models — a “return to normalcy” that simply isn’t going to happen this time around.

In 2020 and beyond, the rise of e-commerce is accelerating the demise of the high street. Social media is replacing traditional advertising models. People meet and socialise online, making the home the new social hubs – and many of these changes are here to stay.

The global pandemic has amplified and accelerated permanent social and behavioural change on a scale and speed we’ve never seen before – and there’s never been a clearer call to adapt, and fast.

What lessons can we learn from China’s initial recovery?

In China, some of the habits that people adopted throughout lockdown have remained as restrictions eased. People have shifted more to online shopping and are still avoiding open public spaces despite a widespread reduction in lockdown measures, suggesting some permanent changes to the way people behave and interact with brands.

This shift online is likely to be permanent. Statistics suggest we were heading in that direction anyway, but it has simply been accelerated by what is happening around the world right now.

The speed of that shift, combined with the ongoing pandemic and the recession, means this is the perfect opportunity for businesses to take that seriously and strive to achieve digital maturity.

It is that which will help them survive.

How does a small business with no digital experience get started?

Simply put, you have to invest. You have to identify the right partner, the right agency or the right people internally that can help build the foundations of a digital-first mindset. It’s a big challenge, but one that is absolutely crucial in order to thrive in the economy of the future.

We’re no longer talking digital being something that happens on a computer. Where it used to be a supplementary activity, digital is now often a replacement for physical interaction and the way consumers buy goods and services.

Digital is now as important as having a truck, or a delivery fleet, or a shop, or any model that has been relied on in the past. The same can be said about restaurants, too. We’re going to see more and more that delivery becomes just as important as the physical experience.

Standing out in a digital world

As everyone switches to digital, it’s a race to the top. The digital experience, the brand, the way you are coming across – all of this is going to become critical.

With everyone investing in digital at once as a result of the forced transformation brought about by the pandemic, we’re going to see more of an emphasis on design than ever before. There is going to be more of an emphasis on brand, the way things look and feel, tone of voice – all things that hadn’t really mattered as much before, because they are only a partial priority.

Consider this. If a consumer walks into a store and it’s in a bad shape, the likelihood is that consumer is probably not going to be coming back. That is transcending to the digital landscape and that minimum threshold when it comes to the quality of your online presence is only going to get lower.

While the sounds drastic, the evidence is also compelling.

How to adopt a digital-first mindset will being economically savvy

You don’t automatically have to turn to one of the bigger agencies.

There are solutions for every scale; freelancers, smaller agencies and independents that are more than capable of implementing a basic digital-first approach that will allow even the smallest businesses to compete and discover opportunities.

The biggest challenge, though, is not the execution of the cost. It is taking it seriously internally. It’s a mindset shift.

Even from our perspective here at Hallam, there is a highly mature end to the scale that is beyond the reach of a lot of companies.

When we truly think of multi-moment experiences, a lot are still behind the curve on that – but there’s only one direction of travel now and that’s toward more sophistication at every level.

What do high-quality multi-moment experiences look like?

The Athletic is a good example of what sophisticated multi-moments looks like.

Everywhere you go, if you’re a sports fan, you see The Athletic. Audio. Video. YouTube. Facebook. Its brand and name can be seen everywhere.

It has a fine balance when it comes to brand-building awareness and short-term activations with its effective discounts. I have ended up becoming a subscriber because I got sucked in by it.

HelloFresh also does a very similar job. It was previously battling apathy because there was always the option of going to the supermarket. Now, however, it has got the combined benefit of convenience and the current pandemic and its marketing has been so sophisticated.

It comes back to multi-moments. It has got campaigns running across Instagram, Facebook, television and radio. It has gone beyond just putting an advert on a bus stop and seeing what happens.

Both of these brands are thinking long-term and their respective strategies have brought together brand awareness and short-term activations to achieve maximum results.

Not one industry is immune

The future of digital marketing applies to every industry.

You either have to sell online as a replacement for a physical store or you are using the internet to try convince people to go to your store because no one is going out any more.

Consumers are being precious with their money and whether you are B2B or B2C, to convince someone to part with their money is going to require a sophisticated multi-moments strategy that is rooted in a digital-first approach.

That’s the only way of reaching people in the current climate. We are still in a period of semi-remote working, which is a huge barrier. Commutes are cut and physical exposure to advertising is declining drastically.

That just leaves digital and that is only on the up.

Will the big corporates find their authenticity?

Big, multi-millionaire, corporate companies are looking for authenticity. They’re looking for ways to connect with the everyday person directly, with content that they actually engage with and be interested in.

Previously, they relied heavily on third-party proxy sales or distributor networks. Now, however, we’re seeing with our bigger clients at Hallam that they are primarily focused on connecting with customers in an authentic way.

Thinking about a brand as an embodiment of your personality – rather than a tick box in your marketing plan – and speaking with consumers in a language they understand are going to be so important.

Content has to be produced in a way that their consumer can relate to, on a level as though they had produced themselves and it is their own tone of voice when they are reading it.

This is something that big companies and brands have struggled to do in a meaningful way. That’s a barrier they have to overcome.

Smaller brands have also always been better at it. They enjoy a closeness with the consumer that a big brand cannot match.

Statistics show that authenticity matters and makes a difference and bigger brands have never taken that seriously because they have always had their established models.

Those modes, though, are redundant. They have to be replaced with something. Empathy. Emotion. Direct connection. Bigger brands need to find their voice and learn to connect with the everyday consumer.

They can do it at home when they’re speaking with their friends and family, but they cannot do it in a professional setting.

Final thoughts

From a B2B point of view, brands are far less likely to spend money due to the recession.

If you’re willing to invest in digital because of spending, imagine how your customers feel about purchasing from you.

There is an element of expectations right across the chain. We’re having to work harder to convince people to part with cold-hard cash and experience is going to be everything. The stakes are higher than ever before and those that don’t rise with it and adopt a digital-first mindset are in danger of falling with the old traditional model.

Julio Taylor, chief executive officer at Hallam.


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We’re a multi-award winning full-service digital agency based in the UK, and a trusted partner to some of the world’s biggest national and international brands.


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