COVID-19 has forced itself on humankind. Its impact on the world has been like a tsunami that builds up suddenly and then forces a wave to reset the environment. Though destructive at first, it can bring a new balance to nature in the process. Agreed – the comparison between COVID-19 and a tsunami may not be the most ideal; yet most of us are in support of the argument that the pandemic has forced businesses in almost all industries including media, advertising, retail, etc. to look for opportunities and survival tactics to help brave the new scenario.

In North America, I have found a huge shift of lifestyles that have been directly influenced by the pandemic. What started with fear and panic buying of essential goods – toilet paper included – has now settled down. It was so surprising to see empty retail shelves and long lines at big-box retailers like Walmart et al that shopping for goods online alternatively immediately rose up. This suddenly created a shift towards large e-tailers like Amazon, who have built their business models differently from the brick-and-mortar stores. Though Amazon and eBay were the initial beneficiaries, brick-and-mortar stores suddenly sped up their expansion online to compete and ensure their survival.

While the pandemic forcing businesses to switch to online was an obvious shift, there was also an unfulfilled demand that justified investment in the digital medium from the so-called ‘traditional retail’ environment. In Canada and some parts of the USA, restaurants were forced to close down dine-in services, yet they saw substantial growth in food delivery demand. This brought about a surge in online food delivery services for companies like Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes & DoorDash. Though these online delivery apps are not new, they immediately latched on to the sudden increase in consumer demand, as customers were willing to pay extra for food to be delivered, particularly during lunch hours throughout the week.

A very important element in the growth of online businesses is the end-to-end digital funnel offered by most online stores, restaurant apps and service businesses. Digital payment systems have enabled security features and established efficacy so that customers feel totally comfortable in using their credit cards, debit cards, or Paypal accounts. Banks that issue financial transaction-enabled cards now have frameworks in place to ensure the peace of mind of customers against frauds and have established clear procedures to assist in payment disputes, if any. As customers spend more and more time shopping online for food, groceries, clothing, shoes, electronics, furniture, household merchandise as well as financial products including insurance, investment products, etc.; their reliance on the digital medium has grown phenomenally than ever before. There was a 215% increase in daily views of home office videos and a 515% increase in recorded in-home workout content. Similarly, there was a huge increase in searches for “learning something new”, tutorial videos of “do it yourself haircuts” and cooking-related content. In addition, there was more time spent on social media platforms, which offers a huge opportunity to brands for micro-targeting customer segments and maximizing their reach through advertising more on the digital medium.

An example of how customer targeting has been effectively narrowed down to customer types is targeting customers searching for specific content such as baby products and serve them up with ads for newborn furniture, life insurance for parents, education-specific investments, gifts, and gift cards for newborns, etc. In a highly developed digital marketing environment, targeting and re-targeting customers who land on product or service websites allows marketers to bring greater efficiency to their budgets than before. Furthermore, with Google and Facebook offering lookalike audience targeting, our own customer data is a valuable source for developing a customer profile based on demographics and psychographics that can increase our reach to a much larger universe. Although a lot of the above is not new, it has forced marketers to leverage the expertise of digital strategists to guide them in a digital mobile-first approach.

Having said all of the above, the digital and online growth of a business also requires consistency of policies that needs to be in place in the traditional environment also. For instance, product returns and exchange durations need to match, any price adjustments or price-matching offers should be honored, and delivery timelines or delays need to be managed effectively. Online sales need more support and focus to ensure that the customer experience is better than walking into a store.

Like the media industry, the creative industry has also evolved in changing focus to a digital and online-first approach. Post COVID-19, we have seen that all email or paid digital campaigns are designed for a mobile-first view and then adapted to tablets or computers. Similarly, company and brand websites are also being developed to ensure that the design and content is adjustable to mobile devices. In fact, a very strong focus of online businesses is to improve customer experience by making the purchase process as hassle-free and as easy as possible. Currently, companies are spending millions in leveraging behavioral economics to apply learnings and best practices that help improve purchase funnel metrics. In other words, companies are spending a lot of time in identifying steps in the online buying process where customers drop off and then they try to re-gain them through design, copy and process workflow.

Needless to say, we are at a very important time in human evolution, where the digital medium is extremely important for our day-to-day life. This offers a great opportunity for Pakistani businesses to start thinking with a Digital First approach and build strong end-to-end customer experiences. I would encourage entrepreneurs to spend money on building online infrastructures that allow them to compete with international brands, as the online world is becoming more and more customer-centric than ever before. The first step in the process is to sell nationally and then expand towards selling to our immediate neighbors in the Asian region. However, this will require a vision and commitment from the top to ensure that everyone down the line is aligned on the strategy and its execution.

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Ali Raza Merchant is a marketing veteran with over 25 years of experience with multiple industries. After graduating from IBA in 1989, he joined Hoechst Pharmaceuticals (now Aventis) as a marketer, and then ventured into textile marketing. But since his heart was always in the FMCG business, he joined Lakson Tobacco Company (Philip Morris), and did a 10 year tenure there which included heading the Marketing Division. After Lakson, he moved to Synergy Advertising as an Executive Director and played a major part in Synergy’s growth as a communications group. Ali now lives in Toronto, where he moved with his family in 2013. He works for Toronto Dominion Bank’s Marketing Planning Division for the Insurance business.