By Henk Swanepoel, published on The Media Online, 7 February 2018.

A powerful marketing trend has emerged at the confluence of mobile technology and digitisation. Advances in back-end systems that are enabled by artificial intelligence (AI), big data, analytics and machine learning algorithms have revolutionised the way brands are able to engage with consumers via front-end web and mobile interfaces.

Brands now have the ability to collect personalised audience data from customer engagements via multiple channels, such as apps, social media, email, messaging clients, chatbots and e-commerce engines The AI-enabled back-end systems are then able to develop a dynamic profile of a consumer’s unique preferences to craft meaningful hyper-personalised omni-channel marketing campaigns at scale. These factors can also be tracked in real time as they evolve.

Prolific trend

It’s a prolific trend, with big global brands such as Amazon, Starbucks, Netflix and Spotify centralising their marketing efforts around hyper-personalised engagement. Already over 35% of Amazon’s conversions are being driven by the hyper-personalisation capabilities of its recommendation engine, earning it the moniker of the king of ‘Me-Commerce’.

By leveraging data to understand the elements that affect purchase decisions, brands are able to tailor personalised content, messaging, services and products at an individual level. When coupled with the ability to segment and reach consumers at the most appropriate moment, across an ever-expanding number of potential touch points, brands have the opportunity to craft highly contextual engagements that are memorable and relevant. This is what ultimately builds brand loyalty in the digital economy.

This happens because hyper-personalised omni-channel communication drives two-way engagement between customers and brands. However, for this to be effective brands need to actively listen to their customers and then engage them in conversation.

This is highly effective as it cuts through the clutter of one-way mass media to deliver better outcomes and returns on marketing spend. Even the online and mobile marketing environment has become cluttered and ineffective at reaching target audiences due to all the noise. Accordingly, truly meaningful engagement that captures the attention of the individual has become the ultimate aim of marketing.

Need has driven innovation

This need has driven a great deal of innovation in the sector, with chatbots emerging as one of the biggest trends for 2018. For example, Facebook recently reported that there were over 100 000 chatbots active on its Messenger platform every month, and that number is continually growing.

These bots are able to serve the needs of the 1.3 billion people who use Messenger each month, including 30% of all South Africans, according the Digital Statistics In South Africa 2017 report. These chatbots are being deployed in every sphere, from customer service to automated check-in services.

But they’re not just engaging via the over two billion text messages sent between people and businesses each month, which include both automated and people-initiated messages. The omni-channel approach is being perpetuated on this platform, too. A growing number of voice-activated chatbots being deployed, which can help a brand’s followers get answers to frequently asked questions or process customer service requests.

Voice assistants

Add to this the rise of integrated voice assistants in the form of Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa, and voice-enabled platforms are set to transcend engagement channels. For marketers, this means relooking their engagement platforms to ensure they’re optimised for voice.

However, in a market like South Africa, where smartphone penetration is still relatively low and data costs remain prohibitively high, local marketers need to consider other channels that also offer significant potential for engagement.

In this regard, one platform stands head and shoulders above just about every other. With the ability to keep consumers immersed and entertained for between 35-40 minutes, interactive mobile gaming over Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), which enables non-data-enabled mobile devices to engage in Internet-based services over GSM networks, has emerged as one of the most potent forms of engagement.

USSD mobile gaming offers brands unprecedented opportunities to develop relationships with customers in the mass market through engaging personal interactions where they can obtain valuable insights and data. And building an affinity between customers and brands in a fun way drives loyalty. It’s also a powerful tool for education and awareness.

Channel where transactions happen

Of course, USSD mobile gaming is not the quintessential mode of mobile engagement. It is, however, an essential element in any mobile-first omni-channel strategy that hopes to deliver a return on investment, particularly as mobile grows in prominence as a consumer’s primary engagement and transactional platform.

Mobile has already become the channel through which a transaction is most likely to happen and still has significant influence over in-store purchases, with Deloitte recently reporting that more than 90% of consumers in the US use their phones in the physical shopping process.

Given these facts, and the shift in the way consumers want to engage with brands, local marketers need to carefully consider where they’re spending their marketing budgets. Surely, given the potential offered, that spend should be directed at the most influential point of engagement?