Most brands would probably say they think of their customers as individuals, but for a gender-neutral swimwear and activewear brand like Outplay, treating them that way requires a particularly thoughtful customer experience.
A direct-to-consumer (DTC) company that’s filing a void left by traditional brands, Outplay says it is committed to providing a “no judgement place to shop.” That not only means offering a variety of cuts and styles, but creating a customer journey where personalization ensures customers are being addressed properly.
“With our market, we make sure we know what name they prefer to use,” Marialexandria Garcia, Outplay’s founder and CEO, told 360 Magazine. “So emails go out using the proper names instead of names that may be triggering or just plain wrong, as well as use of pronouns, and holidays that people might not want to be take part in when it comes to our marketing efforts.”
It may sound like common sense, but the DTC market is becoming a highly competitive space. One estimate suggests that DTCs will grow $175 billion in the U.S. alone. Rather than rely on big box retailers or wholesalers to distribute and sell their wares, DTCs are taking advantage of technology and the shift to digital channels to reach customers.
While this means the barrier to entry within some product and service categories are lower, ongoing economic uncertainty and the resources of traditional brands may mean DTCs have to put an even greater emphasis on customer experience (CX) design.
“A DTC brand that is focused on their niche speaks the niche’s language, is direct to what the niche’s needs and problems are,” Garcia said. “People now expect a DTC brand to have a more human connection between them and the business, something they don’t expect to get from traditional retailers.”
The data strategy DTCs need
The only way to achieve the right CX is for DTCs to get their data in order, said Bill Bruno, CEO at U.K.-based customer data company Celebrus. This starts with building a first-party dataset that is compliant with local legislation and respects a consumer’s preferences. At the same time, he said, DTCs need to solve for the digital identity gap in today’s marketplace with the expected death of third-party cookies. They also need to identify ways to activate first-party data from their owned channels to update audiences and personas with their third-party partners.
“There is an expectation that these brands, particularly those that are solely digital, are good with data,” Bruno said. “It’s assumed and, as a result, comes with a lot of pressure for these brands to show they are able to use it correctly, compliantly and without upsetting or creeping out their customers.”
The other CX hurdle is that DTC companies have buyer journeys that are much more integrated and dependent than other verticals, said Nate Sanders, CEO and co-founder of insights platform provider Artifact.io. Where B2B businesses have the luxury of being able to pass off sales to success and support teams, for example, the shopping, selection, checkout, logistics, and unboxing experiences are integrally connected for DTC companies in a way that can’t be ignored. In order to have a cutting-edge, differentiated CX strategy, he said DTC brands have to centralize every single CX channel and analyze the entire journey.
“We’ve seen that there are direct and attributable moments in the customer journey that can make or break a purchase or conversion decision,” Sanders said. “Specific buttons that get clicked, or messages that are unclear can train-wreck a purchasing decision. Traditional retail has the snowball dynamics of being present and in front of the product that can work in their favor. DTC brands have to rapidly focus on acutely difficult problems— and predictively get in front of issues as fast as possible.”
Ryan Deutsch, chief customer officer at Bluecore, argued that the window of time customers spend on DTC sites or apps is very small, making it difficult and cumbersome to build out journeys and rules-based processes to support them. Instead, he recommended DTCs aim for “SKU-level integration,” where they analyze product catalog data to not only understand what someone ordered, but metadata such as size and color.
This data need to be combined with the customer data DTCs collect to truly offer a better experience, Deutsch said. The result will be that a DTC brand could reach out to a customer when an item they wanted is out of stock, for instance, and let them know via their preferred channel.
“It’s subtle, but it’s also very real-time,” he said.
Operationalizing the VoC
Once they’ve addressed all those areas, DTCs should also “operationalize” customer listening, said Matt Bahr, CEO and co-founder at e-commerce analytics provider Fairing. He gave the example of a fitness brand that proactively asks a new customer how they would describe their experience level. Let’s say they respond with “beginner.”
Bahr said that simple data point should send the CX the brand delivers in a very specific trajectory compared with a more generic relationship.
“The email being sent five minutes later can be packed with motivational content,” he said. “The bundle deal sent three days after that can be packed with gear beginners don’t typically have, and if the customer sends in a support ticket at any point, the brand can automatically route it to reps who specialize in new customers.”
In that sense, Bahr said, the future of DTC is being maneuverable enough to act on customer listening in time to impact that particular customer, rather than the next one.
This listening needs to happen wherever a DTC brand’s customers choose to shop, from traditional web sites and apps to the metaverse and, increasingly, pop-up shops or other physical retail strategies.
“As more and more DTC brands are moving back into retail in one way or another, our connection with our customers becomes even more important,” Outplay’s Garcia said. “DTC brands need to nurture communities of people who already love and support them, as well a give customers a place to call home – even though the brand can be found in more traditional retailers again. The connection isn’t in the purchase.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.