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Q&A: Contentful's Paul Biggs on pivoting to digital content and touchpoints.

"Launching new customer experiences has become more decentralised"

It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked, as Warren Buffett once noted. The pandemic's outward tidal pull exposed a lot of digitally under-dressed companies and over the past year, pressure has been on to improve digital footprints. From VW (planning to launch its own online retail hub and reduce reliance on dealerships), through to Adidas -- which saw net profits slump 97% in Q1 of 2020 in part on a sub-par ecommerce experience -- organisations everywhere are rebuilding applications and honing their digital touchpoints.

Berlin-founded Contentful, an API-first content management platform to create, manage and publish content on any digital channel, has observed (and helped shape) many digital responses close-up over the past year. We spoke to the company's Paul Biggs to get a feel for some of the ways businesses have responded.

What are the biggest challenges that you have seen companies face during the past year when it comes to digital?

One challenge over the past year has been the speed at which companies had to pivot around their digital strategies due to the pandemic, especially in place of brick-and-mortar strategies they were planning pre-COVID.

A good example of this is Equinox Media, which had ambitious plans for the launch of two new fitness products. The first, Equinox+, was a digital app with a wide selection of fitness classes and training programs for monthly subscribers. The second was an at-home SoulCycle stationary bike that included digital access to SoulCycle classes. Both products were due to be introduced at SXSW music-and-tech festival in March 2020.

The company planned to rely on trainers and club staff to get customers to download and register for the subscription service, and then launch out to the wider public. COVID-19 put the kibosh on these plans. SXSW was cancelled, and soon after, Equinox fitness clubs and SoulCycle studios closed down to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

With a marketing plan that was so reliant on face-to-face contact at its clubs, the company had to quickly pivot to an online-only marketing plan. That meant looking at a new approach to content management, as well as launching new digital versions of its services. We worked with the team on this and the pivot was successful: by June, the company had successfully launched live SoulCycle classes for its at-home members, and had also begun marketing its Equinox+ subscriptions directly to consumers, at least six months ahead of the original marketing plan.

What issues do teams face around collaboration here?

Collaboration challenges really occur when you have organizational silos between the business teams like marketing and the technology teams. Often, you have individuals that can understand both worlds and can help translate what they want to achieve, but ideally you want to take out any points of friction so that everyone can get on and achieve what they want.

Previously our most innovative customers would clear out a floor of their corporate office, or dedicate entire office spaces, to create co-located and cross-functional teams. This would connect development, product, design, data, and digital marketing into teams that would focus on a particular experience. These new teams go by many names: Digital Factory, Digital Lab, DX Studio, Customer Journey Lab, and many more.

When you have everyone working from home, getting that collaboration experience is harder to achieve. Instead, you have to look at making each person more productive within the applications and services they use. You have to think about how everyone will work around content, around software and web development, and how this can scale up to cope with mobile apps or multiple languages. However, I think that we have seen a lot of companies embrace the digital collaboration side and get a lot of value from this, and they will carry those lessons on in the future.

How are you seeing brands changing their approaches, and what else are they concerned with?

Agility is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, but today it has become paramount to businesses that want to carry on surviving in today’s economy. You have to be relevant to your customers where they are and how they are getting on. That requires the ability to create or iterate new experiences quickly to address those customer needs.

In retail, large brands had to pivot quickly from an in-store-first experience, to curb-side and online experiences. Scalability and reliability became top priorities for retailers too, as their digital footprints had to absorb the rush from online shoppers.

We worked with Canada’s largest retailer, Lowblaw’s, to re-think how the company approached its top digital touchpoints: retail and brand homepages. The retailer had to move quickly, and pivot these homepages from marketing and promotional vehicles, to communicating critical information for shoppers: special hours for seniors, purchase limits on some items, temporary elimination of pickup fees for online orders, pickup windows for frontline health workers, et cetera. Those sites had to be fully accessible, and they also had to brace for huge spikes in traffic: Loblaw’s order volumes were up three times higher than normal during the pandemic.

This retailer had already started migrating to Contentful before the pandemic, but the work they had done proved to be invaluable when it came to managing operations in 2020.

Contentful talks a lot about the “builder” rather than developers - how do you define this group?

When we think about building websites, we often approach this from a digital and technology standpoint, rather than one that looks at the whole experience and who else gets involved in these projects. Modern platforms have democratised access to content, and they have broken down some of the silos that used to exist. It’s no longer the remit for a small group of developers or a separate IT team to control the creation of digital experiences.

We think about this from the perspective of the whole team that can get involved in building those experiences and services. Builders can span the entire customer lifecycle -- marketers, merchandisers, product management, customer support teams, HR teams -- they can all really roll up their sleeves and improve the digital experiences they provide to customers, partners, and employees.

Launching new customer experiences has become more decentralised, and our most innovative customers are creating autonomous and cross-functional teams of developers, content creators, analysts, SEO experts and designers to create those digital customer experiences. They should all be on the same page when it comes to creating those experiences, and they should all be able to use the same tools.

Why does looking at builders rather than developers matter for brands?

Organizations can achieve faster and bigger innovation projects when their developers are closer to their customers and have more empathy for their needs. On the flip side, when content creators get closer to the code, they can realise their vision faster and more quickly launch and iterate new digital touchpoints.

While developers still remain central to creating great digital experiences, we believe that by taking a more holistic approach to ‘digital builders’ we can build tools that support and accelerate everyone in the process, and make them more effective and agile.

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