The pandemic forced a lot of the trends and disruptions that we had all been seeing on the horizon for years to become a reality faster than any of us could have imagined.

We had nearly 20 years to embrace the Internet as an important business tool — it became something that the public was using back in 1991, and by 2011 if you didn’t have a website, you had been left behind. Social media gave us less time, but we still had at least 5 years — Facebook business pages launched in 2007, and most businesses were still making the move to social around 2012.

Both of those shifts were tactical, meaning that they were one arm or one function of our businesses moving into a new realm. The shift that we’re in the midst of, however, is structural. It’s the fundamental move to digital as the core way that our businesses operate. We now communicate, build communities, create brand experiences, and sell online. Even if the eventual transaction happens in-store, most of the shopping happens digitally, and the customer follow-up, online reviews, and re-purchasing will inevitably happen online.

There are many major trends that we can all see as evidence of this digital transition — here are three particularly interesting ones:

1. The office is a resource, not an obligation
The idea of a permanent work from home economy is misguided. We crave physical interactions — especially the more creative of us — and the most ambitious ladder-climbers will always seek out in-office visibility. The difference will be that because we’ve learned that productivity is not dependant on proximity, we’ll do away with mandatory work hours and the office will, instead, be seen as a resource where staff can use equipment, meeting rooms, and as a space to get away from home. Every business will be connected primarily through digital tools, and all of their vendors, service providers, and even customer relationships will be managed online.

The impact will be that we can work from anywhere because work happens online, but we will be reminded of the creative and productive benefits that shared spaces can bring.

2. Brands will invest in storytelling and community over advertising
The basic buy attention & sell stuff model worked great when products and retail space were scarce. When your mattress purchase was limited to one of the fifteen options that your local retailer had in store, the TV commercial for Serta or Sealy was the only way that they could make sure you made the right choice.

Now that we all have unlimited purchase, travel, and subscription possibilities, the brands we choose are more often going to be the ones that have been referred, reviewed, and embedded into our communities. Not to mention the fact that we’re learning of more ad-fraud (see this thread about the $100 million that Uber was wasting), ad blocking, and faulty attribution every day. 2021 is going to be the year where we see an escalating investment into content and community, and away from “Buy Now” advertising.

3. Everything will be sold, or booked, online (even when customers are in the store)
There is absolutely no need for 1,000,000 square foot shopping malls where you’re forced to wade through crowds in order to get to the commodity product that probably would have arrived already had you just ordered it on Amazon.

The only things that had been holding us back from every business transacting online were:

• Many customers hadn’t yet got used to online shopping; and
• It was too technically challenging or too expensive for many small businesses to sell online.

The pandemic took care of hurdle number one for us, and Shopify (and others) have taken care of number two.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for great retail experiences — in fact, experiential retail is about to have its best year yet. Many of the most valuable brands have been built off of the interactions that customers have when walking into their stores. Think of some of 2020’s hottest companies: Apple, Tesla, Peloton, and lululemon — even Amazon is getting into the physical retail game.

The important difference is that when you buy a product or service in any of those stores, it’s seamlessly integrated into every other touch point you have with the brand, and nearly all of those other touch points are digital. This year, every organization, no matter the size, will be transacting digitally or they’re going to lose a significant percentage of their audience.

So what?
This transformation can’t be outsourced. We can’t assign a line item on the budget where we hire a junior employee or add “digital” onto a manager’s job description. In order to take advantage of the opportunities we’re about to see in 2021, every organization is going to need to become a digital-first organization. That’s a way of thinking, planning, and building that we call Digital from the Inside Out.

That idea, Digital from the Inside Out, applies to every industry, from retail to real estate, and the way that organizations can embrace it is going to be unique to each of them.

We’ve been fortunate to work with thousands of tourism brands across North America over the past decade, and throughout 2020 we’ve been focused on helping them navigate through perhaps the most challenging economy they’ve ever faced.

Now, it’s time to plan for a new economy, one that’s going to look different from what we were used to in many ways, but will also bring with it a ton of opportunities for creative, ambitious organizations.

Conner Galway, Junction Consulting.

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