By Anton Moulder, Managing Partner of Urbian


What are the digital business trends that will influence your business in 2017? Co-founder and Managing Partner at Urbian, Anton Moulder, says that digitally transformed businesses will investigate artificial intelligence, look at Bitcoin’s blockchain, are likely to embrace chat to streamline customer service, and will become obsessed with customer touchpoints to use service as a real business differentiator.


Artificial Intelligence


2016 was the year that everyone explored Artificial Intelligence [AI], but 2017 will be the year that local companies put budget into, and start using basic AI. For those who haven’t fallen down the AI rabbit hole or seen Westworld, the aim of artificial intelligence is for machines to replicate human intelligence. This means that they can sense their environment, and use autonomous, rational ‘thinking’ to do something or to reach a goal. Tech monoliths like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM are investing heavily in this emerging sector. Research firm CB Insights reports that since 2011, nearly 140 companies that have developed AI technology have been acquired as part of a race between these global corporations to own this space. 


Locally, most businesses we’ve been working with aren’t sure how they’ll implement #AI, but the first and biggest investments in South Africa will most likely be in the financial sector. 


Earlier this year Sygnia Asset Management launched a ‘RoboAdvisor’, a machine-learning system that offers consumers personalised investment advice without the commissions usually charged by a human financial advisor. Sygnia’s RoboAdvisor is the digital backend of a website that enables clients to input personal information, and that uses algorithms and financial modelling to create individualised investment or retirement plans. Magda Wierzycka says that these robo-advisors are the first step of #artificalintelligence in the financial sector, and that this will mature to see human-based advisory systems disappear.


If your business is in the financial sector, it is important to get up to speed with how #AI will impact your business and market share, how your competitors might use this technology, and how your brand might be disrupted by technology.


Bitcoin and the blockchain


In 2016, Urbian noted that an increasing number of companies grew in their appreciation of the blockchain — the technology that underpins the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. The peer-to-peer electronic cash system caused a stir when it was introduced in 2009, leading to the invention of a number of other cryptocurrencies. Today, over 100 000 merchants accept the digital currency, but it is the public ledger that supports the money system that has the power to disrupt industries, and that innovators and business leaders are eyeing.


The reason for this is because the heart of the blockchain system, the public ledger — also described as a distributed database — records every single transaction that takes place in the currency, and each transaction is confirmed. The ledger is anonymous, yet confirms the transfer of currency without going through an institution. Further, once the transaction has been made it is [almost] impossible to amend. In short the blockchain is a verifiable and transparent record of transaction history.


Because the blockchain is such a reliable, trustworthy and transparent system of managing records, we’re going to see it used a lot more in the financial sector, particularly at insurance companies where the administration of products is expensive. Another application is in the transfer of assets or goods where the blockchain can help counter the selling of counterfeit products [like medicines], or illegal goods [like blood diamonds]. In the same way, the blockchain can be used to track and record Intellectual Property, for instance in the music industry where it can and will be used manage rights.


In 2017, digital and innovation companies can expect to see a lot more requests for technologies that use the blockchain, and this requirement will become a strong part of client briefs and requests for tenders.


Conversational interfaces


Up until now everything that consumers are interacting with digitally are interfaces. So if you want to order a pizza you can download the mobile app for your favourite brand, but in order to get the cheesy flatbread in your hands, you need to know how to use that app. But this is set to change, because humans are conversational beings. We chat — we love to chat. So it makes sense that the easiest way to order a pizza is just to ask for it in a chat box, and then to state what toppings you want.


This becomes obvious when you look at the growth and popularity of chat. Mobile messenger, WhatsApp, currently has some 1-billion active users. A couple of years ago, in April 2013, some 200-million people were using the chat service. By way of contrast, Facebook chat is used by about 900-million people, while China’s QQ chat is used by some 853-million.If you go to the Google Play Store and check out the Debonair’s Pizza App, you’ll see it has just over one thousand reviews. WhatsApp Messenger has 48-million reviews.


Going forward, the big question consumers will be asking is why do they need to download another app, if they can just use chat to buy a pizza, book their car in for a service, or to purchase an airline ticket? Chat won’t always be text-based. The growth in voice-to-text technologies and success of intelligent personal assistants like Apple’s Siri or Google Now means you’ll just need to give voice to your desires, in order to get insurance, a song, or to order flowers.


Because chat takes away the friction from buying products and services, 2017 will see companies increasingly using chat interfaces to make buying goods, or procuring products, as easy as texting or talking to a friend.


Service design


During the past year, a lot of the discussion around digital has been about user experience [UX], user interface [UI], wireframes and apps. In 2017, expect that to change as brands become even more customer-centric and start thinking about how to design the whole customer experience from end to end. This means identifying and understanding the touchpoints that happen on the entire journey that customers take to engage with your service.


Service design thinking is going to be pivotal as brands seek to differentiate on service. Brands will start mapping the customer journey from end to end to try and take out bottlenecks, improve service levels and to revolutionise operations so they make better sense from a customer perspective rather than from the business’s perspective. Brands will need to understand customers with some degree of depth, and do this quickly, while pivoting operations and logistics to ensure they are customer driven rather than business driven.


What this means is that customers won’t care about your apps or your website or why you brand silos in different departments because it makes better business sense. All that will matter is the relationship you have with your customer, and your shared service experience history. That means tomorrow’s winners will be the brands who know how to design the best service experiences that make the most customer sense.


On-Demand services


Think of this as the ‘Uber-isation’ of everything. In short, on-demand services will be about predicting demand, and then fulfilling this demand, instantly. A great local example of this is SweepSouth, which enables you to book a home cleaning online from your preferred device. Once you’ve done this, SweepSouth promises to “connect you with a cleaner in minutes.”


Conceived in late 2013 when Alen Ribic and Aisha R. Pandor struggled to find an occasional domestic cleaner during the holidays, SweepSouth marries technology with labour to reinvent domestic services. After launching in the Cape, SweepSouth expanded to Gauteng, garnering awards and angel funding. In the first quarter of 2015 the on-demand cleaning service secured R10-million in venture capital to take its offering national.


The drive for on demand services is being fueled by how disruptive digital technologies are changing consumer behaviour. There was a time when people were more patient, but instant fulfillment is driving new attitudes. Customers want what they want, when they want it.


Mobile friendly


Business has been focused on mobile for some time now, but 2017 will be the year that being mobile friendly will be a given. The Ericsson 2016 Global Mobility Report tells us that Sub-Saharan Africa is the global region with the highest growth rate in mobile subscriptions. In 2010 penetration levels approached 50 percent, but forecasts indicate that close to 100% penetration will be achieved by 2021, because mobile operators and stakeholders are investing in industry growth.


Internet monitoring firm, StatCounter revealed that for the first time since it started doing research on internet usage, mobile access of the internet surpassed desktop access. “Mobile and tablet devices accounted for 51.3% of internet usage worldwide in October 2016 compared to 48.7% by desktop,” StatCounter announced. The research company said the statistic should be a “wake up call” to business to make their digital presences, services and offerings mobile first or mobile friendly.


What this means is that your customers will interact with you first using a mobile device, so it just makes sense that being mobile friendly is a given.

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