2011 was a fantastic year for the digital world in India. We saw innovative companies and services doing roaring business. There was a strong social media presence among big brands such as Airtel, Mahindra, Babyoye and Chivas. E-commerce spending grew almost eight times from 2010 to 2011. Small towns are well on their way to become the biggest Internet consumers - out-surfing their tech-savvy metro brothers.
You can expect more of this in 2012. The following are the main trends for this year.
• Cash on Delivery: We will see many more e-commerce sites offering ‘cash on delivery’. Now that Flipkart has made it big, others will follow suit. Although this seems to be the ‘in-thing’, what one should realise is that it is not only cash on delivery that’s the winning mantra. It is the whole package. Cash on delivery with a favourable return policy, plus a seamless integration between online and offline is what makes it tick. For example, Flipkart acknowledges the receipt of the online order through emails and SMS. And when the goods are on their way, they ensure the customers are informed well in advance so that they are ready with their cash. Now this level of detailed human experience thinking is what makes a service truly successful.
• E-commerce sites will start to leverage all channels: Mobile penetration is at an all time high. As smartphones get cheaper and better and the Internet bandwidths provide an adequate browsing capability (though there still is a lot of room for improvement), companies will get their mobile version sites up and running. Till date, companies invested in "just a mobile site". Now they will start looking at options to leverage location based technology, offer downloadable free mobile apps and stripped down versions of their main sites usable on mobile browsers.
• Digitised retail experience: The later part of the year may see major retailers creating digitised experiences within their physical stores. Examples such as interactive exhibits and Kinect like interactions that can entertain kids, devices that are making appearances in the West, may become a reality in India. Similarly, kiosks to locate an item, kiosk-only stores and digital interactive walls will see the light of the day, for entertainment at first and as a support to operations in the longer run.
• Service is the key: Today there is a lot of creativity in "pushing" the products through ads, but the same intensity lacks in the service side of things. A lot of e-commerce portals will try to establish a strong customer service network. Companies and brands have already started realising the value of good customer service. For example, you have portals such as firstcry.com that give you a call the moment you get stuck in actions such as checking out. Of course, one would argue that it is better to create an online experience where people do not get "stuck" in the first place, but a timely call there helps the less tech savvy. But e-commerce sites will increasingly face the challenges of delivery and returns of goods. An online experience may be great, but it has to be complemented by an equally capable offline experience for the brand to make a mark.
• Investing in experience: Smaller companies, start-ups and new players will increase their spends on providing an experience to people who use their digitised properties. Companies have begun to realise the value of understanding human behaviour in terms of their interactions with digital products and that will show in enhanced experiences - be it booking tickets online or sharing a private celebration with family and friends.
• Copy cats: As is tradition, we will continue to see a thousand other "copies" that aim to make a quick buck. And as history has shown, they may make a short-term gain, but eventually the market will separate the wheat from the chaff.
People have shown their faith in the digital world as is apparent through the sheer volume of transactions online. But companies and brands that understand the difference between experience and expertise will lead the race.
(Sudhindra Venkateshamurthy is Head of Experience Design at SapientNitro India.)