The offline black hole

The Offline Black Hole: The Customer Experience you Can’t See

7th July 2017 | Scott Krynock


If you sell physical products, digitization has only been able to take you so far.


Digital technology has become pervasive in retail, touching everything from manufacturing to distribution to sales to customer experience.


The problem is that if you operate in the real, offline world, it takes a lot more than a couple of new apps to see what’s really happening, while it’s happening.


In practice, brands and retailers have a number of critical blind spots – things in the consumer experience that they can’t see, let alone act on.


This is the offline black hole. And the only way to overcome it and unlock customer experiences is by digitizing your products.


The Offline Black Hole


As your products move through their lifecycle, you’ve got mechanisms and processes in place to get a reasonable view of their progress from warehouse to distribution centre to stores. (The way retailers and brands track this part of the operation is mostly far from ideal. But we’ll save that for another post.)


Then things get tricky.


Claudia walks into a store to buy mascara, but isn’t sure what she needs. You’re reliant on a store attendant (and if that store isn’t owned by your business, it isn’t even your employee) to deliver your brand experience. She leaves, dissatisfied, and you never even know.


And what if Claudia bought the mascara as a gift for her niece, Emily? Emily is in the black hole: you have no idea who she is, and she’s largely bypassed the brand experience, so you’re unlikely to convert her into a loyal fan.


And when her mascara runs out? You have no idea. She has to traipse to the store, and maybe you’re out of stock. Or maybe your competitor has a big shiny sign offering a discount, and she chooses them instead.


Another example. Joel sees your high-end sunglasses in a retail chain. He’s heard the horror stories about fakes and he doesn’t want to pay for them unless he’s certain they’re real. He walks away, and you never even know.


And even if he does buy them, and in fact loves them, the only way you’re capitalising on that moment is with an outmoded sign-up system that doesn’t convert. He’s already thinking about the skiing trip he bought them for – another thing you simply can’t know.


If you’re also selling your products through online channels like Amazon and Alibaba, it’s even trickier. Your brand is always at arm’s length, filtered through a consumer experience you have no control over. That hurts.


These are all crucial moments in the customer journey. And unless brands rethink their approach to digitization, they’ll always be out of your reach.


So what do you do? The answer lies in the common denominator: your products.


Digitize your Products, Digitize your Business


The problem with the current approach to digitization is that it stops short of the physical, offline world where the most important things happen. To your customers. To your business. So much falls into that offline black hole.


Your products on the other hand, move through this real world without a hitch.


So what’s needed is a way to digitize your products – without having to reinvent them. You don’t want to have to invent the next iPod to have digitized products. And the good news is that you don’t have to.


Product digitization allows you to connect and track every offline product, online, by embedding NFC intelligence (the same technology in your smartphone that make things like Apple Pay work) directly into them.


You embed these tags during manufacturing and then connect the physical tag to your product data through a cloud-based platform.


Then, when a consumer taps on one of those products with their smartphone, you can trigger a neat, digital experience on their phone.


Read more:
Implementing the Internet of your things – A closer look at the process to make your products smarter


That sounds cool. But in practice, it’s a really big deal. Because when you embed intelligence into your products, you don’t just digitize them – you digitize your business.


We call them living products. And the implications are huge.


Claudia walks past the store attendant and taps that mascara with her smartphone. She finds out what she wants to know, and the sale is made.


Emily unwraps her mascara, and gives it a tap. You show her a make-up tutorial tailored to her age and demographic; a personalised experience that turns her into a brand evangelist.


And when her mascara runs out? She taps it and orders more – right there and then. It gets delivered straight to her home: your competitors don’t even get a look-in.


What about Joel, and his sunglasses? A single tap, for branded content straight to his phone: instant authentication. He gets your brand experience, not just the retail chain’s.


And that buying moment – the moment he’s most excited by your product? Instead of the outmoded paper-based sign-up system, he simply taps and joins your list digitally.


Not that his attention needs to wane post-sale. That skiing trip? Not only do you now know where and how he uses your product, but you can deliver dynamic content that’s relevant, personalised and useful. Local slope conditions and trail maps, for example.


The opportunity is massive: transform the consumer experience, and simultaneously dissolve the offline black hole, delivering personalized, journey-specific experiences that drive engagement, loyalty and sales.


It’s Time for Living Products


If you sell physical products, your understanding of those products and your customers is vital to your decision-making. This offline black hole blinkers your view and limits the consumer experience you can deliver.


Product digitization is a mature, proven process. And living products allow you to transform blind spots into opportunities to delight, inspire, educate and engage your customer – all while gaining incredibly valuable post-sales insight.


So if you’re trying to digitize your business, you should probably start with your products.