If the tranche of global digital trends forecasts shared at the end of last year taught us one thing, it’s that 2018 will be a year of converging technology as the Internet of Things, AI, AR, and VR come of age.  In the GCC region, these technologies are being pursued swiftly. Notable cases-in-point here include the UAE’s focus on becoming a Smart City, supported by these technologies, as well as Saudi Telecom’s recent announcement of a $500m investment fund in KSA. The fund has been developed to speed up Artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, digital health, and financial services.

In parallel, 2018 is the “post fake news” year, where audiences are growing increasingly weary of the content they consume. As a result, they will be quick to judge inauthentic attempts to drive engagement.

So, what does that mean for Digital Communications strategies?  Does this mean you need a Chatbot or a VR activation?  Here is a practical guide on how to navigate the next 12 months.

Don’t fear the robots

AI-led conversational technologies mark a potential seismic shift in how brands communicate with their customers. But that doesn’t mean it necessarily applies to your organisation’s current needs. If your customers are currently very happy to be engaging with you on Twitter for customer services, it’s a stretch to imagine that they are desperate to interact with a Chatbot on a different platform.

Voice assistants (Siri, Alexa, Bixby) are probably the most mainstream example of where machine learning is integrating in to our daily lives at home.  These particular examples provide utility, and that really is the key – do you have legitimacy to play in this space, and do your customers care?

The same argument applies to AR and VR – the technology is readily available and the use cases for communications professionals are endless: A virtual tour of a new city from the comfort of your sofa, anybody?  Or, consider being able to check out the specifications sheet of your favourite car in a showroom through AR.  All of these features are currently available, but they are still seen by many as gimmicky.  It’s clunky to put on a VR headset, or to point an iPad at a car in public. It’s certainly true to say that these new technologies are not yet front and centre in the minds of consumers and are still, in many cases, simply “shiny new tools”.

That said, depending on the sector you operate in, it’s likely that a) these technologies are prevalent across your organisation and the wider industry, and b) could play a major role in how you tell your story through digital to external audiences.

Understand your current capabilities   

When was the last time you tracked whether your organisation is on par with, leading, or lagging behind competitors when it comes to digital communications?  Do you even have a clear view of what “digital” means to your organisation?  In our experience, this answer can vary enormously from client to client.

Our recommended starting point is to assess the current digital maturity and capabilities across the areas you determine critical for business success.  This could focus on operational elements such as mapping a clear framework for digital communications across people, process and technology.  Another option: Assessing capabilities for content planning, digital recruitment and internal collaboration – have you looked at Facebook for Workplace recently, for example?

Does your online customer service team talk to your social media marketing team, and are there clear processes in place for handling crisis and issues online?  Do you have a secure environment to manage the workflow if so?

If you’re in good shape in these areas, then perhaps it’s time to look at how you can implement some of the new technology options through a test and learn approach. If, however, these basic elements are still lagging, then your time may be better focused on establishing the right governance and running a series of workshops to skill up your teams.

Think like a publisher and future-proof yourself against algorithm changes

Algorithm changes and, specifically, Facebook’s decision to re-focus on more effective “social networking” by favouring individuals posts over brand content is a major obsession among marketers this year. This isn’t new information though – Facebook has been headed this way for the past few years.

The advice here is to build an approach that doesn’t rely on a single platform maintaining a particular business model. We always advocate operating with a publisher mindset, with a clear view on the channels available to you and being ready to adapt as required. This means having an understanding of the channels available to you and building a digital eco-system, nourished by content and relevant to your stakeholder groups. This also requires ensuring your paid social strategy is robust and designed to ignite the fires of earned conversation.

Don’t ignore messenger apps

A recent Facebook-commissioned study by Nielson found that 63% of the people surveyed had increased their messaging with businesses over the previous two years, so the launch of Whatsapp for business, announced last week, is a potential game changer for B2C communications.

There are, at the last count, 1 billion people using the app in over 180 countries. Initially, the roll out is for small businesses only and it isn’t yet available in the GCC, but expect it to be here very soon, with an enterprise edition to follow.  Apple has also just launched “Business Chat” as a direct competitor. It’s in Beta mode currently, with a mainstream release expected sometime in Spring, with a focus on emerging markets. 

Be compliant

Do you collect data online in multiple territories? If so, are you aware of upcoming legislation changes, in particular GDPR in Europe?  If not, I recommend you do some research. Many GCC-based businesses run digital activity in Europe, and by May 2018, hefty fines will be levied on organisations operating outside of the new legal requirements.

The same applies to influencer marketing. If you are running global influencer programmes, are you aware of legalities for declaring conflicts of interest or transparency requirements around paid promotion?

Build a fit-for-purpose measurement framework in place

We are still having lots of discussions around vanity metrics – engagement, video views, CTR – all of which are useful indicators of how your digital efforts are resonating with audiences, but are you tracking the activity back to genuine business metrics? As the digital landscape further fragments and new tech comes to the fore, it will become harder and harder to makes business cases for specific activity without a clear view of tangible results.