With the COVID vaccine rollout underway, there's much more optimism in 2021. But while there's a lot of talk of a "return to normal," life post-corona will be anything but business as usual. Even once retailers and restaurants reopen around the world, the shifts in digital consumer behavior we saw over the past year are here to stay. The global pandemic accelerated digital transformation to unprecedented levels, so gone are the days of being digital first as a marker of innovation. In fact, these days, that means you're likely just surviving. To ensure you are actually thriving in 2021 — and beyond — businesses must be "digital best."
And we have the data to prove it.
Instead of our traditional "year in review" report (and let's be honest, does anyone want more recapping of 2020?), we chose to analyze the most important trends we saw through the past year with an eye toward what they mean for businesses in the year ahead.
Our first insight? Digital "nimbleness" — that is, the speed and ease with which businesses can make shifts and updates to their online information — will continue to be a major key to business success.
Nimbleness = Survival
We saw it throughout 2020: Nimbleness became key to survival. Whether it meant pivoting to offer curbside grocery pickup, hiring more delivery people, constructing a three-sided tent in your restaurant's parking lot, or quantifying the impact to your clients with a data hub, the nimble survived — and even thrived — under additional strain, while others fell behind. This certainly isn't going away in 2021: The pandemic is still making things unpredictable, so businesses will have to continue to make strategic adjustments on the fly.
So how can a business measure if you're being nimble enough? It comes down to communication.
One key metric of digital agility is the number "facts" a business has updated over the course of the last few months. A fact could be any piece of public facing information — like closures, services offered, products available, or hours of operation — that is essential to a positive customer experience and a frictionless acquisition funnel. Businesses need to be able to make seamless updates when things are disrupted, and that's certainly something we've seen over the past year. In fact, mature Yext clients* updated their facts 75% more in 2020 than they did in 2019. In addition, month-over-month updates to facts more than doubled from February to March.
We actually launched a Search Insights Report in April, detailing a large increase in updates in the Yext Platform. But the surprising bit is that the number of Facts updated haven't reduced. After the flurry of updates in March, April, May and June, comparing the last 6 months to the same months a year prior still shows a strong increase, with 33% more updates to facts.
Analysts might compare this to a stock's trading volume, and conclude that Facts are "more liquid" than they were a year ago, namely because the information on the internet is changing faster than it ever has before. With that in mind, someone might ask, "well how is my industry changing?"
Great question. A data scientist would say that they've got a dozen metrics for evaluating what one might call change. But for the sake of simplicity, this author (a data scientist) is focusing more on how strongly your industry reacted to coronavirus, and how the industry has sustained that change in the number of facts updated after the initial reaction. Not all industries are created equal, so while facts needed to be updated across the board, it's worth it to take a deep dive into some of the key changes that happened across specific verticals — and why this is the new normal.
Reacting quickly to a crisis is great, but changing with the times is better — and only those who are showing strong indications of better data hygiene going into 2021 will be "digital best" and rank in the top spots.
Here's how we see "digital nimbleness" playing out across verticals.
Whether you're a university student or the parent of an elementary schooler, you're probably tearing your hair out right about now. You might be saying "college was supposed to be fun!" or "how do I get rid of these kids?" But either way, you're feeling the shake up of "digital learning" in full force.
So, while there were other industries that had to be more reactive at the outset of the pandemic (education was the 4th most reactive among the ten we initially evaluated), education really leaned into digital freshness in the latter half of the year — coming in second in terms of year-over-year growth to the number of facts updated in the last 6 months. Digital managers of education establishments make 154% more updates to facts per month, on average, than they did a year ago.
Whether they're altering key dates and academic calendars, or adding digital learning policies and virtual tours, these businesses are staying on top of their digital knowledge. Don't be surprised if more and more schools prioritize their digital presence in 2021!
When the healthcare industry rolled out new operating models to accommodate an influx of patients, they also performed nearly 4x the number of updates to public facing facts than they did the quarter prior.
They performed the majority of their facts updates in the beginning of the year, but even so, from July to the new year, they have been performing 65% more updates to facts than they did in that same timeframe in 2019.
Healthcare providers are in prime position to communicate with patients or potential patients, provide them relevant, up-to-the-minute guidance, and keep us all safe, whether that's in the form of FAQs from the CDC on their sites, directions to the proper location depending on ailment, or availability of testing and vaccines. That's not changing anytime soon.
It's no secret that brick-and-mortar stores have been hit hard in 2019, but, for many brands, their reaction will define them for years to come. That's why it was such a priority to ensure a smooth, safe, user-friendly experience for their loyal customers, whether in stores or online.
Closures are an inconvenience, hours were uncertain, and inventory management became that much more important as product flew off the digital shelves. Our research on Holiday trends kicked off with the statement that "Ecommerce is the only reliable commerce," and, to retailers' credit, they embraced the change. Many accelerated plans to be ecommerce-first brands. But with that came huge data management demands and lots of product questions from their customers.
Retailers, perhaps more than most, realized that the shift to ecomm wasn't a new trend, but a rapidly accelerating one. Perhaps that's why March through June didn't see that big of a spike in facts updated (compared to some other verticals on this list), but their digital transformation efforts soldiered on throughout the year. With only a 43% bump in Facts updated QoQ (March – June 2020 vs. November – February 2019), July through December 2020 saw consistent +26% year over year growth. This could take the form of store hours updated, changes to product availability, or backend improvements as whole ecomm sites get overhauled.
Some retailers are planning for the future, and that takes time. But it also means that the most forward thinking shops have an opportunity to gain a leg up on the competition, if they're better poised to win the digital battleground in 2021.
4. Financial Services
Financial Services businesses, as usual, are also thinking long-term, as they moved to make their digital capabilities known in early 2019 and have made consistent updates since. Online banking was nothing new for some people, but there is always a crop of users who need assistance as they make changes in the way they bank, get mortgages, and the like.
Most understood the digital hurdles of changing hours and managing closures. Many boosted their online discoverability. Some even took the opportunity to make themselves more digital friendly and reduce support costs in one fell swoop. But there are still a lot of businesses who are not prepared to answer their users' questions in a comfortable and cost-effective manner, or meet the needs of a rapidly shifting digital environment. Banks, lenders, and other financial institutions who are not prepared to meet the digital needs of their customers are going to be "in a bad way" in 2021.
5. Consumer Packaged Goods and Food Services
Few industries have had it as tough as the ones that keep us fed. Labor forces are in turmoil, politicians can't agree on how to support their local economies, and tents in parking lots seem to be the de facto dining space of the new decade. But Restaurants, Grocery stores and CPG brands have persevered, especially the ones able to switch to pick-up, delivery, or direct-to-consumer strategies.
While some CPG businesses are shutting down, others are thriving on the new type of customer. Heinz went DTC, IPO rumbles surrounded Instacart, and CPG giant Campbell's took steps to "not only weather these extreme circumstances but to emerge as a winning, even greater brand."
If these acronyms are nonsense to you, don't worry. In the rest of the food services industry, there's still lots of room to grow faster than competitors, as many restaurants and QSR brands have not kept up with their digital information outside of an initial flurry of updates. After a 79% QoQ spike in early 2020, the back half of the year only saw 14% year over year growth in the number of facts updated for businesses in the Food Services vertical. That means that a nimble, digital-first food services brand has lots of room to push past competitors in the coming year.
Check back in two weeks for the next installment of our Insights 2021 series.
*Mature Yext clients are defined here as clients who are live on the Yext platform prior to the start of the analyzed time frame 03/01/2019.