One of the areas we have been working in much more intensively since COVID is channel strategy. This is hardly surprising – we are all familiar with the way in which we have had to rapidly adapt to using new (typically digital) channels, not only for our own consumer activities but also for the way in which we conduct business with other organisations in our daily work. Much of this involves moving what was once done in-person to an on-line environment: we are all familiar with the way in which these changes can make some things such as information sharing or transactions more efficient, but we can struggle to work out how to transfer more ‘human’ activities to a digital environment.
Despite channel strategy being a key issue for brands and public bodies for some time, the academic literature has struggled to develop a coherent way of optimising how we use and design channels for different tasks. So, for example, it is well known within financial services that the sale of products such as pensions, insurance and life assurance is most effective when done face-to-face. The anecdotal reason often given for this is the need for the ‘human touch’ being essential to the sales process for this sort of low interest yet important financial product. Similar issues apply in healthcare where the face-to-face nature of the consultation has long been an important aspect of the care process; while moving to digital can be as straightforward as a video call with a doctor, there are not only challenges with facilitating empathy in that environment but also meeting the need for accurate measurement and monitoring (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate).
While we are often acutely aware of the nature of the challenge and indeed can often find ways to resolve them, the area often lacks convincing behavioural thinking to better understand these issues: this lack of ‘big picture’ theoretical underpinning means these tend to remain isolated learnings that are hard to generalise from. It also means that we lack a consistent way to make design recommendations for channel optimisation more generally. So, for example, while we intuitively understand why it is more effective to sell low-engagement financial products face-to-face, if we cannot specify the reasons for this effectively then it becomes very difficult to understand how to design online channels to fix this. Just saying it needs the ‘human touch’ is not enough of a design brief.
The extended mind
The way we are approaching this is by using a behavioural science framework that incorporates an understanding of the relationship between channels, their users and outcomes. At the heart is the body of work on extended cognition. This is the notion that the way we process information in our environment is not just a function of our individual minds but the tools that we use.
At first sight this seems an odd idea, how can our cognition be anywhere other than in our heads? But we can consider that we write down notes as a way of extending our memory. Or indeed the way in which we use our digital tools to augment our own mental facilities. We can see through many of our everyday activities that we are a combination of our minds and our tools (for tools we can substitute channels).
This changes how we think about the tools available – they are less a passive device that we make use of but rather they form part of our extended selves. This means that we need to not only look at what we need but also what the different channels can offer us, or what are known as ‘affordances’, how they guide action and organize the world for us.
How we apply this
There are two key elements to our channel strategy framework. First, we need to develop a taxonomy of the needs that people may have: what do doctors need to facilitate their patient consultations? What does a first-time mortgage buyer need to help them make the right decision and complete their purchase? One obvious set of needs is to do with the sorts of information is required but there are also a range of other emotional, identity, capability and social requirements that may not always be obvious (using our MAPPS framework is helpful here). A range of familiar qualitative and quantitative approaches can be used to tease these out and form a behavioural taxonomy of the needs that the target group has.
The next step is to consider the affordances of the different channels – how do the features of the channel meet certain sorts of needs? For example, we may consider that digital is good at helping to satisfy informational needs – we can quickly and easily share information, often in a personalised way that aids learning. But let’s consider emotional needs – if the mortgage buyer is hesitant and nervous then to what extent is an online channel going to help? Or if a doctor wants to understand how the patient is feeling, is this going to work in an online environment? We know from our everyday collective experience of relating to people via screens that digital channels are not as good as face-to-face for these more subtle human interactions.
This means that just as we develop a taxonomy of the needs that people have, so we need a taxonomy of the affordances of the different channels. For this we use the Intervention Building Blocks from our behaviour change model (MAPPS) to cover the broad range of affordances:
UNDERSTANDING: Build knowledge, help people see relevance and importance
FEEDBACK: Provide positive or negative guidance, direction, or outcome expectancies.
PLANNING: Develop and maintain intentions or skills needed to perform a behaviour.
RESTRUCTURE: Change the environment to enhance or remove influences.
CONNECT: Allow connections to be formed or make them available as informational sources.
Referencing the extended-mind principle, we can see how the Building Blocks can be thought of as extensions of ourselves – we are using the different channels to extend our capabilities. With this approach we can intelligently link the different needs people have with the affordances of the channels available. In this way we can then develop hybrid models, designing channel engagement strategies in a needs-centric manner.
There is a wrinkle here as, of course, most channels are not static – we can redesign them to give them different affordances. Adopting this behavioural approach then also allows us to creatively rethink the way in which the channel can act as an extension of ourselves: if there are emotional needs to be satisfied (‘Feedback’ in our language) how can the affordances of digital be changed to accommodate this?
A nice example here from Robert O’Toole:
Think about walking into a lecture theatre. Often, we bridge the transition into the space by chatting with one or a small group of people. Lecture theatres can seem inhuman, and perhaps that’s how we humanise them. I’ve noticed that people who enter the virtual room early and engage in this chat are more engaged and happier once the main session starts. They humanise it. People already use one-to-one videoconferencing well (on Skype and FaceTime), it seems to be a more natural kind of engagement, so perhaps we can piggyback on that experience. Why not get videoconference participants to do that as well? Start off participants chatting together in pairs or small groups, before moving into bigger groups. See how the bonds made in the personal exchange aid interaction in the full conference room.
This illustrates that just as we have always thought about how to redesign in-person channels to make them more effective, so we can do with other channels (and that will often mean digital channels). Of course, digital channels are often designed to optimise certain outcomes, but this has often been for quite narrow sales and marketing led outcomes. Today our challenge is often about how we design them to deliver on a much wider range of complex needs without the fall back of being able to do this in-person.
While channel strategy has long been a topic for customer experience teams and marketers, we are seeing the way this is rapidly moving centre-stage for many organisations. And while there is some academic literature on this space, we are filling the gap we find: a theoretical underpinning of how we use channels to meet our needs alongside a practical means of applying it.