Keith Higgins - Global EVP e-Commerce, Omni-Channel, Smart Data, UK

My son is studying Marketing at university. The most important piece of career advice I feel I can give him is to make sure that all the roles he looks for in the future lean heavily towards digital and e-commerce fields – this is where the future really lies.

Careers at Unilever

I will admit to a certain amount of bias here, having worked in e-commerce for the last 18 years and now serving as Unilever’s Global EVP for e-Commerce, Omni-Channel and Smart Data. However, there are a number of exciting reasons to build a career in e-commerce.

One is the sheer pace of change. Shopper expectations are constantly increasing and so we have to keep improving to meet these elevated consumer needs. The result of this is that things get better every quarter, never mind every year. Another is that even though e-commerce is it is already integral to the way we connect with people and help them to fall in love with our brands. Within five to 10 years, I expect e-commerce to be a major part of almost every business.

Looking ahead to the next phase of growth, here are three more predictions about the future of e-commerce and the opportunities this space presents.

Mobile will be more important than ever

At Unilever, we expect the mobile phone to continue to dominate as the leading piece of technology for at least the next ten years. We have carried out global research into mobile phone usage around the world and, whether it is in India, Japan, Brazil or the US, the opportunities it offers businesses to connect with shoppers is quite amazing.

Voice activation is the next big thing

Looking a little further ahead, the next big thing for us is A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), specifically voice activation technology. The thing that really excites me about recent innovations such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and other new voice-activation technology is the fact that this will enable us to have genuine two-way conversations with our customers in a way we have never been able to do before; the potential here is incredible.

In almost all other media, especially traditional press or TV, the marketing conversation has been exclusively one-way. Now thanks to A.I. our food brand consumers are already talking to chefs online for recipe tips. This has the potential to change our relationship with consumers forever, and that is really exciting.

The traditional marketing model went something like this: you created a great product, got it into the stores and then put your ad on TV and hoped you had a hit. These days, it is infinitely more sophisticated. The model instead involves identifying who your target consumer is, wherever he or she may be on the web, and then using digital assets to interact with them in highly influential ways.

These interactions could happen across any number of different channels, whether it is one of our own brand sites or a retailer’s site, or another kind of site the particular shopper regularly visits. The important thing is that these interactions are relevant and in context, and that the consumer feels we are adding value to their shopping experience rather than bombarding them with information they do not need.

Smart data is key to getting these interactions right; as it helps us to understand each shopper’s path to purchase and enables us to deliver messages that are more targeted and more valuable. We know already, for example, that women in the UK are most likely to search for recipes between 16:00 and 19:00 on a Tuesday whereas, for men, the peak time is on a Saturday between 10:00 and 12:00.

In the future, smart data will enable us to work in ever more granular fashion, not only in terms of how we communicate with consumers but also in terms of helping us make the right products available to the right people at the right time.

Could you have a future in e-commerce?

Part of my role at Unilever is to work out how we can win in the e-commerce environment. For me, having the right people is the key to success. To thrive in this space over the next few years, you will need to be:

Comfortable being uncomfortable

The fact that e-commerce is still a relatively new field means we rarely have all the answers. You have to be able to act on limited data and be prepared for the fact that although not everything will work first time, there is plenty of opportunity to optimise and learn for the future.

Able to think outside the box

One of the biggest challenges of e-commerce is to create new business models that enable us to reach and influence people in non-traditional ways. An innovative approach to these new models will help to differentiate us from other players in the space.

Entrepreneurial as well as corporate

To deliver the company’s ambitions in e-commerce, we all need to be more agile and innovative in our thinking. One way we do this is through initiatives such as the Unilever Foundry, in which we mentor start-up businesses, and our regular two-day hackathons, where individuals from all over the world are invited to pitch us their winning ideas. As well as helping people develop their businesses, these initiatives give us valuable insight into how today’s entrepreneurs think, act and win. We also increasingly look for that entrepreneurial mindset in the people we employ.

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