founder fatima said

Digital technologies are now so pervasive that there’s no need to put an “e” in front of “commerce”. Businesses can find out a lot about us by analysing our digital footprints: every search, phone call, instore interaction, social media and online activity, or even a literal footprint (tracked by sensors), generates data.

The challenge for every brand is collecting and managing that data first, then analysing it to find out what we really want, says Fatima Said, managing director of brand transformation agency eWave, which she runs with her partner, Karl Norman. This challenge, she warns, will deepen for directors as COVID-19 continues to drive the growth of digital communications and online shopping, particularly in the lead-up to Christmas.

“It’s a myth that IT is the answer to everything. You can’t just put in a whole bunch of technology and expect it to perform miracles,” says Said. “Technology is just one part, along with people and process. You will build on your customer engagement plan as you learn more about the customer. You also need everyone to understand the plan, its benefits and what’s behind it.”

Machines are still best employed to quickly handle tedious tasks such as recording and processing huge amounts of data in real time, explains Said. eWave advises brands on adopting or upgrading scalable digital commerce technologies as one element of brand transformation, helping them apply data and human insights to nurture fulfilling customer experiences.

“There can be a lot of fear in organisations when you try to implement a digital transformation journey if people are worried about losing their jobs,” she says. “At the same time, it creates enormous opportunities when we humans don’t have to focus on mundane, repetitive tasks. Instead, we are empowered to our full brain capacity to spend time on things that need creativity, emotional intelligence and the human touch.”

Human-centric thinking

Some people are very good at analysing human behaviour — better than any algorithm — to gain insights into why someone did something or even predict what they’ll do next. Others are skilled at designing customer engagement processes, logically selecting the right information, resources and people to apply at the right time. Said has both talents, plus the tech know-how to scale them. Norman, she says, brings strategic and creative thinking to a partnership she sees as nicely balanced. “You need the right mix of strengths [in business strategy] and I think having us paired together is a big success factor.”

The digital transformations they manage include deep (human-centred design) thinking about the customer experience of a brand, supported by analysis at every touchpoint along the customer journey, and implementing new pathways and experiences. “It’s not just about helping our clients sell more online. It’s about enabling clients with significant competitive advantage to facilitate on- and offline experiences that sell.”

Some brands have multiple touchpoints, including physical stores, online stores, social media, websites, below-the-line and above-the-line marketing activities, all offering customers something. But the beauty of omnichannel commerce isn’t so much the medium, it’s the message. “Each touchpoint is just a point in time when the customer connects with your organisation,” explains Said. “There’s no benefit serving them with content relevant to their previous interactions on your website if they’ve already gone into a store and bought that product. Why are you still trying to sell them the same product? Not a lot of organisations create this seamless customer experience for a brand.”

Said says customers break up with brands that annoy them with too many messages or just one wrong message. As brands add more digital channels, the sheer volume of data can create a lot of noise. Analytics tools can help make it clearer if you know what to listen to and, explains Said, it’s better to streamline the connections and data transmissions between channels from the start.

“Data analytics is a huge area of focus and investment. It’s a complex thing to orchestrate right across a brand because there are so many technologies — from enterprise resource planning, point of sale and offline channels to marketing automation and social platforms — and making them talk with each other is a challenge.”

Get data analytics right, says Said, and you can deliver the right message to the customer when it is most welcome, with the best chance of influencing their behaviour.

eWave at a glance

  • Digital transformation agency founded in Australia in 2009 with two employees: Fatima Said and Karl Norman
  • Employs 280 people across 11 locations, including Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Paris, Moscow and Minsk
  • 45 per cent year-on-year earnings growth
  • Multinational clients include Cochlear, Mecca Cosmetica, Nike, Canon and the Accent Group (Dr Martens, Platypus Shoes, Timberland, Vans)

The entrepreneurial spirit

Said was in her teens when ecommerce began trending during the height of the late-1990s dotcom boom. The epitome of a digital native, she grew up comfortable with the technology and the cultural shifts it drives. So much so that at 16 she co-founded an internet venture with her two brothers, helping businesses connect with customers online.

The siblings began selling online in 1998, mostly into the US, where ecommerce was booming. Soon after Said finished her degree in Austria, the business’ headquarters moved to the US, where its data and call centres were located. By the mid-2000s, the operation had 150 employees, five offices around the world and hundreds of thousands of clients. “It was a huge growth story,” she says. “But as can happen, especially when there’s a lot of money involved as businesses become more profitable, it hit challenges.”

After a falling-out between one brother and another business partner, Said and Norman relocated to Australia to start afresh in 2009. They soon found plenty of Australian organisations keen to embrace online commerce, rather than treating it as a niche channel. “We brought a lot of perspectives from our experience in the more mature US and European markets of what works online, especially the growing trend for B2B [business to business], as well as B2C and D2C [business to consumer/direct to consumer],” she says.

eWave has grown steadily by expanding its strategic services and hiring technical talent in Eastern Europe, particularly Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, where education and job opportunities in software engineering have been strong for many years. “In those countries, software engineers can earn more than doctors or lawyers, so IT jobs are the peak of ambition in those societies. Some of the best commerce platforms are built in Eastern Europe and we’ve been able to get engineers who actually developed them in the first place, which is expertise you can’t find anywhere else.”

Demand for that expertise accelerated in the early months of COVID-19 as organisations scrambled to scale up their online commerce efforts when physical stores were closed. The adoption of online commerce probably accelerated by five years in just five months of COVID-19, says Said. As an example, she notes that electronics and whitegoods manufacturers quickly adopted D2C channels to handle demand driven by stores being locked down and more people working at home.

“Those who invested in omnichannel capabilities were equipped to tap into inventory from all over the country, not just what they had previously set aside in the warehouse for online,” she says. “[eWave client] Mecca, for instance, began to offer virtual consultations for cosmetics like you’d normally do instore, which is a very real human experience. It helped the brand access a lot more people than it would have in the typical retail environment, too.”

Said’s experience of working from home during COVID-19 was aided by the digital technologies her agency has evangelised for years. Indeed, those same technologies had given her a better work-life balance a few years earlier when she became a parent. “Having my son changed how I work, especially learning to trust the team and not have everything be on me,” she says.

“It also taught me to recognise we all need to switch off and ensure we take time for family, health, connecting with friends and other things that make life more enjoyable. As former Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson said, if you drop these ‘glass balls’, they can break, whereas work is the ‘rubber ball’ that will always bounce back.”