When Digital First Became Digital Only — And What It Means For Digital Identity

Trulioo digital identity

Before COVID-19 arrived on the scene at pandemic scale and upended nearly every corner of day-to-day life for consumers and businesses all over the world, “digital first” was a popular term applied to the future of commerce and services. And, for some consumers, the phrase was equally accurate applied to the present-tense reality of their commercial lives — where even journeys that terminated in a physical store more likely than not started in a digital portal.

But, as Trulioo Chief Operating Officer Zac Cohen noted in a recent PYMNTS discussion with Karen Webster, that end-to-end available and accessible digital journey for consumers was something of a “nice to have” and something that could be pursued piecemeal and at a measured pace. The last three weeks, he noted, have wiped out the ability to maintain that mentality as the world leapfrogged “digital first” and proceeded to “digital only” nearly overnight as consumers stayed in, hunkered down and reoriented their social, entertainment and commercial lives around digital channels.


“Those digital interactions, that has now become a must-have. We no longer can attain goods or services through any other means other than online,” he said. “I think that aspect really changes the conversation around availability, accessibility and security and how important those things become when there is no other choice.”

And as of today, he noted, there is no other choice — and the organizations that were already moving in that digital-first direction have the advantage now in terms of needing to simply scale up their efforts, as opposed to inventing them anew. But, he said, in a world where physical commerce is for all intents and purposes closed for business — quite possibly for some time to come — the firms that aren’t building available, accessible and secure interactions today won’t be lagging when the current crisis is over, they’ll simply be gone.

Rethinking Accessibility 

For consumers whose lives were essentially already at or nearing digital-first status when the coronavirus crisis escalated to pandemic mode in mid-March, it can be hard to appreciate that for consumers in the U.S. and all over the world, the same type of experiences weren’t nearly so easily available. With well-established digital identities, he noted, the already-there consumers had crossed the first bridge to an online experience that was both secure and seamless. And the secure-plus-seamless experience, he said, was a goal long before COVID-19. What wasn’t necessarily as defined a goal, he said, was organizations finding ways to get every customer across that digital identity bridge to the optimized experience — it was more aimed at a target audience, use case or market persona that they were looking to attract and retain.

“That hasn’t changed, but what has is the accessibility that now needs to be increased so dramatically,” Cohen said. “Organizations that had their toe in the water need to dive all the way in and expand that across the board and bring in previously potentially marginalized groups who weren’t already digital-first for many different reasons. They now have a critical access point where accessibility becomes key.”

Building that, he said, will require two things. The first is technology — an abundance of which exists today to help firms building faster, sleeker, more automated customer journeys from end-to-end. No one has to reinvent the wheel here — and in fact, given how much of a priority time is at the moment, no one ought to waste their time trying.

The second, he noted, is a more ephemeral, but no less important commodity: the will and focus to actually think beyond customary target demographics and to the much more complicated world of everyone.

“The first step to figuring out how to create an equally beneficial and positive experience for those groups is to prioritize that as a focus,” Cohen said, noting that there are all kinds of technical answers and tools that can be thrown against the problem. But no problem can be solved that is not first properly understood and defined — and there is simply no way to serve a historically digitally-underserved demographic like the elderly or the economically marginal without considering what their actual needs might be. That is regarding an eCommerce context, a digital banking context or a host of other points where adoption has demographically lagged in observable areas in the U.S. and around the world. Areas, he noted, where the time has run out on said lag.

“The first step and the most critical one is to put yourself in those shoes and understand what it might be like for someone who isn’t typically used to taking a picture of themselves with a phone or you know, using their identity documents in the identity verification process. Putting yourself in their shoes and really thinking about that persona will allow you to create the best approach regardless of the service you’re providing,” Cohen said.

But accessible and available, he noted, are only half the battle. It also needs to be secure.

Fighting The Coming Fraudsters

It is an unfortunate reality, Cohen said, that no matter the crisis or how much human suffering it creates, there are people and groups who will try to take advantage of that moment to “rub salt in the wounds” of those already hit hard and hurting.

That means that this isn’t ever going to be as easy as building a slick onboarding and checkout process that includes everyone — unless one is hoping to include fraudsters. The dual challenge of this time, he said, is to create or scale up capacity — while at the same time making sure those digital identity verification systems are sharp enough to prevent well-intentioned commerce journeys from being hijacked by those with nefarious purposes.

The challenges, Cohen noted, are not trivial, the pressure is incredible and the efforts required will be tremendous. The scale of the change is wide — the labor of reaction will have to equal it. But, he said, what is notable is how many incredibly cool things have already risen up in a short few weeks in response — the innovation overdrive going on across the entire digital ecosystem trying to build a bridge over the current disruption so that an economy and people’s lives slow down — but don’t go over the cliff.

That is work worth doing today, he said, and will likely pay off in ways hard to imagine today when tomorrow gets here.

“Wider digital access and a better-connected economy that exists as a social function is going to pay so many dividends for us and a lot sooner than anyone had ever hoped for before COVID-19,” he said.