Predicting the future is a tricky business, but it's essential to look to the future as often as possible, in order to understand the opportunities and threats that we'll be dealing with tomorrow.
This article explores five of the most important technological innovations that will shape the future of marketing over the coming months, together with tips and advice on how to turn them to your advantage.
It's based on a briefing that I've been running with clients all over the world over the past few months; you can explore the deck that I've been using for those sessions in the SlideShare embed above, but read on below to get more context and richer insight.
1. DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER
The data in the ongoing series of Digital reports that I produce for We Are Social show that mobile messengers are growing much faster than more 'conventional' social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Current growth trends suggest that these 'chat apps' will become the dominant social systems by the end of 2017. That's a catchy soundbite, but this move from social networks - where the emphasis is on public sharing - to more private mobile messengers has some profound implications for marketers.
Before we explore those implications, though, we first need to look at why audiences are changing their social media behaviour. Individual motivations vary of course, but our conversations with people all over the world have revealed four key reasons why messengers will soon overtake email to become our preferred means of online social interaction:
- Messengers are more natural: the exchanges we have with other people via chat apps are similar to the exchanges we're used to in face-to-face conversations - especially if we compare them to the kinds of interactions we have in the public comments section of a Facebook post.
- There are fewer adverts: many of the people we speak to cite a 'clean, uncluttered' environment that's free from advertising as one of the reasons they prefer messenger platforms.
- Cheaper to use: social media platforms rarely charge users to access their services, but data costs are still a consideration for many users around the world, and there are significant cost differences between accessing video-heavy social networks and using simple, text-based messenger apps.
- Less pressure: perhaps the most interesting reason people cite for moving away from public social networks and into more private chat apps is the constant pressure they feel to post 'amazing content' on public channels like Instagram - something that even top influencers struggle with.
Given these points, it's relatively easy understand why audiences are embracing messenger apps, but the shift has some serious implications for brands.
To start with, there's no easy way for marketers to listen to people's public social media conversations in the way that we have been able to do on platforms like Twitter and Intsagram. This is a huge loss to marketers, because the insights available via social listening offer a wealth of valuable opportunities across the entire marketing mix.
Marketers will also need to embrace new metrics of success of their messenger-related activities, because likes and followers matter far less in these environments than organic word-of-mouth does.
In addition to the need for new metrics, it's also more difficult for marketers to actually measure the performance of their activities in messengers, due to a lack of available data to identify who shared what, where, and when.
However, the most obvious challenge for marketers in this new messenger-centric world is the limited number of opportunities for brands to buy their way into people's conversations. Critically, the 'boosted content' approach that dominates almost every brand's approach to platforms like Facebook simply won't work in most chat apps.
Firstly, messenger platforms are a lot more private and 'personal' than public social network environments, so audiences will be far less accepting of any interruption to their conversations. Secondly, people don't go to messenger platforms to consume content, so brands will need to radically adapt their approach to 'engaging' them.
The only way for brands to succeed in this new environment is to rethink what 'engagement' means; far too many marketers still think of engagement in terms of likes, views, or clicks, instead of seeing engagement in terms of emotions.
Marketers need to treat engagement as the outcome of great marketing, and not as just another vanity metric that they can buy from media owners.
The good news is that we no longer need to rely content that has been specifically designed for, and posted on, social media to drive engagement. Instead, we can use every element of the marketing mix to inspire valuable organic conversation, whether that's through our brand communications, our products, our packaging, our customer service activities, or even our recruitment ads:
2. ACCESS DENIED
This need to inspire engagement at every possible opportunity isn't just about messengers, though; well over half of the world's internet users have used tools to block online ads, and the numbers are still rising.
They may not use these ad-blocking tools all the time of course, nor will they have them installed on every one of their connected devices, but the availability and popularity of ad blockers is a serious threat to marketers everywhere - if for no other reason than it highlights how frustrated people are with (or worried they are about) online advertising.
It's not just ad-blocking tools that marketers need to worry about, either: research from GlobalWebIndex shows that nearly three-quarters of all internet users regularly delete cookies in order to prevent brands from tracking them across the web.
But why are so many people blocking ads?
Our conversations with internet users around the world have revealed four common reasons for using ad blockers:
- Focus: most of our internet activity is purpose-driven - it's 'lean forward' (active engagement), rather than 'sit back' (passive entertainment). However, most internet advertising is specifically designed to distract us from the purpose we were trying to achieve, and that sort of interruption simply isn't welcome.
- Speed: waiting for third-party servers to deliver ads constitutes a significant amount of the time required to load a web page. This doesn't just lead to irritation and frustration, though; research from Ericsson ConsumerLab reveals that "…the stress response to [buffering] delays was similar to that of watching a horror movie or solving a mathematical problem." Regardless of whether we're delivering a good ad to people, the fact that we've created a stressed environment in which to show it to them will inevitably damage the impact of our message.
- Cost: many people resent the fact that they have to pay for the data required to deliver ads to their mobile devices - a problem that has real significance in markets where people rely on pre-paid mobile data to access the internet.
- Interest: one of the most common reasons people cite for using ad-blocking tools is the dismal quality of most online advertising, with a lack of relevance (i.e. poor targeting) contributing significantly to their frustration too. Whilst some marketers have suggested that targeting offers them few benefits, there is a real danger that failing to target - i.e. serving the same ad to everyone in the hope that a few of them will be interested - will result in significant irritation and resentment towards the brand. This impact may not register in immediate post-campaign reporting, but the longer-term negative consequences of this irritation go well beyond the ROI of individual ad campaigns.
It's not just irritating our audiences that we need to worry about, though; there's a far more serious consequence of ad-blocking that marketers need to consider too.
If people continue to block ads, the sites that rely on advertising revenue won't be able to survive. As a result, advertisers will have fewer and fewer opportunities to get their messages out to their audiences, and brands will find it much harder - and more expensive - to achieve their objectives.
Critically, the onus is on advertisers to make and deliver better ads, rather than being on host sites to find ways around ad blockers.
If we don't change our approach to online advertising soon, there's a real chance that we'll lose the ability to advertise on the internet altogether.
The good news is that this problem should be easy to fix, though. The solution goes back to some simple advice most of us got as teenagers: when you go on a date, don't talk only about yourself.
This is advice that all advertisers should heed too; instead of creating ego-centric advertising that only talks about our brands, we need to create marketing that creates mutual value by adding something meaningful to our audiences' lives.
There are two simple ways to add value to audiences via marketing activities:
- Solve problems: help people to address problems and challenges; and
- Fuel passions: help people to do more of the things they love.
The easiest way to identify how best to add value to your audiences through marketing is to think about your brand's value proposition is, beyond its products or services. This is about what your brand helps people to do - it's about what you make happen, not just what you make.
How can you bring this proposition - or 'promise' - to life through everything that you do? How can you add value to your audiences and consumers through every interaction, and not just when you sell them something?
3. MAGIC MOMENTS
The tools that we have at our disposal today allow us to achieve marketing nirvana: delivering the right message to the right people in the right places and at the right times.
It's something that marketers have dreamt of for decades, but digital tools have finally made it possible:
- We can use web technologies such as cookies or social media profiles to identify specific individuals, and build up a profile of the things that they're interested in;
- We can use algorithms to analyse the behaviour of millions of people in aggregate to identify common behaviours, and use these patterns to predict what any given individual is likely to do next;
- We can deliver the optimum message to an individual based on where they are and what they're doing, so that the message is not only personalised, but also 'contextualised';
- We can even interact with each and every individual if we choose to, and we can even do so at scale using techniques like social media listening and tools such as chat bots.
However, we're wasting the potential of these tools by almost universally ignoring context.
Almost all of today's 'targeting' activities rely on reaching a given person wherever they may be, instead of identifying the optimum moment to reach that person with a message or activity that adds value to their lives at that specific moment.
Where someone is - i.e. the website or platform - isn't as important as why they're there in the first place, and what they're trying to achieve (given that almost all internet activity is purpose-driven).
Critically, if we're still using interruptive ad placements (e.g. banner ads), it's unlikely that we're adding meaningful value. Instead of interrupting people, we need to plan our marketing activities around the most relevant and impactful moments in people's lives, when our brand can make the greatest contribution to their needs, wants and desires.
Ironically, this is all possible using exactly the same tools that we're currently using to interrupt and irritate audiences, so all we need to do is adjust our approach.
There are two simples questions that marketers can ask themselves to help make that adjustment:
- Where and when does your brand's proposition - i.e. its 'promise' - have greatest relevance and impact in your audience's life?
- What's the most appropriate way of bringing that promise to life in those specific contexts?
4. STAYING IN CONTROL
As we look a little further into the future, it's clear that we're about to reach a revolution in the way we interact with and control digital devices. This isn't just about future-gazing for marketers either; most of our audiences expect this revolution too.
For example, Ericsson ConsumerLab has interviewed more than 100,000 people in 40 countries around the world, and half of those respondents stated that they believe smartphones will be a "thing of the past" within the next 5 years.
Considering that the smartphone only really came of age 10 years ago, it's startling to think that it might become obsolete by the early 2020s.
What's more, Ericsson believes that this will mark the end of the 'screen era' - a paradigm that has dominated media and popular culture for the past 60 years.
But what will screens be replaced by? It's likely that a variety of different interfaces will come to the fore, some of which we're already starting to use today:
- Voice control is already a clear focus for the world's largest tech companies, with Apple's Siri, Google's voice search tools, and Amazon's Echo all clear examples of the priority these companies are putting on this technology.
- Motion sensors have been around for a decade or so, with Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Kinect being two of the more salient consumer uses of the technology. However, motion sensors will evolve significantly to provide a range of more intuitive interfaces for our devices, including automating lighting and heating in our homes, and controlling autonomous vehicles.
- Eye-tracking technology has already been around for years too, allowing researchers to study the ways that we interact with devices like TVs and computers. However, we'll soon be able to control many of those devices using the same kind of technology too, as this recent article from MIT reveals.
- Most striking, however, are the advances in thought control. Once the reserve of science fiction movies and fantasy novels, thought control is now a reality, as this fascinating video from NIH demonstrates:
This technical revolution is coming much faster than many of us realise though, and the reality if that most marketers simply aren't ready. If we're honest, most of us still haven't fully understood how to use current technologies such as smartphones properly, let alone started to think about how devices controlled by our thoughts will impact marketing.
However, we need to start thinking about these changes today, because they're going to completely change the marketing paradigm.
The most important shift, though, will be the rapidly diminishing role of the screen (at least as we know it today). Of course, 'video' won't disappear overnight, but in the future, it's more likely that we'll enjoy this kind of content as virtual reality, or using devices that beam content direct into our eyes (or even feed it directly into our brains).
This has huge implications for marketers, because almost all of today's media are dependent in some way on screens. This includes obvious things such as watching content on smartphones and tablets, but even 'traditional' media are now increasingly screen-based; more and more outdoor billboards are being replaced by digital screens; magazines have become smartphone apps; even radio has moved onto screens through services like Spotify and Pandora.
Given that so much of today's marketing is built around screens, we're going to need to fundamentally rethink our approach to engaging people if we're to survive the impending interface revolution.
What's more, advertising agencies will need to completely rethink their business models if they're to remain relevant and competitive in a media world that's defined by new kinds of content.
The easy answer to these challenges - as always in marketing - is to start with the audience. What are they using these new interfaces and technologies for? Why do people think these devices are better than current alternatives? And - the most important question of all - how can we, as brands, use these new interfaces and devices to deliver unique new kinds of value, instead of using them to deliver more of the kind of interruptive advertising that people are increasingly trying to avoid?
If we're to survive this revolution, brands will need to deliver far more utility, instead of continuing to rely on interruption and distraction.
5. AUGMENTED INTELLIGENCE
Make no mistake: prescriptive analytics are going to change every aspect of our lives. In fact, algorithms already influence almost every part of our lives, often without us knowing.
Let's look at just a few examples.
The algorithms that define the order of the content and posts in our social media feeds determine which of our 'connections' appear at the top of our feeds, and in so doing, they determine which of our friends we interact with most. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle too: the more we interact with someone, the more the algorithm thinks we're close to them, and so prioritises their posts in our feeds. As a result, social media algorithms are already influencing the strength, depth, and diversity of our friendships.
Similarly, the algorithms that power e-commerce sites such as Amazon already play a disproportionate role in influencing which brands, products and services we buy. Technologies such as suggestions engines - 'people like you also bought…' - give us the confidence to try new things, while the detailed understanding of the 'path to purchase' journey built up from analysing the behaviours of millions of customers before us ensures that we get to the checkout too.
Anyone who uses satellite navigation - or even Google Maps - to guide them on the same journey on a regular basis knows that these algorithms frequently recommend different routes depending on traffic conditions. As a result of these varying routes, we see different our neighbourhoods in different contexts, and this influences our perception of what they're like.
This in turn influences what we do in those neighbourhoods too: whether we visit that new coffee shop we passed the other day, whether we see a house for sale that we like, or even whether we actively try to avoid certain neighbourhoods altogether. This kind of influence will become even greater as autonomous cars become a part of our day-to-day reality, and as a result, algorithms will play an increasingly important role in determining things like the value of property, or the success of small businesses.
It's not just small businesses whose value will be determined by algorithms though; in fact, the value of most large corporations is already heavily influenced by the stock-trading algorithms of investment banks, who increasingly rely on lightning-fast autonomous trades to make their money.
This isn't just about banks' profits, though: these trades ultimately influence the value of a company's stock, which in turn determines how much its employees earn and how much shareholders are willing to invest. These valuations don't just impact employees and investors, either; most of today's pension funds are dependent on stock-market investments, which means that algorithms are already determining the future financial stability of almost everyone in society.
However, algorithms don't just shape our individual lives; they're also playing an increasingly active role in determining the very future of humanity. Research (see here, and here) shows that an increasing number of people meet their 'life-partners' online, with dating services such as Tinder and eHarmony playing an important role in helping us find potential partners.
And that's where the really interesting part comes in: these services are all powered by some kind of 'matching' algorithm, which selects who we see, as well as who sees us. In so doing, the algorithms that power these services influence who we meet and who we date, in turn influencing who we marry, and who we have children with.
In other words, algorithms are already actively influencing the future gene pool of humanity.
That may seem like the stuff of science fiction or even horror movies, but the reality is that most of us actively embrace these algorithms, and welcome them into our lives.
The answer is simple: algorithms add tangible value to our everyday lives.
For example, in a world where marketers ask us to choose between endless different kinds of strawberry jam, it's easy to understand why many people feel overwhelmed by the options available to them. Algorithms help address our confusion (or apathy) when we're confronted with these choices by recommending brands that our friends have chosen, by highlighting the most popular choice, or even by selecting for us based on a range of options we've pre-selected.
Sometimes, we don't feel confident enough to make the right choices, either. Whether it's buying a new kind of technology that we're not familiar with, or choosing where to go on holiday, algorithms can remove some of our uncertainty by offering us reassuring insights like "3 of your friends have stayed in this hotel", or "56% of consumers on this site chose this brand." These uncertainties may even play a role in our decision to use online dating services.
On the other hand, algorithms provide many ways to help us become more efficient too, powering tools such as virtual assistants, auto-schedulers, and chat bots.
Algorithms can also inspire us, whether it's through something as simple as adding new music to our playlists, identifying a more scenic route for the drive to work, or recommending a new recipe for tonight's dinner.
Interestingly, though, algorithms aren't just helping us make individual decisions; they're also influencing the ways in which our brains make decisions. In the same way that pervasive access to tools such as Google Search and Wikipedia have changed the way that we form memories, so algorithms will change the way that we form preferences and choose between available alternatives.
Before the days of mass media, our social circles were the primary influence on our choices; we learnt about new products and services by talking with the people we met in our day-to-day lives, and these conversations helped inform us and guided our decisions.
With the advent of mass media, however, things started to change; we increasingly learnt about products and services from people we didn't know, such as journalists, entertainers, and advertisers. Our social circles still played a role in helping us to interpret this new information, but as we spent more and more time with these media, they played an increasingly important role in influencing our brand choices.
This 'mass media model' has defined marketing for most of the past 100 years, but that's all about to change again. As we move into an ever-more connected world, we're reaching the point where the algorithms that power the services we rely on will have the greatest influence on the 'choices' the we make (or that we delegate to the machines).
As a result, the future success of almost every business and brand in the world will depend on how well it can influence the algorithms.
Our future will be marketing to the machines.
That may sound distopian, but the good news is that - in many ways - things may get easier for marketers as a result. Algorithms are simply a set of rules, and they're rules that we can learn through the same principles and activities that we already employ in our work today.
In the same way that marketers attempt to understand people's motivations and map out consumer journeys, so we can explore how algorithms work, and build 'marketing' activities to influence them. The only real difference will be that our audiences have become machines, not just people.
What's more, in theory, algorithms should be a lot more predictable than humans, whose irrational decision making and emotional responses make them relatively difficult to understand. By thinking about algorithms as just another set of audiences that we need to understand and influence, it should be 'business as usual' for marketing.
However, it's not just the individual algorithms that we'll need to understand; we'll also need to understand how they interact with and influence each other. We're only just starting to explore the 'internet of things', but it's the social web of things - the ways in which these IoT devices communicate with each other - that will be the most important determinant of brands' success tomorrow.
SO WHAT NOW?
All of this is coming; it's just a question of when, and whether we're ready for it when it arrives. It's up to us as individuals to understand what all this means for our brands and our audiences, and to start planning for that reality today.
To help with that, here are five simple tips to help focus your efforts:
- To succeed in a messenger-centric world, focus on a social mindset rather than on social media. Social is something that you are, not something that you do.
- Stop advertising at people, and start finding ways to add real value to their lives in everything that you do - even through your brand communications.
- Plan all marketing around relevant moments, not just media placements. Identify the times and places in which you can deliver the greatest impact, and not simply the greatest reach.
- Look for ways to deliver more utility, instead of trying to distract people.
- Start building the skills you'll need to influence people and machines in an algorithmic world: emotional, rational, and technical.
If you'd like to discuss how you can start tackling some or all of the above, just drop me a note in the comments, or give me a shout on Twitter.