Communication in an invisible world

Reading Clay Shirky‘s “Here Comes Everybody” recently I came across the following idea. It’s a simple reminder that the advertising and marketing industry is heading towards a massive shift, one that many people still can’t see and one that I’m still not entirely sure how we effectively approach.

“It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive it’s invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming.”

The invisibility that Shirky talks about here highlights a fascinating change and compelling challenge. And I don’t think his use of the term ‘profound changes’ is understating the significance. In the next few years, a huge slice of consumers will have spent their entire life online and in the social space. How they communicate, and how they expect to be communicated too, is vastly different to how ‘we’ (late gen Y’ers and up) experience the world, particularly when it comes to advertising and marketing.

So what exactly will happen when this change arrives? There are some things we know, as well as things we can fairly safely predict.

1. Privacy will become less of an issue.

Companies collecting digital information on you was once shocking. It’s now somewhere between normal and ubiquitous (depending on who you ask). But to those who have grown up with their Facebook or Bebo or MySpace conversations on display to the world, the wall between personal and private will become completely invisible (Facebook pun only slightly intended).

2. Amateur content, specifically targeted, will take precedence over professional content.

The natively-wired generation expect their content how they want it, when they want it, and as they want it. Mark Pesce explains the scenario well:

“When he weighs the latest episode of a TV series against some newly-made video that is meant only to appeal to a few thousand people – such as himself – that video will win, every time. It more completely satisfies him.”

3. Brands will no longer be a signifier of being cool.

The cool people will be the early adopters, those on the tip with the freshest content or latest meme. They will in turn create cool rather than have it dictated to them through the pages of a magazine.

None of the above are terribly groundbreaking thoughts. But it’s worth thinking about how the above scenarios affect traditional off and online advertising and marketing. How do we talk to consumers when almost every channel available to use 20 years ago no longer exists? With social media focused agencies like The Population opening up, it’s tempting to say that social media marketing is the answer. But I can’t help but think it’s simply an evolution of what we’ve always done as a reaction to how the consumer is evolving. We may need to move upstream, because once communication becomes invisible, we cease to have a forum in which we’re relevant.

So what are some possible responses?

1. Become ingrained in their content creation.

I was fortunate enough to see a presentation of Smirnoff Secret Party campaign run by Amnesia a few days ago. While overall it was a great campaign, I really loved the final step in the discovery process whereby ticket holders would upload of a photo of themselves with their ticket. This is an extremely basic execution of the idea of becoming ingrained in content creation, but with the only other one beings Sprint’s Sellout, it’s probably the best I’ve seen (please let me know if there’s anything more out there). User generated content is shoehorned into so many campaigns today without the fundamental understanding that people will only create content for love or money. Convince people to love your product, and they will happily create content around it, and this is what their friends will be watching, reading, listening to, and sharing.

2. Allow everything to be remixed.

If people can’t take your content and your product and make it their own, express themselves through it, and create something with it, it’s just not as interesting. The idea of amateur content for many people conjures up visions of poorly produced and sub-standard videos, but this won’t necessarily continue to be the case. Collaboration and the removal of barriers to entry means professional quality content is becoming more and more achievable by amateurs.

3. Create brand ownership by involving them in the product development.

With rapid prototyping technologies, the idea of personalising a product to thin slices of your market is a reality. As a consumer’s involvement in your product increases, their brand ownership and advocacy increases (often at an exponential rate). There is no better way to create brand advocates and create better products than actually allowing consumers to have a hand in creation. Even if it’s just the packaging, or the naming, or the colours. Since the birth of Wikipedia we have seen that lowering or removing barriers to creation can result in quality content, and lots of it. There is no reason a company shouldn’t take those learnings into their product development and remove barriers to collaboration, ending up with both an amazing product and amazing consumers.

4. Rethink how we’re using the information we have about consumers.

There’s a theory in computer science based around ‘wasting cycles’ (covered in both Paul Graham’s Hackers & Painters and also Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch). The short version is that if the developers of the next generation of software or hardware take away the restrictions of current computing power, they could dream big. By the time their dreams were a reality, the computing power had caught up. In the same way, what if we wasted data? Generate completely new ways to use consumer data. Rather than using it as a filter for messaging, use it as a platform to build a product, or move up the network and use social graph data to market to entire communities rather than individuals. Sounds counter-intuitive yes, but there’s no reason it’s not worth testing, all we’re wasting is data, and that’s almost free.

With all the talk of integration and social media, it sometimes seems that we’re doing little more than following the trends that a digital society has created. The idea that the tools people have only recently adopted for communication could become so ubiquitous as to become invisible in a matter of years is both remarkably exciting and daunting. As communicators, we need to better comprehend what this invisibility really means, and how we adapt or re-invent our thinking to accommodate it.

- September 2008