1.17 Rewiring our ways
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, what used to be referred to as ‘industrial-scale’ to denote size has been completely redefined by companies like Amazon, Ebay, Google and Facebook.
These early dot.com pioneers were a bridgehead between the industrial and digital worlds. They demonstrated the massive commercial opportunities and business impact that could be created by harnessing social and commercial networks and connections. And they upstaged their analogue competitors by putting meeting user needs at the centre of their strategy. It showed how digital agility could yield a new kind of ROI.
Putting user needs first was, largely speaking, an anathema to analogue, industrialised businesses, which were instead fixated on stimulating a consumer demand for the goods and services coming off the conveyor belt in the factory. Google, Amazon, Yahoo and others scaled by behaving like distributed networks instead of towering, pre-processed monoliths.
In the early days of the Web, commercial success was powered by developing partner ecosystems and opening up all manner of ‘open’ web APIs.
While these early digital businesses were posting their triple-digit growth trajectories, they were signalling a transformation of the commercial landscape was well and truly underway and the supremacy of old world business models began to be questioned.
‘E-commerce’, as it was called in the early days, proved that economic value was no longer merely about shipping goods and services. Now, the traction between business and consumer was coming from information, online engagement and intangible value, every bit as much as from tangible assets and the sale of hard goods and services. Interactivity was becoming a strong and powerful hook.
The evolving landscape of information overload
Technology and communications are inherently conjoined, as we have already seen. And a subtle and steady metamorphosis in how we receive information has been going on constantly since the 1960’s, even though the average consumer might not have noticed it.
There was, first, a broadening of communications and marketing and advertising across multiple channels – press, posters, radio, TV and cinema. These channels could be used to make information ubiquitous, as well as distinguish target audiences and different demographics. Brands like Mars routinely outspent their competitors by 33% or more in this world to grab what was quaintly known as ‘share of voice’.
With the arrival of global communications came a much bigger mass market. Covering all the bases became challenging and expensive, and direct marketing stepped in to fill the breach. Messages could be more personalised, delivered direct to your door.
Real-time content management and communication ‘by the many, to the many’, arrived with social media. A ‘many to many’ world was atomised, random, much harder to control. So now, native advertising became subtly inserted into news and features stories. Programmatic media, embedded and scientifically placed in front of us by algorithm as we browse online, has become the new normal.
Behavioural economics have increased the sophistication with which commercial businesses can fine-tune the relationship between consumer stimulus and response.
These changes in how marketing and the use of media have developed to maintain the commercial influences of big businesses have been happening right in front of our noses, but the speed and velocity of the information flows we deal with day-to-day mean we’ve barely time to stop to draw breath, reflect and take it all in. Yet reflect upon it we should, because it is transformational.
The rate with which we can create, upload and share content today is a firehouse of previously unimaginable proportions. Its volume is many times greater than can be digested by any human being. There is an immense spectrum of ways to create content, inform ourselves and exchange ideas that they can happen wherever we are, with an almost infinite number of methods messages can be embedded into our experiences while we are on the move.
All of this is rewiring our ways. Communication and media experiences today are undergoing a reinvention every bit as phenomenal as the arrival of canvas and oil paint in the Renaissance. There is one noticeable difference, however. Where the Renaissance shed light on the truth of the human condition, today we are entwined with brands.
Few experiences today are marketed about the essentials of ‘just being’. There is little enlightenment here. The human condition today comes with increasingly inextricable links to commercial providers of one form or another, with the average consumer exposed to more than 300 sales messages every day.
Behavioural economics and modern marketing uses neuroscience and big data to develop the algorithms that are serving up the advertising messages placed in front of us and we must contend with the idea that, with every keystroke, one company or another may well be logging the data.
While we are swathed in their information and the user experiences online that the service design of commercial companies determine like never before, one link back to the Renaissance perhaps does remain. The evolving relationship over the last few decades, between consumers, commercial sponsorship and entertainment media, has been as influential as the patronage of art by the Medici or the Borgia in Florence 500 years previously. Modern we might be, but we are still powering trade in the same way.
Defining value metrics
The earliest mass media advertisers established a basic rule of thumb about human memory. They found that any message could be spontaneously recalled by an audience after it had been given eight or nine exposures to it. This was known as ‘Opportunities to See‘, (the OTS metric). It has powered the equation between advertising spend, content and where it is placed for decades, depending on who the advertising is trying to reach.
Clay Shirky, the author of ‘Here Comes Everybody‘, said in 2008, in the early days of social media that ‘it’s not about transactions, it’s about behaviours and relationships’. Most online content today, however, has defaulted back to that old advertising model, of impressions upon eyeballs, the known value metric.
So instead of relationships, we do have transactions, and many, many more of them, because they can be measured, and so the digital human is bombarded by information across networks, in apps, through user experience design and the behavioural nudges embedded into online sign-ups, sign-ins and log-on instructions.
From ‘share of mind’ to sharing our mind, our daily interoperability with the digital world is developing, often without us even being aware of it. It can be monetised and measured, digitally, for ROI potential.
Technology and behavioural psychology have combined to mean that what was once a message can now be a nudge, opening up a new arena in mind control and how we define and understand the dynamics of influence.
Media, in the service of consumer recall and sales impact, and data, particularly big and linked data, are providing a whole new range of insights and perspectives for global companies to use to mould human behaviour.
With a countless numbers of user interfaces are at our fingertips, but a finite amount of bandwidth and time with which to take it all in, attention, and the freedom to make a conscious choice about where we choose to put it, has become the most precious resource of all.
What we’re doing now is constructing the central nervous system for a wired planet, harnessing everything from data mining to drones to put out feelers and discover its edges.
The friends’ word of mouth recommendation might have always been the most credible and trustworthy information available. Now, with network information available through the social graph, there are algorithms running our content and neuro-marketers are, as one of them put it at a conference recently, ‘trying to claw inside the human brain’.
A new kind of lighting
Digital media is becoming a kind of modern-day gaslight that guides our decision-making. This was apparent when Facebook was served with legal action because of ‘fake Like’ allegations.
The collective psychology experiments and posts that appear as promoted and embedded product placement and friend endorsements question the fundamental role of human instinct and trust in information relationships, where we begin and end with technology, and when our impulses are our own or are part of a collective group think, shaped by outside forces.
This is a time to figure out the best and most viable interplay between technology, digital strategy and commercial relationships and who we are as digital humans. Machine technology can process information seven times faster than the human brain and the uninterrupted attention span of the average teenager is now calculated as somewhere around six seconds.
Life’s has always had the tendency to slip through our fingers. As digital humans, wishing happy birthday to one friend or another virtually every day on Facebook, our experiences are increasingly shaped and moulded by computers, as they record more about us than we ourselves know.
Do we want that as a feature on our future timeline?