Thursday, November 29, 2007

The year of the mobile?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Every second of every day, according to the CIA world factbook, 2.4 babies are born. It’s a busy old world, you might conclude, and you might leave it at that.

For numbers like this to mean anything, they’ve got to be given context. We need a benchmark – something to give us a sense of whether this number is large or small. So here’s one.

Every second of every day (in the third quarter of this year) 23 mobile phones were sold.
Now aside from the obvious conclusion that every baby has around ten mobile phones, that’s a big number. In fact just shy of a quarter of a billion handsets were sold in Q3 by the top 5 manufacturers.

Every year we look at the rate of growth and the increasing smartness of devices and believe the coming year will be the ‘year of mobile marketing’ (confession: I’ve been guilty of this too).
So will 2008 finally be that year?

To reach the tipping point, there are three factors needed to drive audiences online. Flat rate data access, smart devices and worthwhile content.

2007 saw mobile operators move towards charging a flat rate for internet access – a model that’s expected to lead to a surge in usage. The year also saw the emergence of much improved devices –Nokia’s N95, which offered 3G speed web access (when the battery hadn’t run out) and Apple’s iPhone, which wowed reviewers with what many saw as the first really usable mobile web device.

Driven by these developments, the number of UK mobile internet users has risen 30% in the last year, to 16m in October. Google tops the list of sites visited in the UK, followed by Orange and the BBC.

But the numbers remain tiny in comparison to fixed web consumption, and media usage on the mobile internet remains a niche activity.

But whilst the consumption of media content has remained limited, what has emerged over the past year feels very much like the early years of the internet, as more and more applications are launched.
This year has seen Westminster City Council convert many of its parking bays to payment by mobile phone (saving all that insecure cash collection), Transport for London’s Cabwise scheme lets you text a short code and get the phone numbers of two cab firms local to where you’re texting from.

You can microblog through Twitter, flirt through flirtomatic, instant message with people, Check prices when standing in a shop, download a map showing where you are. There are even SMS-enabled rat traps.

Nokia have just launched a test using a phone with built-in oyster card to pay for tube and bus journeys, and with a stored-value card to make small payments.

Using a mobile phone to make payments is already commonplace in Japan, where phones are also used to scan barcodes (QR codes) in newspapers – providing a return path for print advertising and a common means of distributing coupons.

So what is the significance of all these apparently unconnected things?

The emergence of mobile as an internet device isn’t going to be driven by media content. As with the internet, there was no ‘killer application’ – rather the gradual accretion of thousands of useful things; email, banking, dating, share trading, news, shopping, online TV, search. As these services gathered, individual users reached their own tipping points – they weren’t driven online by one service, but often by the addition of one application to the existing weight of services.

So 2008 isn’t going to be the ‘year of mobile’. There isn’t going to be a moment when we wake up and everything’s mobile. Instead, the coming year will see the accumulation of more and more services and applications offered through mobiles.

So mobile success over the coming year isn’t going to come from advertising – it’s going to come to brands that bring value to consumers by providing stuff they’ll use.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Digital Immigrants

At the recent IAB Engage conference, there was a lot of talk about whether digital consumers are different from other consumers, and views came from both ends of the spectrum.

One view, put forcefully by Roisin Donnelly from P&G, is that the digital consumer is not a different species that needs to be treated in isolation – “online people are exactly the same as offline people”.  She went on to say “we must adopt a consistent approach focusing on the consumer”.

There are others who think that digital changes the game.  Josh Spear from Undercurrent believes “Marketers are playing by an entirely new set of rules in the web 2.0 landscape”.

So does the fact that internet users also watch TV and read newspapers make them the same as people who don’t use the internet?  And have the rules really changed, or just the place we apply them?

Back in 2001, a US educational software designer called Mark Prensky wrote an influential paper called “Digital Natives, DigitalImmigrants”.  His thesis was that people growing up today are immersed from an early age in a digital way of life, based around the internet, video games, mobile phones and instant messaging, and that this was changing the way they thought – and more than this, the way their brains were wired.

To Prensky, people who didn’t grow up in this environment see the world differently – and when they become immigrants to the digital world, their newcomer’s accent shows.

Printing out email, needing to print a document to edit it, bringing people over to show them a website instead of sending a link – these are all examples where a digital immigrant’s accent is a giveaway. 

I recognise this myself - as the sole digital person at a big agency some years ago, I was asked by a creative team to make tapes of a website – and despite protestations that this was missing the point, I had to sit there surfing whilst a technician transferred the site to videotape.

Prensky’s concern was as an educationalist – that a generation of people with heavy immigrant accents were teaching a generation of digital natives, and that their worlds are incompatible – natives with their non-linear, multitasking, instant gratification culture faced with immigrants from a linear, focused and longer-term world.

A variety of studies have demonstrated that kids multitask in a way that their parents simply can’t understand.  The Kids’ Leisure Time 2 report found that 2-12s spend a quarter of their leisure time doing two or more activities at the same time.  In 2006, a large-scale media consumption study by KFF found that 21% of young people’s media time was spent multitasking, whilst if they were doing their homework on a computer, 65% were doing something else at the same time.

But it isn’t just the ability to manipulate information that marks a digital native out as different.  A Gallup poll shows that only 15% of 13-17s think downloading music (breaching copyright) is morally wrong.  Rushworth Kidder, at the Institute for Global Ethics believes kids think “It's not like stealing, because nothing is missing.”

So there’s lots of evidence that there are differences between those who were ‘born digital’ and those who weren’t. 

But they all eat Pringles and watch TV don’t they?

Perhaps so.  But whilst on the surface some behaviours might look similar, their motivations and expectations of brands can be quite different.

They are less tolerant of being sold to, expect us to be ethically upstanding (whilst not expecting the same of themselves), and to have their voice heard when they want to express themselves.  They consume information differently – faster, non-linear and multitasking, and driven by instant and frequent reward.

So whilst it remains that a brand can only remain ‘true’ if it has a consistently communicated proposition, what’s got harder now is that we have to execute that communication in ways that are different at a fairly fundamental level.  And for that, you need to speak like a native.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Demographics is useless

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

For more years now than any of us can remember, demographics has been a fundamental building block for marketers and the media folk who serve them.

Working on the assumption that people with similar age and social class exhibit similar behaviour, marketers use demographics as a shorthand – young/old, up/down market.

I’m hardly the first person to point out that this is a gross over-simplification of what we flatter ourselves to consider the most complex animal on the planet.  But demographic information is an aggregated view that’s intended describe a group’s characteristics – it’s not intended to predict an individual’s behaviour.

So herein lies the problem.

Whilst knowing that one group is more likely to buy our product than another allows us to target them and thereby increase our chances of success, we recognise that within that group there will be a substantial number who won’t respond to the message for one reason or another.

We’ve grown to live with this compromise – and entire media planning and trading systems have grown up around it.

There must be a better way.

Of course there already is, and the biggest exponent of it, Google, already makes more money in the UK than ITV.

Google’s success is based on relevance.

Advertising is bought against keywords – terms that users search for – and of course these keywords describe the interests of the searcher.  Each keyword has a bid price, dependent entirely on demand, and the whole system is automated from Google’s side.

The genius of all this is that consumers get ads that are directly relevant to their search, presented to them exactly when they’ve just indicated their interest in a topic.  And the content costs Google nothing.

It’s not surprising then that when Facebook launched an online advertising system, it looked to search for inspiration.

Their new advertising system imports many of the features that made Google successful – self-operation, combined with credit card payment that makes it easy for small businesses to participate.  An auction allows demand to influence pricing, and you can target around interests, based on groups that users belong to.

But it’s gone much further than this.  Social Ads allow ads to be served to friends of users of your site.  If I buy a book on your site (assuming I’ve arrived via Facebook’s beacon system), my friends can be shown an ad – “Andrew Walmsley rated this book 4/5 – buy it here” along with my picture to emphasise the personal connection.

And where only individuals could set up pages before, Facebook now allows companies to set up pages, forming the basis for promoting their products and services.  Reflecting this, users don’t ‘friend’ these pages, they become ‘fans’ – an important distinction.

So what have Facebook created?

Social media has challenged marketers, because there isn’t a clear role for brands in the space.  For many consumers, brands’ presence feels like an intrusion into personal space, so success in this area has principally been limited to entertainment brands.

Facebook have achieved three things.  They’ve found a distinctive way of carving out a place for businesses to coexist with people in a social network.  They’ve established a means of promoting brands that’s derived from the interactions (and transactions) of people.  And they’ve created a clever way of targeting people that reflects their interests and behaviour.

The great thing about the online media space is that nobody can be quite sure what use this is going to be to anyone.  Facebook have given us a big box of toys, and it’s up to us to figure out what to do with it.

Google and Facebook give us a glimpse of the future, and it’s a future where demographics will no longer be the means by which we understand audiences and no longer the currency by which we trade them.  There’s no place here for the compromise that demographics force on us, and it’ll change both advertisers’ and consumers’ expectations across the media world.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Second Life and corporate hubris

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

You don’t have to be close to the news to know that the internet’s doing pretty well these days.  More than half of UK homes have broadband, 14% of advertising spend is expected to be online this year, the IMRG reports online retail was up 80% in July, and my mum just celebrated 10 years online.

Wind back a few years though, and it was all gloom and doom.  Dotcoms dropping like flies, and investors running away from the internet sector like crowds in a Godzilla movie.  Lycos (bought by Terra Networks in 2000 for $12.5 billion) sold for $95m in 2004, eToys, Boo and Kozmo all went bust, and AOL Time Warner quietly dropped the AOL from their name.

Vast amounts of cash were burned in the boom and its subsequent bust, and the world’s investors reacted against their losses by vowing never to darken the internet’s door again.  But as it turns out, their knee-jerk rejection of the internet was as irrational as their embracing of it was exuberant.

Because every day of every month as the crash continued, more and more people got connected to the internet.  Eventually, business re-adopted the internet and started to make money out of it, and now investors can’t get enough.

But this rosy outlook isn’t universal.

After the initial excitement and irrational exuberance that marked the first two years of Second Life, the voices of the naysayers are now coming to the fore.

The recent ban on gambling in-world led to the biggest bank in SL, Ginko, closing its doors after a run on the bank.  Starwood hotels announced the closure of their Hotel, and others are left wondering whether it was worth all the effort.

A quick visit to American Apparel reveals it to be closed permanently for business, the Reebok store is empty.  Leo Burnett’s treehouse was vacant, shops and other commercial environments have virtual tumbleweed blowing through them.

So was it all just one big PR stunt, or have we just hit a digital speedbump on the road to next-generation media?

What drove these businesses into Second Life was the feeling that there was new area of the economy opening up.  People were spending time there, and importantly they were making money – SL’s first millionaire (that’s in real-world US dollars), Anshe Chung, emerged last year having made her fortune principally in real (is that the right word?) estate.

Few companies really believed that they would earn huge returns.  What piqued their interest was the potential that these alternate worlds might offer in the future.

Second Life isn’t alone.  World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, There, and now the Lord of the Rings are amongst dozens of virtual worlds where millions of people spend hours of their time.

They’re trading with each other, fighting each other, marrying each other.  Their lives spill in and out of these virtual worlds, and when you talk to someone who spends time there, their language is that of someone who regards it not as a game, but as a part of their life.

For some time now, it’s been possible (in a lab) for a person to control a computer game directly from their brain.  Now, a study at UCL has shown that someone who is prodded in the chest at the same time as this is done to their virtual self can associate that sensation with their virtual self rather than the real one.  The applications for virtual environments like Second Life are obvious – making them more immersive, more personal and more real.
So the likelihood is that we’re underestimating the potential impact of these ‘games’ on humans.  Understanding more about these phenomena is both fascinating and important, but what’s happened in SL has been more about corporate hubris than about targeted learning – it’s hard to see what Telecom Italia expects to learn from operating a racetrack in SL, other than that nobody wants to go there.

There are big lessons to be learned – but you don’t necessarily need to buy an island to learn them. 

Friday, November 2, 2007

I missed World Internet Day

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Like me, you probably missed World Internet Day last week.  As celebrations went, it was a pretty low-key affair, un-noticed by the majority of the world who one might suspect were too busy just using it to join in with the revelry.

It’s just 13 years since the first commercial website (for DEC, the Digital Equipment Corporation – now a part of Hewlett Packard), and we’ve come a long way from there.

Back then, web pages were static, had grey backgrounds, and blue lines around the pictures to show you could click on them.  The typeface was chosen by the user rather than the designer, and we had to dial up using a modem (and a slow one at that) to get online.

The user experience was rubbish.  But the potential was obvious.

Whilst investors, commentators and entrepreneurs mostly raved about the technology, what was clear was that here was a means of connecting people with each other.

And now, it’s hard to think what we’d do without it.  From the humble email has emerged the Blackberry, from bulletin boards on Usenet the giant social network phenomenon has evolved.  People watch TV online, they get news online, they shop online.  They find out about ambulance response times and school results near the house they plan to buy, and research their genealogy using census and registrars data published online.

A medium that started as the province of geeks has turned into a global phenomenon that’s changing business and society.  Within 3 years in the UK, 75% of homes are expected to have broadband, and the online advertising market will have overtaken TV.

For years, the medium has been dominated by pure-plays – businesses that had their origins online.  Now, the titans of the media world are determined to fight back, with the consumer the beneficiary as NBC Universal teams up with NewsCorp to launch online video site

But for all the amazing discoveries, launches and invention of the past 13 years, I still can’t help feeling we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of the potential for change that the internet will ultimately deliver.

The scale and scope of the change that the internet will bring on us defies our capacity to envision it.  Many people react by denying it – either giving up, or deciding to simply let all the change play out before acting.  It would be so comforting if we could predict what’s going to happen, but we don’t have that luxury.

As Larry Landwehr wrote in 1993, “It's like trying to predict back in 1910 the impact of the automobile on society - the highway system, gasoline refineries, motels instead of hotels, new dating patterns, increased social mobility, commuting to work, the importance of the rubber industry, smog, drive-thru restaurants, mechanized warfare, and on and on”

But the fact it’s so hard to project what’s going to happen shouldn’t stop us trying.  Fortunes will be won and lost on the bets we make here, and thinking about how different developments, ideas and inventions will lead is how we protect the future wealth of our shareholders and the strength of our brands.

William Gibson, writing in 1995, thought that the internet was as significant to humans as the birth of cities.  To him the emergence of internet banking, telemedicine, video on demand are merely signs that bigger things are afoot – they’re not the end of the game.

Amazingly, we seem to have absorbed the benefits the internet has brought us without really noticing.  We think nothing of booking holidays online, of checking our bank account or of video calling a cousin in Australia for free.

But it’s encouraging that we are this blasé – I suspect it means our capacity for change is greater than perhaps we imagine.  So I’m pleased we missed World Internet Day – I suspect it means we’re getting on with creating tomorrow.