Facing the Future

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion at a major e-commerce conference. The topic was about the “Future of Marketing,” and naturally, the discussion went towards the Internet of Things and other futuristic technologies. The key question was, “How should marketers adapt to these rapidly evolving technologies?”

wwwRecently, I participated in a panel discussion at a major e-commerce conference. The topic was about the “Future of Marketing,” and naturally, the discussion went toward the Internet of Things and other futuristic technologies. The key question was, “How should marketers adapt to these rapidly evolving technologies?”

In a panel discussion, where panelists are supposed to share the stage with others, there generally is no time to build up a story. Nor does the modern-day audience have patience for a long intro. We’ve got to get to the point fast. The bottom line? Technologies change, but people don’t.

Well, they actually do change over time, if you want to be technical about it, but the whole premise of predictive analytics (and the reason why it works) is that people are predictable. Hence the phrase, “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” Even the manufacturers of products aren’t sure what is going to be invented in the near future. People, on the other hand, unless there are life-altering events such as getting married or having a baby, change “relatively” slowly.

Yes, new cool things come and go, but the early adopters of technologies will remain in search of cool new things and adopt them earlier than others and at a higher price point, movie collectors will collect movies in new super-duper-ultra-high-definition formats (ask them how many times they bought the “Godfather” trilogy), conservative investors will invest more conservatively, fashionistas will care more about the latest fashion than others, and outdoors enthusiasts won’t be flipping channels on TV on weekends unless they get injured doing outdoor activities. Here, I am also describing the reasons why product-to-product type personalization (as in “Oh, you bought an outdoor item, so you must be in interested in all other outdoorsy stuff!”) is mostly annoying and impersonal to consumers.

So, if (more like “when”) some smart person – or a company – invents a new way to communicate among people, marketers should NOT create a new division for it (like a social media division, email division, etc.). If wearable devices, such as watches or eyeglasses, become really smart and ubiquitous, I am certain some marketers will simply see the new invention as a piece of real estate where they will put their so-called “personalized” ads. From a consumer’s point of view, that would be the last thing that they would want to see on their new toy. You think that a banner is annoying on a computer screen? Try a 3D image projected out of your glasses, promoting some random things.

The first thing that a marketer must face is that all of these new devices will be connected to a network for “two-way” communications, not one-way blasting. It doesn’t matter if it is a watch, eyeglasses, set-top-box or even a refrigerator. IoT is essentially about data collection, not about marketers’ new sets of billboards. And the price of spamming through such personal devices – especially ones that people will wear on their bodies – will be quite stiff. My advice? Don’t do it just because you can (refer to my earlier article “Don’t Do It Just Because You Can”).

The second bit of advice is that marketers should not forget that they are NOT in control of communication. Consumers will cut out any conversation if “they” think that the message is irrelevant, intrusive, rude or simply uncool. Millennials are in fact less likely to be resistant to sharing their information on the Net, if “they” think such action will yield some benefits for “them.” The second that they decide it is a waste of their time or not worthwhile for that small space on the phone, they will mercilessly opt out and delete the app.

So, if a marketer thinks that all of these new devices will serve “them” as part of their multichannel arsenals, well, I am sorry to inform them they are just wrong. Call it any name you want, whether it is personalization, customization, customer experience or whatever, the key is staying relevant at all times. The goal should be keeping engaged without being fired by the new generation of impatient and tech-savvy customers. In fact, marketers have lost control over this matter already; the sooner they realize that, the better off they will be.

Then there is this data part. All of these new technologies will yield more data for sure, as the very concept of “connection” is about knowing the who, when, what and where of every event, maybe with an exception for the “why” part (remember the age-old argument that correlation doesn’t automatically mean causation?). That means this Big Data thing will get even bigger. Many companies don’t even know how to deal with transactional data or digital data properly, and they barely consume basic reports out of them. Most don’t have any clue about how to convert such data assets into real profit. A few have some idea that personalization is the way of the future, but may not know how to get there.

Now multiply all of those data challenges by a million to gauge the size of the data-related issues when everything that consumes electricity will start spitting out some form data at us. Bless those electrons and charged particles; now they will soon know to how to talk to us.

How do marketers get ready for such a world? I think the way our brain works may provide a clue, though I am not getting into a new discussion regarding machine learning at this point. Our brains, basically, are programmed to know what to ignore; they simply do not process everything that we see, hear, taste or feel. Many women complain about their male partners’ selective hearing, but in the age of abundant data, analysts must learn from those seemingly simple-minded men.

Big Data are big because we don’t throw away anything. Data that are useful for one purpose could be dismissed as worthless noise for others. Basically, Big Data must get smaller to make sense for decision-makers (refer to my earlier article “Big Data Must Get Smaller”).

There are movements in Silicon Valley to build a machine that would just provide answers out of mounds of data, much like the one in a satire movie called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I dare you to say that even such a machine must go through some serious data selection/reduction processes first in order to provide any useful and consumable answers. Anyhow, even with such an omnipotent computer, the humans are the ones who need to ask the question wisely. If not, we will get answers like “42” for “The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything,” after 7.5 million years of calculation. That computer named Deep Thought in that movie actually pointed out that “The answer seems meaningless, because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the question was.”

So, how are we supposed to ask questions in the age of abundant data and ubiquitous connections? Let’s remember that ultimately, marketing communication is about pleasing other human beings and treating them right. If that is too much, let’s start with not annoying them through every device and screen ever invented.

Then, how do we become more selective? Invest in analytics, and start cutting through the data before it is out of control. Why? Because consumers are in control of all these devices, and they will cut out any marketer who doesn’t conform to their standards.

We may never really know why people do what they do, but let’s start with talking to them only when necessary with a clear purpose, and offering benefits to them when we do get to talk to them. Modern-day analytics can already provide answers to such questions with available technologies. It is a matter of commitment, not technical challenges.

I really don’t think the future will be brighter just because we will have better technologies. Imagine spams through every device that you possess as a consumer. I, for one, would give up a talking refrigerator and all the benefits that come with it, if it becomes even remotely annoying to “me.”

Author: Stephen H. Yu

Stephen H. Yu is a world-class database marketer. He has a proven track record in comprehensive strategic planning and tactical execution, effectively bridging the gap between the marketing and technology world with a balanced view obtained from more than 30 years of experience in best practices of database marketing. Currently, Yu is president and chief consultant at Willow Data Strategy. Previously, he was the head of analytics and insights at eClerx, and VP, Data Strategy & Analytics at Infogroup. Prior to that, Yu was the founding CTO of I-Behavior Inc., which pioneered the use of SKU-level behavioral data. “As a long-time data player with plenty of battle experiences, I would like to share my thoughts and knowledge that I obtained from being a bridge person between the marketing world and the technology world. In the end, data and analytics are just tools for decision-makers; let’s think about what we should be (or shouldn’t be) doing with them first. And the tools must be wielded properly to meet the goals, so let me share some useful tricks in database design, data refinement process and analytics.” Reach him at stephen.yu@willowdatastrategy.com.

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