It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.
Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).
The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.
The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,
“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”
One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway, so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it”. It is this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,
“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”
It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.
In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, one of England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.
A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see. A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally“. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.
So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.
Last night, at the Royal Automobile Club on London’s Pall Mall, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to hear Harper Reed, the Chief Technology Officer of the Obama 2012 US presidential campaign speak candidly about how he helped get out the vote and keep the Democrats in the White House. Harper is ex-Threadless, the famous T-shirt company that lets users contribute their own designs, with the most popular becoming actual products sold the world over. It’s a democratic philosophy, one that understandably caught the attention of the campaign committee. It is also the kind of thinking that cities like New York and Chicago are starting to employ; actively gathering, analysing and distributing data to inform policy implications and help citizens. What follows is a brief summary of his thoughts and points that Zeitgeist found interesting.
Harper began the talk with the fundamentals, discussing how, when he arrived, the campaign seemingly already had much of the data gathering resources needed to achieve what he wanted. The trouble was it as all siloed. Putting all the data together was a major step in the right direction, toward cohesive data analysis. He elaborated, saying they went from having fifteen different numbers for doors that needed to be knocked on, to one. On hiring the right people for the task at hand, Harper was explicit in noting that they had hired tech people and taught them about politics, rather than the other way around. He riffed on the state of journalism, saying it was similarly important when hiring journalists that know about tech.
One of the more interesting insights Harper talked about involved the target demographics. Those most likely to vote are male or female 18-28, and women perhaps in her 50s. The younger group is adept and comfortable with all digital platforms, but still uses paper a fair amount. Paper, by contrast, is an essential medium for that middle-aged female voter. So the insight was about making paper use more efficient, given these groups’ use of it. Understandably this was a hard decision for a group of very tech-minded people to arrive at, but the acknowledgement showed they were willing to park their own pre-conceptions on how things ought to be done.
Like many startups, they were constantly trying to fail in order to create redundancies. This involved hosting hackathons where code was obsessively broken and then reconstructed, “ensuring things would break in ways we understood”, as Harper put it. They had the same approach with the content they published, aggressively testing every piece to make sure it was relevant and engaging for the intended audiences. What they failed to foresee was the Internet activist group Anonymous launching a DDOS attack the day before the election to coincide with Guy Fawkes day, which helped trigger a meltdown over at Amazon’s cloud servers, AWS. Harper made it sound like not too much trouble to switch the servers from the East Coast where they had been affected, to the West Coast, but the experience must have been a stressful one.
Lastly, he offered an opinion increasingly shared by many in the industry, which was a reluctance to talk of mobile device use as “second-screening”. Mobile devices, Harper pointed out quite rightly and obviously, are the first thing you look at when you wake up, the last thing you look at when you go to bed, and the thing you’re actually looking at when you’re supposed to be watching TV. Mobile first should always be the initial mindset.
In questions, Ruth Porter asked whether there were any pearls of wisdom that could be applied to those in UK politics and how they go about with their own strategy of getting out the vote. Harper conceded he had met that day with a party “whose name starts with ‘L'”, and believed that what was key was investment, commitment and belief from the very top in what social and data could do for the campaign. Without that, such efforts would amount to nothing. The lessons of the Obama 2012 campaign – and the pitfalls of Romney’s campaign – offer valuable lessons for political parties, but it seems any efforts at cherrypicking ideas or going in half-hearted would doom any prospect of leveraging what the Obama team were able to do.
Zeitgeist was resting easy this morning with the news that Obama had been re-elected for another four years. Before the tickertape had even fallen though, marketing managers were thinking of how they could take advantage of this national event. Leveraging, tapping into or piggybacking on a particular theme is a popular move, though it can be risky, as the recent brand activity around Sandy proved. So it’s nothing new. Nevertheless, this was a quick turnaround. For though Obama did not give his acceptance speech until around six hours later, Lacoste was ready with their latest iteration of their eCRM programme at around 7pm EST. Presented as an email to get people to “vote” for a red or blue polo, the pre-header said it all; “You’ve Picked Your President – Now, Pick Your Polo!“
“Many consumers remain loyal due simply to the absence of a negative because it is often easier to put up with something that is less than perfect than go to the trouble, and potential expense, of switching”
PricewaterhouseCoopers summed up their findings above in July regarding cell phone and pay TV customer loyalty. In the midst of swirling hysteria over cable TV “cord-cutting”, their survey restated the power of inertia and loss aversion.
In the hysteria that is the US presidential elections, Jon Stewart showcased the FDR video clip recently on The Daily Show. It was used to underline the current predilection Governor Romney has for stating he can not only improve the financial and military strength of the country, but do so at no extra cost to the taxpayer. This has met with puzzlement in the press. Romney has yet to fully describe how he plans to do both these things at once. It smacks of promising the impossible (not that Obama has been much more candid in his own policy details).
In politics, as with brands. If you are asking someone to change their allegiance from one thing to another, said person must consider whether the pros of changing affiliation outweigh the cons. If a brand or political party wants to be that change, they must convince the buyer – or voter – that the switching costs are low enough for it to be worth their while.
This can lead to overpromising, which in marketing can lead to a disappointed buyer and post-purchase dissonance. (Sadly it is less easy to return your ballot and ask to vote again). The ebullience of the sell can ultimately damage the brand. That is why marketers must strive to be honest with the consumer. If long-term commitment to a product or service is what is being sought, hyperbole or a disengenuous call to action can permanently damage a brand’s equity. You just have to think about what makes your product or service truly stand apart from its peers. If this is too much to ask, then its to time to rethink your offering.
In 1894, one Doctor M Price referred at a gathering to “the proverbial kinds of falsehoods, ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics'”. Zeitgeist was enrolled on a stats course back at uni. Zeitgeist grudgingly took said stats course. Zeitgeist does not like dealing with arbitrary integers. Numbers become imbued with meaning once they are put in the context of reality, not when they are being discussed in a lecture hall. Statistical analysis can help shed light on many things. Sometimes, however, they not only fail to tell the whole truth, they mask a reality.
Prima facie, this graph, shown this past Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, looks like good news for President Obama; the country’s unemployment rate dropped below 9% for the first time since April of 2009. So employment is dropping. How can this be anything but a good thing? Unfortunately, as an editorial this past weekend in The New York Times points out, “the new figures reveal more about the depth of distress in the job market than about real improvement in job prospects”. The editorial continues, stating that “most of the decline” in last month’s figures were because 315,000 people dropped out of the work force, “a reflection of extraordinarily weak demand by employers for new workers”. So what looks initially like cheerful news is in fact worrying and hopeless. It’s enough to make you reach for a stats textbook.
The way to stop waste from building up in the street is not to enforce a litter ban. It is to change what it is that they are dropping, into something that is not waste, something that becomes productive. Of the many stirring, puzzling and fantastic things that Zeitgeist was exposed to at yesterday’s LS:N Global Trends briefing yesterday (who presented the above insight), one of the more thought-provoking things was the above commercial, played during this year’s Super Bowl extravaganza in the US. It’s a bold, powerful advertisement, and rightly pointed out as a return to the more glorious days of advertising. There is a problem with it though, one of cognitive dissonance.
As we know, the US auto industry, with its epicentre in Detroit, had to be bailed out by the Obama administration. More recently Chrysler themselves thought the problem might be a more macro one of people being unable to drive. As with the initial example, the thinking in this commercial has the wrong end of the stick. The problem was not the global recession and the short-term devastation it wrought. The Economist wrote in January that “The car industry can produce 94m cars a year, against global demand of 64m”; this clearly has to change. The long-term problem though, unfortunately, is simply that the US auto industry makes low-quality cars. In terms of quality, they are subpar relative to other countries. This is partly why the country saw such an influx of Japanese models during the 1980s. The hysteria of Japanese cultural domination (evident in films like Blade Runner) was such at the time that popular fiction author Tom Clancy dramatised the whole affair, setting the Japanese auto industry’s invasion of America as the first step to all-out war in the novel Debt of Honour.
Last year was the first time when, around the world, more people lived in cities than in towns. Ipso facto, this means there will be less need for cars, as distances travelled on a regular basis become shorter. Car manufacturers make more profit from larger models than the smaller ones that will increasingly come to dominate the marketplace. Even Aston Martin is getting into the race for convenience in the city. Making the most of this dramatic shift will be of the utmost importance if the industry is to survive. That, and not using brilliant creative to make up for a lower quality in manufacturing.
Zeitgeist was asked at the end of last year to write an article on retail trends for the coming year. The following is an altered excerpt of the original article…
It’s surprising to read editorial describing us as still being in a recession. If you’re going to use economic terminology, then you have to listen to economists when they say the recession ended months ago. The trouble now is dealing with the aftermath – impending cuts and taxes. Evidently it’s not all gloom though, as new stores Dior, Mulberry and Miu Miu join the salute to capitalism that is Louis Vuitton’s Maison on London’s Bond Street.
Look for more brand collaborations. Disney’s venture with Tesco is bold and innovative… Savile Row’s Gieves and Hawkes recently installed a space for barber Gentleman’s Tonic, and vintners par excellence Berry Brothers has a concession for Lock and Co. Both instances suggest a deep insight into who their shopper is; useful for the brand, flattering for the shopper. With empty high street retail spaces, the time is right for sage collaborations, bringing brands added security.
Digital integration will become more widespread, aiding both in brand building and simplifying the customer journey. More people are expected to be surfing via phones than computers by 2015. This swing constitutes an immediate opportunity for retailers and marketers. Since helping Obama to victory, crowdsourcing has only gained in popularity. The Louvre recently fundraised through thousands of individual donations online to buy a coveted Renaissance painting. The power of many, prognosticated in “The Wisdom of Crowds”, is driving ideas like Groupon, as well as its subsequent offer for purchase by Google.
It’s going to be a make-or-break year for Foursquare et al. There have been interesting campaigns by all sorts, from Marc Jacobs to McDonald’s. What’s missing is seamless integration of these services with retail environments. ‘Checking-in’ has got to become a utility for shoppers outside London, New York and San Francisco. Currently, opportunities to create conversations are being missed.
Twitter’s retail presence will continue to grow, evinced by Best Buy’s Twelp Force and Debenham’s Twitterers flitting about stores. Multi-platform interaction can be enhanced by the physical retail environment: Diesel pulled off a fun gimmick last year with a screen outside the changing room allowing customers to upload a photo of themselves to Facebook to query friends on their clothing choice. Neiman Marcus recently merged online and in-store inventories, a great idea that others should emulate. Allowing people to browse products in-store on an LCD screen without the pressure of exasperated sighs from sales assistants can make shopping enjoyable and convenient. Chanel’s Manhattan flagship has such functionality; it could be of equal use at B&Q.
Getting someone to linger in your space and mention the experience to others is what counts. Pop-ups, if they serve a purpose rather than being a gimmick, can be a tremendously effective – not to mention fun – tool. Don’t underestimate fun. Emphasising convenience alone means most people – especially when the odd flurry of snow arrives – will shop online at home. There must be an element of excitement, innovation. This can be escapist, like Secret Cinema, or pure enjoyment like Muji’s vending machine (see top photo). Pop-ups can provide an excuse for an otherwise serious brand. They help in getting a message to new audiences (Gagosian’s pop-up), or taking the store to the customer (Natwest’s mobile truck).
So, more collaborations, more digital and more pop-ups; so what’s new? As William Gibson once said, “The future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed yet”. Embracing digital won’t stop people price-checking and tweeting negative remarks, but it would be worse to keep it – and therefore the customer – segregated. If that happens, and you promote on convenience alone, that customer never comes to your store and never sees a physical embodiment of the brand. Last November, as Zeitgeist previously reported, Ralph Lauren was one of the latest brands making use of 4D projection mapping. People cheered at animated handbags and ties. In 2011, Mintel advises, “brands may need to get more creative to lure consumers into stores, offering more than just retail and be a venue, not just a shop.” I’ll leave you with that thought while I go and cheer at a sandwich in my local “venue”.
Steering the economy toward health will decide the future of advertising more than Web 2.0 or what Justin Bieber tweets. Part of Zeitgeist recently presented to a group of people on the meaning of luxury, post-recession. Those brands that did best in Zeitgeist’s eyes were judged to have done so because of their cognisance of the larger world around them; the context of their communications.
Currently, any wider context should include an assessment of the national if not the global economy. The economy has limped out of recession to recovery (albeit a jobless one), but much danger lies ahead. David Rothkopf, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endownment and a former senior official in the Clinton administration, penned an excellent article in today’s FT on the importance of leadership and management of the economy in the wake of several of President Obama’s key economic advisers abandoning ship. Though slightly off-tack for Zeitgeist to point to such an article, it bears reading by anyone interested in future trends, such as peace and prosperity. Its teachings can just as easily be applied to the hierarchy of an agency and its pronouncement on where the buck must eventually stop.
Today the problem lies not in acquiring information, but in how to apply it effectively and efficiently in order to solve the problem at hand. The impact of the increasingly easy access we have to information was scrutinised recently by President Obama at Hampton University, “With iPods and iPads and Xboxes [sic] and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment”. As Le Monde details, the speech as a whole was really geared toward warning people of the dangers of excessive use of technology; about making sure it is the parents rather than the X-box that tucks the child into bed at night.
The statement in of itself though, is strange, given the person saying it. It is generally agreed that Obama won the election with his revolutionary form of fundraising. It meant he raised more money than fellow Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who stuck to her old-school guns by going to uber donors in their sizable Upper East Side and Malibu residences. Not only that, but the way he went about it – a truly grassroots system of peer advocacy; viral awareness through social networks to encourage micropayment upon micropayment – showed he was intuitively in touch with the electorate, and with a new way of doing things. To hear these Luddite words from Obama, complaining about the X-box, is odd coming from someone whose campaign advertisements appeared on in-game billboards on the X-box’s Burnout Paradise, moreover from someone who is a self-confessed Blackberry addict. His self-deprecating manner is patronising and unnecessary; people elected him because he is elite, which should not be seen as a bad thing, as Jon Stewart points out, “The Navy Seals are an elite squad… why must the President be a dumbass?” Bill Maher has more: no longer has more because this content has been removed by HBO, sorry. It was pretty funny though.
The information we all now have access to over the Internet is truly staggering. YouTube now receives 2bn hits daily (though not without repercussions), which rivals that of this blog. However that is no reason for condemnation, as long as whatever it is (text, audio, video; i.e. content) can be accessed efficiently. The problem at the moment is that this is not the case. ‘Convergence’ has been a buzzword for what seems like a lifetime in the world of digital. It is happening, but only in fits and starts, and to some extent it is being hampered by conglomerates whose corporate interest (quite understandably) in the bottom line does not exactly dovetail with what convergence is really about – open source.
The constantly stimulating blog Only Dead Fish featured a very well-written and thought-provoking article on convergence. Having studied the matter as part of its Master’s degree, Zeitgeist thought it knew all there was to know about such matters. This article challenged any existing, simplistic preconceptions. The author quotes Grant McCracken, who says, of the iPad as a converged device,
“The iPad critics can’t see this third space because they work from a utilitarian point of view. For them, iPad will create economic value only if it solves practical problems. But Apple has always seen the economic proposition as a cultural one, as an opportunity to speak to the entire consumer in all of his or her complexity, not just the problem solver.”
The author goes on to reference Henry Jenkins’ ‘Black box’ fallacy, “sooner or later all media content will flow through a single black box”. This is indeed one interpretation of the idea of convergence, and it is not necessarily wrong. However, what Zeitgeist believes convergence means for the consumer is not about a black box; we enjoy being able to access content through our myriad devices. What it does mean then is seamless interaction between these devices, i.e. being able to watch my TV show on the commute from work, returning home to dock the device in my TV and have it immediately start playing there, etc.
Conversations over social networks will play an increasing role as these platforms converge (and privacy continues to erode). However, the question remains on everyone’s lips about how to monetise all these goings on. One colleague of Zeitgeist’s suggested a provider like Sky might end up providing an offering where consumers can pick a package that includes The Guardian, some music (Sky has a lacklustre service for this already) and the Cookery Channel, believing that people would be more willing to pay for content in packages rather than in small, one-off payments. Of course, News Corporation could, with little difficulty provide a similar service, whereby they provide access to The Times, The Sun, Sky Sports events, Sky Songs and new films released by 20th Century Fox as packages.
The American humourist Frank Clark wrote that “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere”. Convergence as a term could easily turn out to be one of those unobtainable zeniths, along the lines of world peace; an abstract term. The possibilities though of seamless connectivity of content between platforms is an extremely attractive one, both for consumer and advertiser.