Toby Gunton, WCRS:
I once heard someone say that the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Well this week it feels like its all been in one place, Austin, Texas.
SXSW in Austin is divided into three festivals or conferences; Music, Film and Interactive. It’s the Interactive part that most of our industry seems to descend on every year but the title doesn’t do it justice.
SXSW Interactive is where technology, creativity, culture and business come together and the output is, quite simply, a vision of the future. There is plenty of marketing related conversation but there is also so much more, something that reflects the increasingly complex relationships between products and services, technology and marketing.
Over the week I heard things that have inspired me and scared me in equal measure. The over zealous optimism of companies developing technology, both hardware and software, that will fundamentally change the way we live was everywhere even if it felt like the longer term aggregated impact of these changes isn’t always being considered.
However, there is so much to hear at SXSW that often it takes a while for the real themes to emerge. Each individual view is shaped by the different sessions people manage to attend and at best you’d be lucky to attend even a tiny percentage of what’s on offer.
For me the big themes were the increasingly connected world, the data that it produces and the impact that will have on people’s lives. There’s no way to make sense of it in a single blog post but I am going to try and explain what I mean.
1. MAKING CONNECTIONS
The first theme refers to the increasingly connected world. A few years ago people talked about the semantic web, the Internet of things. Now they are talking about the Internet of everything; from your smartphone to your washing machine, from your connected thermostat to your tablet, from your car to your wearable device, be that Google Glass or any number of health related wristbands.
Increasingly these devices and software have APIs which means they can talk more easily to each other. And with RFID tags this connected world will soon extend beyond smart hardware to simple everyday objects.
Not only are the things around us increasingly connected, they are also learning more and more about us. The huge fall in costs of the smartphone technology stack along with all sorts of sensors means it’s cheap to create connected hardware that learns. A wi-fi chip costs $1, an accelerometer not much more, GPS is built into everything. Devices know who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, what you have been doing and who you’ve been doing it with.
That means all these connected devices are collecting data, huge amounts of data. They are also generating data, meta data. They are creating data from data, learning about us and recording things we may never even know or see. And we are getting better at interpreting and understanding all this data.
2. CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
Cheaply available processing power, smarter software and new ways of examining all this data means that more and more can be learned about us, our preferences, our needs and our habits.
NLP, Machine Learning and the creation of distinct ontologies (a taxonomy of how objects relate to each other) all mean software is getting smarter. When it comes to how we analyse data, as well as more traditional deterministic approaches there is a growth in the use of stochastic systems. We’re getting better at looking at both predictable actions and random elements to understand probability with increasing accuracy.
For example, if you want to know if it’s going to rain the forecast is a deterministic approach. But if you also have data on what shoes everyone is wearing that day you can derive the weather from it. Essentially if you have enough data you can expose correlations that reveal things you might not have even been looking for.
3. RISE OF THE ROBOTS
The combination of this increasing connectedness, growing data and improving intelligence means a subtle but fundamental change is taking place. The technology we increasingly use is making the transition from being a tool to becoming a robot. Not the Asimov kind of robot but software that can make decisions on your behalf.
No one is going to flick a switch and we suddenly find robots rule the world but there is a gradual, almost unnoticed change happening where we’re moving from using this technology and the data behind it to help inform our decisions, to a point where it makes those decisions for us.
Let’s take a case in point from the week. On our trip to Austin we had a Google Nexus phone with us sporting Google Now. With almost no manual input it learned an incredible amount about us and influenced our behaviour through proactive suggestions. It knew we were away from home, it fed us the weather, suggested places to see, healthy places to eat because it knew what we’d been searching for, it knew which flights we were on because the confirmation email had gone to a Gmail account, it showed us how to get from the hotel to the airport at the right time, all unprompted. Unlike Google’s search product, we didn’t have to search or ask, it simply learnt and suggested.
This is just the start. Google Now looks like a toy when compared with some of the technology we saw evidence of at SXSW.
So where does this take us? Well from social, political, economic and cultural perspectives it has implications that are almost too huge to imagine. So for now I’m going to take the easy way out and focus purely on what it means for marketeers. And the answer is pretty straightforward. It means that we have to learn a whole new set of skills.
For marketeers this explosion of data has created opportunities for us to be increasingly effective with messaging and efficient with media thanks to the ability to target. However, as the shift from tool to robot takes place we’ll have a new challenge.
4. INFLUENCING CHANGE
As the human is slowly removed from the decision making process emotion plays less of a role. That means there is a very real chance we are going to have to work out how to market to the machine.
Picture this – your fridge knows what food you have eaten, it’s connected to your wearable health monitoring device which knows how many calories you are burning, and both are connected to your online supermarket. The order for food is therefore placed automatically based on what your body needs.
This may sound like some far flung sci-fi fantasy that will never happen but Nike Fuel band exists (as do many more advanced devices), whilst LG and Samsung sell smart connected fridges already. This is not a big leap.
Take another scenario. Your smart washer dryer monitors itself, and realises it has a fault. It is connected to your calendar and connected to the Internet so it books a local engineer (it knows where it is thanks to that GPS) to come at a time that it knows you will be at home and adds the appointment to your diary.
Again, all this technology already exists and it’s already connected. This is coming and it’s coming quickly.
The answer for marketeers will be in understanding the algorithms that make the decisions. What are decisions based on, how do you maximise the chances of products and services being selected? The answers aren’t going to be straightforward and will require a new way of thinking and a new set of skills but they are also not completely alien.
Natural search, SEO, is all about trying to understand Google’s algorithm. There’s a whole industry who are already marketing to one particular machine (well, two if you include Bing).
So is there no role for emotional advertising in the future? You’d be a fool to think that, but the more commoditised the product or service the more likely we’ll be to let algorithms do the hard work of selecting, buying and booking. Even with less commoditised goods and services, that growth in data with a layer of intelligence may well play a much more significant role in influencing our decisions.
And once we’ve told the machine our preferences it’s going to become harder and harder to influence change. It’s already happening. Think of your favourites list on your online supermarket. How often do you add something completely new? Less often than when you are wandering down the aisles of a physical supermarket, I bet.
So the future for our industry is going to involve marketing to the machine. It means new approaches, new views on media and technology and a different role for creativity. And it’s coming quicker than we can possibly imagine.
Toby Gunton is Chief Digital Officer at WCRS