Why Science Fiction matters for Marketers

I realised in year 10 of my high school years that I was a marketer, taken by its broad sense of business applications and cross-over and the implications this had for customer engagement. But while I was at university studying to reach a higher level of understanding, I realised that I was also a futurist. But, funnily enough, I’ve always been a futurist at heart, I’d only fully realised it more recently. I have a real soft-spot for science fiction, I was a major Star Wars fan¬†(so much so I couldn’t see how terrible the prequels were as screenplays), took interest in Blade Runner, Iron Man, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Back to the future, The Fifth Element and, more recently, Interstellar. This extends to¬†science fiction in gaming; my particular favourites being the Halo and Mass Effect Franchises. To reiterate a statement I’ve made previously; “Yes, I am a massive nerd”.

But, as a marketer¬†and a futurist, I’ve come to realise that science fiction is the ultimate concept builder of new ideas and products. Where else can you see products not yet existent, or scientifically possible, being used seamlessly in everyday applications? Science fiction, while painting a futuristic landscape which many of us think is impossible as a whole, tends to include a number of individual concepts and ideas that are based more in reality than many would think. For example, human augmentations and biomechatronics in Halo, the holographic user interfaces for technologies in Iron Man, the virtual intelligences¬†(or VIs)¬†in Mass Effect, these are all examples of ideas which seem out of reach, but are in fact being applied in their earlier phases today! Basic VIs such as Siri are on our smart phones, Biomechanical prostheses are a stones-throw away from integrating with our nervous systems, and the home is becoming so connected you’ll soon interface your computer with it through the HoloLens.

These concepts, whilst based originally in science fiction, are a reality today. Perhaps they’re not so seamless as they are in the movies or games set in¬†the distant future. But as each day goes past, these technologies are beginning to be more and more connected to each other, talking to each other and filling in the gaps from human limitations. With this growing connectivity, there is also a new paradigm which is dictating the direction of marketers now and in the very near future.

The connected home will fundamentally merge the physical and digital worlds.
The connected home will fundamentally merge the physical and digital worlds.

The Ubiquitous Web

When we use¬†the word ubiquity, it’s easier to understand it as taking things for granted. Air travel, water treatment, traffic management, medical prescriptions. These are all things relatively new to Human history, but they’re now present (almost) everywhere you look. The internet has almost realised this full ubiquity, however has the greatest potential impact of all. In-home entertainment is currently shifting away from once ubiquitous television networks to digital streaming services, personal devices have the potential to share medical data with your doctor’s electronic database instantly, the home is able to dictate and manage optimal power usage through smart grids and smart appliances. The term¬†Smart¬†Device is becoming the vernacular for new technologies. Even your new Ikea coffee tables will be able to wirelessly charge your smartphone! How crazy is that!?

While we are waiting for the next Avengers movie to come out to¬†see what else Tony Stark has come up with, we see that the HoloLens is giving us insight into the next couple of years which can potentially change the interface between people and their computers. Immersive, augmented reality technology is not a new concept (think of the HoloDeck in Star Trek)¬†but the implications for this are themselves astounding. Virtual presence in a digital environment will¬†allow people to “physically”¬†(an ironic use of the word)¬†manipulate and share data in real time. The level of integrated connectivity with this can potentially allow¬†a mechanic to navigate¬†within the schematics of a¬†car to diagnose a mechanical issue, or allow doctors to overlay holographic CT scans over a¬†patient to operate more effectively and safely. We may even not be far off from the Assassin’s Creed style Animus¬†(although I sincerely doubt that¬†hereditary¬†memories will be accessible at all. Ever).

This level of connectivity and integration of technology is what’s driving innovation today and leading to what could be a tomorrow where technology is not just around us, but within us. It is driving towards complete ubiquity where, while we’re cognizant of its existence, the web will operate in the background of our day to day routines and remove many basic functions from us. Whether this will allow us more freedom, or not, is of course yet to be seen.

People will own and maintain their own personal information streams.
People will own and maintain their own personal information streams.

The New Paradigm for Marketers

A fully ubiquitous web has almost unknowable potential. It will allow technology to be smart enough to be able to recognise, understand and pre-empt the needs of a consumer. This is known as Web 4.0. Currently, we are in the Web 3.0 phase, which is setting the infrastructure for Web 4.0. With 3.0, the control of information has shifted from business to the consumer as human search has become more passive and information itself is more active. For my thesis I described¬†a framework by which a person receives information from those 3.0 applications such as Twitter, Facebook (or new media)¬†as well as their smart devices¬†(NEST home systems, smart lighting systems, power grid boxes etc), which form a construct known as their Social Matrix¬†which in turn provides Streams of relevant information to themselves. The person is only active upon establishing their information streams’ sources, once that’s done, they become passive and the information becomes active within the bounds of the person’s social matrix.

This is ever more true for Marketers as well. The level of information being shared by consumers is literally overloading the capabilities of CMOs and CIOs. The advent of Big Data means that there’s more data being provided by consumers than either they, or businesses, are currently fully aware of. This has given rise¬†to the Community Manager, a person who interacts through the social connections of a company to manage the information flowing through 3.0 platforms. As I write this now, there is an example I am reading about how the information a business puts out can only be managed, not controlled. For example, a company involved in Horse Race betting may use social media to promote a race¬†naming competition. Advocates of anti-gambling or animal cruelty organisations subsequently hijack the conversation and suddenly that stream is saturated with negative information for that company.

CMOs are dealing with more and more information
CMOs are dealing with more and more complex information systems.

The Ownership of Data

The fact is that as consumers have become more connected, they are more aware of the data they share and, in recent years, have demanded greater control of this information. They know that their personal information streams have a great value to businesses, so they choose only to actively share what they want, when they want. Many businesses have been able to use certain terms and stipulations to manage this, but again, not control it. As there is more and more selective, personalised information, the age of mass appeal marketing, while still relevant, is becoming less important. The idea is to create a greater level of relevance and personalisation to allow a company to appeal to a consumer by becoming a part of the streams which flows from the constructs of their social matrices.

Obviously, it’s simply not feasible for a CMO to take all that consumer data, put it into a spreadsheet and segment out individuals as there would be millions, if not billions, of unique requirements for each. A recent development is the rollout of what is known as Programmatic campaign management, the first real attempt at managing the flow of information from 3.0 platforms. A CMO is able to set certain parameters dictated by the influx of data. When certain conditions are met, the data triggers a more specific and targeted set of communications which, theoretically, will sit within the specifications of the consumers social matrix, reaching them more effectively and impactfully.

Automated and highly specific.
Automated and highly specific.

What it means for the Modern Marketer

Revisiting my thesis again, there are two main points I came across which were the big buzz points at the time. Firstly, was the concept that data is the new oil. It’s highly valuable, especially in relation to programmatic, and is seen as the lifeblood for companies from now until forever. As mentioned, I’m a fan of Jer Thorp of the¬†Office for Creative Research and NY Times. He helps make it abundantly clear, that while data is as valuable as oil, it can also be as destructive when it’s spilled. Data spills are now a fact of life in today’s global, connected world. As consumers choose to share certain aspects of their information with us marketers, we must be entrusted to secure it. This is no longer just about bank accounts and passwords. It could mean access to the systems of a house or vehicle, geolocation of an individual, even to their health and medical data. It can be scary, but there are, and will be, advances and disruptive technologies to aid in securing this data.

Secondly, was the term¬†influencers.¬†Influencers are the ones who are forming the basis for an individual’s social construct. In fact, it’s simple Marketing 101 – Consumer Behaviour! But, influencers are now connected to audiences of potentially millions. Fashion bloggers can have ‘followerships’ greater than that of Harper’s Bazaar and some thought leaders can share their views with others through multiple platforms at once. While today’s CMOs can no longer control the flow of information out there, as I have said, they can manage it. It is also, potentially, actually easier for an organisation to manage the message now. This is accomplished by not reaching the individuals, but in reaching the influencers!

Advocacy is priority 1 for any CMO, not only do they want someone to like a brand/product/etc, they want them to get others to like it to. This is advocacy. So when you are able to convince one person, who can in turn convince several thousand more, your job can be made easier. You may have seen in the first season of House of Cards, when Zoe Barnes was fired with some colourful language, she gave us all the lesson that we should take to heart.

“…You should remember that when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand!”

This forms a feedback loop which is the basis of my framework, whereby as businesses are affected by the streams which flow from a a consumer’s social matrix, so can consumers be influenced by a business which is able to achieve advocacy within those constructs which make the social matrix.

It's more important than ever to manage the message.
It’s more important than ever to manage the online discussion.

Going Bravely into the New Frontier

I started this describing the future of technological advancements and how the greater level of connectivity and information accessibility is transforming the world in a way which will see us interact with others and the data we provide in ways which we, even now, cannot still fully predict. We are on the verge of a quantum leap, possibly greater than the impact of the internet’s creation with the Web-of-things. But within this, there are significant, practical outtakes, with which today’s CMOs can predict with and potentially enhance the systems used to reach tomorrow’s consumers.

  • Application – New platforms will change the way people interact with data and the world around them, creating the basis for as yet unknown applications, interfaces and processes.
  • Automation – Heuristics, and perhaps even basic artificial intelligences, will free¬†marketers to focus on the management of messages and content at the base level to enhance advocacy.
  • Advocacy – Marketers will be motivated to influence the social constructs of consumers with the aid of advanced data management tools to influence the influencers.
  • Personalisation – Data streams and social constructs will create greater niches and fragment online communities, increasing data-loads and increasing the need for person-specific communications.

These prediction¬†are by no mean expert opinion, just mine. However I do hope that any aspiring marketer does find some guidance in them. Regardless of whether they’re correct or not, science fiction will continue to give us glimpses into our technological futures and I hope that marketers with a futurist outlook will be able to see the implications of such advancements and begin to prepare themselves for the shifting paradigms that accompany them.

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