I was a digital marketer way back in the Internet Gold Rush of the Late '90s, and let me tell you, sonny, those were some hard times. We didn't have any of this multi-device gimcrackery or geotargeting flim-flam. In those days, the internet was steam-powered, and if you wanted to launch a banner campaign (which is what we called display ads back then), you first had to fetch enough water and split enough wood to heat up the boiler that pushed your ads through the series of tubes. That's why the ads were so damn small.
Digital marketers today don't know how good they've got it, so I'm here to tell you. Just sit a spell and let me spin a yarn about all the fancy new technologies and trends you have to look forward to in 2011. "But old timer," you'll say, "don't these new year predictions usually come out, oh, I don't know, in the new year? It's early March already." Hush your insolence, youngster. I've been busy fortifying my cabin in the woods for this android invasion I keep reading about. If you're smart, you will too. Now here's what else you have to look forward to:
A year ago, almost no one had ever used a tablet. By the end of 2011, Gartner predicts there will be 55 million tablets in use worldwide. Most of the growth to date has been driven by the iPad alone, but something on the order of 40 new tablets are expected to enter the market this year. Has any single computing device ever grown faster? Let me look that up on my tablet.
Marketers have been caught a little flat-footed by this growth. While many of us are still struggling with developing unique mobile experiences, we're now dealing with a mobile touch-screen experience on a much bigger canvas. At the outset, busy marketers will be tempted to simply migrate their mobile interfaces onto the new devices, but that won't do. For starters, it's not all about the app. Tablets make mobile browsing more convenient, which makes consumers more likely to interact with brands through tablet browsers, provided the touch-screen experience is a good one. Is your site tablet-optimized? We've got our work cut out for us.
Long the stuff of science fiction, gesture recognition computing suddenly landed with the resounding thunk of 8 million families leaping up and down in front of their televisions, as Microsoft's Xbox Kinect plug-in debuted in late 2010. Marketers, sensing a ripe opportunity to transform their interactions with consumers into something immersive and fun...
Oh, hell, who am I kidding? We've done next to nothing with gesture recognition, as a recent article in Ad Age laments. The one small step for consumers onto the bizarre coin-catching rubber raft turns out to be a giant leap for marketers. And that's understandable: To succeed in a space where consumers are themselves still getting their sea legs, marketers not only have to figure out how to make gesture inputs seamless and smooth, but also how to create experiences so compelling that consumers will put in the extra work to interact.
Most marketers could reason that 8 million Kinect users constitutes a niche market that we can afford to neglect in the still-austere year of 2011, but new Kinect developments might be game-changers. In addition to the promise of faster evolution driven by the kind of experiments showcased on the Kinect Hacks blog, Microsoft has hinted that a more accessible software development kit might accompany the launch of a PC-compatible Kinect in 2011. So that touch-optimized web interface you're developing might need to be gesture-optimized sooner than you think.
While no one has yet been able to explain to me why we needed to coin the word "geolocation" when we already have a perfectly good word that means location -- namely, "location" -- it's clear that both the term and the technologies are here to stay. Yes, I speak of the much-heralded growth of check-in apps like Foursquare and Gowalla and the attendant opportunities for marketers, but that's not where most location-specific brand interactions will take place. On tablets and browsers, geolocation is a potential factor in every browser and app-based interaction with consumers, not just on dedicated geolocation apps. Even on good old-fashioned desktops and laptops, location is increasingly important as search engines begin to put more juice behind local results, ad networks push location-based targeting, and HTML5 location-sniffing gains ground with each new browser release.
To take advantage, marketers need to think conceptually about geolocation rather than chasing after the app of the day. You need to start with big questions like, "What could I offer my prospects that would be different if I already knew their locations?" The answer to that question not only influences mobile strategy but also search engine optimization, paid search and display ads, and web development. Which reminds me...
The death of the website
OK, I admit, your website is not going to die, but it makes for a more provocative subhead than "the increasing de-centering of the website," which is actually what's taking place. The corporate website is losing its centrality as the means by which consumers interact with brands online, and it's not coming back.
The website will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be the primary means of transacting with consumers online, but that's only one small part of marketer-consumer interaction, way down at the bottom of the funnel. Further up the funnel, where consumers compare brands, read reviews, listen to friends, and talk to brands directly, you're far better off meeting up with consumers in the places they like to hang out, like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as blogs, forums, communities, etc.
This requires a tectonic shift in the classic marketer mindset. Even marketers that have fully embraced the idea that their content needs to live in lots of different places still get twitchy at the notion that a promo can live solely on Facebook or Twitter without needing to herd everybody over to the corporate site. That's understandable; digital marketers live and die by the numbers, and site traffic is a number. Marketers won't truly make the leap until social analytics mature, but that's a topic for another day.
Faced with the constant deluge of digital content produced by consumers, competitors, and peers, the marketer's last tether to sanity is content aggregation, which allows us wrangle the content flood into a manageable, consumable stream. I am, as I write this, using a content aggregator to monitor content about content aggregation, proving that 1) every day, in every way, things are getting meta and meta, and 2) my own frayed tether to sanity has finally snapped.
Simple aggregators like Google Reader and Flipboard can work behind the scenes to mainline relevant content into our marketing veins, but consumers also suffer from content overload and need our help. (Or, at least, they're sometimes willing to accept our help.) Many marketers have embraced content curation as part of their content marketing strategy. Using handy curation tools like Scoop.It, they pluck relevant content out of the ether, slather on a coat of their own content varnish, and package it up for content-addled consumers. Mint.com's much-vaunted MintLife blog is a prime example, but every topic has content worth curating. Marketers who fret about how to sustain content production for their blogs should be first in line for this: The ability to pinpoint good content is often far more valuable than adding new content to the flood.
Woody Allen once described an existentialist philosopher as someone who hated reality but found it was the only place he could get a good steak. Augmented reality (AR) bears the promise of making it easier for consumers to find a good steak and even to visualize what a good steak might look like.
AR has become a catch-all term for any application that visually layers digital reality on top of analog reality. Across devices -- PC, tablet, and smartphone -- the camera is usually the bridge between realities. Browser-based AR often takes the form of a printable AR marker that, when held up to a webcam, displays some sort of 3-D model that can even include motion, sound, and video. Mobile-based AR, which tends to get more of the buzz, usually consists of location-based (sorry, geolocation-based) visual information imposed on whatever you're looking at through the phone's camera.
AR is still mostly in the sparkly object phase of its development -- perfectly suited to the launch of the new Gorillaz album, for instance. But it's going to gain ground quickly as marketers seize on its potential for better merchandising; consider, for instance, an application that would allow you to model the style and finish of new door hardware simply by scanning your door through your smartphone's camera.
I encourage my fellow marketers to start dabbling in AR right away. It's relatively cheap, easy, and fun, with great potential to create more immersive experiences that delight consumers. Any able-bodied Flash developer can create browser-based AR, and any marketers with location information worth touting can create their own branded AR layers and make them available for free through the AR application Layar. Then when AR glasses finally bust out a mere 20 years from now, you'll be ahead of the game.
Yes, mobile. I know -- mobile was last year's big tech trend, and the year before that, and the year before that. This time, we mean it. For the first time in 2011, sales of smartphones will surpass the combined sales of PC desktops and laptops. So it seems that mobile has become kind of a big deal.
I risk stating the obvious because marketers have thus far failed to embrace the obvious when it comes to mobile, and we face a rude awakening. DotMobi reports that only 29.7 percent of the web's top 10,000 sites are optimized for mobile. That's a full-blown usability crisis in the making.
How did we end up in this spot? App fetish is partly to blame. Settling on a mobile app strategy and getting an app built is a much longer road than simply optimizing your site for mobile browsing, but marketers have a tendency to focus on the big payoffs. As any analyst will tell you, ignoring your site's poor mobile performance in favor of an app strategy is deeply misguided. Different user types favor apps vs. browsing, but all mobile users will demand better browsing experiences from brand sites. Expect to see studies emerge in 2011 documenting the brand switching and loss of brand equity that occurs as a result of poor mobile experiences; you can then bake that data into your business case for the new mobile site.
That's the view of 2011 from two months into it. What did I miss? Let me know!
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