Fads to fundamentals

I’ve been working in digital advertising for over eight years. The digital paradox is that a lot has changed in the underlying technology, but the fundamental building blocks and how people work in digital still stay true. A foundation of fundamentals that is oft overlooked when swamped by what’s in vogue. I’ve realised that like everything else, digital has waves of trends, which catch people in its wash, smashing against the public and marketing consciousness with a few people holding out, clasping strongly to the buoys of digital fundamentals and the spirit of just building out of this world experiences. Some of these trends have coincided with the work I’ve been doing. Some not. Perhaps some work have even been ahead of the trend. Trends can be directly related to the way technology develops. While some are dictated by Moore ’s Law, others more so by the laws of commerce. These trends & fads surely spur on demand from marketers and brand managers who want to jump on the bandwagon and fuel the economics between agencies and brand marketing teams.

Like today’s trend about UX & Design Thinking. You didn’t seriously think it was a sudden altruistic shift to a customer centric focus did you? Anyone who has studied UX can testify that the concept is nothing new. People have been at loggerheads about this since Jobs and Gates tried developing the precursor Operating Systems  that you are using today. In fact even before we had computers, UX played a critical role in developing fighter jet cockpits. It’s a bit of logic. If your agency hasn’t been doing UX till date, how on earth have they been doing digital builds and campaigns without understanding the customer? Collective and historic expertise you say? Sure, agencies are full of the right talent that brings a varied tech and idea skill set to table, so it is possible. This talent crafts digital experiences that are out of this world with the rules and frameworks of technology that has been established by others. But surely while doing so, they have always had the customer’s interests at the fore. And the brand’s. So if you are being charged for it suddenly, perhaps you need to sit up and take a closer look at The UX Gambit. It just happens that UX, like any other digital trend, happens to be in our collective focus these days. Caught head-on in the headlights and paraded as a way agencies can fill their coffers for something that should have already been part of their process. Go figure. I am yet to see drastically different output in the way sites are being created.

This got me truly thinking. What are the trends that I have surfed and survived over my time in digital so far? Way before that, when I first started using a computer in school and much later at home, the webscape was very different. I remember those large square floppy disks. The ones that are still in use apparently for America’s Minuteman ICBM missile systems. You couldn’t get by without Netscape Navigator and Yahoo at the start. Black and white was the norm till colour slowly crept in. Laptops were usually IBM Think Pads. Social networking meant (gasp) Orkut! My first personal sites were built on Yahoo Geocities. But when I started out at R K SWAMY BBDO to build a digital content team, years had passed and the tech changed. Internet Explorer as a browser was still clinging on for dear life and we needed to throw it a lifeline whenever we churned out a site. So why this trip down memory lane? Perhaps to establish a time-frame for the trends that are to follow. While this is not a comprehensive list, top of my head these are some I can think of:

  1. Localised experiences that ran from a floppy, CD or USB than transcended to interactive kiosks and displays built with Macromedia Director
  2. Getting all flashy with Flash based sites and banners
  3. Small sites for big impact with Microsites for every campaign creating data silos
  4. Consolidating data and getting on board with Platforms that were content driven
  5. Killing skeuomorphism with Flat design and Google’s Material Design
  6. Creating communities with Social media, the Social Graph, Facebook Apps & Social Campaigns
  7. The attack of the Parallax sites where scrolling wasn’t bad anymore, who cared about the fold.
  8. Re-crowning the king with Content with a shift to editorial
  9. The E-commerce craze where everybody tried selling to everyone online
  10. Creating a whiplash with Video first for sites and then for social
  11. Creating brand heroes that are game with Gamification of everything.
  12. VR creating all new virtual worlds for virtual reality
  13. UX providing better designed products with user research for better user experiences
  14. CX stepping back and looking at the entire customer journey and experience as a whole
  15. AR layering on reality with augmented reality
  16. AI automating the mundane madness of the internet behind our backs.
  17. Voice having our computers talk back to us because hey, who else is talking?

And these are just some of the large sweeping trends I saw. It reads like the recent history of the web over just a decade. If you take a look at the list most of these developments are clearly tech-lead. Think back to the customised social experiences we used to have because of Facebook releasing the social graph API. Or closer to the present Augmented Reality (AR) because of more powerful phones with better cameras and depth sensors combined with Apple’s AR Kit. Other developments on the other hand have been because the cow was running dry and marketing agencies needed new ways to stay relevant and earn revenue. Like content and UX, these at the time looked like timeless pools to be dipped into till it runs dry.

So while we’ve had terrific trends, what are the core fundamentals and principles that make digital work different from other mediums that has not really changed even with these trends?  I remember discussing this in an interview with the head of digital at JWT Mumbai years ago. I wish I had jotted it down then (since I worked it out spontaneously on the spot, and he was happy with it 🙂 ) but there were almost 12 points I came up during that discussion. Some of these were likely to be:

  1. Interactivity – this is the only medium that lets you interact first-hand and gives the user control to shape the brand experience rather than just consume it. From flash sites to Alexa apps, this is what makes digital so mystically good.
  2. Multivisceral – one of the basics, digital allows you to combine what you could do in other mediums.
  3. Community – the internet is for the people and by the people so you know you are getting good unbiased advice from a community and not just brand spiel (but hey you can have that too), peer-to-peer or say group buying or creating marketplaces like AirBnB, it’s all for the people.
  4. Collaboration – digital is not necessarily a one way street, it can get customers to collaborate and create brand experience.
  5. Timeliness – whether it is real-time relevance, time bound or historical yet accessible this very minute, digital delivers on all fronts.
  6. Reference – the internet has a depth like no other medium can possible offer, just a click away.
  7. Location specific contextual interactivity that can be tailored to location, time of day and even who is watching it, today you can do so much with GPS powered devices.
  8. Measurable – the one that is trumped by marketers so often – digital offers a more transparent ROI. Big Data allows us to see new patterns in customer data and feedback loops.
  9. Multilinear – A linear traditional customer journey vs a digital continuum – think of how you are exposed to a print ad versus searching for product information online.
  10. Control & customisation – the user is truly in the driver’s seat, customising how and what they consume but also offers infinite avenues at self-expression and creativity.
  11. Accessible – cloud computing has meant that digital offers a base level experience across multiple devices, shifting the emphasis away from the hardware.
  12. Asymmetry – your rival is no longer your direct competitor, but an indirect one as well on digital. Think your favourite car manufacturer and then think Uber or Grab. Size no longer matters for a digital experience.
  13. Shareable – does it involve your fans taking a selfie, co-creating content that they share.  A form of self expression, this is a subset of the community factor but a notable mention nonetheless. The dynamics need to be high on engagement, and the perfect blend of utility vs cool that gets people talking.

And not to forget the Long Tail nature of the internet. There is literally something for everyone. Think of something from your childhood and there is likely a page dedicated to it somewhere. It also means no matter what you build and put online you are likely to get some site visitors.

This list and article is still a work in progress but aims to be the building blocks you can refer to when you think up your next big digital campaign instead of merely turning to the current fad. This is a boilerplate over which you can craft brand context and interactivity for a digital experience that makes a difference and is different. If a campaign doesn’t really use any of these building blocks, its probably just a direct adaptation from print. Something luckily I haven’t seen for many years. Which was where we started when we began doing digital work.