How Marketing Must Evolve as Smart Devices Impact the Industry

Each December, Fjord nails its colors to the mast with a report detailing what we predict will be important in the year ahead. Our new 2018 Trends report (out on Dec. 12), includes a focus on why forward-thinking organizations are blending digital with physical—and why those who aren’t should be. But what does this mean for the marketing sector?

The invisible enabler

In the 2000s, mobile phones greedily consumed other technology—cameras, speakers, screens, high-quality microphones—and now they’ve started spitting them back out. These components are popping up in our immediate environment on their own or in different combinations. Amazon Echo, Google Home, and the forthcoming Apple HomePod’s comprehensive offering use just speakers and a microphone, and Canary’s smart cameras are exactly that—and no more.

Illustration: Alex Fine

This disaggregation of core technology components together with people’s angst around their own screen addiction is prompting a big shift: the blending of digital with physical. The spotlight is no longer trained on digital as the main player in brand experience—emphasis has moved toward working out how best to use digital as an invisible enabler of physical and sensory experiences.

Opportunity and challenge 

For the marketing industry, there will be yet more touchpoints to which experiences can flow, and the task of determining how best to engage the right audience will be a delicate but exciting one.

Some of those touchpoints, however, don’t naturally lend themselves to an intrusive demand for attention. Not long ago, the advertising model involved brands buying up 30 seconds of users’ undivided attention, in a visually and aurally rich medium. Now, interfaces are getting smaller—or disappearing—and the battle is raging for attention from an over-stimulated audience.

Who wins?

It’s likely that new entrants to the market could struggle to make themselves seen, heard and understood, while established brands could take the competitive advantage. Verbal interaction without visual backup will favor brands that are easier to say and memorize at first introduction.

Fortune will favor the brave retailers. As consumers become accustomed to physical devices with a digital layer in their homes and cars, they become conditioned to accept revolutionary ideas in retail. For instance, people who confidently use a digital assistant at home will be among the first to accept a checkout-free shopping experience that uses digital technology to monitor their actions in-store—and automatically bill them.

Get personal

People are already talking about pushing back against digital saturation, aware of the ratio of time they spend engaging via a screen versus with a real person. While the anonymity of digital interaction used to represent an opportunity for freedom to do as they wished, they’re starting to crave personal relationships and sensory experiences that generate lasting memories.

A growing number of primarily digital brands are placing greater emphasis on the physical, while capitalizing on their digital expertise and data to improve user satisfaction. The pop-up Tao Café springs to mind: Chinese e-commerce giant Taobao recently launched its cashier-less café, which invites people to scan their smartphone as they arrive, take what they need and walk out, triggering their bill.

Technology should be neither seen nor heard

Digital is stepping back to become an invisible powerhouse quietly helping us to live our lives without asking us for an investment of time to let them do it. Machine learning and artificial intelligence enables technology to make informed decisions and be just what we need, before we even know we need it.

Consider Google Inbox, which sifts through your emails in real time, surfacing the links it knows you’ll need and putting them right at your fingertip. It bundles emails that fall under the same umbrella, creating space in your eye line for the most important messages. Now imagine that technology embedded in the environment around you, predicting and sourcing what you need instinctively.

It’s important that we stop considering digital and physical as separate entities, and ask instead how we can design experiences that connect with the people around us, enabled by digital in a physical world.

Let’s aim to create services that feel magical to use, and don’t demand too much of their overloaded users.