Ashley Friedlein: The terms might be different but the digital challenge is the same – ‘change or die’

Last week was Econsultancy’s Future of Digital Marketing event. This was the tenth year we had run it – a whole decade of digital futures that we can now look back on. Trawling through the archives of presentations and topics, what can we learn?

In its early years the event was called, ‘What’s new in online marketing’ (or the not so catchy acronym WNIOM). The name change itself from ‘online’ to ‘digital’ shows one of the shifts over time. In the early days of digital in the UK we tended to talk about ‘new media’ while in the US it leaned towards ‘e-something’. ‘New media’ morphed to ‘interactive’  and ‘online’ in the noughties and we are now in the decade of ‘digital’.

These semantic shifts reflect the realisation over time that digital is not just about media or marketing, it is not just about web or online, it is not necessarily interactive and it is certainly
no longer new. Which begs the question as to what ‘digital’ will become by the end of this decade? If you were setting up a business now you probably would not feel it sensible to label
it as ‘e-something’ or ‘interactive’ or even ‘[something] digital’?

Of course there were some developments that were exciting at the time but did not amount to much – virtual worlds and IPTV come to mind. Looking back at our event programmes and topics there are some that evoke a wry smile:

“Online PR – should we be blogging?” Perhaps more obvious now, but this was 2006.

“Social media – do you really need to have a presence on the likes of MySpace?” From 2007’s agenda.“Desktop marketing – with Microsoft’s new Vista platform, the growth in desktop gadgets and RSS alerts, how seriously should you be taking the desktop as a digital marketing
arena? How does this ‘desktop’ extend to mobile and TV devices?” Also from 2007, this sounds both completely misguided in its specifics and yet very prescient in concept as we now address cross-device experiences and digital ‘cards’ that can be shared and embedded across ecosystems and platforms.

“Multichannel marketing – will digital plateau out? How will online and offline work together best?” For 2008 that is sounding impressively of the current moment.

In fact, 2008 turned out to be a vintage year for visions of the digital marketing future that have proved uncannily accurate. For example, Alison Lancaster, then marketing director at
Charles Tyrwhitt, painted a vision for the future of retail titled, “From e-tail to me-tail”, which talked about multichannel business models, outstanding customer experiences, personalisation, the digital talent challenge, the importance of agility, culture and innovation. Ring any bells?

We have been through an era where the future of digital was largely about mastering new disciplines such as email and search marketing, though there is still plenty of that, for example content marketing, mobile commerce, video, etc.

We went through the web 2.0 era, which was largely about social media and understanding the people-to-people power of digital.

It feels like we are now in a digital era that is still not short on new things to master (data, omnichannel, personalisation) or new horizons to imagine (wearables, internet of things, 3D printing, artificial intelligence) but which is more fundamentally about the ability of brands and businesses to change, adapt and innovate.

After 10 years of presentations which often ended “Change or die”, it seems that cautionary prediction for the future of digital is indeed coming to pass.

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