Time to get touchy-feely in the digital revolution

Digitalisation is changing the rules of engagement, yet too many companies fail to hold our hands as we try to embrace the technology. By Robert Dwek

If you are like me, you will already have transferred your entire music collection to a hard-drive, as well as all your photos for the past several years, ditto your videocam footage. You will have been using a digital dictaphone for some time now, which also stores all your recordings on the same hard drive. But have you gone the extra mile yet – transferring your entire collection of videos and DVDs onto a single hard-drive? And scanning in a good chunk of your printed photos and important documents?

I have stopped short of this last photographic challenge, but no doubt it won’t be long before the digitising bug strikes again. For it is a highly addictive habit, this ultimate exercise in minimalism.

It reminds me, once again, of Nicholas Negroponte’s mid-Nineties book, Being Digital. A decade ago, his vision of a de-atomised society sounded compelling but still very much science fiction. Today, it is still some way from being an everyday reality, but getting ever closer. I have said this before but it’s worth repeating: marketers have a great deal at stake in this digitalisation revolution. The most fundamental change is not just the way in which “infotainment” is distributed and stored, but in how this lack of atoms changes consumer psychology.

I have found that turning what was perceived as a solid object into a bunch of incorporeal ones and zeros has at least three remarkable effects: firstly, initial euphoria. What was previously stored in a moderately accessible way, or possibly even relegated to a box in the attic, is suddenly and instantly accessible, Martini-style – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Not only that, but it is almost endlessly categorisable, archivable, replicable and searchable, meaning that its accessibility becomes almost telepathic. What was formerly an object of desire is now simply a unit of information.

And as a result of both of the above, you quickly lose all sense of the value of this former bundle of atoms. It becomes just another speck in one’s own personal internet of vast infotainment.

Now don’t get me wrong. This last point would never make me want to actually return to an object- rather than information-based world. But it should ring a very loud warning bell to anyone in marketing, because so very much of modern marketing is built around the idea of packaging and perceived value.

Atoms becoming digits means a major challenge to the way in which this value is perceived. Does ownership mean so much when there is no longer any object to own?

These questions may seem of limited interest when restricted to music, film and photos. But there will be many more areas affected by this inexorable march towards digits and away from atoms. The savvy marketer will already be thinking long and hard about the implications.

Last month I waxed lyrical about Apple Computer’s new retail outlet in London, with its very high level of hand-holding. The appeal of this approach to female consumers in particular reminds me of the car industry’s conversion in the early Nineties.

Seemingly overnight, women were transformed from semi-naked adornments at car launches to important consumers in their own right. Car companies soon realised, however, that blinding this new audience with technical information would not work as it had with male car buyers. Thus was born the new-style car advertising, strong on lifestyle and customer service and low on under-the-bonnet detail.

Today’s technology industries, on- and offline, are at just such a crossroads. But I am depressed by their slowness in realising it. It is obvious that if relatively technical people such as myself have so much trouble with the products and services we use, then most non-technical people don’t stand a chance. When will companies break down the Chinese wall between “technical help” and “customer service”? Why aren’t there more enlightened companies around which realise that with just a bit of hand-holding and human contact they will enjoy a strong competitive edge over their rivals?

We were told last month that over half of the UK population is expected to use the internet this year. The continued bumper growth helps to explain the degree of complacency among marketers. But, as I said, this revolutionary new market is subtly changing the rules of engagement. Now is the time to act on that.l

Needless to say, the letter became an instant hit on the e-mail forwarding circuit. Gawd bless the internet.

dwek@journalist.co.uk

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