Globally-renowned digital communicator, Shel Holtz, shares his views on the three big hitters of the digital comms revolution – the Internet of Things, the Collaborative Economy and Mobile.
Technology has been a double-edged sword for the communications industry. When technological advances affect our companies or clients, we often do a good job communicating it. But when technology changes communication itself, our track record isn't so good. Communications missed the boat on each pivotal communication shift in the last 30 years. Advertisers, marketers, and PR practitioners all played catch-up with desktop publishing, email, early bulletin boards like CompuServe and America Online, the World Wide Web, and social media.
The technology train barreling down the road today is more consequential than any of those that came before. Three inescapable intertwined trends are poised to change both what and how we communicate.
That may seem intimidating, but consider that a bot is now writing earnings news reports for AP. How long will it be before earnings news releases require nothing more than data and an algorithm? As a profession, we need to be prepared to adapt to these tectonic shifts:
The Internet of Things (IoT)
Devices are talking to each other over the Internet at a pace that will soon outpace real live people connecting online. The IoT, according to a definition from SAP Research's Stephan Hallar, is "a world where physical objects are seamlessly integrated into the information network, and where the physical objects can become active participants in business processes."
This is no vision of the future; it's already happening. Nest is a smart thermostat you can control via an app. The company — already a commercial success — was acquired recently by Google. Lighting and security systems are also increasingly connected devices, as are fitness devices that record information like the number of steps you've taken and transmit them to an app or the cloud.
The IoT is an integral element of the age of context in which we find ourselves. As authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel assert, context becomes the focal point in a convergence of sensors, location-awareness, mobility, social media, and data. You can see how communication will have to adapt. Based on what we know about our individual audience members, from data that could come from sensors, we will have to craft communication that delivers personalized information where and when it is required, possibly designed to interact with other devices. It won't be too long before this scenario is possible:
Employees each receive a brief, concise email overnight containing alerts and notifications, including news items that will be useful to them during the day. Based on an employee's calendar, the email will instruct the alarm clock to go off in time to prepare for the first appointment. The clock will notify the coffee pot to start brewing. As he brushes his teeth, his phone reads the email to him. When he gets out to the car, the engine and window defroster are already running.
We'll see our companies offering more subscription and "freemium": services that will need to be explained to customers; we'll also communicate through those products in ways that are only beginning to reveal themselves.
The Collaborative Economy
One definition of a revolution is a significant redistribution of resources. Under that definition, a revolution is underway. Customers are becoming producers, threatening traditional business where it lives: supply and demand.
Some refer to this revolution as the "sharing economy," but industry insider Jeremiah Owyang prefers to call it the "collaborative economy" because it goes far beyond sharing. Armed with networking tools and the ability to produce goods and services others need, individuals are renting surplus space (threatening the hotel industry), giving rides (threatening the automotive and taxi industries), manufacturing jewellery and other goods for sale through sites like Etsy.com (threatening mainstream manufactuers and retail outlets), and writers are publishing their own books (threatening the publishing industry). Entrepreneurs with 3D printers are manufacturing goods that used to require factories.
While most companies don't have the collaborative economy on their radars, some big players have started to address the threat. Home Depot, a big-box home improvement retailer, will begin carrying 3D printers, while toymaker Hasbro will make files available that can be used to 3D-print promotional objects at home. Drug store chain Walgreen's has partnered with TaskRabbit — a site where people bid to do tasks — to deliver prescriptions. BMW now rents cars from its showroom. As Owyang said, "Why sell a car one time when you can rent that same car 1,000 times?" Pet product retailer Petco invested millions in Rover.com, a service that matches pet owners with pet sitters. The communication challenges that arise from this shift will be daunting.
The communication industry itself is not unaffected by the collaborative economy. AirPR connects startup owners with independent communicators and small agencies who bid for their work, disrupting a marketplace that has been the sole province of larger agencies. Freelancers are finding work through other marketplaces, and services like PressFriendly and PRHacker — each of which uses software to make PR services available at a fraction of traditional costs — present their own challenges to our complacent industry.
Mobility is at the heart of these trends. We are close to spending more of our online time using our mobile devices than computers, and mobile connectivity is only going to continue to increase. With the power of our smartphones and tablets, and the cloud technologies to which these devices connect, users are increasingly expecting to be able to get information and transact business wherever they are at the instant they need to. Forrester Research calls these "mobile moments," and businesses will need to rethink their approaches to customer engagement baed on the trend.
While there's no shortage of mobile apps, only a handful have been produced by considering every possible interaction a customer might have with the brand in order to capture those mobile moments.
Consider American Airlines, whose mobile app pulls data and information from multiple systems that never before worked together, from flight reservations to lost baggage handling, all so that it provides contextual information to a traveler precisely when she needs it.
Meanwhile, most communicators are busily implementing responsive websites to make sure content designed for delivery over a desktop or laptop looks right on a smaller screen. So limited a focus won't help us communicate more effectively with audiences who expect us to accommodate those mobile moments.
Together these three trends — the collaborative economy, the Internet of Things, and the rise of mobility — represent the greatest technological challenge communicators have ever faced. They will alter the way we practice our craft. The only question is whether we'll be on top of these trends or running from behind the pack to catch up.
Shel Holtz, ABC, IABC Fellow, has helped organizations communicate effectively online since 1996 when he formed Holtz Communication + Technology. Before that, he managed communication departments for two Fortune 500 companies and worked in two global HR consulting firms. He is a founding fellow of the Society for New Communication Research and is an external advisory board member of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. He has written six communication-focused books and co-hosts the first and longest-running communications-themed podcast. You can find him at holtz.com.