Monday, March 26, 2012

Infinite Loops

Last year I was invited by Matt Judge to contribute a piece for his printed compendium entitled Design Assembly IIII chose to write about my emerging obsession with how brands can utilise social media data to better serve, and engage with, their audience. In typical Camilla Grey form, however, I only learned about the concept of "big data" about a week after the book went to print. So, while the piece is entirely concerned with the subject of big data, you will not find the term anywhere in the piece.

To make up for it, I recently went along to a Gigaom conference - Structure: Data. The talks I attended raised some fascinating issues surrounding the future of Big Data, and I look forward to exploring them further both here and in my work. Meantime, here's the copy from my DA3 contribution. It's a #longread at 2000 words, so grab a cup of tea, settle back, and marvel at how the tech buzzword de jour doesn't even get a look in!


"Gone are the days when you can just walk in to a boardroom, say "Twitter" and expect someone to pay you $20,000 and land yourself on the cover of Wired magazine. Now you have to say "Foursquare"." - Alex Bragg, Founder, A Bajillion Hits

It's no longer revolutionary to acknowledge that we are living in crazy, fast moving times. But while brands are learning to lose control and love change on the surface, it's a growing challenge for them to keep control and plan for change behind the scenes. It's my belief that a modern brand, especially a consumer-facing one, needs to create an infinite loop between what it says it is and what everyone else says it is. Brands today are dealing with customers who live in a fully-digital, always on, on-demand, one-click shopping, auto-filling, seamless world where everything "just works", and it's not ever going back to how it was. For me, the beauty of technology isn't just the exciting, creative things brands can do with it to engage customers; it's all the logging, monitoring and measuring capability going on under the hood that savvy brands can use to really get to know their customers, and serve them better.

With a few rare exceptions, the majority of brands are floundering in an online space they barely understand. Approaching digital on any level deeper than a website or a Facebook page takes dedicated ideological and financial investment and it can be difficult to know where to begin. From within the bubble of our design studios, media agencies, tech start-ups and app development companies, it's very easy to feel like we understand the rules of the game. With "change, adapt or die" as our mantra, we gorge ourselves on the contents of our Google Readers and scroll frantically through the Twitter feed. We are confident in the belief that we possess an ever-updating source of pre-Beta information that will make what we produce profoundly successful as well as hot, liked, viral and influential.

But sitting outside of the bubble with their heads in their hands are our clients. Around the world, across every industry, from within companies of every possible size, there are business leaders struggling to navigate a landscape that looks profoundly altered with each morning's dawn. Long gone are the days when they could make a great product, tell people about it with a sexy print ad, and have Peggy fix them a Martini while the sales figures climbed. Today they've got some 22-year-old intern - head swathed in a pair of huge headphones, displaying pro-levels of tabbed browsing - strolling in at 10am clutching two phones only to announce that the social media campaign they were given as a time killer has "gone viral" and sent consumers into a spending frenzy.

The idea of throwing $20,000 at someone using the latest buzz word is funny because it's true. When clients are banging on the door demanding apps, augmented reality, social media campaigns and a viral video it's all a sign of a deep-set anxiety in the face of relentless change. What few of them realise is that dealing with this relentlessness is not just about one-off ideas, but about focusing on a considered, strategic way to reach their customers across platforms. This is where water-tight brand strategy and innovative digital strategy begin to deliver real, measurable impact. While the brand strategy dictates the core story of the brand and who it's trying to reach with that story, digital strategy shows how technology can build the bridge between the brand and its customers. I want to see more brands looking at the platforms their audience are using already and the way they're using them, and creating content that fits that behavior. Most importantly, brands today need not only to be heard on emerging platforms, they also need to know how to listen on them as well, and never before have they been provided with such a clear, real-time mirror of who they're reaching and how they're transposing in the real world.

The market is very much in its infancy, but there is an expanding list of companies giving quantifiable meaning to the constant stream of information and content being created online. I recently became acquainted with a San Francisco-based company called PeopleBrowsr. With three thousand days of indexed data from Twitter, public Facebook pages and blogs, PeopleBrowsr have developed a searchable database of social content which operates like the Google of social analytics. Finally I'd found a way to reveal not only what was being said about any given brand, but who was saying it, where they were saying it, and what influence it had on their wider communities. It's geeky to admit it, but the ability to map hard data to human behavior is not only core to a 'moving world' approach to strategy, but it's what gets me out of bed in the morning. It means I'm not just walking into rooms full of anxious clients and saying "Foursquare". It means I can walk in armed with a detailed insight into how their brand perception in the real world is measuring up to their brand positioning. From there, we can start to look at the language people are using around the brand, the emotions they are expressing about it, whether they are experiencing the brand with friends or alone, at home or out and about, at night or in the day, or if they're adding photos and videos to their written content. And once you start thinking about these things, the ways to reach out to them seem obvious.

One brand who appears to make this joined-up approach look very easy indeed is Burberry. They aren't just creating Facebook and Twitter profiles for the sake of it or because they think that's enough. Instead, they're seeking out the most powerful ways to connect their brand story with their existing and potential customer groups. I've watched how Burberry have spent the past few years re-asserting their position as an iconic British brand in ways which demonstrate an innate understanding of their target customer - the young, iPad-toting, high-net-worth individual. At this year's London Fashion Week, Burberry upped their game even further in a bold move which turned their intimate fashion show into a global event. Through a well-produced live stream of the show and Twitpics of every look before each model hit the catwalk, Burberry set their infinite feedback loop in motion. They demonstrated a clear understanding of how fashion news circulated and responded by creating high-quality platform-specific content for their audience. By being the first to the post with their latest looks they relinquished control and influence from some over-swagged blogger in the front row. Foremost, they were present and in-control of any conversations about them - able to listen to and learn from their audience before the new Season's work got under way. Clearly having once lost command of their brand image to northern "chavs" has stood them in good stead for the unregulated liberalism of social networks. Many brands have struggled to adjust to the diplomacy of the digital space, and none more so than luxury brands. With no austere doorman to monitor who's coming and going online, most luxury labels prefer to proffer little more than an interactive look book and a nicely produced Vimeo video. Burberry, however, seem not just to be responding to change, but leading it in their industry.

So where is all this going in the future? At the intersection of mobile, location and social lies a golden pool of content - user information fused with physical behavior and sentiment. By 2020, I will have over a decade's worth of Foursquare check-ins, tweets, and in-app purchases. I - and millions of others - love publicly sharing what we're up to with our friends and followers, and if brands want to look at that content and make better recommendations, suggest more localized deals, and provide more personalized offers, then that's absolutely fine by me. It sounds scary, but I see toddlers on the bus every day who haven't yet developed speech but are effortlessly swiping and pinching their way around their Mum's iPhone. These "Digital Instinctives" just aren't going to see their world as being divided into online and offline. As "Digital Instinctives" grow up, human behavior and technology will become ever more interlinked. The more they live and hang out publicly in the digital space, the more data they will create, and the more personalized their brand experiences can become. Any brand that is not dedicated to understanding the anthropology of life online and figuring out how best to listen, learn and engage honestly will fail to evolve, and eventually become extinct.

Integrating the philosophy and technology behind infinite feedback loops into a company takes time. Those 22-year-old interns may seem to have all the answers when it comes to buzz words, but few of them know how to run and grow a business, or the experience to lay down transformative infrastructures and systems. Adapting to change relies on the removal of walls everywhere - between the bright young things and the wise business leaders, between creativity and technology, between us and our clients, and between the controlled space of the brand world and the relentless landscape of the real world. As a Strategist, I couldn't be more inspired by the pace of change and the opportunities it provides for the brands I work with. It's exciting to have conversations about how brands can be expressed in ways which didn't exist five years ago, one year ago, or last month. And I love that together we're now able to plan for a tomorrow we can't even begin to imagine.

- Published here with permission of Matt Judge. Written October 2011.