Last week, more than 25,000 people—innovators, thought leaders, c-suite execs, computer scientists, and more than a few celebrities—gathered at New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for Collision Conf, North America’s fastest-growing technology conference. But for a tech conferences, technology felt strange secondary this year.
When Collision arrived in New Orleans two years ago, emerging tech was everywhere. Smart speakers. Drones. Augmented reality. Robots. It sometimes felt like you couldn’t walk five feet without tripping over a VR headset. But in 2018, all the buzzwords and hyped technologies seemed to fade into the background, leaving the people they’re meant to reach standing there, at the center of it all—reminding us that they’ve been there all along.
Here are a few takeaways:
1. Technology matters when it drives experiences—and emotional connection
Modern life is shot through with technology—from the the Bitmojis that digitally represent your friends to the AI-driven nudge that Google Maps gives you when an event mentioned in one of your emails is about to start. When these new tools and capabilities first emerged, the focus was understandably about the tech itself, the wow-factor of seeing something that was once impossible blossom into everyday life. But as we get used to new technologies, the flash falls away, and the technologies that shine are the ones that help brands inspire emotional connections with the people they’re serving.
Sometimes, though, you have to empower your audience to feel ownership over their brand experience. For John Flynn, Uber’s chief information security officer, that meant going beyond just making use of security tools like two-factor authentication and focusing on “showing ways that customers can engage with the privacy and security of the system” by surfacing these functionalities and giving users a sense of control over how the security of their accounts. After all, people won’t appreciate your brand’s efforts if they don’t realize those efforts are happening.
That said, a customer’s emotional connection to a brand doesn’t happen in a vacuum—and it may not look or feel the way that brand engagement did in years past. Technology is “changing how we feel, and how we frame our own feelings,” according Pamela Pavliscak, founder of design research firm Change Sciences. “The words we use, the images we use [digitally] change our associations with a given emotion… and maybe changing how we feel.” As consumers increasingly communicate with friends and families via text and OTT platforms, with emojis and GIFs and memes, the way they perceive outreach from the brands will likely begin to change, making it more important for companies to understand the different experiences provided by the channels and platforms and mediums they’re leveraging, and to ensure a cohesive, coherent experience across them that speaks to their audience.
At the end of the day, when you’re able to build these emotional connections between your customers and your brand through the combined efforts of your creativity, your product, and your technology, you are sometimes lucky enough to unlock one of the most powerful of gifts: forgiveness. Meaning, people won’t immediately disengage when they have an unideal experience with your brand. No human is perfect, which means our technology likely won’t be, either. And with technology-driven experiences that drive emotional connections…that’s ok.
2. Tomorrow’s key currency may be time
As technology has become enmeshed in our lives, it’s also come to consume more and more of our time. According to Amir Ghodrati, director of market insights at App Annie, the average American now spends 3 hours per day using mobile apps, a 30% rise since 2015. And while this isn’t a new phenomenon—back in the nineties, when TV was the dominant platform, people were watching more than seven hours of it per day—the sheer number of technologies seems to be cutting ever deeper into people’ free time, triggering increased stress and anxiety.
That’s a major pain point for brands looking to captured and hold onto their customers’ attention. According to Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer (CMO) for Blackrock, many consumers experience marketing messages as a sort of tax on their time, attention and energy—one that can be exacerbated by generic or thoughtless outreach. If someone’s receiving more than 180 marketing messages in a given day, an email or push that doesn’t speak to them and doesn’t add value isn’t just a marketing miss; it’s a waste of their increasingly precious time.
It’s hard to build sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships with customers when you’re trying shout over the roar of competing brands. But technology offers a way forward. Joe Korngiebel, CTO of Workday, Inc., says we’re entering a new era of software, one in which we need to “give every business their fifteen minutes back.” You know the feeling; it’s when a meeting you’re in is so efficient that it ends early and you have fifteen minutes back in your day. The right technology can help you do just that (and even extend the idea to those businesses’ customers). At its best, today’s AI can help to optimize life, making things simpler and more efficient—like an autocomplete for the million little tasks that make up daily life. Telling us when tickets to a favorite band go on sale, or suggesting that we order in when a snowstorm is about to hit, or simply making recommendations for a purchase based on past activity. According to Roy Pereira, founder and CEO of Zoom.ai, these capabilities “take a lot of those [distracting] thought processes off our heads, and let us think about other things.”
Consumers generally don’t care that much about AI; they care about the experiences they have with the brands they patronize, and artificial intelligence is one powerful way for brands to make those experiences better. By reducing friction and emotional labor, brands can give their customers time back, demonstrate their empathy, and make life easier and more pleasant, whether their audience knows what technology is supporting it or not.
3. We don’t need more data—we need to be smarter about the data we have
Almost without exception, the powerful technologies reshaping how brands understand and engage with their customer bases depend on significant amount of customer data to function. That’s especially true of modern AI. “As Napoleon famously said, an army marches on its stomach,” Gaurav Dillon, CEO of SnapLogic, told attendees. “Well, AI marches on data.”
Right now, Pereira said, “We live in an information-rich world. Our lives are stored in the cloud. Google knows more about us than our moms.” That data has made it possible for marketers to more easier segment, personalize, and automate communications with their audience over the past ten years. But new data regulations and changing customer attitudes around data privacy and security are forcing brands to come to terms with the fact that the seemingly endless flow of customer data turned on by the rise of mobile may be slowing down significantly.
That doesn’t have to be a disaster for brands. Today, many companies are mindlessly vacuuming up any customer information they can get their hands on, without any clear plan or strategy for how they’re actually going to use it. That’s wasteful and unnecessary. Data will probably always play an important role in support more valuable, human-scale interactions with consumers, but in most circumstances it’s more important to have clean, high-quality data than to have massive stores of hit-or-miss information. And while not every customer will be willing to knowingly share their data, the ones who do are signaling a level of connection and investment in your brand that’s likely to support a mutually valuable, sustained relationship.
After decades of watching technology swiftly reshape the world we live in—country by country, industry by industry, household by household—it can be hard to imagine a future where tech fades into the background.
Here’s the thing: technology isn’t going to stop mattering. Companies will continue to depend on new innovations to better understand and reach their customers. Consumers will keep leaning on tech to make their lives easier, more enjoyable. But the time may come when technology stops drawing attention to itself, when it becomes the backend to the lived experience’s frontend. And in that new world, companies that focus on using technology to strengthen human connections with their customers over chasing shiny, over-hyped toys are the ones set up to succeed.