Let’s Stop Trying to Read the Future in the Tech Tea Leaves

Murray Streets (General Manager – Integrated Strategy) argues that an obsession with changing technology and digital disruption can blind us to actual shifts in behaviour that can form a more reliable basis for innovation.

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This year at FCB NZ, we’ve been reflecting on the challenging topic of future predictions for media consumption. A highlight from August this year was the publication of the third wave of NZ On Air’s Where are the audiences? research. The data helps give us a clearer picture of the trends around our mixed media consumption as New Zealanders.

It’s been a welcome locally-focused and fact-based contribution to what can often been a confused and contradictory conversation about how our media consumption is changing and set to change in the future. A frustration from the past few years has been the uncritical thinking that’s crept into marketing, intentionally stoked by social media and internet platforms with clear vested interests and aggressive sales targets.

Trying to use technology innovation to figure out what’s going to happen over the next few years is risky.

When I visited Austin Texas for SXSW Interactive in 2016, there was palpable excitement about data-enabled, Alternate Reality experiences fuelled by IBM Watson and experienced through Samsung Gear VR-2 headsets.

Yet when I returned to the same festival in March this year, this had all largely been replaced by the rise of blockchain and the rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. The uncritical adulation for Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google – the so-called “Four Horsemen” – had given way to more serious questions about ethics, data privacy and manipulation of fake news.

This was a stark reminder that the future rarely unfolds in a straight line; and that tech trends don’t always ‘cross the chasm’ into mainstream adoption as we predict or hope they will.

If technology itself can be a treacherous guide, how can we assess future change? Well, the answer may be to study ourselves more closely, looking at the changing patterns of consumption behaviour that are rooted in our needs as people. After all, our fundamental needs as humans don’t shift, hardwired as they are thanks to our evolutionary biology. Our behaviours do shift as we seek to fulfil those needs in an environment being rapidly changed by technology and digital experiences.

Daniel Pink wrote recently in the June 2018 edition of The Atlantic about the way US consumers tend to now organise and classify content according to their consumption moments around three key groupings: intentionalinterstitial and invisible  media. His critique reinforces the need to look at moments and context, not channels and media.

Intentional moments are the handful of offerings that we plan in advance to experience and then carve our chunks of time to enjoy, such as ‘couch shows’. For me and my wife, it was Season Four of Love Island, then Ozark  Season Two on Netflix, now Casual Season Three on Lightbox.

Interstitial moments or ‘the bits in-between.’ These are the much larger set of moments where demand for content and media is strong. These are the moments of shorter duration where we need content to fill in and entertain us in lulls:  bus or train commutes, queues, waiting times, airports, Uber or taxi rides. They may last 5, 10 or maybe 30 mins.

These moments are ripe for what Pink terms ‘phone shows,’ now that we enjoy HD large screen mobiles and phablets powered by fibre, 4G and soon-to-arrive 5G networks.

Reflect on the growth and urban intensification of our cities (Auckland in particular), and the increasing growth in public transport usage in main centres, and you will see the emergence of more of these commuter moments.

Invisible media  remains the very low conscious attention media that we are exposed to a great deal of the time, but that we don’t actively or deliberately seek out or set out to engage with. This, of course, is the largest category of all, and accounts for a lot of our exposure to media and advertising.

There’s been a lot written about the attention economy, and whilst attention remains valuable, it’s going to be the ability for brands and businesses to harness consumer intention to want to view that will prove ever more important. The truth is that people dole attention out in smaller increments and in different contexts than they once did.

So as you go into 2019, ensure you balance your focus on tech disruption and digital transformation with a renewed focus on human needs and behaviours.

Date: December 16, 2018