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Touchscreens Are the New Desktop

  |  November 21, 2012   |  Comments

Marketers must be able to deliver messages across a wide range of devices and deliver those messages in a targeted way or run the risk of not being able to reach anyone at all.

In my last column I asked the question "why are marketers so behind on mobile?" and proposed that we should start thinking mobile first. Now that Windows 8 is out - to mixed reviews - it seems like Microsoft may have made the decision for us. Touchscreens are the new desktop.

Of course, it's going to be a while before the majority of users move from the traditional point-and-click, mouse-and-keyboard interface. There are many "traditional" systems out there that aren't going to disappear overnight. But while people may hold onto their desktop-hogging computers for a while, they're probably going to be spending a lot more of their screen time on tablets before they ditch the ol' boat anchor.

Just look at the numbers. Web traffic attributed to tablets grew over 300 percent this year and is poised to surpass smartphone traffic by next year. Forrester predicts that there will be over 760 million tablets in use by 2016, double the number of tablets today. And while many of these will be used by consumers, the same report predicts that one-third of those tablets will be sold to businesses, most likely replacing laptops for a significant number of business users.

Now I'm not predicting that the keyboard is going away. Regardless of the advances in touchscreen technology and voice recognition software, we're still far from living in a world where the clickety-clack of keyboards isn't a familiar sound at work or at home. All you have to do is spend a few minutes arguing with Siri on an iPhone or trying to touch-type a couple of paragraphs on a tablet screen to convince yourself of that. It's no wonder that Microsoft's Surface tablet was released with a cover that doubles with a keyboard, or that one of the first accessories that folks buy for their iPads is a wireless keyboard: for any sort of serious writing or data entry, the keyboard can't be beat…at least not yet.

Even so, it's clear that we're in the midst of a tectonic shift in the way we use our computers. Besides the rise of touchscreen-equipped and "convertible" PCs, advances such as the Leap Motion (which allows you to control your Mac by waving your hands around "Minority Report"-style) and the blurring of the lines between PCs and TVs mean that it's not too long before using a mouse and keyboard as the primary way to interact with your computer will seem as quaint as "floppy discs" and CRT monitors.

But this shift isn't just about new gee-whiz technologies designed to lighten our wallets. It's a lot bigger than that. The shift from type to touch is a reflection of the profound changes in how we think about computers and what we use them for. And those changes are having significant impacts on how we marketers need to communicate with our audiences. And it's going to require us all to rethink the way we think about "computers."

Computers may have started out as tools for work, but they're rapidly evolving (at least for the consumer/home market) into portals for information and entertainment first. Working - writing, crunching numbers, or designing - now requires accessories. And rather than occupying a central place in the home or office suitable for the substantial investment they once represented, they're now scattered throughout our lives in the form of tablets, phones, and laptops. Like the TV, they used to represent a focal point in our lives…but soon they'll just be something we take for granted and expect to find everywhere.

This shift profoundly changes the personal experience of accessing information or entertainment. While it's become a cliché to portray the modern family around the dinner table or in front of the TV with their noses in their own screen, it's also a reality. Couple this with the growing "filter bubble" each of us inhabits as a result of behavioral marketing and personalized content, and the idea of communicating a single message to a mass audience (or even being able to agree to a single consensus reality) starts to seem like a quaint fiction.

While it may seem like a big leap to go from Windows 8 to post-modern philosophy, the fact is that it's happening. While it's probably a little much to attribute the increasing polarization of political opinion so talked about in the last election cycle to the iPad and Flipboard, it's not too much of a leap to make the connection between divergent opinion and the ability for us all to craft our own realities out of the sites we browse, the tweets we follow, or the "friends" we have on Facebook. Sure, mass media is still hanging in there, but the mass audience is slowly dispersing into their own screens.

For marketers, this change requires a major shift in thinking. It means being able to deliver messages across a wide range of devices and deliver those messages in an increasingly targeted way or run the risk of not being able to reach anyone at all. It means razor-sharp segmenting and constant experimentation and optimization of campaigns in order to home in on the people we're trying to reach. It means marketing as much as we can in real time rather than fooling ourselves into thinking we can create a single "campaign" that can be launched and left to its own devices. It means not only being aware of who our audiences are but where they are (and why they're there and what they're using at the moment we're trying to reach them).

But don't panic: we're not there yet. But we are headed there. And it's a lot easier to start changing our mindsets and experimenting today than it will be to play catch-up later on.

Touchscreen image on home page via Shutterstock.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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