Convergence: It’s Back

Last week, Avenue A | Razorfish held its annual client summit in New York City. Now in its eighth year, the 2008 event was themed “Rock the Digital World,” and although I may be biased, it pretty much rocked. As in years past, I learned more at a single event (put on by my own company, no less) than the last three conferences I’ve been to combined.

One of my key takeaways: convergence is back, and in a big way. Convergence is, by Internet standards, a dinosaur of a buzzword. Like “engagement,” it has meant different things to different people at different times. Everyone has his or her own interpretation, and it likely changes and evolves over time.

For me, it started as the convergence of the Web and the TV. It manifested itself in things like WebTV and then later TiVo, Slingbox, AppleTV, Windows Media Center, and so on. It quickly became clear, however, that convergence didn’t just mean some kind of mashup between TV and the Web. Rather, it foretold the long-projected (but not yet realized) era of ubiquitous computing — a world where computing devices are everywhere and all connected to the same network. And I’m really starting to feel a groundswell of energy behind this new convergence.

I’ve written before about how digital technologies are breaking out of the confines of the PC and invading the real world. The functional implications on the retail environment are perhaps the most obvious; things like price comparison engines, user reviews, RFID for inventory management, guided selling via digital solutions, and so on.

The Web has taught people to expect information at their fingertips. E-commerce has forever changed the way people shop and the way that they make purchase decisions. And demand is clearly already there for e-tailing to make the leap to brick-and-mortar retail. A BusinessWeek poll late last year found that 61 percent of people want to be able to scan a product barcode with their camera phone to receive information on other stores’ prices. They want transparency. A recently published TNS report captures significant consumer enthusiasm for all manner of shopping innovations.

The Web’s become so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that it’s fading into the background. It’s becoming invisible. It just powers everything that we do and is almost completely transparent in that we often don’t even realize that we’re getting data or information from the Web. It’s just how we do things. We just expect it to be there and to work. Flawlessly. At all times. It cripples us when we’re disconnected.

One time on vacation, my wife and I were looking for a place for dinner. I pulled out my laptop and tried to get online. Couldn’t do it for some reason. But rather than hit the yellow pages or ask the concierge, we just went to the restaurant in the hotel. If I can’t get it from online, which has quickly become my most trusted source of information, what’s the point?

The implications for retail marketers are only the tip of the iceberg. We’re recognizing these new emerging digital out-of-home experiences are yet again redefining how we tell stories to our audience. It means that the power of the Web and the power of those branded experiences we create online are no longer tethered to a keyboard and mouse.

These experiences can exist outside of the PC. They become part of the physical space. They become a new generation of broadcast in many ways, reaching a larger simultaneous audience than a banner ad or even an immersive site that impacts usually just the one person looking at the screen. Digital experiences are shared experiences, drawing attention from the crowd and encouraging a new level of interaction not only with our brands but also with other people — even strangers — who happen to be sharing the experience. They’re inherently social. Brand Experience Lab chairman David Polinchock, who spoke at the client summit, calls this the socialization of place.

To demonstrate this, we created a series of hands-on technology demonstrations, mostly under the umbrella of an expo we called InStore: Where e-tail meets retail. In collaboration with technology partners, we assembled an immersive, interactive experience for employees and clients. People were able to interact with touchscreen windows from i-Gotcha, mobile coupons from bCODE, Akoo‘s mobile-activated media system, self-service scan and bag solutions from Modiv Media, Reactrix‘s StepScape interactive gaming system, and augmented reality from Polinchock’s Brand Experience Lab.

The energy and tone of the conversations in that room is what led me to believe that convergence is back, and it’s not just the Web/TV mashup. It’s the complete and utter obliteration of the line between digital and analog. Perhaps more importantly, convergence is the gigantic opportunity created by that swiftly crumbling wall that used to separate the real from the virtual. How does your brand manifest itself at the nexus of this new convergence?

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