The Future? You’re Living in It

As you read this, I’m probably ducking salespeople at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ (AAAA’s) Disney World Media Conference, trying vainly to fend off business cards and proffered hands with a lame, “I’m not in charge of media buying at my agency.” I suspect this dodge won’t work.

Whether I’m shanghaied by media reps is inconsequential to this article… and to you, I’m sure. But what is important is where I’m staying at Disney: the quaintly futuristic Contemporary Resort.

Even if you’ve never been to Disney World, you probably know the Contemporary: It’s that A-frame-shaped hotel with the monorail running through it, the one that looks like it could be straight from the set of “Logan’s Run,” “Space: 1999,” or even “Battlestar Galactica.” Pick a campy sci-fi show. There’s probably a building in it like the Contemporary, a grand reflection of a future that never came.

Look back a few decades. There are plenty of other examples: architecture, fashion, design, and technological what-ifs that seemed perfectly logical predictions of the future at the time but look oddly quaint here in the future of 2002. Plenty of folks have tried to envision future realities. Few have even come close. You can’t blame them. All our future predictions are inevitably tainted and clouded by present realities. Extrapolating up the curve from today’s data points rarely leads to the real future. I don’t know about you, but I don’t live in a bubble, drive a floating car to work, or wear silvery jumpsuits (most of the time).

In retrospect, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mid-1990s predictions of a world where malls were shuttered from lack of use (as commerce moved online), grocery deliveries were generated by our Web-based shopping lists, and ubiquitous wireless access connected us into a fully networked society haven’t come true. As most of us are painfully aware by now, the Internet didn’t take over the world overnight, commerce didn’t move completely online, and business-to-business (B2B) commerce didn’t revolutionize how we work. We don’t all access the Web on our cell phones, and we’re not all welded to our desks while engaged in video conferences with far-flung networks of telecommuters.

What happened?

Life happened. Life and human inertia and human nature and human needs. Life happened and continues to happen.

Before you get discouraged, ask yourself: Are you using the Web less today than you did a year ago? Probably not. If anything, Web usage is increasing all over the world. Online commerce is up from last year (20 percent according to comScore), email use is skyrocketing, and mobile data transfer (primarily short message service, or SMS, messages) is becoming ubiquitous.

The future is here… it just hasn’t fundamentally changed us as human beings. We did what we always do with the new — we integrated it into our lives, we take it for granted, and we continue to move forward. The Internet revolution happened, is happening, and will continue to happen.

So what? Here’s what: As marketers, advertisers, creative people, managers, consultants, and technologists, we must realize the Net is a daily part of millions of lives. We’ve also gotta realize that everything we do must take this into account. Our success or failure depends on realizing life doesn’t begin, or end, at the keyboard. It’s merely another place to reach people with our messages and our products.

All this may seem obvious. In practice, integration is tougher than it seems. For all the lip-service so many companies pay to “integrated marketing” and communications, not much is happening. Many companies still have their IT departments overseeing their Web sites. Many companies still have impenetrable walls between “Web folks” and offline marketing experts. Many Web vendors still push technology rather than customer-based solutions.

Integration is tough because it crosses organizational boundaries. As we struggle to sort it out, consumers blithely integrate the Internet into their lives all over the world. Canadian families spend 32 hours per week on the Web (CyberAtlas). U.K. users continue to break SMS records (Mobile Commerce World). Teens reportedly prefer the Net to the phone, according to AOL research. Fifty-five percent of U.S. users visited a government site last year (eMarketer). Newsbytes reports Asian users increasingly turn to their PCs instead of their TVs.

Success today means meeting consumers where they feel most comfortable and realizing consumers are going to connect with us in ways that work best with their lifestyles. We have to understand every point of contact with our organizations and work to manage relationships in that customer contact zone. We need to cross boundaries to manage customer databases across all media: Print direct marketing people need to know what email direct marketing people are doing, then use that information to send messages where they’re most effective. If customers buy online and not in the physical store, we need to know that and act accordingly. Integrate.

Managers need to educate themselves in the meaning of success in the new world. Web site traffic, click-throughs, and page views never matter. What matters is what those contacts lead to: increased sales, brand recognition, reduced customer service costs, and more leads. If people don’t buy online, it doesn’t mean the site is a failure if they’re using online information to make more offline purchases.

As we move into the future of the Internet, all signs point to increased integration into our customers’ lives. Wide acceptance of always-on broadband means more people use the Web as a resource, not a special event. More wireless usage means people will get more information and touch more people no matter where they are. An increase in home networking technology will put Web access everywhere in the home. And as more and more companies connect their products to the Internet (as Sony recently promised to do), the Net will seep into every corner of our lives while, paradoxically, disappearing into the everyday.

The future always does.

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