Q: Do you use a Mac or PC?
Q: Will you use this product at home or work?
Responding to standard hardware, software, and Web site registration questions is becoming absurd. That’s because everything about how and where people access digital information is changing. Increasingly, the applicable answer to the usual roster of questions (yet the one you’re never able to actually tell the vendor) is: all of the above.
Digital media, the Web, and many of the applications and gizmos we use to access them are transforming. New levels of digital ubiquity, pervasiveness, and portability are changing consumer habits. They’re also changing the rules of engagement for marketers.
Web-based email accounts are suddenly a gigabyte or more. Desktop computer market share is eroding, while sales of smart phones, MP3 players, and Wi-Fi-capable laptops soar. People shuttle data between home, work, vacation, and school on USB sticks and smart cards. Others upload files to servers then download them somewhere else or park their docs in Gmail accounts or Yahoo briefcases.
No sooner did Apple release the iPod, than a University of New Hampshire researcher began using his to transport the human genome to the various computers he used — it was faster than downloading from the network. You can wirelessly stream MP3s from your computer to a home stereo in another room or send photos or movies from your hard drive to your TV. This week, Ford executives synched two dozen MP3s via Wi-Fi from a laptop inside Starbucks to a 2004 Lincoln Aviator SUV’s built-in Wi-Fi entertainment system. Were the car Bluetooth-enabled, that synch could have been a drive-by.
Ways we access and use information are changing at hyperspeed, and so are expectations. The trend is toward seamless, always-on access to digital work, lives, and assets. If marketers thought the growing pains of adapting to the Internet were bad, how will they react in a few years — or months — when “new media” notions such as browsers, Web sites, and even desktops might seem downright quaint?
Increasingly, the digital information that matters most is disengaged from the browser. First, it was only email (think apps such as Outlook). Now, IM clients, toolbars, RSS aggregators, and search utilities are mission-critical software. A new Web-based productivity suite, SimDesk, provides whole communities, and the entire state of Indiana, with a way to access all their documents and data irregardless of what computer they’re on. Users needn’t even own a PC. Their entire digital lives can be accessed at the public library, at school, work, or at Kinko’s.
WeatherBug‘s Andy Jedynak recently reminded me that according to comScore Media Metrix, three of the top news and information providers are standalone apps: his product and two IM clients. What does that mean for marketers? As Jedynak puts it, “The window of ad message is narrowing.”
Publishers are debating whether features such as RSS will take too big a bite out of traffic or ad impressions. Everyone — advertisers, merchants, publishers, and bloggers — is crunching numbers that are increasingly fuzzier. How many “unique” users is someone who routinely logs on from multiple devices? How best to compile a realistic behavioral or contextual profile?
I asked Gary Stein, JupiterResearch advertising analyst. “You need something that’s as flexible as the network,” he replied. “A cookie is a tag. You need something that understands the modes. With behavioral advertising, the understanding is you’re in one particular mode at a time. But you’re not. Modes ebb and flow over time.”
My standalone apps and tools know me better than my browsers do. My IM client and buddy list follow me from work to mobile to home — if I let them. Given my druthers, I’d use NewsGator to wrangle my many RSS feeds; I like the Outlook integration. But outside of work, I don’t do Windows, so standalone Bloglines is perfect. It knows what feeds I’ve already read, whatever machine I’m currently on. If I’m researching a purchase, my clickstream and cookies don’t follow me from one computer, or platform, to another. The A9 toolbar can. When I’m signed in, I don’t have to send myself email messages with the URLs, prices, or feature sets I want to remember.
“Technology drives choice, choice drives change,” says Jedynak. “People are going to undock more and more. We cannot assume that the be-all, end-all is a desktop app, just like you can’t assume the Internet is Web sites. The next thing is away from the PC. If you want to remain the unequaled source of information that comes out of your class or brand, then you sure better not expect that the way you’re doing it now will be the way you’re doing it three years from now.”
Hardware that’s literally downsized, coupled with a proliferation of extremely quick-use, task-oriented tools erect new barriers between marketer and consumer. Smart marketers who understand they must enter this space also know discretion and permission are more critical than ever. Standalone tools defy clutter. Of WeatherBug’s Brand Wrap ad product, Jedynak says, “The content is there. There’s no intrusion, no stuff flying. The two are mixed together in a seamless whole.”
Blinkx‘s Kathy Rittweger stopped by to show us how ads will initially appear in that tool. This cool new search app seamlessly displays contextual results related to whatever a user is looking at, delivered from both the Web and the user’s own hard drive content. In additional to crystal-clear delineation between ads and organic results, the initial version now displays only a single ad in a list of Web results. No ads at all are associated with the content on the user’s own computer. Concern around intrusiveness, or even the perception of a privacy violation, is too great.
As the browser loses supremacy, the consumer gains more control than ever. And the developers behind standalone tools become the new publishers. In this environment, who will court whom? Making a media buy could be harder than getting a Saturday night reservation at the hottest new restaurant in town.
Meet Rebecca at the Jupiter/ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York, July 28-29.
Nominations are open for the 2004 ClickZ Marketing Excellence Awards.
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