The thing marketers get wrong: technology is about timeliness not trendiness
When we skip from trend to trend, we impede our ability to fully exploit new technology. Our collective short-termism must be replaced by a greater focus on iteration.
The urge to flaunt new technology in front of our competitors is deeply human. Whether it be nations showcasing their new fighter jet or the next-door neighbour proudly brandishing their new pressure washer, at a primal and evolutionary level we’re sending urgent signals to others in the tribe, saying “watch out: we possess an advantage now”.
Marketers want the same for their brands. Aside from the functional benefits, riding the wave of zeitgeist tech like the metaverse and artificial intelligence sends a powerful message to the modern consumer: we are progressive and therefore we are credible.
Compounding this, we’re also told that a hallmark of our accelerating society is the rate at which these new technologies are adopted by consumers. The telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users; TV took 13 years; the internet took four years; Pokémon Go took 19 days.
The result is that our ‘Future FOMO’ — a fear of missing out on the future — now burns white hot as we scramble to adopt media trend after overlapping media trend.
But this obsession with novelty results in an energy-sapping short-termism. As counterintuitive as it may be, we need to understand that technology is as much about transition over time as it is trendiness.
Invention. Innovation. Iteration.
As technology evolves, it passes through three stages. Those three stages are often conflated in error.
First, Invention. A singular creation, discovery or solution with a largely untested application. Inventions stay in the lab or are restricted to a cadre of early adopters.
Second, Innovation. A fully implemented and scaled invention that transforms societal behaviours via its mass application.
Third, Iteration. Even once adopted by the public, many innovations are still in the MVP (minimal viable product) stage and have decades to run before their flaws are ironed out.
The problem is when we become obsessed with Invention and Innovation — the here and now — but have no long-term plan in place to shadow the Iteration: the family of evolutions and improvements that slowly unfurl over time. In short, we’re more concerned with ‘new-ness’ and ‘now-ness’ than endurance.
This journey is 1% complete
Building on the point about Iteration in particular, I am occasionally reminded how widely adopted technologies are still deeply flawed. Here’s four examples:
Data Connectivity. The mobile phone achieved mass adoption sometime in the late ’90s foreshadowing the advent of the smartphone in 2007. Yet three decades later, in 2023, there are still areas of London — central London I might add — where I have no bars of signal and my calls are dropped. Furthermore, in the era of 4G, Spotify stops and video clips buffer, and in the era of ultra-fast broadband, my Zoom calls are still pixelated. The arrival of 5G may get traffic on the network moving, but this is far from a perfected technology.
Voice Tech. Virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana have long been positioned as the replacement interface for the keyboard. Built into phones, PCs and smart speakers, these were to be our digital concierges, tending to our requests as they occurred to us. But we are not there yet. A YouGov study found 67% of women and 54% of men said smart speakers don’t understand their commands and, anecdotally, I have tried using Cortana to dictate emails when working from home, but the error rate is too high as it struggles with a Northern accent. Don’t get me wrong, I would love for this technology to work. At present, however, we have some way to go.
Bluetooth. Though perhaps more reliable than the previous two examples, Bluetooth is now widespread yet still frustratingly inconsistent. On occasion, if two devices seem to take an instant dislike to one another, no amount of coaxing and cajoling will rebuild the friendship. Why?
Spam Filters. Despite genuine efforts to introduce digital safeguards to protect users from spam, we’re still plagued by fake emails purporting to be from DPD stating “your air-fryer is stuck at the depot, please click here”. Also, unscrupulous suppliers are circumventing opt-out boxes. Recently, an estate agent was able to spam me by sending emails from different branches around the country, each with its own unique email address.
These four flawed yet widely adopted technologies demonstrate that 30 years on we’re still working through problems baked in at source.
Track transitions not trends
Now think about technologies like metaverse and artificial intelligence. For examples such as this, I would argue that we are just entering the innovation stage, it’s scaling into public life, and that there are many years of iteration to come; ironing out flaws, testing and learning in the biggest lab of all: society at large.
Our industry frequently forgets this. We grasp excitedly for the new toy before the old one is barely out of the Christmas wrapping. Those lauding the metaverse not 12 months ago, are now getting excited about artificial intelligence, without having even yet experimented properly or gleaned any useful insights from the metaverse yet. When we skip from trend to trend, we impede our ability to fully exploit that technology, providing no opportunity for interrogation, excavation or experimentation.
For example, many years ago one of my clients clamoured to become involved with Pokémon Go. But when he learned its popularity was beginning to wane, instantly dismissed the idea of being involved, and immediately became besotted about searching for the next boat that had sailed.
Wouldn’t it have been better if he’d invested in monitoring the broader territory of Extended Reality? Then, though he may not have had a specific partnership with Pokémon Go, just by tracking the territory as it matured — rather than obsessing over a single transient title — he could have been the brand with the most dominant and enduring presence in AR or XR today.
An innovation garden
Marketers need to plan for the transition of technology over time, embedding systems that allow for experimentation, reflection, and reorientation, and that shadow its development across the ebb and flow of flaws and improvements.
The way to do this is to think about your approach to innovation like a garden.
Cultivate a range of plants, or in this case, technologies. Don’t lavish all your attention and resources on your latest purchase. Instead, give yourself options, and monitor the growth of your garden as a whole.
Some may wither and die, and some may blossom, as indeed some technologies will succeed and fail, but you won’t know which for a while yet, so grow your innovation garden over time, accompanying its evolution by making adjustments as the seasons come and go.
When we misunderstand innovation and technology, we see it as a “spike” in the timeline. Transient and fleeting, we must grab at it whilst we can before we’re trounced by a competitor.
But that’s not quite it. Contrary to what we’re told, technology takes its time.
And so should we.
Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. He writes a monthly column for The Media Leader about the future of media.