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Brandon Geary SVP, Strategy Twitter
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Humanity Check —
What Consumers Really
Think About Tech

To get outside the digital marketing bubble, we conducted a series of focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnographic sessions in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, and Portland, Ore. The goal was to uncover what’s really going on in the everyday user’s technology life. Among the insights that emerged: people still need their physical space, brands get points for effort, there’s a new kind of couch potato and there’s plenty of tech-fueled confusion in consumers’ lives.

Talk to a few tech pundits about what’s next and you’ll very quickly see a calcified conventional wisdom form. Facebook and/or Twitter are totally integrated into everyone’s life and everyone wants to share everything. Quick Response (QR) codes count as progress. Google and Apple are loved by all and the world is waiting to see what both will do next.

But talk to real people and you get a different story. To get outside the digital marketing bubble, we conducted a series of focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnographic sessions in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, and Portland, Ore. The goal was to uncover what’s really going on in the everyday user’s technology life. There were 56 respondents age 18-49, all of whom had broadband access in their home, a smartphone and a computer. But they didn’t identify themselves as super users or even technology enthusiasts.

Five core observations rose to the top for us:

1. People need their space

While much of the business news centers on the death or decline of old retail models — bookstores, movie theatres, consumer electronics and music — we found people continue to express emotional attachment to the store experience, despite the shuttering of former stalwarts like Borders. This is backed up by a recent Accenture survey that found nearly 75 percent of consumers consider a storefront for digital communications products to be important.[1] We found strong, positive feelings about digital music, the rise of new content delivery mechanisms like Netflix, and digital content delivered on the Kindle and iPad, with limited longing for the old days. “I don’t miss CD boxes to be honest, and lugging books around wasn’t all that great,” said 29-year-old Cathy. The risk for retailer disintermediation clearly remains high for media products. But the desire for consultation and experiences — particularly shared experiences — remains alive and well.

Solution: Give people a new reason to come back. We found an openness to reinvention of old models with reliance on physical space. On music — “Why don’t they broaden the experience to include more physical objects around the music or have more events associated with the medium,” said Colin, 27. On movie theatres, 30-year-old Lisa said, “I’d like to see the opportunity to rent movie spaces for friend groups so that movies become more like karaoke in Korea.” Big box retailers under pressure from Amazon.com and disruptive models should consider re-evaluation of space, not just the product in question.

2. More knowing, less thinking

Apps, search and social media are rapidly changing human interaction at the level of the conversation. Knowing stuff has become easy, which has had a reductive effect on chats that once might have been more discursive. “When we’re talking about something we aren’t sure of, we all just look up the answer and it’s over,” said Heather, 32. In-person interaction has evolved to become more of an information sharing exercise and less of a conversation around ideas where one person builds on another’s thoughts, building on another’s thoughts. “I check my friends’ stuff more to see what information I should know now,” said David, 32.

Solution: The brand has to take a stand. For brands interested in using social media to join a conversation with their consumers, they may find there is less conversation to join and that they too are just sharing information or listening in on information share. Or brands may need to spark conversations. In a world of information sharing, consider asking a question, creating a debate and offering an opinion in attempt to get engagement.

3. Brands get points for effort

While only a few big successes in North America appear to get the majority of mainstream media coverage (Facebook, Apple, Google, Angry Birds and LinkedIn), we have found the perception of innovation increasingly comes from the trial of new things, regardless of whether or not the new thing is a long-term business success for the company that launched it. Google is consistently praised in projective exercises as innovative, despite an inability of users to pinpoint exactly what those innovations are. “Google is like Apple,” said Steven, 41. “Just always doing new things.” Companies like Starbucks and Nike are thought to be more suitable for reinventing dying industries like books and music, despite not being media companies. “Starbucks could make a better bookstore than Barnes & Noble could,” and “Apple could sell anything.”

Solution: Keep on making. Companies don’t have to get everything right to get credit. Perceived effort associated with releasing products and services creates a positive cumulative effect for the brand. For brands remaining on the sideline or fearing a lack of focus, consider placing smaller bets on app or development initiatives to provide a small delight for customers. You don’t have to go big to get impact.

4. Meet the new couch potato

Historically, digital pundits have promised a more interactive future, in which users move away from passive, couch potato viewing to more active engagement. While the amount of user-generated content and sharing supports this movement, we have found everyday users increasingly leaning back in their digital consumption habits. Social media is described as a more ambient activity. “[Facebook] is usually a drag. I just feel lazy like I’m seeing the same old stuff and looking at people’s profiles. I feel somewhat guilty about it sometimes, like I’m wasting time.” Twitter, originally categorized as a social tool, is described more as a curation tool. “I don’t really tweet anymore. I just see what I should think about reading.” And social media in general is making in-person interaction increasingly difficult to motivate or organize. “It’s just so hard to make it (an in-person meeting) happen now,” said Tran, 29.

Solution: Don’t be afraid to be a pusher. Brands that have long viewed digital as an engagement medium should also consider more opportunities and ideas that are more push in nature: video- and photo-based status updates, viral shorts and simple games and activities.

5. The rise of digital confusion

In launching new digital services in an app-filled, multi-device, multi-operating system world, consumers have become increasingly confused by messages. They’re less certain about the difference between a browser and operating system, PC and tablet, and OS and device manufacturer than ever before — “I’m not sure what Chrome or a Chromebook is.” “I’ve used Bing, but what does it do again?” While not every brand can be Apple from a product perspective, few beyond them appear to be delivering messages that are connecting.

Solution: Ditch the strategy and get to clarity. As marketers well versed in the creation of the emotional benefit look to new services for old or new brands, it’s paramount they continue to scrub their message strategies to get to the essential elements that drive clarity. Even more than before, attention and/or emotional attachment appear to be less of an issue than understanding.

Digital devices, social platforms, mobile and commerce are all changing consumer behavior rapidly, but not entirely in the ways many had predicted. In the future, it’s the brands that rethink space, not just the product, take a stand in the social space, push content that’s easy to consume and simplify the message that win. This means the most surprising thing about the future might just be its similarity to the past.