Like many independent web workers, I sometimes find it tricky when people ask me what I do professionally. The day-to-day reality is that I research and analyse digital trends that I think are interesting and help like-minded clients work out if and how they are relevant. However, people don't always find that helpful. So sometimes I say that I work with marketeers and brands that feel overwhelmed by technology. Which, I suspect, can sound patronising. But it shouldn't. Feeling overwhelmed is a perfectly understandable reaction as, rather like the rain in the UK at the moment, technological change can seem unrelenting, which for many people is disturbing. I recall a session I ran earlier this year when an executive told me she was worried that the pace of digital change was eventually going to make her redundant. Not because her job was going to disappear but, despite being a smart, accomplished individual she felt she didn't have the time to keep up with the latest bits and bytes. Once again, this is understandable and the individual in question is certainly...
...not alone if my experience is anything to go by. When it comes to the ever-changing web, like the current British weather, it is easy to be left meekly asking - 'when will it end?'. Just as a bright spot appears to offer the hope of respite from chaotic storms, the web and networked media may hold out a period of calm, only for another digital deluge to arrive.
One way to manage these endless online squalls maybe to ignore the technology altogether and focus on the behaviour of the people in the markets that are of interest to you. Not only does this involve less jargon but it may be a more efficient way to work out what is and is not of relevance. This is particularly true as larger, more sophisticated industries are drawn into networked media.
For example, recently I’ve been working in connected or smart TV, the latest area to experience the full force of technological change. Many of the tides washing through the business are familiar currents that other industries have been navigating for some time - such as changing purchasing behaviour.
One of the greatest challenges for TV companies is that their valuable content is being unbundled before their eyes. Cable or satellite packages offering one gazillion channels can feel like a super-comfy duvet under which to hide away on the sofa, until you realise that friends and neighbours are paying less-for-more through an online service. At which point said duvet can feel more like a smothering - and expensive - deadweight.
The difference with the TV business from other industries that have succumbed to digital tides is its sheer size and influence. Cash-bloated, top techno-predators such as Google, when launching an attack on the walls of Pay-TV, and possibly expecting a capitulation such as that which occurred in the newspaper, music, publishing, telephony and photographic industries, have found themselves effortlessly shrugged-off.
However, there are signs that even TV giants are struggling against the prevailing wind and rain. Despite the odd respite, their defences are being eroded slowly by the weather systems of networked media. And not only are these new fronts more powerful each time they surge but, crucially, they are also being driven by consumers (aka people) keen to find better value and choice.
In such a market, it can be tempting to try and follow every development and forecast the impact of each new application or incremental change. However, in reality this might simply not be possible, let alone helpful. A little like predicting the weather, it’s useful to a point and then the data becomes overwhelming. Which is why it's important to watch users - not just engineers.
Matt Locke, longtime TV-agitator, expresses this very helpfully in his recent post: ‘Behaviours are one of the most important things to track in this fast-changing environment. If you don’t look for new things your audience are learning to do – like contributing to hashtag memes on Twitter, joining campaigns on Facebook, playing online games synced to live broadcasts, or funding projects they love on Kickstarter – then you won’t be able to see how this affects their ‘traditional’ relationship with your tv programme/film/book. Until someone else comes along with a product that ties these new behaviours to your content, and suddenly you’re out of the loop (as the Kindle did for publishers).’
At the moment, the idea that the TV industry may change radically seems strange. However, I am always struck at how fickle people are in their behaviour and attitudes. A good number of years ago I recall the rolling-eyes and raised-brows at a conference when I showed the attendees Wikipedia. Today, it’s pretty much a first port-of-call for even the most sceptical and crowd-sourcing is acclaimed as progress in some of the most complex markets. It’s not necessary to understand why and how these new systems work. It’s enough to see that people like and use them.
Silicon-Valley’s obsession with the nuances of technological change can sometimes appear to have turned us all into a bunch of widget-obsessed lunatics. However, the broader view is that markets are being changed not by technology itself, but by the manner in which it changes our behaviour and subsequent commercial choices. Often in ways that are positive, interesting or even fun. So next time the latest techno-storm leaves you feeling overwhelmed, try and ignore it and, instead, watch the people around you and how they are coping with the changing elements.