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The Wasteland

Doug Gould, Microsoft

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From the printing press to the radio to the television to the internet, technology has long been the driving force pushing marketing and brand experiences forward. Yet while we celebrate the amazing creative and experiences—from the ADDYs to the Webbys—it bears reckoning that these technologies have also left a trail of trash in their wake.

Reckless infomercials, un-trafficked microsites, dormant Twitter handles, abandoned apps. At best, they became wasted investments; at worst, they compromised brand integrity and reputation.

Today, these waste projects seem to be materializing at a growing rate, and perhaps that should come as no surprise. It took nearly a century to go from the first mass print ads to the first online ads, and during that time, only two other forms of mass media materialized: radio and television. It took decades for these platforms to mature and even today, they continue to evolve. But since the first online ads in 1994, the technology-time continuum has accelerated. Social media opened a new way for brands to have one-to-one conversations with their customers, smartphones created opportunities for brands to engage with customers wherever they were, and today, we find ourselves on the cusp of a massive platform boom as the future of voice, mixed reality, and wearables begin to take shape. And we’re just scratching the surface.

As brands and agencies begin exploring these new platforms, creating new experiences and modes of interaction, there will be some big wins but many more misses. So, what can we learn from the past, the wasteland of shelved projects and those who got it right, to help ensure that our explorations will be a success?

Realize that no one cares about your brand/Understand your biases

More specifically, no one cares about your brand as much as you do. While this may sound like a harsh point to make, it is an important one to understand. No one, not even your biggest fans, are going to be as invested in your brand as the individuals working every day to make that brand a success. Not recognizing this reality can color your judgement. It can make you believe that people will come to you just because you showed up. But no one cares about your microsite/app/channel/etc. People transact with brands when they get value from the transaction. The experiences you build must be truly valuable to the user.

Know thy customer

In order to create an experience that a customer would find valuable, you must first understand your customer. And not in a “read a demographic/psychographic study” kind of way. Truly know your audience. Often, the most valuable experiences start with simple solutions to minor annoyances that cause major frustration; and they’re the types of problems you can only know by having intimate knowledge of your customers.

Avoid sample sizes of one

Perhaps as a continuation to “Know thy customer,” it is incredibly important to avoid sample sizes of one. What do we mean by this? Often, individuals work for companies that they, themselves, are believers in. They often consider themselves as a member of the target audience, and project their opinions onto the entire audience. You may convince yourself that because you would use a feature, the rest of your audience would, or that a certain message will resonate, or that they’d be willing to incur the same costs that you would. This is a mistake. Inevitably, because of your intimacy with your brand and product, you are distinctly different from your target audience. Your familiarity completely changes how you understand and interpret information. And your investment in the success of the brand means that you will take on higher costs that most others would not.

Know thy platform

In order to create an amazing experience on a platform, it is important to know the platform. Know the nuances of the platform, know how people use it, know how people misuse it to create workarounds, and know where the boundaries are. Know the context within which users will be interacting with the platform and connect the dots between other platforms to understand how they work together. When brands fail to fully understand a platform before engaging (especially when they mistakenly believe they do), we end up with things like creepy ads stalking unsuspecting customers and hashtag campaigns gone wrong.

Think about the receiver, not the messenger

Too often, when investing in a new digital experience, brands become overly invested in a message they want to send to customers. In this sense, they treat every digital experience as if it were broadcast media (per above, showing that they don’t understand their audience or the platform). When designing an experience on a digital platform, it is ok to consider the value your brand is getting out of the investment—if there’s not some ROI, you probably shouldn’t be there—but recognize that when done right, the benefits may be difficult to measure but can have a huge impact. When providing experiences, your message may ultimately not be a set of copy but an attitude or feeling. Ask yourself, what do I want people to know about us from this experience? If, for example, you want someone to know that you care, there are ways to do this. Through broadcast media, you may rely on storytelling to illustrate our caring and arouse emotion. Through experiences, the way you send the message that “we care” is through providing an experience that makes the user feel cared for; actually care for them (novel idea). If they feel cared for, you won’t need to tell them you do; they’ll know it.

Make it natural and intuitive

When new technology is still in its early adoption phase, it can be difficult to know exactly how customers will ultimately use it. (Note: How the mass market ultimately uses a technology will likely not be the way early adopters use it.) Regardless, when designing an experience for a new platform, it is incredibly important that the experience is natural to the platform and intuitive to the user. Ask yourself, is this a natural way to interact with this platform, or do I need to go out of my way to initiate the experience? Remember, while you may be willing to incur the cost of initiating an interaction, you customers probably won’t. And your experiences must be intuitive; the obvious way should be the right way to use it. Any time an experience requires users “figure it out” to engage, again, they likely won’t.

Improve an experience

There is a cost to changing from existing experience. Not only is there risk, but there is also a learning curve. As such, to be useful, new platforms and experiences must not just replicate existing experiences, they must improve them. And to offset the switching cost, it must improve them significantly. Too many experiences not only fail to improve on existing ones, but often end up making the overall process more complex for the promise of improving one small piece of the puzzle.

Be honest with yourself. Brutally honest.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, before investing in the development of a new digital experience, whether on a new platform or old, be brutally honest with yourself. Is this adding value? Is this useful? Is this giving users something they need or just improving upon something they already have? And if the latter, is it a substantial improvement? Is the experience natural to the platform and intuitive for the user? How do we want them to feel about us after engaging with this experience? Will anybody really care?

The future is coming fast. The cloud, IoT, and ubiquitous connectivity are creating a state of ambient intelligence, which is enabling a plethora of new smart devices. From smart refrigerators to smart lights and smart speakers to smart thermostats, everything around us is becoming an intelligent, connected digital-experience. And increasingly, products are becoming indistinguishable from the experiences they enable.

As ambient intelligence turns the world around us into a platform, those seeking to create on this platform must understand that they are not just building an experience on a standalone platform of the past, they are creating an experience that will live in and define the world around us. This is an amazing opportunity that comes with great responsibility: responsibility to respect people’s privacy; to honor their needs and wants, even when they conflict with business objectives; and of course, responsibility to not litter.

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About the author: Doug Gould is an award-winning emerging technology partnerships executive that spent his career championing digital innovation and entrepreneurship around the globe. Based in NY, his passion for emerging technology has brought him to Microsoft, where he builds partnerships and programs with top global digital agencies around experience innovation using Conversational AI, Mobile, Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality and Internet of Things.