What does future-proofing your business mean in a world of both abundance and scarcity?
A week or three ago, I was at WebTomorrow, an annual conference focusing on innovative technology and solutions held in Ghent, Belgium, when a thought struck me: Where exactly is the future of marketing and research heading? I guess it’s a common enough question to ask, especially at a conference like WebTomorrow, a meeting place for those at the cutting edge. But after each successive presentation, I couldn’t help but notice that we were confronted with several problems and very few answers – just an array of tantalizing cliffhangers about what could happen next.
This difficulty in foreseeing the future perfectly fits the over-arching narrative of the conference, that we are incapable of viewing the future in any other way than a simple, linear progression – ill-prepared for an exponential increase that is seemingly on the horizon.
The collective atmosphere of the conference can best be summed up by the keynote speaker of the first day at WebTomorrow, Naveen Jain, co-founder & chairman of Moon Express, who saw a future where most Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist. Such is the lack of certainty in what the future will be like, no-one felt inclined to challenge this belief, in fact, it felt as if there was an acquiesce among the crowd that this was as likely a future as anything else anyone was selling. No-one could really be certain about anything anymore.
Unlike other conferences, it didn’t feel like there were too many concrete solutions, just challenges that everyone will face, that will eventually weed out those not ready, even those in the Fortune 500. It is these obstacles that must be negotiated before any chance of prosperity makes itself available and the biggest three that were highlighted during the conference were:
Understanding the customer you don’t know
Understanding your consumer as a brand has always been something of a struggle, but perhaps never this hard – particularly in Europe. At the conference, we were treated to several presentations that posed the question: how do you better understand the customer you don’t know or who isn’t interested in consciously giving you their thoughts/data via market research or by registering with your company and getting a loyalty card?
With so much of research – in all walks of life, not just market research – relying on a steady supply of willing participants, we are only getting a small fraction of the population’s thoughts via traditional market research methods. These insights are valid and can be helpful, but they are not complete, only representative. They objectively ignore the other 95% of the world out there who also consume the same product, who like the same service and whose dollar feels and weighs the exact same as the customer who willingly gives you a piece of their mind.
In a thinly balanced situation, which will have a greater reliance upon data that consumers are freely uploading themselves, the use of social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter is becoming more crucial. For instance, a thought-provoking presentation by Jeremy Waite of IBM used the twitter feed of @WebTomorrow to allow us to understand the mood of the room, listing various emotions and ranking them in terms of relevance.
This was done in a matter of seconds and allowed a machine to gauge a group of people, not just an individual. There were no conscious interviews and there was only a very superficial form of engagement, but it allowed Watson to come up with some preliminary findings that those who took part had no initial idea of being a part of. For those of you who are curious what this looks like, you can find the YouTube video here:
The ocean of data is already here: how to dive in & not drown
The economy of data is of course as always, near the top of the list of challenges that companies face. In an astute observation that draws parallels between the mass of data and the cosmos, we no longer just have dark matter or even the dark net – but dark data and dark social to add to the list of things we don’t understand.
In the purest sense, dark data/social is data that is hidden at the bottom of the ocean. It is unstructured, hidden in many instances, kind of difficult to conceive and crucially, it’s expensive to understand. Like dark matter, which makes up 95% of mass-energy in the universe, estimates claim that 90% of all data is dark. Not used, not analyzed and sometimes, not even apparent. But seemingly, it’s the next goldmine of insights.
It was clear at WebTomorrow that businesses are looking to future-proof insights and data via a whole array of new and innovative methods. Again, IBM’s Watson gave a demonstration of how it can utilize vast archives of information in a way that increased efficiency to the point where, an operation such as understanding why an email campaign failed and how to improve it, took mere seconds for Watson.
It looks like data is here to stay and the next crop of Unicorns to come through will be looking to help companies submerge themselves in this data and come out the other side informed. It is unsurprising that companies like Stripe are launching Stripe Sigma to help internet businesses understand the baffling amount of data they accumulate through purchases on their websites, to give them concrete answers to questions that would have taken a long time to conduct with a traditional research team, such as: Which products are most popular in February? In a world of abundance, what would have once been a simple question now seems impossible to answer and there is a clear need for companies to get to the bottom of the ocean to understand better how to act.
Matching critical skills of employees with demands
One of the things that those present at WebTomorrow received was a lot of career advice. In several presentations, the shortage of capable programmers and developers was highlighted. So, if you can surmount the first two challenges theoretically, it doesn’t preclude that you can do this in reality, as your grand design might lack the relevant workforce to see it come to fruition.
Of all of three problems, it’s interesting that they all fall on the supply side. There are certainly no issues regarding the desire for data, for new ideas and for new skilled employees, but there is a desperate lack of solutions and workers. We live somewhat in a paradox at the moment, where we have an abundance of input – be it data or new ideas – but very few clear solutions.
It is useless to try and predict what new solutions will come out, which brands will be winners and which will be losers, but it’s safe to say that there is no monopoly on the future. There is a ripe ecosystem out there, trying to create sustainable solutions and it’ll be interesting to see how much more of the puzzle we understand in the coming months.