Digital – A Coming of Age

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Within any generation there is always someone who is a link between the old order of things and the new.

We’ve just commemorated 100 years since the First World War started, and for me it feels remote, but real.  I didn’t know anyone who served, but my grandparents did who I knew, so I feel a connection.  With the Second World War, things are different.  When I was 10, I remember celebrating at school 40 years since the end of the war.  At 10 that seemed a long way past, but my grandparents served in it and could bring it to life with stories and artefacts.  For my kids though, all of this is a fading memory – stories we tell, but it may as well be like the Battle of Waterloo.

This connection between the old order and the new is explored in a book I’m currently reading called The End of Absence by Michael Harris.  In it, he discusses the time we’re in now and how anyone born after 1985 is essentially a digital native – someone who has never experienced a world without the internet; a world without always on connectivity.  For us others – those born before this time – we’re essentially digital immigrants.  Describing this group, Harris says:-



“For those of us who have lived both with and without the vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After […] there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations find hardest to grasp.  That is the end of absence – the loss of lack.  The day dreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.”

This is thought provoking stuff.  Realising that my kids (and a lot of those I now work with), just simply think differently.  They’ve never experienced a time when there was genuinely nothing there.  No kids telly on, nothing on demand, no chat, no connectedness.  When I tell my son to get off his computer, I turn around to see him on his phone.  Kick him off his phone and he’s flicked the telly on.  It takes real effort to switch everything off so he’ll actually consider walking out the door to call for friends… and then they sit around their house playing Xbox.  I tried.

So this got me thinking about the implication of this within the working environment.

For many of us, we work in companies established pre-1985 or staffed with management from before this time.  We have computers, tablets and smartphones; intranets, instant messaging and email.  We even have social networks for staff, with “friends” and wall posts and “status updates”. We’re thoroughly modern and fill every piece of time, every empty space within some activity.  Responding to a ping on the phone, an email arrived – we sit in meetings only half listening as we type on our laptops and then check our phones.  This is a state Harris references and one that writer Linda Stone referred to back in 1998 as “continuous partial attention”.

Yet despite this, we’re not as modern as we like to think.  

Many companies still have a Digital department of some kind or a Head of Digital role – as if all things digital is somehow separate to what we do.  It’s as if we’re in both the Before and the After – one part of the company in the pre-1985, pre-digital age and the other ring-fenced in the digital age.  This does some ludicrous and you can’t imagine a company such as Facebook or Google having a Head of Digital role – they are simply digital companies (although strangely they do).  The point is, the world has changed, people have changed, but the way we do business seems to still be a mismatch of old and new.

This point was brought to life in an article I was reading about airlines entitled Passengers Become Data Mines as Ryanair to Emirates Hone Offers.  In it, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is quoted as saying:-

“I used to say that my ideal customer had a pulse and a credit card, but I’ve revised that view radically. […] In the next five years, with each of my 90 million customers, I’ll know when you’re traveling, where you’re traveling, and I can send you a direct offer.”

This shocked me.  

We’re in 2014, this is a relatively new airline (setup in the 1980’s) and yet it seemed a surprise to them that there may be value in the data they hold and process for 90m customers.  This is though also understandable because companies still aren’t digital natives – they still have their digital marketing and data analysis functions somehow separate to their older, more established traditional sales and marketing functions.  They’re an add on or an extension rather just being one single company.

If we go back to Marketing 101 and the 4Ps of the marketing mix we have Product, Place, Price and Promotion – this was something created in the 1960s by marketer Edmund Jerome McCarthy – a set of marketing tools based on the age but which is still taught today.  



A company like Ryanair has really focused on these 4P’s – it’s “Price” has been refined by pairing back its “Product”.  By choosing carefully the airports it uses to get the best rate for a given destination even if it’s not quite the best airport in terms of distance, it has truly honed “Place”.  Promotion you could argue has been a mixed affair, but there probably isn’t a person alive in the UK who doesn’t know the airline, it’s CEO and the kind of message he had long stood for (such as removing toilets from planes).

But within this 4Ps mix, there is nothing about the customer.  It’s the old world order of making a product people want, at a price they are willing to pay – and then shouting about it loudly in the right places.  It’s all push.

Take a look at the new world however through a different lens.

Freemium models support many of the latests products/services, with apps (and some products) giving away their product in the knowledge that they can monetise customers either through targeted advertising or in-app purchases – and this is where data comes into play as a key part of the marketing mix.  Even airlines have a form of this with their ancillary services – the basic service is paired right back and then customers are encouraged to top this up with ancillary services as they need – a kind of pick and mix of products.  This is all pull.  

Speaking of this, CEO O’Leary is quoted as saying:-

“Ryanair’s data will let the carrier know how often travelers head to particular destinations, whether they travel alone or as a couple or group, if they routinely book insurance or car rental, and be able to customize its offers accordingly and target the passengers with special offers […] We know who you are [and] the clever airlines are going to make a fortune in the next 10 years”

This thing which will make a fortune is the missing piece – it’s the digital native addition to the marketing mix.  It’s the bit about the customer, about what they do and about what they want.  

It’s personalisation and it is truly the 5th “P” of the marketing mix.  I’m not the first to point this out, but it really is the difference between the Before and the After.  The increased connectivity and the computing power, scale and flexibility this has afforded, as well as the increased expectation of a customer base in “continuous partial attention” mode means that personalisation is critical to success.

As we transition from companies and people born of this pre-digital age to the next generation of digital natives, there will be change, there will be new ways of doing things.  We cannot stop it but for many of us, and for many of the companies we work for, we’ve yet to embrace it.  In the book End of Absence, Harris says of this:-



“Technology is neither good nor evil.  The most we can say about it is this: It has come. […] We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.  How shall we live now?  How will you?”

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