When observing the explosive growth of the mobile Internet, the ubiquitous availability of ever more powerful digital devices as well as the global boom in social networking, it becomes patently clear that there is a common economic force behind these trends, and that force is data.
In this hyper-networked society, everyone seems to want to know what we think, all the time, what we like, where we are and who we are connected to. Data (and metadata, i.e. data about data) is quickly becoming a primary force in our digital society, and since successful advertising is forever based on having good data on who is on the other end, the consumer is becoming more powerful than ever before – if he/she opts out of providing data it’s game-over. Never before did consumers wield this much power over marketers; never before could we trade our data for free goods and services in this way (eg Gmail, Skype, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook). The quest for data has made us powerful but it has made us dependent on its benefits as well. The Faustian bargain is in full swing.
Some pundits even argue that the only reason advertising in its ‘traditional’ form (a global business worth approx. $550 billion per year) ever existed was simply because we were not yet truly connected, and had no real way to ignore it. Interruption was the game, and the loudest yelling was the best way to sell. Now, with digital technologies in the hand of billions of consumers, we are indeed ignoring what we have no use for, and from our media we expect a lot more than meaningless noise and interruptions. If we provide our cherished data we will expect perfect matches, i.e. a sprinkler system of truly good stuff not a fire-hose of noise.
Because we can now wield data as our currency, we will no longer tolerate interruptions, meaningless pitches, disruptive pop-ups or junk email. Very soon we will be open only for truly personalized offers, real meaning, solid relevance, timeliness, word-of-mouth, and yes, real transparency and truthfulness. It’s all about merit and values that are geared 100% towards us, not to everybody else, or someone else. Our data has become our weapon, and we will barter hard with it. Trillions of dollars of marketing, advertising and public relations budgets are at stake.
Clearly, going forward, if brands and their marketers, the media, and the ads and messages we see do not provide real value we will quickly lock them out of our lives. Useful, data-rich and properly permitted advertising is indeed becoming content itself, and the-people-formerly-known-as-consumers are getting better and better at creating meta-content as well. The power has shifted from the middle to the edges ie to the users, and to the creators (and this is, by the ay, why we have so much upheaval in the content business).
Of course, the key question for marketers still is the same but has just become much more Darwinian: how can you cut the noise, how can you be relevant, be truly wanted (and possibly even loved, like Apple), make a better match, and benefit from meaningful connections? How can you turn the intent of selling into content, into engagement, into mutual appreciation? Is that even possible in the age of digital empowerment? Yelling is dead, and engagement needs permission – a tough but extremely rewarding challenge.
This is where we must consider the enormous value of data, and what it will mean to this new playing field.
Data is now generated at an exponential rate, every day, by billions of users forwarding a link, rating a site, commenting on a blog, tweeting, sharing bookmarks, allowing cookies on their devices, sharing their location, logging into websites, liking something on Facebook. Everywhere we go, everything we do, every move we make around the Net (and soon, elsewhere, as well) creates click-trails, leaves digital breadcrumbs, produces data exhaust, and creates what I like to call meta-content, ie content around content.
In our immediate future are faster mobile Internet access at a much lower cost and much cheaper, yet more powerful and smart, mobile devices, connected devices that are not phones or computers but things, objects and products; computing shifting from tethered computers and mouse clicking to tablets, touch-screens and finger-sweeping; and from downloading to cloud-tapping, which without a doubt will generate seriously more data than ever before, and at an increasing faster rate.
The mind boggles (or, as some would say, it recoils) over the possibilities as well as the challenges. data is the new oil and just like we fought over oil we will fight over data – however these fights will be visible to everyone, and will be fought in public.
Whoever gets to sift through this data, slice and dice it, move it around, make it useful, define its legal and fair use, and somehow make sense of it all, is probably going to be more powerful than Big Oil has ever been. Google, Facebook and yes, Twitter, come to mind immediately.
Something that we must certainly come to grips with is that privacy will almost certainly become something that we must act on to get back, rather than something we attain or retain by mere default. In a way, as Jeff Jarvis likes to put it 'Publicy' is now the default, and privacy is merely an option (and an action item!). Scary thought or huge opportunity? Either way, those powerful new tools of sharing and self-publishing will require that we learn to realize, accept and handle new responsibilities, as well – now that all of us can easily and constantly connect, we also need to learn new limits, new do's and don'ts – and the purveyors of this new power need to help us rather than merely seduce us.
The data that all of us are increasingly generating and constantly spreading as most of us are switching to an always-on mode, will be at the core of all future success in marketing, branding and advertising – and for that alone it's roughly worth $1 trillion already (counting advertising spend, marketing and communication budgets, data- mining etc).
If the future TV does not know who we are, where we are, what we have watched, for how long, who we have shared shows with, what we have commented on, how we rate things, then the marketers' job will become a lot harder, if not impossible. Matches can't be made, relationships can't be forced, brands can't be followed, connections are interrupted.
Getting too little or bad data – or not understanding it – will literally mean running out of gas in the middle of the desert. Therefore, the mission is to keep it all fuelled up. And just like oil, there will be a myriad of issues (hopefully, not wars) that will arise with the responsible and fair practices of drilling, pumping, shipping, refining and dispensing of data. But without a doubt these issues will be solved in due course because this Data-Oil is very potent and because the responsible use of it will light up so many households that a sufficient incentive for problem-solving exists. Telecom companies and mobile operators will want in on this game, as well – afterall, it's their networks that make this all work (for now).
My prediction is that we will see a huge influx of companies dealing with the various aspects of data drilling, shipping, refining and remixing, and that the next Exxon or Mobil may well be a data-slicing company. Hopefully, they will be more ecology minded and sustainable, though. Agencies, marketers and brands need to embrace the challenges and stake out their roles in this new Data-Oil ecosystem.
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