The era of change: marketing in a digital world

The era of change: marketing in a digital world

Society is on the brink of transformation, driven by ever-increasing access to digital – but what does this mean for marketing? Consider the fate of the prehistoric hunter-gatherer.

The theme of this year’s CIM Digital Summit was the shift from ‘digital marketing’ to ‘marketing in a digital world’. This change in the industry reflects a tremendous shift occurring right across the world, one that would have been unthinkable only ten or fifteen years ago. But then, we live in an era that is defined by change, where the unthinkable can become commonplace almost overnight.

Homo sapiens have existed for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only goes back to 4,000BC; the ancient artefacts from Greece or Babylon that can be viewed in the British Museum, venue for this year’s Summit, are all comparatively recent. Our own era of biotechnology, satellites, the internet – for argument’s sake, the last 100 years – is only 0.05 per cent of the total time we have spent on Earth.

For the great sweep of human history, life remained much the same. People lived in small communities of hunter-gatherers, using nothing more advanced than hand-axes made from flint. Even the discovery of agriculture, writing and the wheel didn’t speed things up much – people in 1000BC led lives that would be almost entirely familiar to their distant ancestors from a millennium earlier.

Only in the last two or three hundred years has innovation exploded – and the pace of change is getting faster. The United States Patent and Trademark Office lists 615,243 patent applications for 2014 alone. Today, somebody living the life of a person from even 20 years ago is considered hopelessly out of touch.

Marketing is no exception to this accelerating trend. So fast is the pace of change that the era of ‘digital marketing’ is coming to an end before many marketers have truly engaged with it. Now, they have to adapt to a changing environment where digital is increasingly woven into the fabric of everyday life.

So what is changing? For a start, the sheer number of people using digital devices. From just 361 million people in the year 2000, almost half of the world’s 7-billion-strong population will be on the internet by the end of this year, and by 2017 half of the people connected will have made a purchase online.

Around a quarter of people – 1.9 billion globally – now have a smartphone. That means more customers, and more people that can be reached using online and mobile marketing methods.

The demographics of the online population are also changing, because the digital ‘world’ means just that; already, the majority of internet users are in developing countries. Mobile, in particular, is opening up new markets outside the West.

The kind of content people choose to access is changing too. By 2019, 80 per cent of internet traffic will consist of video, according to Cisco. Marketers will be putting more investment into that particular area – but not to the exclusion of all else, because omnichannel campaigns are increasingly effective.

A Forrester study from last year, called Consumer Desires Vs. Retailer Capabilities: Minding the Omni-Channel Commerce Gap, showed the complex ways in which consumers in mature markets are using a combination of online and offline methods to shop.

And all of this doesn’t even take account of the changes that are still to come. The Internet of Things (IoT) already includes 4.9 billion devices, and this is expected to reach a staggering 25 billion by the end of the decade.

Virtual reality is about to get a big boost, with the consumer version of Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus headset launching over the next few months. Meanwhile, drone technology hovers on.

These developments mean marketing technologists have more ways to collect consumer data than ever, and will need more advanced methods to sort and analyse that data. Those with the courage to undertake a digital transformation journey will also be able to respond with innovative campaigns that cross traditional boundaries, while those that stay within the old lines will be at a significant disadvantage.

Those that don’t adapt to these changes face a difficult future. Today, nobody lives like a hunter-gatherer. A way of life that endured for most of human history, that survived ice ages, could not survive technological and societal progress; hunter-gatherers were replaced by more successful agriculturalists.

Digital marketing approaches will still work – but competitors that have learned to market in the new digital world will outcompete those that depend upon such methods, and they won’t survive.

Thomas Brown CIM Former Director, Strategy and Marketing
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