The story behind the trends
To understand the communication challenges and trends we experience in today's society it helps to take a step back and look at the three social shifts which have shaped our socio-digital landscape.
The digital revolution
The internet gives us instant accessibility to near infinite pools of data. A report published by The University of California in 2009 found that "the average American on an average day, consumes 34 gigabytes and 100,000 words of information" [Roger Bohn, 2009]. This goes some way to explaining why brands struggle to be seen and heard.
For a while, businesses tried shouting longer and louder, without appreciating that the shift in expectations required a more sophisticated approach. The predominant challenge ever since has been to strike a chord with individuals quickly and in a meaningful way.
Who does it well?
In 2009, Simon Sinek spoke at a TEDx conference and explained that successful brands start with ‘why’ before they explain ‘what’ they do, and 'how'.
Unfortunately the temptation to communicate from “the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing” leads to ineffectual marketing. Sinek explains that this is a consequence of how our brains work. Messages that speak purely to the neocortex – the rational, analytical brain - will fail to resonate on an emotional level. The limbic brain, however, is responsible for feelings and decision making; 'gut reactions' and decisions that 'feel right'.
That's why Apple's message is not 'we build computers' but more like 'we believe in thinking differently'. Their message speaks directly to the limbic brain by starting with 'why'.
Meanwhile social media enables people to share information easily with new and existing contacts, but it has also changed our expectations. Now we expect our online encounters to be immediate, interactive and personal.
It is against this socio-digital backdrop that the current economic crisis and a number of political scandals unfolded.
The past decade of rapid technological development has fallen against a contrasting backdrop of social and political upheaval. The global financial crisis instilled a widespread public mistrust of banks. And in the UK scandals from MP’s expenses to the hacking inquiry created the same sense of unease around government and the media.
In response came a mass outpouring of anger and disillusionment. At one end of the scale there were student riots and the Occupy movement, at the other information-sharing and emotive rants on Twitter and Facebook. It could be argued that the period from 2008 to 2012 was a tipping point where people everywhere began to demand authenticity.
For a society tired of dishonesty, corruption and profiteering, the immediacy of social media offers an opportunity for direct involvement in a dialogue about shared concerns, needs and aspirations.
The rise of the image
Well before the digital revolution, arguably the most important shift had already begun with the growing use of pictorial representation. 150 years of photography and a century of commercially-available television, coupled with a steady rise in print advertising, all contributed to the predominance of visual communications.
Today, the immense popularity of image-sharing software with elements of interactive creativity, such as smartphone apps Instagram and Draw Something, indicates an important link between the visual and our sense of meaningful engagement.
In combination, these three movements contribute to the socio-digital landscape we have today. The result is the emergence of five urgent questions:
HOW can my organisation...
- Make an impact
- Engage its audience
- Encourage interaction
- Create meaningful experiences
- Build relationships
... in an environment dominated by digital communications?