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The Future is Exciting (and a Little Bit Scary): Reflections on the 2017 Midwest Digital Marketing Conference


Last month at the Midwest Digital Marketing Conference I heard from industry experts about “The Rise of the Digital Native,” aka Millennials, and their evolving relationship with data. I attended seminars touting the importance of writing thank you notes to LinkedIn connections, was warned that human-driven cars will soon be illegal, and discovered that Pinterest is introducing a real-world image search function, so I’ll never have to approach the woman in front of me at Starbucks to ask where she got her cute shoes.

The best session was an introduction to the future, courtesy of Microsoft’s James Whitaker. His thesis was that by looking at innovations of the past few decades, and the gaps in our existing technology, we can determine where technology will go next. The 80s were the era of the mainframe computer, 90s gave rise to home computers, 00s spread the internet, 10s proliferated smart phones and other mobile screened devices, and the 20s will be the decade of screenless (think Alexa or Tesla) computers that communicate with one another and anticipate our needs.

Instead of telling our friends that we are going on a trip to Boston and requesting concert recommendations, we will have bots that notice we’ve booked a flight or hotel and automatically search for, and tweet at every music venue in the area. They will then receive and sort through replies from other bots that manage each venue’s account. Over time, our bots will learn our music preferences and bring to our attention only the genres or bands we like most. In fact, Whitaker already programmed this functionality into his own account.

In the near future, we won’t tap open an app and press a start button when we want our phone to start tracking a workout; our phones and watches are already smart enough to know via GPS, heart rate monitor and accelerometer where we are, how fast we’re going, and interpret with accuracy what activity we might be engaged in. We are holding back the full potential of our devices because we are wary of big data and being monitored, but Whitaker is confident that this is the disruption of the upcoming decade.

Self-driving cars are everywhere; Boston Dynamics has created a robot that is impossible to tip over; JP Morgan has a computer program that processed 360,000 hours of financial work in mere seconds; and in the United Kingdom the world’s first robot lawyer has free time after overturning 160,000+ parking tickets, so it is now dedicating itself to assisting refugees. It’s almost 2020, and the next big shift is already starting. The era of tapping a screen to make apps collect information for us is almost over.

While we’re waiting for AI to fully anticipate our needs, and take all our jobs, I heard from a few experts about how to improve content on their platforms right now. Speakers from Facebook and Twitter gave tips on how to re-arrange traditional advertising to boost viewer engagement. For most viewers on social media, sound will be off on videos – meaning that if dialog is essential to your message, you had better include subtitles. Videos on these platforms are often scrolled away from after the first few seconds. So, don’t hide your big celebrity cameo or your brand logo at second 20 or later. Instead of following the traditional storyline arc of a TV commercial, bring the excitement and brand messaging to the front, then let the story unfold from there for viewers who stick around.

In my final session of the conference, Google’s Zachary Kahn spoke to the value of tracking data for brands. Sure, getting a Facebook ad for the boots I’ve been eyeing on Zappos feels “creepy,” but it’s more enjoyable than being bombarded by commercials for ailments I don’t suffer from – remember the opioid induced constipation commercial that was everywhere during March Madness this year? Marketing has always been a combination of creative (design and copy) and media (ad placement), but with the pervasiveness of the internet and trackers in our daily lives, we now have a third variable: data. The chance for brands to target interested parties and not waste money on views or clicks outside their intended audience is easier than ever.

The question is, will we as consumers accept the influx of cookies, cameras and sensors that deliver tailor-made ads to our inboxes, browsers and subconscious? Will we embrace the Internet of Things that simplify our lives by taking care of routine (and complex) tasks? Or will we take steps to limit the depths to which our preferences can be monitored and harnessed? Is it too late?

I left the conference with an overwhelming feeling of excitement as a marketer, and an underlying twinge of fear as a consumer. For tech-savvy businesses and consumers, this is an exciting time – for the tech illiterate, those who are older or slower to adopt new technology, or those who are averse to having their private information made public for any number of reasons, the mood is dourer. Having just read Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and after attending the Midwest Digital Media Conference, I am cautiously optimistic about the rise of the digital native.

Elaine Parmelee