2012: just where is digital going?

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I guess the most interesting thing about 2012 is the inherent uncertainty of it all. We are standing on the edge looking into a chasm of bad economic signs. We have a muscular media and telecoms sector basically declaring war on the web from the UK’s Digital Economy Act, changing ‘unlimited’ broadband tariffs and a government policy that is at odds with the state of the UK broadband network.

This is not the age of reason, this is the age of flummery, and the day of the devious approach. Reason’s gone into the backrooms where it works to devise means by which people can be induced to emote in the desired direction.” John Wyndham originally wrote that line in his novel Trouble with Lichen: but it is a pretty accurate description of things as they stand.

But the telecoms providers themselves face challenges; the UK government lost a lot of the knowledge it had around the economics of wireless networks soon after the Conservative-Liberal alliance won power and are now trying to foist an unworkable fourth generation bidding process on carriers AND trying to fix the broadband network. Out of all this mess I think that we’ll innovation borne of adversity.

In many respects the start-up scene is emblematic of the kind of structural change that needs to happen to sort the big problems that western societies face. Historically there has been investments going in all the wrong places, partly because there are too many ‘entrepreneurs’ or what previous generations would have called spivs and not enough people with solid ideas. This has meant that there is oversupply of start-ups in areas such as social networks, micro-currencies and coupons, if you don’t believe me watch the footage of David Cameron meeting and greeting trustafarians start-up founders at Techno City or whatever the government is calling the great white hope of the British economy this week.

The vast majority of these ideas will bomb – I expect to see more interesting start-up ideas to spring up in the next few years from redundant technical people rather than wannabe entrepreneurs who previously employed them. If there is going to be a disruption in social, it will come from teams like this (maybe not in the UK, but that’s another debate entirely).

The cost of creating a start-up won’t drop massively like it did post the dot com boom mainly because infrastructure can be already bought cheaply via Amazon etc and eBay won’t be flooded with Sun servers and Cisco routers.

What about Facebook? The social network is a bag of contradictions: spectacularly successful, yet many of its users are ambivalent about it or are grudgingly on it because they have to be. Facebook pages and apps from status takeovers to F-commerce have become the 21st century version of the 90 second TV spot – something that every agency marketer pitches to a client, whether or not they are needed. Given that the average punter rarely meaningfully engages with more than two brands on Facebook, above-the-line is going to be more important – agencies will need to adopt smart campaign management tools to get most of Facebook as I expect there will be substantial inventory price inflation. I expect the arbitrage opportunity between Google Adwords and Facebook to be so narrow as to be meaningless; however the big bargain will be Facebook’s mobile inventory – if it can be mapped to context (location, weather, time of day, proximity of friends etc). Also expect companies to try and use timelines as new banner ads through apps a la Mtn Dew and Volkswagen. One question I would add is how does the context of your brand be affected by pictures of drunk Facebookers next to it – according to Mashable up to three quarters of UK survey respondents had pictures of them intoxicated in their photos. Could we see a Portman Group-related inappropriate drink advertising issue in 2012?

The second more interesting story around Facebook is likely to be around engagement. I expect engagement with the platform to drop in developed markets – frictionless sharing, privacy issues and Timeline making people feel more antsy. You won’t see a departure of users en mass, but you are likely to see a drop in time and reduction in Facebook specific user generated content creation.

One of the most surprising things for me this year was that Foursquare hasn’t been crushed like a bug, as it became increasingly apparent its functionality could easily become a feature of Facebook or as part of the mobile applications of coupon companies. The context information that Foursquare gains from its users would be invaluable for targeting offers. Consumers may be happy to allow the world see them intoxicated on their Facebook page, but they are more reluctant to register their location at a particular time. Foursquare do manage to get a surprisingly large amount of people to give that data up, I suspect because they don’t hold all that other stuff that Facebook does.  As for the coupon business – I think that there will still be a consumer demand there, I have no idea how the dynamics of the business will work out.

One of my friends went from working for a PR agency in a mid-level role to being GroupOn’s first person in Shanghai and then hiring a team of 50 as the company built out its footprint. That kind of dynamic in a business is exhilarating, amazing and unpredictable as its about big short-term bets. So who knows what shape the coupon business will be in by the end of the year. At the time of writing the South China Morning Post group in Hong Kong bought out a group-buying platform as they saw it as a natural extension to their newspaper business – they already have a sales team, so the room for pure-play operators in this market maybe limited if traditional media players get their game face on.

Over the past year Twitter has been a source of confusion for me. Whilst I still find it to be a valuable service its becoming increasingly noisy and there are a number of things to be concerned about. The management changes haven’t yielded spectacular results, but the company continues to get substantive investments from smart investors. More worrying is the Twitter product road-map. The site and applications have had redesigns that don’t improve the user experience and has innovations after Chinese micro-blogging service Sina Weibo making Twitter look more like Yahoo! than Facebook. I thought 2011 was when Twitter was going to kick into overdrive, but it is obvious that something has gone wrong in terms of product management. I wouldn’t write Twitter off, but 2012 should be about getting its mojo back before its user base move on.

The Guardian’s move away from Delicious to Pinboard.in was an interesting shift from a social bookmarking perspective. Although social bookmarking isn’t a mainstream product, it is unusually influential as it usually used by content creators and tends to have a good quality community of users.  A number of people including myself moved away from Delicious when Yahoo! ‘sunset-ed’ the service. Since it’s sale Delicious has morphed into something very different and those that remained behind are now looking to move on. For Pinboard.in this is a bonus as one of the main things it currently lacks is a cohesive community in the way that Delicious had – whilst Pinboard likes to bill itself as Social Bookmarking for Introverts this doesn’t mean that it is anti-social by design.

Interest in Pinboard has also refocused thinking about services that consumers are prepared to pay for and what those models should look like. I joined Pinboard and paid out under five dollars to be on the site, the fee goes up as more join and is currently at $9.57. Flickr offers a freemium service – which is why it was breaking even before Yahoo! acquired it, but other services don’t have a clear cut business model as advertising will only get you so far. But as media properties before them have found out, it is hard to try getting consumers to pay for a service once they have had it free. And to be honest with you many of the services out there aren’t worth paying for.

Both search and mobile are likely to have their pace set by the tempo of the legal and regulatory environment rather than consumers moves. Yahoo!’s former search business is being beaten hollow by Microsoft – which was pretty much to be expected. But that still doesn’t mean that Bing is going to be a worthy Google challenger mainly because it lacks the technical prowess and infrastructural muscle. In addition, Microsoft AdCenter still doesn’t maximise advertising revenue particularly well.

Where Google is vulnerable is from a swathe of regulatory assaults where the search engine is assumed to profit from piracy, counterfeit drug sales and lord only knows what else. Added to this is the slow drip poison of Microsoft’s lobbying dollars about Google’s monopoly. You take lobbyists cash and politicians who understand more about their future career working for lobbying firms in the private sector than they do about the internet and you have a very potent mix.

Mobile is equally unclear as the tangled web of patents could completely change the face of the mobile device market giving a second wind to businesses that are currently facing severe market challenges like Research In Motion and Nokia. As we go into the holiday season Samsung is doing a respectable job with Android based phones and Apple now has a handset for the high, medium and low ends of the smartphone market by keeping the 3GS as a basic handset, the 4 as a mid-range and the 4S as the top of the range device. I suspect that one of the problems that Apple may have is a lack of compelling reason to go to the high-end device in many markets. I’ve been used to voice control since the Ericsson T39 so am not as wowed as other people have been by Siri, secondly it doesn’t work in many languages like Chinese for instance.

Meanwhile on the inside line, Chinese phone makers like ZTE and Huawei are creating deceptively good handsets that are winning market share and Xiaomi’s phones running  MIUI are shifting units in China. Less than a week ago 100,000 units sold out in minutes to Chinese consumers.

MIUI is interesting because it is a complete overhaul of the Android operating system to provide a superior user experience. It shows Nokia what could have been possible if it went the Android route rather than the Windows phone route. It also shows another problem that mobile handset manufacturers have; that of differentiation – why would you buy a Motorola handset over a similar spec’ed Sony Ericsson or HTC? Probably price, which a dangerous place to be as countless PC manufacturers found in the mid-to-late 1990s when Microsoft and Intel dictated pretty much the totality of their products.

Carriers rewriting contracts by redefining what unlimited data packages actually mean and the likelihood that they will charge services some sort of carriage charge or differentiated service is going to mean that mobile applications are going to be designed with frugal uses of network resources in mind. It is also likely to have an adverse effect on the HTML5 as mobile web application future that most developers aspire to.

In addition, whilst smartphones are increasingly becoming stuffed with a plethora of sensors and electronics, they aren’t doing the core phone functions that well and the useable battery life continues to deteriorate. I think that the new service which focus on reinventing the core functionality of a cell phone including new versions of messaging like Kakao Talk and Jaxtr SMS, together with voicemail service Talkbox are likely to be new growth areas in mobile. Bret Victor’s recent essay on ‘pictures under glass’ as a broken user experience metaphor highlights the need for haptic feedback on touch devices, but it is unlikely to change in the next 12 months.

What about the techno fads of the past couple of years?

  • QR codes – in same way that mobile has been seen to be constantly on the verge of going off big time for marketing QR codes have been similarly on the verge of success. Marketers have been implementing QR codes with varying degrees of success, but there is still consumer confusion over what a QR code is and how they should be used. So mainstream adoption is likely to be a while off. It is interesting that some media brands have continued to experiment with Microsoft’s TAG – though despite aesthetic appeal due to their similarity to dazzle-ship patterns, I can’t see it going anywhere
  • Digital out-of-home – is here to stay, however 2012 is likely to bring an increased focus on measurement and targeting as offline and online data can be merged via smart CRM providers. Facial recognition is already being experimented with on in-store advertising to gauge emotion and gender so expect an uneasy Minority Report-type experience soon

2011 saw the very core of the internet’s security compromised by Iranian government hackers who managed fake the trust certificates that affect encrypted connections that ensure privacy and protect payment transactions. A re-imagining of security on the internet is one of the most important challenges that need to be addressed in 2012.