Much will be written about 2016―a year where expectations were relentlessly upended: Expectations that ageless icons could never leave us. Expectations that leaders must look, sound, and act a certain way. Expectations that protocol, tradition, and policy could not be radically reshaped. Amid a maelstrom of change, there are some emerging themes. I recently had the pleasure of discussing these and more with Microsoft’s Geoffrey Colon on his podcast “DisruptiveFM,” and I've captured some of our key discussion points and my expanded predictions below.
“Greed is good” became synonymous with the 80s and early 90s—an era that glorified finance, gleaming MBAs, and business consulting. Defined by global business, mergers and acquisitions, hostile takeovers, and soaring stock prices, the “MBA Era” spoke the language of big business.
“Digital is good” could just as easily have typified the late 90s and early 2000s. As the Internet swallowed the world, the Age of the MBA gave way to the Age of Engineers, where the language of optimization, efficiency, automation, and analytics predominated.
In 2017, we will be entering a new era—the Age of the Humanist, where “real is good.” A reaction to our cultural and technical obsession with digital solutions to all problems, the focus will shift to creating human experiences. Empathy, rationality, and critical thinking will be the skills to cultivate. And interaction design, analog formats, and the reconnection to all things tangible over digital will predominate. This shift is especially illustrated in the number of new media companies (Epicurious, Buzzfeed, Snapchat) that are now unveiling products as extensions of their brands. There will also be an increasing growth in (what I'm dubbing) “digilog” the blending of new technology into old formats to render them more appealing and accessible.
It is no secret that there are extraordinary new challenges facing executive leaders in 2016. From geopolitics and regional instability, to the increasingly scrutinized impact of offshoring and automation on domestic labor, from cyber-security threats and pervasive device vulnerabilities, to changing notions of brand value, shareholder value, and the value of customer experiences, there is no shortage of demands on chief executives.
And then, of course, there was the presidential election.
With a new chief executive of the United States, and former CEOs of billion-dollar organizations soon to hold a number of prominent political offices, business and politics have never seemed more intertwined. What’s more, the president-elect is engaging directly with business and technology executives to negotiate, chastise, strong-arm, and partner.
In such a context, the playbook for executive leadership is being rewritten. And the playbook’s rules are focused on the following:
The Turing Test—where a machine’s interactions enable it to pass as a human—is an increasingly popular reference in a world where artificial intelligence is becoming pervasive. Natural language AI that is responsive to text and voice is everywhere from household objects (Amazon’s Echo), to our mobile devices (Siri), to our social feeds (ChatBots). Even ad agencies are beginning to invest in Chatbot technology as a way to easily scale personalized, human interactions with brands.
And interactions matter. As customers become more sensitive to the experience they receive from a brand—from the purchase experience to the product experience to the service and loyalty experience—every touchpoint needs to feel designed for the human on the other end of it. The cold efficiencies bred by digital technology are revealing their flaws, unable to deliver in moments where kindness, responsiveness, understanding, and communication are critical. And the ease (and thoughtlessness) with which digital marketing is often deployed has led to a desensitization to the message in favor of tangible channels like direct mail, phone conversations, and in-store experience.
The question brand marketers should be asking themselves in 2017 is: Does my brand pass the Turing Test? To assess whether the critical interactions with your customers deliver an experience that feels human, apply the following lenses:
It is fitting that Janus, the Roman god for beginnings, gateways, and transition—and for which January is named—is two-faced in depiction. The duality of Janus reveals an internal conflict—happiness and sadness, pro and con, benefit and loss—inherent when making a big change. One steps forward while also leaving something else behind.
So January seems the perfect time to reset our thinking about technology, full of promise and limitation, capable of great good and capable of great destruction, helping and harming humanity all at once.
2016 revealed the negative impact of technology on our politics (cyber hacking working to delegitimize our institutions), our economy (automation destroying labor), on our societies (allowing pernicious subcultures and ideologies to gain visibility and adherents), and on our lives (in the many lost social graces, declining quality of personal interactions, and flippant approach to relationships). When technology works against our humanity, its destructive power becomes apparent.
But the year also revealed the many new ways technology can work with our humanity to achieve remarkable outcomes.
VR becomes mainstream as therapy: Virtual reality may not yet be common as an entertainment experience, but it is finding widespread use as a therapeutic tool. Virtual reality therapy (VRT) has many demonstrable successes, yielding treatments for PTSD, dementia, and physical pain.
Augmented reality will be the new brand extension: Augmented reality, meanwhile, has surged in 2016 as a social, design, and gaming experience. Snapchat and Pokemon Go had the largest impact on AR adoption, effectively turning the camera and the world around us into individually personalized, localized entertainment experiences. In 2017, AR will grow as a form of branded experience. It will begin with brands competing for branded, geotargeted filters for users to enjoy on platforms like Snapchat; but increasingly AR will be applied as a means for brands to enhance physical spaces, objects, and events (e.g., POS and retail, grocery stores, night clubs, concerts, sports venues, rallies), infusing those environments with gamification, surprise and delight elements, extra services, and interactive ambiance.
360-degree video and photos will reshape content and storytelling: In 2016, Facebook 360 Photos and Facebook 360 videos were enabled, allowing users to upload panoramic photos and videos that became explorable with the turn of the user’s camera. In one gesture-based exploration, content is transformed from a 2-D to a 3-D experience. As gesture-based UX grows as a way to control experiences, content creators in 2017 will need to rethink photos and film as windows rather than flat screens.
Around the same time, Google's Spotlight Stories were released, designed for 360-degree viewing. Each film in the series, including the animated short film “Pearl,” introduced the world to a completely new approach to storytelling, where viewers could explore the scene and discover poignant details of the story as they followed along.
In 2017, storytelling will continue to evolve from a controlled narrative to a story arc that allows for user exploration. The implications for brands and executives alike is to rethink their own narrative to create opportunities for customers or constituents to explore or shape it.
As we collectively breathe a sigh of relief that the turmoil, conflict, and paradigm shifts of 2016 move behind us, we can look to 2017 with optimism. By reconnecting to our humanity—in technology, marketing, business, and our larger culture—we can reconnect to our optimism and to our incredible human potential for innovation and elevation.