Please note that this article was written in 2010. View our updated article (2016) ‘3 Groundbreaking technologies you may not have heard of that will begin to affect your everyday life‘ here for more updated insights into this topic.
Technology advances have dominated the world of work for almost the entire lifetime of anyone reading this article. Yet, until recently, communication technology has failed to deliver on the promises that were made. Computers were meant to connect us, to make our lives easier and to take work away from us. Yet, most of us have experienced the opposite. We may be able to communicate more, but it feels as if we’re connecting less. Buried under an avalanche of emails, voicemails and instant messages, we do not have the luxury of time to prepare considered responses. Our hastily composed messages are often misunderstood, misinterpreted or just ignored. Our advertising and promotional communication is equally often ignored.
It seems that information technology has made our offices (and lives) more efficient, more productive and more frenetic. But also more sterile. We’ve had to adjust how we want to work in order to accommodate the computer and its preferences. This is immortalized in a running series of jokes in the UK comedy series, Little Britain: “The computer says ‘No’”, which was the answer of customer services to almost any reasonable customer request. This is not what we had in mind when we embraced the computer’s arrival just a few decades ago.
But, just recently, things have begun to change. Continued advances in computer hardware power and capability, bandwidth improvements and new developments in software, have combined to allow us to use technology to enhance true human connection. People want to connect. We want to contribute, to be involved and to engage with each other. These are natural human drives. And now technology is beginning to accommodate us, and become more of a tool than a driver of how we do things.
The problem is that many of us are now used to doing things the “old technology” way. We’ve become accustomed to seeing computers and information technology in a certain way. Having spent most of our lives learning these patterns of behaviour, we now have to unlearn them and rediscover more “human” ways of connecting and communicating, using IT as a tool to help us do so. This is starting to have profound impact on the way we use technology in our companies.
Here are just three recent advances in technology and developments in software that you need to be aware of, and also plan to incorporate into your corporate toolkit in the next few months and years. I hope you understand that it’s not the technology itself that is interesting, but what it enables us to do. The technology will continue to adapt and change, but what it is allowing us to do, and the connections it is enabling us to have, are the keys to taking advantage of these new trends for your business benefit.
1. Social Media
I don’t want to bore you with another paragraph about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and all the rest. You know by now that these social media communities are more than just teenage toys and communication tools for students. Increasingly, businesses are using social media for a variety of purposes. The obvious uses include communication (internal and external), PR and sales promotions. If you’re just using social media for these purposes, though, you’re missing out on the real revolution. But I have written about this before, and you can find that information at http://tinyurl.com/socmedia2
What is critical to understand is that social media allows you to engage with people – and allows them to engage with you. Internally or externally, you now have the computer power and software to get people to interact with you and your company, and to get involved with you. This is the key to understanding the power social media has to enhance your business.
So, here are a few things for you to do to take advantage of this trend:
- At very least, even if you are not ready to develop a social media presence for your company, you should ensure that your company website allows users to write comments on key pages. In fact, the absolute minimum should be to allow people to use a Facebook-like “I like this” button for rating your website. Clicking the “I like this” button lets their entire network know about you, and is the cheapest form of advertising you’ll ever be able to do. But you should also consider allowing people to add comments to your webpages. I am not talking about your “Contact us” page or form – that’s how they send a letter to you. I mean allowing them to add their thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions to the bottom of your webpages. Why do it? Because that gets them engaged and involved with you. What if they write a complaint? Well, wouldn’t you rather they write that on your website instead of on their blog or Facebook page (where you have no control over it, and possibly even don’t know about it). And isn’t it true that the most significant customer experiences always happen when you make a mistake, they complain and you fix it well (that’s more impressive than just doing a good job every time, isn’t it)? So, let them comment on your website.
- The second thing you should do is to use Google Alerts to track social media references to your company (http://www.google.com/alerts). You enter any search string as you would into a Google search, but also add your email address. Google then stores your search request. Anytime a new website is added to the Internet matching your search, you will be sent an email alerting you to this. It can be set up to send immediately, or once a day/week/month – it’s your choice. This will ensure that if you are mentioned in anyone’s Facebook or Twitter status updates, you will be alerted to this fact, and can choose how (and if) to respond. (By the way, you should also include your major clients in Google Alerts).
- Thirdly, you need to learn the “language” – the specific etiquette – of the social media networks you’re interested in using. Each different network has its own etiquette, and if you break the unwritten ground rules, you will be ignored and even vilified by the community there. Listen before you talk, do your homework, get advice from people in the know, and start slowly with quick feedback loops and adjustments. In other words, do what you should do when traveling to a country with a different culture.
- Fourthly, you need to find ways to create a community – think of developing a fan base rather than a customer base. I recently interacted with a niche insurance company selling insurance for pets. They realized that their customers were not passionate about insurance. But they were passionate about their pets. For their insurance company social media strategy they’d get much better value from a social media approach that focused on pets, rather than insurance. You create your community first, then find ways to present your products and services to them. It sounds so simple, but so few companies understand this.
- Finally, why not consider using social media to help you in various parts of your business. This is a new approach called crowdsourcing. You get crowds of people to help you deal with an issue using social networks. Companies already experimenting with this include Innocentive (crowdsource your innovation requirements to some of the world’s top thinkers, scientists and students), Idea Bounty (crowdsource your advertising and marketing requirements), Tenpages (crowdsource your book ideas and get published), Kiva (crowdsource your giving for aid and foreign investment – even just a few hundred dollars), Zopa (use social media to connect individuals who have money to invest with people who want to borrow money), and so many more examples that are emerging every single day at the moment. If you’re not trying to find ways to do this now, you’re already falling behind in your industry.
Social media is much, much more than simply updating your status and uploading a few photos. It is changing how we connect and how we interact and how we relate to each other. If improving your ability to connect with people could enhance your business, then social media will help you to do this dramatically.
2. Localised, Starred and Advanced Search
Search websites like Google, Bing and Yahoo are increasingly focusing their search results with localized search options. Do a search for a particular location in Google Maps (for example, your company’s head office, or a favourite hotel). Click on one of the listed items in the search results, and a window will pop up on the map showing its location, any reviews that might have been written (and the option for you to write a review), and the address and contact details of the location. But notice a few other things. Firstly, next to the venue’s name is small outline of a star (note that you must be logged into Google for this to work – if you don’t have an account, it’s easy to create one). That is a favourite button, and if you click that (Google refer to it as “starring” the location) it will save this venue in your own personal list of “starred locations”. This becomes very useful if you log into Google on your mobile phone (or smart phone), and click on the “starred venues” tab that will appear there. All your starred venues (regardless of when or where you selected them) will appear in your mobile phone’s list of starred venues.
But also notice that you have a few other options. You can get directions or “search nearby”. Click on search nearby and type in another search item. For example, search for “pizza” and it will show all the pizza outlets in the near vicinity of the first location you selected. This is localized search, and it is the future of searching.
Do you know what is listed in your company’s Google Maps search page? Do you know if there are any reviews, and have you responded to them (especially if there are negative ones)?
But it’s even more powerful than simply having local people find you. This new approach to search will also change how much information we have as consumers. My middle daughter, Hannah is turning 9 years old soon, and she’s very keen on getting her first real wristwatch. Knowing that I was going on a business trip to Switzerland, she asked me to find a particular type of watch for her. I went into a watch shop, and found the watch she was looking for, and asked a salesman to come and help me. He wasn’t ready for the new technology I was about to use. Firstly, I asked to see the barcode on the packaging of the watch. I took a photo of it using a bar code reader application, which then searched the Internet and returned information about the watch. I now knew the manufacturer, the specifications, the recommended retail price and a lot more. I also did a localized search and found a watch shop down the street that offered the same watch at a slightly cheaper price. I indicated to the salesman that I knew the watch was about to go out of production and was end of range, and that I could get it cheaper down the road. Being Swiss, though, he wasn’t so keen on negotiating with me, and did not offer a discount. Unfortunately for both those Swiss watch shops, I also checked Amazon, and discovered that I could get the watch delivered to my house for free at a discount of more than 25% on what I could buy it in Switzerland.
This trend is going to change the power relationship between customers and salespeople. Do you know how much information someone can find out about you, your products and services with an advanced Internet search? Are your sales people equipped to deal with today’s knowledgeable, tech-savvy, advanced searching customers? How are you going to train your front line staff to deal with these types of customer engagements?
Geo-tagging refers to a set of applications that link to your physical location. Most modern mobile phones have GPS built in, which means your phone knows exactly where you are. In fact, some of the very latest even have a compass built in as well, so they also know which way you’re facing.
The easiest application of geo-tagging is digital photos. You probably know that your digital photos all have the photographic image you took, as well as additional digital data linked to the photo (at least date, time, exposure and size). Geo-tagging adds GPS co-ordinates and even compass orientation to the data linked to your photo. Now imagine you could upload that photo to a centralized repository of photos, and that it could be linked to all the other photos ever taken in the same place and facing the same direction you did when you took your photo. In other words, you can instantly link your photo to every other photo ever taken at that same location. So, now you can see what the object in your photo looks like in different seasons, at different times of the day and night and with different lighting. By the way, that website is http://www.flickr.com, and if you want to see a video of the technology that pulls the photos together into a 3-d image, go to http://tinyurl.com/photogeotag
But, how do you use this to enhance your business?
If your business interacts with customers at physical locations, then you can use some of the emerging programs that are allowing people to log their movements and locations. There are a few of these. The three I use regularly are “Around Me”, “Gowalla” and “Foursquare”.
Around Me has similar functionality to Google’s localized search I mentioned above. The only difference is that Around Me knows where you are before you start searching.
Foursquare and Gowalla allow people to “check in” at specific locations – basically they log into the program, and do a search of venues near them. When they find the precise shop or restaurant or cinema or location they’re in, they simply indicate “I’m here”. They can then see who else is there – or near there – now. They can also see who has been there, and who comes there regularly. You might wonder why people would do this. It’s the same reason they update their social media status – to create connections with other people. (Yes, it really is a human desire). People can also write tips about venues (including reviews) which others can read when they check in.
It’s a bit of fun, but the business benefits are emerging quickly. The most obvious is that you can link advertising to specific locations, and allow people to “find” these adverts. If someone arrives at a food hall in a shopping centre, for example, and are trying to choose which restaurant to eat at, they can check in, and the geo-tagging system can alert them to specials and tips about restaurants in the near vicinity. You can purchase these geo-tagged adverts and load them into the geo-tagging system. It’s like putting a huge banner advert in front of all your competitors’ shops.
Really progressive companies are using these geo-tagging programs to build communities of people who congregate at their venues. I know some pubs that have hosted events where the sole aim was to earn Swarm and Super Swarm badges in Foursquare (if you don’t know Foursquare, you earn awards for various activities – and one of the most elusive awards is earned only when a whole group of people all check in at the same venue together). A chain of pizza shops in London offers the “Mayor” of the venue free drinks whenever they eat at the pizza shop (the “mayor” of a venue is the person who has checked into that venue the most number of times). This is a clever way to reward frequent shoppers – and give them a reason to return with their friends and talk about you to their network.
Is This For Everyone?
Most companies are already behind these trends. It’s probably because the decision makers tend to be older people who don’t get these trends. In fact, even worse, they can feel overwhelmed by the amount of data that flows through all these programs (I’ll write about how to cope with the flood of data at sometime in the next few months).
Some companies still ban the use of these systems during office hours. Unless they have a technical reason for doing this (some companies have real bandwidth restrictions), they’re just demonstrating how far out of touch with popular culture they have become. Of course, that might not be a problem for them. I did some work recently with a very high-end private bank for ultra-rich individuals. Their customers tend to be much older, and so introducing these new communication technologies is probably unnecessary at the moment. However, it won’t always be that way. Today’s young superstars use social media and geo-tagging all the time, and will probably want to bank with an institution that they feel is in touch with their lifestyle. Some time in the next few years, even my private banking client will find value in taking these (and other similar) systems on board. If then, why not now?
So, yes, these are for everyone. Maybe not now, but sometime soon every company in every industry will find value in using these communication technologies. At very least they should get a small team to start looking at the potential, the opportunities and threats posed by new information and communication technology, and beginning a process of deciding which they are going to use and which they will ignore.
What Are You Waiting For?
When it comes to new communication technologies many companies have their default setting at “Ignore”. Some have it on “Reject”. Only a few have an accepting mindset, with a curiosity that leads them to investigate and consider the potential benefits. All I really hoped to do with this paper is change your initial mindset. The technologies I have outlined above may not suit you, and may be unhelpful in your position in your company and for your industry. But the reason these technologies are taking hold cannot be ignored.
People are using technology differently these days – they want to connect, to interact, to engage and to contribute. That means your staff, your customers, your business partners and anyone else you interact with are likely to be using some or all of the technologies I have outlined above. If not, they will be using something similar. And if not now, then they soon will be. This is too big to ignore. Now is the time for you to act and do something about it.
Dr Graeme Codrington is a researcher, author, keynote presenter and expert on the new world of work. He helps his clients understand the trends that will disrupt their industries in the next decade, and shows them how to anticipate these changes and gain tomorrow’s competitive advantage today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org