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On Technology & Human Nature (And What It Means For Marketing Insights)



By Todd Powers, Ph.D.

I’ve got some thoughts to share about how technology has evolved, and how, as humans (with all of our aimless demands and whining) we have influenced that technology.  I’m not an engineer, and I admit that I am hardly the person to speak to when it comes to how digital technology actually works, but I have spent most of my career in market research surrounded by the rapidly-changing technology of our world, and have made a few observations.  And I’ve got some thoughts about how the examples in technology can be a bellwether for research practitioners.

Let me start with a couple of little stories about technological advancements.  Both of these events only really became meaningful to me upon subsequent reflection.

The first event occurred when I was working as a supplier to, and an employee of, Nortel Networks, the now-defunct Canadian inventor of the digital switch in telephone communications.  We were doing research on the demand for things like ADSI phones, smartphones, and interactive television.  The fellow I worked for – he was an actual living, breathing engineer, btw – was chatting casually with me one day, and remarked that, “It has to flip, you know.  Television and phone transmission, that is.”

Keep in mind that this was about 25 years ago, and I thought he was crazy.  But he continued.  “We get our TV through the air, and we get our phone service over telephone lines.  That has to flip.”  He was referring to the fact that people received TV via antennas on their TVs or rooftops, and received phone calls from people at the other end of a connected wire.  He then noted that TV signals were high bandwidth, consuming huge amounts of the total available spectrum of airwaves.  With 3 or 4 channels, this is not a big problem, but if we want to have hundreds of channels (“and this is coming, mark my words”), then we’re gonna run out of bandwidth.  Phone conversations are easily converted from analog to digital formats, and these can go over the air with almost limitless capacity.

“Oh, come on,” I said.  “Think of the infrastructure we have invested in these communications mechanisms.”  There was just no way to pull that off.  It would cost billions.  Crazy talk.

Looking back … maybe not so dumb.

The second event gave me the same kind of I should have seen it coming revelation, and also popped into my environment about 25 or 30 years ago.  I had a market research company in North Carolina, and we had been retained by Duke University to help them with a project they called “The Library of the Future.”  Perkins Library was doing some serious thinking about what that university institution could, and should, look like as both needs and technologies changed.  As part of our research, we were interviewing key constituents – faculty, students and staff – to determine what they felt were critical aspects of the library.  And I found myself in a one-on-one interview with a smallish fellow, a professor of Chinese religions who must have been 75 years old.  Wisps of gray hair on the sides of his head.  I was skeptical, but open-minded, and dove into my set of semi-structured interview questions.

Well, the next 45 minutes were indeed remarkable.  He informed me right off that he had already read everything ever printed about the particular religious sect that was his life’s pursuit.  Everything.  But he needed to know about every new publication that might be put out there by other scholars and practitioners.  So he wanted his library to have some sort of system that would go out, every night, and scour the Internet, and come back and tell him what was new and interesting.  He wanted this information sorted by likely relevance to his research and waiting patiently behind his computer screen each morning.  What he wanted was an electronic agent.  Today, of course, those services are available, but it seemed visionary at the time.

A bit later our little professor told me that he was a sports fan.  Loved basketball.  And he subscribed to Sports Illustrated where he routinely devoured the review articles.  But he did not want to wait for his magazine to arrive.  He felt that we should have computers at home “about the size and shape of a clipboard,” which could be plugged directly into our phone jacks.  We should be able to download these articles instantly, he told me, and he should be able to read about the Chicago Bulls game that very night.  And he said where it showed a picture of Michael Jordan making the winning shot (see, it really was 20 years ago!), he should be able to touch the photo, and have it come to life, so that he could watch the shot go in.  He was describing today’s tablet computer, of course.

“Actually,” proclaimed my new mentor, “our computers should be about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes.”  They should fit neatly into our top pockets.  And if I walk into a café, or classroom, or wherever, I should be able to just plop that little device onto the table and turn it on.  It would project a keyboard onto the tabletop in front of me, and it should project a screen image onto the wall on the other side, in bright, high-resolution color.  I didn’t think to ask him about a mouse, or other device for manipulating images.  Mostly I was just listening, as he described a smartphone on steroids.

But before we ended the conversation, the Chinese professor added another twist.  He suggested that the image put out by his pack of cigarettes might be better if it was a hologram.  Then he could watch little 12-inch tall ghosts of Michael Jordan run up and down his living room carpet, dunking basketballs over all comers.

While this seemed like “pipe dreams” 30 years ago, it is now apparent that all of it is basically here.  It is a simple advancement of technology, enabled largely through network speeds and capacities.  So what is coming – what we have all seen coming – is the notion of a single source for all of our desired content, that is, “The Great Media Merge.”  In short order, we will be able to access all content – personal, company, and public; entertainment and information — whenever and wherever we like.  It is made possible by the Internet.  The IP network is unique to our world of communications, and it is shepherding in innovations at a machine-gun rate.  The IP network is a packetized network, and can accommodate all of the media that typically host advertising, once that medium has been digitized.  We now get print communications (newspapers and magazines) over the Internet.  Same for audio (WiFi-based radio and telephone).  And same for video (TV).  If we want to, we can drop our existing radio, telephone and TV networks altogether, and just make do with the Internet.  Quite a few people already have.

And everything that clairvoyant Chinese professors want is right there for the asking.  When I first starting describing the coming of the Great Media Merge to people in the marketing communications industry (a few years ago when I was at the ARF), people would just nod.  Yeah, that’s probably happening.

So just what exactly, you might ask, is the point of these two little stories about research encounters some time ago?  The first point is that it is easy to look back – as I have just done – and interpret things in a way that explains current outcomes.  How many times have we read that Kodak made the mistake of believing they were in the photographic chemicals business, and they should have been thinking they were in the business of providing memories?  In hindsight, things seem obvious.  What I think we need, as researchers, are tools to help us see those important indicators as they are happening.  Or maybe some tools to motivate us to act.  That little professor of Chinese religions slapped me squarely upside the head, and I was too naïve, or incapable, or unwilling to do anything about it.

The second point is that as researchers, we should strive more often and more diligently to understand and provide our clients with insights about the basic underlying drivers of change in our markets.  I have come to believe that the basic drivers of the growth in the Internet are a combination of human desires and technological capabilities.  But forget technological advancement.  Just assume that it will, ultimately, keep up with those ever-evolving desires.  And as for the drivers of human wants and needs, in the Internet space I believe they are the desires for information, for entertainment and for connectedness.  Most of what exists, or is in development at the Web, is steeped in one or a combination of those three key drivers.  And the technology that can deliver that driver best, or fastest, or cheapest, or even in the most fun way can triumph.

Figuring out the fundamental drivers of markets, and maintaining a focus on delivering against those motivational needs is a cornerstone of marketing strategy.  And it might just help us to anticipate things like smartphones and holographic basketball games.  Oh sure, you can tackle the nuts and bolts of competitive positioning and such, but that is done with an ever-mindful eye to the core drivers.

And as researchers, I think we do something in the neighborhood of “not nearly enough” of the work required to maintain that focus.  I’m one of the guilty parties.  It’s much easier to put together research designs that can tell whether the green or the blue package will sell best.  That delivers an obvious ROI, and everyone is happy.

Meanwhile small professors of Chinese religions, and many kindred souls, wait patiently for us to figure it out.

There are the occasional exceptions, of course.  Some folks I know work hard to find those fundamental drivers.  Rob Key of Converseon and David Rabjohns of MotiveQuest use social listening technology to uncover basic emotional/motivational drivers.  David Forbes and his team at Forbes Consulting use a different approach, anchored in more traditional survey research, to get at some of the same stuff.

But mostly, we just do tactical research.  We might think about changing that focus.

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