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Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei once said of technology:

“Technology is a liberation. I think the information age probably is the best thing to happen to the human race in human evolution. Now you have the equal opportunity to equip yourself through information and knowledge and express yourself as an independent mind.”

The liberation, information access, knowledge consumption and expression formats Weiwei refers to have undoubtedly benefited marketers more than nearly any other profession by virtue of the communication platforms and data streams technology – namely in digital formats – has created.

However, these benefits have come at a price – the unread messages of digitised society – that shed a dark side on the positive facets of digital technology that marketers leverage daily:

  1. Technology liberates – but now consumers are becoming entrapped by technological devices
  1. Technology provides information – but also gives access to unwanted pasts
  1. Technology allows expression – but consumer and brand expression are not governed by the same rules
This creates somewhat of a balancing act for brands. Whilst there obviously needs to be a focus on the outward facing, revenue generating aspects of digital marketing, their does need to be a series of actions taken to ensure these unread messages do not harm a brand’s equity:
  1. You can take consumer’s devices, but you can’t take their freedom
Constant push notifications, movement of commerce and communication touchpoints to digital formats, time and cost efficiency incentives to use digital over phone or face to face and digital feedback loops mean that smart phones and tablets are calling for constant engagement. This often makes consumers feel agitated, disrupted and controlled by their devices. Brands are in part responsible for this by the use of harass and extract tactics, expecting consumers to digitise themselves in the way marketing has done and promotional methods. In the digital era, less harassment and looking into the long term by less, but more meaningful, communications and allowing consumers viable options to remove themselves from this digital entrapment and avoid frustration and distress is the new age responsibility of marketers. This, in essence, is the channel equivalent of electric vehicles to automotive or low sugar options to soft drinks.
  1. One brand’s information is another brand’s downfall
One of digital technology’s key benefits is the information and knowledge sources it makes accessible to brands to make insight driven decisions. However, this same opportunity is open to consumers when at the purchase consideration stage. Brands need to appreciate more than ever before that digital platforms have made society truly transparent. Financial exposes fill the content archives of all news aggregators. Negative sentiment is entrenched on Twitter. Critical employee stories are listed on Glass Door. The list continues. To counteract this, brands need to consistently ensure that positive content stories adorn the upper echelons of search engines and that for every brand hater expressing themselves digitally they create advocates who can address any digital sentiment imbalance.
  1. Everyone is equal, but consumers are more equal than brands
Consumers are afforded the privilege of being able to project different personalities online and offline. Brands, however, are not afforded the same luxury – they are viewed as a singular entity across multiple channels. What this means, is that more so than ever, brands need to be a slave to message consistency and communication integration. Whilst it is acceptable for consumers to use digital platforms to make themselves appear more intellectual or comedic vs. real world reality, if brands do this they will immediately be exposed via the same digital platforms that one side of their personality was portrayed upon.

So what is the benefit to brands who unpack and act upon these unread messages? In an era where marketers are being pressured to act in a manner that can be perceived as social good, being digitally responsible, at a time where our relationship with technology is under more scrutiny than ever, has the potential to be a leveragable asset. Further to this, respecting a newly transparent society and cross-channel communications consistency creates a clear and positive mental structure of what a brand stands for – more vital than ever in the haze of digital white noise consumers operate in.

In short, brands and marketers must continue to leverage the positive facets of technology Ai Weiwei discusses – but do so in a way that appreciates the unread messages of digital technology and increase the potential to be a force for social good with a clear and consistent identity.

By Jack Miles, Research Director, Northstar Research Partners