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Exploring the future impact of the internet on our relationship with organisations

This is a summary of a presentation that I gave at Brandwatch’s European Now You Know user conference in London, UK, last week.

It’s 20 years since the internet went mainstream in Western Europe. That’s when telecom operators such as BT started to offer broadband to consumer users, and wireless networks started to appear in public spaces.

Data from Facebook, Google and the International Telecommunications Union suggests that internet usage has reached around 3.2 to 3.5 billion worldwide, and will hit four billion people by 2020.

Universal access will take another decade in developing markets as internet access reaches countries such as Africa and India, and hard to reach areas of mature markets. There are still areas of the UK such as Northumberland where you can’t get 2G phone access and broadband speeds are sub-2MB.

The internet will more than double in size in the next 15 years as the rest of the world comes online. That’s a massive market that is set to be created.

The internet is a conversation

At Ketchum we think hard about the impact of the internet and new technologies on the relationship between an organisation and its internal and external publics. My role is to help organisations communicate in the best way possible to improve trust and reputation.

The internet provides a means for people to connect and communicate with each other, irrespective of location. It disintermediates all previous forms of media enabling anyone to become a publisher; and it creates the opportunity for communities to form around an issue or organisation.

Almost everything that we have learnt about the impact of the internet on organisations in the last two decades was foretold by a book published in 1999.

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The Cluetrain Manifesto set out 95 thesis, suggesting that organisations would need to respond to the opportunity offered by the internet to create relationships, and become more human. It predicted the demise of traditional organisational structures and the rise of networks.

The influence business

As traditional media has fragmented, individuals have created their own media on almost every form of social network. In a limited way I’m an influencer for marketing, public relations and social media.

Organisations, particularly in the consumer, lifestyle and travel sectors, have embraced the opportunity to work with influencers and benefit from the reach of their network. It’s an approach that is very similar to the traditional publicity model.

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At Ketchum we’ve developed a planning model and workflow to engage with influencers across earned and paid media. We believe our expertise in storytelling and editorial engagement makes this market a natural play for public relations, rather than advertising.

Social media matures

The social media ecosystem in Europe and the US is maturing, with mergers and acquisitions becoming the norm. We haven’t seen a new platform since Meerkat launched at SxSW in 2014. This has since folded, demonstrating how strong the competition is.

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Facebook has a strong and growing platform of services. It recently announced an internal social networking product called Workplace. Meanwhile Google+ has fallen by the wayside. LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft, is pursuing an advocacy, content and learning strategy. Pinterest has posted strong growth in visual imaging. SnapChat has nailed visual messaging and is becoming a strong channel, widening its appeal to an older demographic. The future of Twitter, Periscope and Vine remains a work in progress.

We increasingly understand the behaviour of people on each of these networks; paid media products are well-developed and there’s a growing tool environment.

The shifting media landscape has provided an opportunity for brands to create their own media. This is happening in almost every business and consumer category.

Savvy brands are creating their own newsroom environments, creating content often in partnership with traditional media publishers, and publishing it via earned, owned and social media channels. The benefit is a direct and sustained relationship with publics.

Conversations: let’s talk

Organisations have struggled to get to grips with the change of tone required to engage with people on the internet. Much corporate marketing remains focused on the organisation rather than the intended public. It’s frequently broadcasted with no effort to listen or engage. The result is pointless at best and a reputational issue at worst. The Condescending Corporate Brand page on Facebook summarises the worst excesses of this behaviour.

More enlightened organisations are using new media as a means of conversation. Facebook and Twitter are frequently used for customer service. These modern forms of media frequently now replace customer phone lines or webchat.

Facebook took this medium a step further at its F8 user conference this year when it announced customer chat and bots via Facebook Chat. Try it out for yourself.

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Unfortunately there’s almost always a disconnect between new and old. So far no organisation will accept my Facebook or Twitter profile as verification of my identity. Instead I’m typically shunted off to a web form or a traditional channel.

Apps requiring two factor authentication are becoming the common means for an organisation to establish a verified relationship with a customer. Every aspect of the customer journey from marketing to purchase, and from delivery notification to customer service, is managed within an app. My phone has become a wallet of logos for banking, shopping and travel.

Smart organisations have recognised the opportunity to go further, inviting customers to help them innovate.

The Lego Ideas community is a web platform where Lego builders share their designs. Members of the community vote on designs, and each month Lego selects popular designs for commercial development. The creators of successful designs that make it into production are rewarded with a share of royalties. It’s a social form of product development.

Future of organisational communication

You don’t have to look too hard to find an indication of where communication between and organisation and its public is headed. Here are some of the significant bets that we’re taking at Ketchum.

#1 Inside out: social media in the enterprise

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The application of social media technologies internally within an organisation have shown early promise but adoption rates are low. Behaviour, culture and technology are all issues. Facebook’s Workplace offers a potential solution. It applies all the learnings from the consumer product to a private enterprise environment.

#2 New content format: virtual reality

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2016 has seen innovation in virtual reality with significant platform development. This technology has huge potential for learning and development, including immersion in situations that would otherwise be dangerous in real life, and experience of hard to reach locations, or destinations.

#3 The future will be televised, no really

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Live video could be equally disruptive. I was brought up short last week when the Associated Press shared live video on Facebook of the offensive to retake Mosel from ISIL and rescue the one million people trapped in the city. It’s a powerful form of first person storytelling. Both Facebook and Periscope have invested in tools for video producers.

#4 Talk to me

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Advances in speech recognition and computer intelligence are set to bring about the next wave in internet disintermediation. I first tinkered with voice recognition in the 1990s using Dragon Dictation. It was a lousy experience. By comparison the speech recognition built into Apple iOS and Google apps is incredible. Have a go – accuracy rates are more than 95% in my experience.

#5 Disintermediation? There’s more

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Now imagine voice technology incorporated into Amazon Echo or Google Home and combined with the contextual data that each organisation has about you and information from the open web.

Both Echo and Home are internet connected devices which summon up services from the internet based on voice commands, and which will create another wave of disintermediation. There’ll be no need for ads or search engine optimisation for a kick off.

#6 The internet of almost everything

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Amazon is innovating in another significant area. Its branded Dash buttons connect to an Amazon Prime account via Wi-Fi. Hit the button when you’re ready to reorder a product.

Dash establishes a direct relationship between a consumer, brand and retailer. I’m just not sure I’m ready to put a Durex or Trojan button above my bed head.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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