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Does Your Brand Have Foresight?

March 25, 2014

It doesn’t seem that long ago that foresight was the sole domain of crystal ball gazers, futurists and other assorted fortune tellers. It was interesting to a point, but kind of hokey and only a few, very disciplined multinational organizations, like Shell managed to use it successfully.

Today, the future is moving so fast, we’ve almost given up in trying to predict it. We barely know what technological advances will be happening in twelve months time, that we can’t possibly think about what will happen in five years time.

There’s now a new construct for foresight, one that isn’t based on the crazy predictions of gypsies and gurus, but instead grounded in real insight and data. This is very powerful stuff that will change marketing as we know it, because it will predict what people want, before they even know it themselves.

At the bleeding edge of this transformation are the cultural curators, distributors and media entities; companies like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest Netflix, Pandora and Spotify (with its recent purchase of music data experts- The Echo Nest)

These companies are amassing massive repositories of data about both individuals and the content they create and consume. Pandora and Spotify know about music; not just how we listen, when we listen and what we listen to, but they also know about the music itself. They can find the adjacent songs in the genres we like and uncover new songs they think we might like. In short, they know enough to be able to predict with some degree of foresight what we we would like to listen to next.

Netflix has done the same thing with TV and movie content; it has all the behavioral data about what we watch, when and how exactly we consume content (do we stop and pause, do we binge, etc.?) It’s got to the point where Netflix knows that its subscribers have to watch 15 hours in order to be happy and satisfied enough to continue to pay their monthly subscriptions. Netflix has to make its users happy and to do this it needs good foresight. It has to be able to recommend the next thing you watch with a high degree of certainty, because it wants to keep you watching. To do this, it combines all the data it has on what you’ve watched, with metadata on all its available content.

We also know Netflix has used this data to help it develop content like House of Cards (it knew the numbers of people who had affinities for David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and the original BBC House of Cards series) and its used to provide them with the confidence and foresight on the likely take up of that new show. They also use it in a “Moneyball” type way, to find value in the content they are licensing.

Turning to Facebook and Pinterest, they also know a reasonable amount about you, but they are also building competence in understanding your visual content, in order to know more. They are both developing sophisticated algorithms to better understand your visual world. In Facebook’s case, it wants to see exactly what’s in your photographs, so it can understand you better. A better newsfeed is critical for Facebook’s success and to make this happen, it has to know more about you.

The Holy Grail for the media entities is to be able to sell predictive intent. Google has obviously built a multi-billion dollar business on the back of intent; being able to prove that what someone is searching for has a direct relationship to something they want or need.

The goal for Facebook is to go one better than Google and to tell you what you want before you even know it. Obviously, this is massively complex task, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Consider that it’s Netflix’s stated goal to create a service that knows instinctively what you want to watch at any given moment in time, so all it needs to show you when you turn on your TV or device, is one piece of content that takes up all your screen real estate. It assumes you will not need to choose or select from a menu, if the perfect thing is just there waiting there for you.

To get there, it’s obviously going to need to add to its dataset, but imagine if they had social data, location data and even data relating to the type of music you were just listening to. All this could be fed into their algorithms and through this they might discover the value of mood as a predictor of desired content.

Brands are going to be trying to play catch up because the media entities simply know too much or are going to. There’s simply no reason why the giant cable providers shouldn’t know as much about their content and the behavior of their viewers as Netflix does, the big difference being the cable guys want to sell it on to advertisers.

What’s a brand to do?

Brands want to play the Big Data game and they would love to know the ROI of their media investments, but in most cases, this is currently just about buying data on your users from other entities that own it. That’s hardly a position of power and with richer and deeper data with predictive foresight, this is going to become a very expensive proposition.

There are existing loyalty and CRM systems that provide brands with the data and the means to market to end-users. These seem like relics from a bygone age and hardly relevant to an era of big data in a social and mobile landscape.

With mobile, some brands jumped on the bandwagon in a “shiny new object” way; wanting an app to say they had one, rather than really using to unlock a new relationship with their customers. Consequently, most brand apps have failed.

To seize some control from the media entities, brands are going to have to take a whole new approach to data collection and instead of being company first, these efforts are going to have to be user-centered. Brands are going to have to think about what they can do for their users in the broadest sense, rather than just simply think of new ways to get data to serve their own selfish needs.

This will require both a strategic and cultural shift in the way in which brands think about users. A user-first approach will need to start with the broadest understanding of where your brand fits into the totality of the user experience and thinking about how the brand might be able to help the consumer through that experience. Only by creating something that’s selfless and in true service of a customer need, will brands be able to get users to give up their valuable personal data.

When you think about almost every Silicon Valley company that’s succeeded over the past ten years, every one has offered a trade off: something better or new, in return for data.

Brands clearly have a lot to learn from the user-centricity of the Valley and they are going to need this approach to gain ownership of the foresight data.

These new added value user experiences are going to have to be created in one or many of the following ways.

  1. In an exclusive partnership with a media entity that provides a unique value add for user and brand
  2. By brands thinking internal portfolio, rather than in a silo. This means trying to find like minded organizational partners to provide relevant experiences
  3. Brand ecosystems- brands forming alliances with related brands outside their core area of competence, but in complimentary fields
  4. Partnerships with competitors
  5. Ventures with start-up companies

The ownership of foresight is going to be key for brands as they head to the future. It’s key to be thinking and planning for this now and radically re-imagining the consumer experience in order-to do so. Failure to act will simply hand the keys over to the media players who will extract a heavy price from brands all because they will know much more about your customers than you do.

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