SoDA 2011 Digital Marketing Outlook: Designing Digital Intimacy

Society of Digital Agencies 2011 Digital Marketing Outlook

I wrote an article for the SoDA 2011 DMO on "Desgining Digital Intimacy" (p. 80). But there's lots of good stuff in there. Here's the article:

The new digital platform is intimately entwined with our lives. It’s with us in the morning when we rise, by our side as we drive and stroll and lounge. It tells us where our friends are and converses with us when waiting for a bus. Even when silent, it is always navigating the ether as we dine, socialize, work, sleep. It is an active participant in our daily lives.

Computing has become more than a screen we look at. It is tactile experience ripe with vibration and a plethora of telling signals. And it demands to be touched. Our fingers play across it with a knowing feel, much as we scratch an itch.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body — the book an extension of the eye, the wheel an extension of the foot, electric circuitry an extension of the central nervous system. The mobile computer is at once a neural and physical appendage scanning the environment for signs much as our eyes and nose scan for sights and sounds. It is always on, always “looking,” pulling in data, making sense of it, and sending signals to the brain via sound and vibration. It is quite literally an extension of ourselves.

The promise of the Internet has hence shifted from being an exhaustive archive of media to being alive, immediate, proactive. While we may still go to websites to survey media, computing has become an encounter, a conversation, an event.

As computing entwines itself into our most private spaces, it forges, foments, and facilitates intimacy. Consider FaceTime and the casual ease with which a traveling parent shares his or her journey with children — “Look, this is my hotel. Isn’t it cool? And look: you lost a tooth.” And the parent can actually look into the anxious eyes of his or her child, providing comfort from across the country.

Or Chatroulette and the way strangers put themselves into immediate conversation with each other. It creates what McLuhan calls the global village, the world folded onto itself as a mother in Milan sits face-to-face with a banker in Bangkok, an investor in Ireland stares into the living room of a developer in Dubai. The hesitation some of us feel towards Chatroulette stems precisely from the power and palpability of this disappearance of boundaries, this sudden intimacy.

Or consider a dinner party, guests enjoying wine, cheese, crackers while the host, still cooking, chats and prepares, the iPad proffering the recipe and dj-ing the music, a glimmering participant in the gathering. Now that’s social media.

Or all the uses in telemedicine as a dermatologist in San Francisco examines the rash on a woman in Eureka. Now that’s intimate.

This digital intimacy shifts the very terms of how we engage people. We are no longer creating experiences off in the distance, on some website sitting on a server somewhere. We are now creating experiences that live in people’s pockets, in their beds, in their hands and always top of mind.

The question is: How can we create relevant, engaging, experiences? How can we create intimacy between our brand and our consumers? Here are some things to consider:

For whom is this intimacy?

• Is the interaction between your brand and an individual? EZface Virtual Mirror Application, for instance, lets a person see what she’d look like with certain beauty products applied, certainly an intimate relationship between a brand and a consumer.

• Your brand and a group? Thinks of flash mobs that mobilize a group in a way that remains quite intimate.

• Or between individuals via your brand? Applications as simple as video chat rooms let people connect face-to-face with each other, the brand silent in the background (think: fan sites).

Go to them. Don’t make consumers come to you. Go to them. Push content — relevant content, that is. Which means knowing what they want and, as important, when and how they want it. Which leads us to the next point….

But don’t over do it.
Use good manners. No one likes telemarketers interrupting their dinner.

Engage the body
. Move past eyes to engage faces, fingers, and voices. Digital kiosks in public spaces can use face recognition software to engage people smartly, delivering utility and/or delight. See the SapientNitro/Unilever ice cream machine in which people are invited to smile and, if their smile is big enough, they “win” an ice cream.

Make it live. The new digital environment is immediate, live, turning on the promise of the dings, rings, and vibrations of smart phones. Design for the now. The entire interaction with the ice cream vending machine is live, sensing when someone is close, inviting the person closer, and using face recognition software to determine gender, age, emotion. The point is this: engage people, start a conversation, create events here and now.

Serve the now — with utility, whimsy, and delight. The digital has moved from the archive to the now. So what can you do for your customers right now? Suggest a place to eat in the neighborhood. Or perhaps what’s most tasty on that menu. Or how the food one’s eating fits with his diet or health needs. Or perhaps tell them a joke, a quote, a story. The question is: How can you fit into the living moment?