As humans, all that matters are the connections we have with others. It is buried deep in our subconscious instinct. Stay connected with the tribe, don’t be separated from the herd. Our connections with friends, family, colleagues and loved ones ultimately define our lives. Those who feel they cannot go on often talk about losing that ‘feeling of connection’. Our connections are everything, and it is no different for any brand.
How to connect with your consumer in a relevant and engaging way remains key for any business, even more so in such fast-paced disruptive economies. As consumers and shoppers’ values continue to evolve, finding new and pertinent ways to connect becomes essential.
But while connections are eternal, the form they take and how technology has step-jumped how we connect with one another continues apace. Let’s take a quick whistle stop tour through history to arrive at what I am terming an era of Absolute Connection. Like all good journeys, looking at where we have come from might help us to work out where we might end up.
Looking at human connection through a communication technology lens, there would seem to me to be three overall evolutionary periods of connection, Individual, Community and Absolute.
At the INDIVIDUAL level we go back thousands of years, looking at how we as humans have evolved communication and connection. The evidence in the Chauvet Caves, France some 30,000 years ago, has humans drawing and painting on walls, story-telling and recording their achievements, clearly seeking connections with others in the tribe. Lately experts agree that the commonly held idea that abstract art and communication was only evident when humans arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago, has been challenged, with later evidence in South Africa and Indonesia showing humans were seeking connection on much older walls.
Native Indians used smoked signals to warn and respond to other tribes on neighbouring hills. It was simple technology but also connected tribes faster than in person. Humans were discovering faster more efficient systems to connect and communicate over distance.
Later in Greece, in 490 B.C., Pheidippides became the first runner of a marathon (we doubt he was given energy drinks at the 10-mile mark, or that he had the good sense to carb-up or indeed to tape up his nipples before his adventure – a reference only long-distance runner readers will understand!). A soldier, he travelled those 26 miles to relay his message to the Athenians that the Persians had been defeated (free rugs for all!)
To connect across distance, we later utilised pigeons and ravens (they didn’t need to carb-load) and finally came the Postal Services as we know them today, a network of nodes and offices along which a physical message could be passed, far more efficient than a single human or animal messenger making the entire journey.
What this quick history of connection and communication teaches us is that, as humans, we have always improved upon how we connect and communicate with one another. A single human messenger was slower and not as efficient as a network of them, costs were now shared by all those using the system in the Postal Service. A cave-drawing was good, but a parchment freshly inked was easier to transport. Smoke signals were effective, but perhaps didn’t have the range of connection we craved (how do you signal ‘help, my house is burning ;). We have always sought faster and more effective connections with one another.
Individual Connections > Individual Commerce
What all these connections have in common is that they connect one-to-one. One caveman to others, one tribe to a neighbouring one, one person to another via a message, regardless of the method – by pigeon, a runner or the post. This is INDIVIDUAL connection, Connection 1.0. It is personal, designed just for us, and at our core, what we most value. We all prefer to get a WhatsApp message or meme when we know it is just being sent to us rather than a ‘group communication’.
With Individual connections there can only really be Individual Commerce. One-to-One. The reach and effectiveness of commerce is constrained by the connections possible, be that individual or consumer. And so it was for thousands of years.
Connection 2.0 opened up One-to-Many. Here the step-jumps are strongly technological, enabling us to push past Individual connection toward COMMUNITY.
While Chinese printing presses were around long before the 15thcentury, it was the Gutenberg Press that really changed the nature of communication in Europe and the world. Prior to such mass production print capabilities, the spread of ideas was somewhat curtailed. Let’s say you had an idea and I didn’t really like it. Well a quick blow to the head with an axe and your idea was dead. So were you, but your idea was no more. After the printing press, that was no longer true. Sure, I could go around trying to find everyone who’d read your idea and knock them off, but that would be a lot more work! The printing press was the Internet or Smartphone of its time. It changed everything, increased the efficiency and speed of connections and decreased the cost, truly cracking the code on One-to-Many.
Next in our history lesson is the American, Mr. Morse. Those dot and dash codes carry his name because he was a pioneer of communication via a wired network. The year was 1837 and by 1890 the electromagnetic system was being used extensively. This development brought us the ability to connect and communicate in great detail, at instant speeds across great distance. One message could be relayed to many, decoded as it was received to tape or in person. It was the precursor to what would become Alexander Bell’s wired voice telephony, again connecting people and communities all over the world. Continents were connected by copper cabling, telegrams and later telephony connecting everyone to everyone else. Speed and distance became problems of the past.
But of course, Marconi, the true pioneer of WiFi, busied himself in his parent’s attic (in true Bill Gates and Steve Jobs style … I am sensing a pattern here … does true technical genius all start in a garage or attic?) and gave us radio waves. He first trans-Atlantic broadcast was in 1901. Transmission was instant and free of copper wires. Radio and Television later followed, the ultimate one-to-many technology, beaming messages into every home globally.
That was Connection 2.0, connecting Communities of people together, faster and more effectively. And importantly, the rules of Commerce changed, as they always will when connection step-jumps. While Individual Connection gave rise to Individual Commerce, Community Connections allowed Global Commerce to flourish. Technologies like the printing press, Radio and TV allowed us to engage the consumer masses. Post WWII, the era of mass production was mirrored with that of mass-consumption, fuelled by our ability to connect with millions in an instant. Better connections always bring opportunity.
Which brings us to the more recent past, the last 30+ years, and to Connection 3.0, the world of Many-to-Many connection, to Absolute Connection. If you are looking for Commerce step-jumps, they don’t get more significant than Tim Berners-Lee’s Internet. No one could have imagined, not even Tim, the power of the genie about to be let out of the bottle when he fired up those first server connections in 1990. Morse and Marconi would have wet themselves in excitement if they could have seen where we had got to. A global network of immediate information exchange, open to everyone, accessed by everyone. Email was first, but then eCommerce emerged like a dark ninja from the shadows, Jeff Bezos ninjaing around his garage selling books and CDs (see another garage!).
But the true potential of eCommerce was trapped in a desktop world until Steve Jobs came along and gave the Connection Genie another rub. The iPad and iPhone catalysed a world of truly mobile connection. Sure, telephony had already gone mobile (Marconi would have been proud) but when every consumer and shopper had a mobile connection point in their lap and pocket at every moment, eCommerce started to flex its muscles. Add in social media, messaging apps and You Tube, human connection had never been faster, richer, with more instant reach than ever before. We now live in a world where 19m people in the world can view a cat falling off a kitchen counter in San Francisco , 1 hour after it happened. These things are important.
But the game is not over. It rarely is. We are about to witness the next step-jump. Think of what the printing press, radio, TV, the internet and Smartphone did for connections and commerce. It is all about to happen again.
Artificial Intelligence is not the future, it is the embedded present. 50%+ of US consumers already have a smart speaker in their home, making it the fastest adopted technology of our times. We already all interact and trust the algorithms that tell us what we should watch on Netflix, who we should be friends with on Facebook, where we should work on LinkedIn, who we should love via Tinder. Artificial intelligence is all around us, connecting us in new ways, to each other and to the machine.
Welcome to Many-to-Many, including machines. Prior to this, connections were about humans, connecting other humans to each other, be that individually or in communities. Now the machines are involved. Human-to-Machine and Machine-to-Machine realities change the game for everyone. Consumerism is in for a serious step-jump, eCommerce turning into eCommerceAI
Every time we witness a piece of technology that opens up connections in a new way, there are new opportunities, winners and losers. Don’t be caught with your business pants around your ankles on this one. Prepare to engage with an AI Consumer reality, a reality with voice as the primary user interface, not text or swiping. Prepare for a world of virtual assistants who will seek the best deals and buy on your behalf. Prepare for a world where machine-to-machine creates an even more expectant consumer. Prepare for a world where data powers this absolute connection, those businesses are able to harness and leverage this data winning the new connection war.
I don’t know what is next. But I know we will continue climbing this connection ladder. Also, the answer might be in my father’s garage, if only I could get in past the chaos of tools, paint tins and patio furniture. Did Gates, Jobs and Bezos parents have to buy new garden sheds for all their stuff?
If so, it turns out that connection is powered by true parental sacrifice, and garage rentals.
Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behavior, blending his understanding of consumer & cyber psychology, digital anthropology, behavioral economics and retail futurology to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come.
This blog is a small extract from Ken Hughes’ latest global hit keynote speech on Artificial Intelligence and its impact on Commerce, Consumers and Society. Read more here.
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