The internet is one of the most exciting catalysts for change in all our working lives. We work our little digits to the bone trying to keep up. As an endless barrage of digital innovations brighten our laptop screens, it's tempting to focus on what we could do with it all, perhaps missing the point of what we should do to support the changing shape of modern business.
It's worth taking a moment to understand the long game. Sometimes, legacies from the past hold us back from making the most of the future. After all, it's not what futuristic technology that you use, it's the way that you use it. That's what gets results. So let's rewind to the last comparable revolution, long before we got familiar with typing "www" in front of everything.
Marketing shows its age
The first marketing agencies sprang up as the industrial revolution launched into full swing. Production capabilities dramatically increased, and companies found themselves with a need to promote products to a wider audience. Suddenly, they could go national. Suddenly, every household in the land became a potential consumer.
Companies happily commissioned external agents to make the best of the job. The job required skills in announcement, broadcast and capturing people's attention and affinity. Our industry founded itself on persuasion, disruption and targeting: a marketing industry built around the needs of a production economy.
That was a long time ago. We are no longer an economy dominated by production. Service industries overtook manufacturing's share of GDP around the 70s, and now make up more than 75 per cent of UK and US GDP. The businesses we operate, and our national consumption patterns, have undergone a seismic shift. In tandem with this, we are well into the digital revolution. Digital has grown out of a service economy, and accelerated its growth. The digital revolution and developed service economies go hand-in-hand.
The marketing requirements of a service economy are different to those of a production economy. Like products, services can gain competitive advantage through unique and advantageous features. But a lot of what convinces customers to buy is the way that service provider behaves.
For Virgin Holidays, we focus on differentiating the brand through service quality. In a market that can be horrendously commoditised and price-led, we demonstrate behaviours that are continuous, responsive and intuitive across all marketing channels - proving that we treat customers like rock stars, rather than like cattle.
When a brand's behaviour is a critical deciding factor, the agenda for that brand's marketing changes. Where marketing for a production economy was about announcement and persuasion, marketing for a service economy is about interaction, personalisation and integration. That is, customers want to interact to experience your services before they buy. They want to know if your service can deliver a good fit for them personally. And they want to be sure that your brand is genuine - that you are who you say you are, wherever you are met.
New generation, new approach
I believe we are only now starting to upgrade our marketing model to suit the conditions of the age. It is not really digital technology that's driving it, but it is native digital techniques.
At the forefront of this change is service design - a new discipline to focus on the total user experience of a service. It has a parallel with industrial product design, which emerged as a distinct trade shortly after our first marketing agencies appeared. Where product design tailors the experience of a product to suit its user, service design appraises the complete experience of a service, and tailors it for its target audiences. What product design is to a production economy, service design is to a service economy.
Service design doesn't only apply to service provider brands. Production-based businesses also benefit from increasing their focus on the service they provide. Service, at its broadest, is the front line of a brand's behaviour towards its audience, and the experience that brand aims to create.
The language of service design is similar to the language of user experience design. While digital agencies are used to talking about digital interfaces, service designers talk about the service interface, which is the complete set of touchpoints for that service. Customers, shoppers and consumers are generally referred to simply as users, and service design goes through stages of persona creation, user journey mapping and prototyping.
There is an obvious parallel between how digital has been causing marketing to develop, and how service design is now emerging out of a mature service economy.
The new dotcom companies are already fluent in service design principles. Companies such as Runkeeper and Evernote use all of their media touchpoints to provide increasingly customisable services for users. In fact, they focus on using touchpoints more for service provision than for traditional marketing usage. They rely on social reputation more than on broadcast advertising. They don't try to put users on to regular e-mail programmes in order to squeeze more sales out per customer. They don't use apps or other tech as naive, zeitgeisty novelties. They think about data capture primarily as a benefit to their users rather than themselves. They think of media planning as ways of serving their users more comprehensively.
The paradigm has shifted. It is almost impossible to tell whether digital is a cause or an effect of the new agenda for modern service economies. But it is certainly at the forefront of the change. As agencies continue to digitise and as our clients' business models do too, a new model for marketing is emerging.
At Elvis, we have radically overhauled our approach to planning and delivery in recognition of these changes in our industry. We call it Live Intelligence - an ongoing, responsive approach that gives us the flexibility to deliver against a new agenda.
Of course, all this is driven by digital technology. Although digital technology will always be about innovation and upgrades, I'm not so much interested in upgrading technology as in how we use digital techniques to upgrade the marketing model.
It's not what technology you use, it's how you use it.
How we use digital is too often pinned to an antiquated marketing model.
The needs of our service economy require different priorities, perfectly suited to digital.
Service design characterises the upgrade that we need.
Richard Neville is the chief strategy officer at Elvis
(From Campaign's "What Next in Digital" supplement, July 1 2011)