Feature

The Years Ahead For ... Digital

John Owen on why the continued growth of online could mean people actually spending less time in front of their computer screens.

Looking back on 2009, uncertainty and confusion has been rife, as clients' budgets, structures and strategies have been stress-tested to the limit. Digital has, perhaps, been part of the problem - as agencies of every colour claim to be experts in it now, it's not altogether clear what the term means any more.

So, let's try to lift our heads from the melee for a few minutes. What does "digital" mean in 2010? What are the key developments that lie ahead? And how will they impact on marketing?

Digital has long been more than a technology that enables compression. We first used the term in marketing to encourage people to think beyond "online", to embrace things such as SMS and the glorified version of Teletext that passed for interactive TV. It was desperation, really. In practice, "digital" meant the internet. This, in turn, meant marketing to people on their computers.

Today, "digital" still means the internet, but it's now on your mobile phone and, increasingly, your TV. In fact, it is coming to screens everywhere. Screens in shops and banks; screens in railway stations and malls; screens in the high street; screens on devices that have not yet been invented, or that don't yet have a screen. All of them ripe for content of one sort or another; all of them with potential for sales and marketing activities.

But space here is limited, so let's focus on the two with the biggest potential. There are four times as many mobiles in the world as there are computers. And TV is simply ubiquitous. How consumers adopt internet-based services on these devices will go a long way towards shaping the future of marketing.

Mobile

In the UK, around ten million people use the internet on their mobile. Only six million of them do so on a smartphone, however, and it is the growth of these devices that is central to mobile internet and application usage.

Of course, the innovator at the heart of this phenomenon is Apple - and the iPhone's availability on Vodafone and Orange in 2010 will be a catalyst for market growth. No less significant will be the adoption of Google's Android operating system by Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and the rest, enabling them to compete head-on with the iPhone.

By 2012, some analysts predict that Android will have greater global penetration than Apple, but the really significant thing is that smartphones will claim 28 to 30 per cent of the mobile phone market. And, remember, this is a global average. The UK is an advanced market.

Key to usage growth in 2010 will be the uptake of social networking services. Social networking is one of the fastest growth areas of internet usage today, but it could be argued that the computer is not ideally suited to it. The natural home of real-time social connectivity is surely the mobile phone. Eighty per cent of Twitter usage is from mobiles and this will expand rapidly thanks to the integration of such services on handsets such as Sony Ericsson's upcoming X10 or via network services such as Vodafone 360.

What does all this mean for brands? It means it's more important than ever to have a coherent social media presence. It also presents an opportunity to create content and distribute it for free in order to reap marketing benefits. Some brands may also find permission to sell some content.

This, in turn, may lead to some interesting new payment models for agencies. Revenue share and software licensing will come into the mix as clients look to reduce their upfront exposure and agencies seek fairer long-term rewards.

Apps will be at the heart of this marketplace - and the value of the app market is set to quadruple over the next four years. Brands need to embrace this and there is sufficient market penetration now for 2010 to be the year in which mobile becomes a serious battleground for brands.

Television

Social networking is rivalled only by video streaming as a growth area online. Once again, though, you could argue that the computer is not best-suited to this activity. Film and video content belongs on the TV, doesn't it?

Something like one in six Britons now use the BBC's iPlayer. Most still watch it on their PC, but it's already available not just via Virgin but on both the PlayStation 3 and Wii. As I write this, Microsoft is also in talks with the BBC and Channel 4 about including iPlayer and 4oD on Xbox Live - which already carries Sky Player.

So, games consoles will play an important role in 2010 in getting people to watch internet protocol television services on their actual TV.

Then, the end of 2010 should see the launch of Project Canvas, the free- to-air set-top box that promises to make IPTV from all content providers accessible to even the most technophobic viewer.

For advertisers, IPTV is an easier proposition than mobile. It's TV, after all, but with the ads arranged upfront, more like in the cinema. What's not to get? Already Vodafone, Sony Pictures and Waitrose have booked pre-roll ads on Xbox Live.

2010 will also see Sky's introduction of AdSmart. This will be the first step towards the adoption of internet-style ad targeting on TV - using basic household data to "serve" more relevant ads to Sky subscribers. It will start slowly, but could be the sign of things to come.

Beyond spot and space advertising, though, this opening up of TV to the almost inexhaustible distribution channel of the internet means it will be (a) fantastically enticing for brands to create their own content and (b) harder than ever to cut through.

Word-of-mouth - whether directly via the TV screen or other devices such as laptops and mobiles - will be crucial in driving viewership of even relatively mainstream programmes.

Which at least gives a fighting chance to newcomers. Will 2010 see the extension of those initial pre-roll deals into advertiser-funded content provision and distribution? I would be surprised if it didn't.

Whatever happens, the internet is set to transform mobile phones and televisions - and screens everywhere - making the content on them richer, more interactive and more varied, heightening social connectivity and creating an ever larger arena for brands to play in.

Those who do so by opening up, inviting participation and providing useful and entertaining content, will thrive in this world. Those for whom marketing is primarily about broadcasting messages, won't.

- John Owen is a managing partner at Dare.

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