By Nigel Vaz, Sapientnitro, campaignlive.co.uk, Wednesday, 29 June 2011 12:00AM
What's new in digital?" might just be a misleading question. It's tempting to try to pick the "next big thing". Mobile and social are the new buzzwords, the latter epitomised recently by properties such as Friendster and MySpace. Consumers make these the next big (or dead) thing, just as a track that everyone listens to goes to number one in the charts but, after a while, we never hear it again.
Instead, the focus should be on the fact that for thousands of businesses and brands in every imaginable market, the digital age has already changed - or is about to change - the way they do business in a fundamental way.
Digital, which represents an incredibly broad concept, is no longer the teenager with whom brands flirt, simply to pretend to be current. It is a fully-grown adult and is punishing those businesses that are not ready to embrace it for what it really is, especially as all of us consumers have already done so.
The convergence of consumer behaviour, innovation in business models and technology is changing everything. Take, for example, the video rental chain Blockbuster, which had expanded to take the place of every mom-and-pop video shop.
Then the world got digitised, and its business model became as good as redundant. What Blockbuster needed was not a digital campaign, or indeed a TV campaign, or even a brilliant Twitter feed (before anyone else "got" Twitter). It needed someone to say it had to come up with a whole new business strategy, and redefine the roles of communications, technology and customer experience.
When Tourism Queensland came to us with a problem that would normally have been solved by a simple TV ad, plus some posters and calendars distributed to travel agents, we came back with the suggestion that turned out to be "The best job in the world".
That campaign illustrates the way digital is changing the guts of most businesses, and how that requires companies such as SapientNitro to do things in a radically different way to enable our clients to succeed.
One of the reasons that Sapient-Nitro is in the Fortune Top 50 fastest-growing companies in the world is that we engage in "idea engineering".
The Times came to us when the days of delivering news to its readers every morning were long gone. It needed to change how it engaged users to maintain its relevance in a new environment where news was being broken around the clock, and often not by news reporters.
SapientNitro's answer was to look at what The Times does best, and to use the digital medium to redefine its relationship with its consumers and maintain its legacy of relevance.
That's how we came up with the concept of "Breaking views", and how The Times shifted from selling news printed on paper in a 24-hour editorial cycle to breaking insightful comment around the clock a few minutes after an event.
High-street retailing is another area that is undergoing major change. Ten years ago, mainstream thinking was that online stores were an adjunct to the main high-street business.
When thinking about how Foot Locker could deliver its brand promise of "sneaker enthusiasm beyond reason", the answer was not to create another campaign that caught the eye of its customers for a second. It was to create a community for a global audience of sneaker obsessives that is now a growing resource that appeals to collectors and fans: Sneakerpedia.
What's different about it? Sneakerpedia isn't really a campaign. It's a social space that has already generated 4.5 million mentions online, even though membership is limited while the site is in beta. Neither is it created by a team of marketing pros, but rather by the fans for the fans and powered by Foot Locker.
SapientNitro gets asked to build hundreds of apps. We deliver only a few. Why? Because "everyone else is building mobile apps" is never the answer to a client's business problem.
Conversely, none of our clients has ever come to us and asked us to build a vending machine that can recognise when people are smiling. But we've built one anyway. Why? Because it was a solution to one of Unilever's problems when getting people to buy icecream. The problem was that the ice-cream freezer is often buried away at the back of a store, and the battle for sales often comes down to which icecream is more accessible.
"Share happy" became more than a way of getting ice-cream up front. It was a great campaign because it created a phenomenal commerce channel for Unilever, and a very cool brand impression at the same time. It wasn't just a digital campaign with a cool mechanic, but a change to ice-cream selling that blurred the lines between sales, marketing, retail and digital.
What is big in digital? It is realising digital doesn't really exist. The brand is the experience, and the experience is an amalgamation of the perception created by all communications and interactions across all touchpoints, from marketing and communications to sales and service.
To give consumers an excellent brand experience, businesses and those who advise them need to focus on the business issues. And they need to employ a mix of marketing, creative communications and technological expertise to solve the problem.
It's hard to ignore the hype and focus instead on tackling complex issues. But it is with "idea engineering" that we can conceive and execute ideas that deliver real results.
Understanding what's big in digital isn't about obsessing over the next hyped trend; it's about seeing how it is changing businesses on a profound level.
The successful approach is to tackle business problems with strategic business thinking, marketing, creative communications and deep technological expertise, otherwise known as 'idea engineering'.
Nigel Vaz is the managing director of SapientNitro
(From Campaign's "What Next in Digital" supplement, July 1 2011)
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk