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Shel Israel: How Technology Is Changing the Buyer-Seller Relationship

Are you ready? Is your company ready? Technology is drastically changing the buyer-seller relationship and your survival could depend on just how proactive your business is. In today’s post, I catch up with Shel Israel, co-author of The Age of Context to get an update on how technology has developed in the year and a half since the book’s release. 

Shel Israel

Shel Israel

MacLean: First off, what project are you working on now that has you really excited?

IsraelI am working on a book that is intended to serve as a sequel to The Age of Context. In that book, Robert Scoble and I looked at the technologists. In this new book I am looking more at how businesses are using contextual technologies.

The book also examines how this technology is shifting power from the seller to the buyer through social media, reviews and star ratings.

MacLean: In The Age of Context you and Robert Scoble focused on wearable technology or wearable computing. A lot has transpired since then, what is your take on where we are headed? Was Google Glass just ahead of its time? Keeping in mind that Apple just launched their watch.

Israel:  In the short time since The Age of Context was published, a great deal has happened. The new era is becoming a reality far faster than I had imagined. In my new book, my attention expands from just those who are making new world-changing technology to those who are adopting it in existing businesses to enhance customer experiences.

This is a new era and there will be a great many experiments. We pioneer the future by trying and failing. One of the grandest and most visionary experiments so far is Google Glass. In itself, Glass was no success. But it has already spawned vertical apps that will endure. For example digital eye-wear is being used in surgery, where a remote expert can help a less experienced local practitioner. Elite auto brands such as Ferrari are using digital eye-wear to let factory experts assist local mechanics worldwide. A blind athlete named Lex Gillette has adapted Google Glass into his artificial eyes so that he can live-stream his races to handicapped children’s classrooms in real time, where kids see precisely what he sees in real time.

There will be more. Issues such as apps, battery, tethering to the phone, will be resolved either by Google or some other company who will owe its success to Google’s spectacularly brilliant first-round failure.

MacLean: It seems to follow that sensor data and sensor technology continues to be growing like crazy. There is so much potential. What is your take on where things are headed in this area? Have there been any surprises for you since the book has come out?

IsraelRobert and I now fold sensors into the larger category of the Internet of Things. This area is experiencing exponential growth. My focus has been in places where customer experience is being enhanced in retail: malls, department stores, stadiums, airports, concert halls, etc.

This is important to merchants.  For 20 years online retail has been sucking customers out of stores, and onto web sites. Now, the stores are using contextual technologies to enhance the customer experience at every touch point from, in-store mapping, to personalized text discount offers, to mobile apps that lock-and-unlock dressing room doors, knowing which customer can be allowed access. 

The surprise with sensors is not the devices themselves, which are simple little things that notice change and signal the change elsewhere, usually into the cloud. The real action is in the massive adoption we are seeing in proximity platforms such as Beacons, NewAer Proximity Platform and the hopes of Qualcomm LTE Direct which will be released in 2016 where Wi-Fi will replace Bluetooth, thus vastly expanding range and direct communications.

MacLean: Social media and social networking continues to thrive, but there have been some negatives. Do you think that people will begin to pull back a bit from social media, particularly in light of privacy concerns and/or data mining?

IsraelActually, I see the opposite.

Social media has become a mature platform. Those exciting days when large brands allowed real people to speak as humans from a brand blog or Twitter account has sadly diminished. Social Voices like Scott Monty at Ford, Richard Binhammer at Dell and Frank Eliason at Comcast are no more.

But the amazing phenomenon is that brand marketers have lost their control in social media because they could not learn how to converse as peers with customers. So now people use social media to talk with each other; our friends and previous customers influence much of what we buy, where we eat, what we watch and listen to. Customers do this in social media, on social networks in customer reviews, in star ratings of Uber and Lyft mobile apps. The brands are diminishing in exercising control over influence and message. There is a power shift that is diminishing the brands and elevating the customers. This is fundamental and wonderful in my view.

As for privacy, I have been researching Millennials a lot in recent months for the new book. They are far more concerned about the quality of their experiences, than their personal privacy. They see it more as transaction where they will volunteer personal data in exchange for a better customer experience online or in stores. There are now more Millennials in the marketplace than aging Boomers like me. 

Privacy is becoming less of an issue. What is replacing it is a sense of transaction: I will let you know who I am, where I am and what I want. In return for that, you will make my shopping/buying experience easier than ever before. If you want to put offers in front of me, that’s fine, just as long as they are personalized based on what I am interested in.

Marketers need to stop talking and start listening. [Heh, I’ve been saying that for ten years-but I guess they aren’t listening]. People tell marketers everything the need to know voluntarily on social networks already. We announce when are planning a vacation, a night out  at a restaurant or for entertainment over a billion  times every week on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. It is public and there for the culling by any marketer who cares to pay attention or understands how to search unstructured data.

All marketers have to do to make more money and profits and improve customer relationships and acquisition, is to pay attention to what customers are saying online, and in public. 

MacLean: Naturally you can’t speak of, or think of, social media and privacy without thinking about location data. Do you think that the concern around privacy might impact app development in this area? Or, are the apps just so cool and useful that people will accept the risk?

Israel: I think the shock and outrage related to personal data is subsiding. I think most people understand what is going on and have decided the upside of what this technology can do is worth the cost-because the apps improve the user/customer experience.

Yes, the apps are so cool. However, users have more choices than ever before, and they will have even more choices for at least the next few years.  They will choose the apps and merchants who give them the best experiences for the loss of their personal data. They also will prefer doing business with companies that allow them a few filtering options, as well as the right to correct wrong data and the ability to opt out during private moments.

MacLean: What impact do you think all of this has on business? Are businesses really leveraging technology and data the way they could be, or still in a wait and see mode?

IsraelAll this is new stuff in a new age, one in which users have far more control than has previously been possible.  For tangible retail, and other customer-facing businesses, this is a new hope. As mentioned we have witnessed online technologies for the last 20 years sucking customers out of the stores. Now with contextual technologies, particularly mobile apps, and proximity platforms such as Beacons, etc. they are modernizing the experiences in malls, stores, stadiums, airplane terminals, and concert halls.

Merchants are using this stuff in new ways, some of it is a bit clumsy, but there are other experiments that show great promise, such as smart mannequins that know when a loyalty program enrollee is interested in an item and wants to try it on. It can signal a clerk who then puts the garment, in the right color and size into a dressing room. The customer then uses a mobile app to unlock the dressing room door and try on the item.

In airports, there will soon be apps that tell shoppers how much time it will take them to get to the gate based on the walking speed that the mobile app is observing.

It’s amazing stuff and it has all just begun.

MacLean: What impact is all of this having on conversations with customers and prospects?

Israel: Contextual technology is now weaving itself into the fabric of the buyer-seller relationship. The data we just discussed, allows the seller to treat all participating customers as individuals, making offers and giving assistance when needed and being unobtrusive when that’s what the customer wants.

What’s also very important here are conversations between customers. We tell each other what and where to buy, travel, eat, watch and listen to. Technology has given customers great power to influence, recommend and warn against brands, and brands have less influence over customer decisions as customers rise in power.

MacLean: How are you using technology differently than you were a year ago?

IsraelIn the last year, I have not really changed much. I have my own portable, Wi-Fi and switched back to non-Bluetooth phones. I have probably double the number of mobile apps I am using. 

The real issue is that I am using more, much more, technology in more ways. I am using it more with family members and medical service providers. I am paying for more with online checking and starting to make mobile cheque deposits-although I get paid increasingly through electronic systems.

Want to talk more about using technology in your business? Connect with us.

Marketing Challenges of 2014: The Influencers Weigh-in

If 2013 taught us anything, content marketing is not going anywhere.  Nearly all leading companies finally have content strategies.  With this in mind, tactics have had to change.  What do brands do to stand out in a sea of content that flows freely in every digital space that can possibly exist?  Good question!    Thankfully you have come to the right place!  I asked 5 of the top influencers what brands should be doing in 2014 to stand out. Let’s see what they have to say:

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1.  The Return of Good Writing (Tweet this)

@marketingprofs’ Ann Handley thoughts focus on the words you use and how you use them.

“Next—in 2014 and beyond—content grows up, and with it comes the notion that good writing is the foundation of all good content, whether that content is a 140-character tweet or the product pages of your website or your content marketing infographic…..Increasingly, organizations will realize that words matter. Your words (what you say) and style (how you say it) are your most cherished (and undervalued) assets. In other words, good writing is the basis of good content that gets noticed, no matter what form that content ultimately takes. What’s more: For businesses, good writing is a mirror of good, clear, customer-centric thinking.”

2.  Being Uniquely Creative While Being Authentic (Tweet this)

Radian6 and IntroHive Co-founder David Alston (@davidalston) knows from experience that in order to stand out, you need to be unique.  After all, Radian6 did this with their Community Strategy and won the hearts and minds of a fantastic community.

“Content marketing and social media are mainstream so the big thing in 2014 will not be if you use them, but how creative your brand will be. Just using each no longer let’s your brand stand out. How you string them together and how you tie them into other platforms and processes creatively will help make your brand shine in a sea of noise.”

3. Focus on the Customer First – Before the Technology (Tweet this)

Influence Marketing Co-Author Danny Brown (@dannybrown) believes there needs to be a return to actually understanding what our customers want.

“…without understanding what your customer wants, and at what stage of the buying cycle they’re at so you can prime your message for that exact moment, it doesn’t matter how cool the technology is, or the channels we use, or the implementation of a tactic. We now have linguistic mapping tools that allow us to segment customers, who they connect with, what they’re looking for, and archival history with our brand’s core business or competitors. 2014 will see us, as marketers in the social space, truly take advantage of that technology and deliver on the ROI approach that 2013 saw us begin to implement.”

4.  Become Superior Short Form Storytellers  (Tweet this)

Digital Veteran and HBR contributor, David Armano (@armano) believes that if you want to be successful in standing out, remember that people have short attention spans.

“Short form storytelling in the form of Vines, Snaps, Instavids etc. and short stories on YouTube [will be key]. Brands need the ability to tell a meaningful “story” quickly, sometimes in seconds or other times through a series of images. Stories that have “sharing power” built into them or where you can become a part of the story (think hashtags on Vine where people do their own Ryan Gosling video etc.). So in other words, small is the new big and short is the new long.”

5.   Become More Effective – Rather than More Intrusive (Tweet this)

The Age of Context Co-Author, Shel Israel (@shelisrael) believes that for the first time in decades, marketing and communications professionals will focus on effectiveness and finally concede that being intrusive is not working.

“This will be accomplished by using the contextual technologies outlined in my recent book with Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer), where we talk about how mobile, location, data, sensors and social media converge to allow sellers to understand where people are and what their intentions are. So marketers will begin to be able to just make offers to people who might actually be interested in what they are being offered. We call it Pinpoint Marketing.”

And what do I think?  I agree with all of these thoughts.  I would add that mobile continues to be a significant challenge and opportunity. With the increase in mobile adoption , as Marketers we need to embrace mobile and make it easy for our customers and prospects to purchase via social.  After all, I believe that 2014 will be the year of mobile.

What do you think?  Will content marketing change?  Will it be replaced by something else?  What is the next “thing”?