The Tyranny of Technology – Lessons From Academia

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Anyone who works in marketing will by now no doubt know that Facebook is the 3rd largest ‘country’ on earth, that half a gazillion Android smart phones will shipped in 2011 (not strictly true) or that millions of people are now buying things they don’t need at prices that aren’t profitable through Groupon. In our industry we tend to fixate on new technologies and platforms, particularly ones that might, or do, grow fast and big. This is not surprising. They’re the interesting, exciting, newsworthy things in that we need to know about and use effectively as marketing vehicles.

Generally speaking, there is a pattern of logic to the way we approach digital platforms: new technology X is getting big, we really should think about using it for campaign X, because it can do X wonderful things. This is precisely the kind of seductive and powerful logic that many academics have spent much time deconstructing – variously described as technological determinism, or cyber-utopianism.

This is the belief that technology in itself can shape our behaviour to its will, often with revolutionary, overwhelmingly positive outcomes. For instance, technological soothsayers have promised that the Internet will create a new kind of democracy, make life easier, save us time to do the things we really want to, create millions of new jobs or enable citizens to bypass big corporations. In our industry, you may recognise determinism in statements like ‘mobile will revolutionise the way we shop’. It might, but it probably won’t. The last time I checked none of these things has happened, or look likely to happen anytime soon, and supposedly prophetic people have been promising they will for a long time.

It’s a powerful logic because it actually happens to be a very good way to market technology to end users, and Apple has probably been its best practitioner (presumably iPhone 5 will change everything, again). But for the purposes of marketing almost everything else, and when it comes to choosing how we use technology in marketing, it’s problematic. Because the “truth” of how new technologies grow, are actually used in everyday life and genuinely “revolutionise” anything is, as ever, more murky and complex.

Certainly, technology can shape what consumers do, and often does – but only if it augments our existing routines and patterns of behaviour.  This is why, for every Old Spice success story, there are hundreds of never-heard-of ‘participative’ campaigns consigned to the digital marketing graveyard almost from the moment they’re conceived. And it’s because we often approach these things with determinist logic ourselves: we’ll build a competition in Youtube and people will inevitably participate with it, because it’s on Youtube, and we have ads pointing to it.

Academics at the LSE have developed a framework over the last two decades to explain how technology is used in everyday life, which I think can help us overcome lazy determinism in digital marketing. It’s called domestication, and the premise is very simple: people ‘domesticate’ technology into the rhythm of daily life in often unpredictable ways. It calls us to think about the design of technology (or campaigns) and its domestication as dialectic, a negotiated process where the outcome is very rarely certain.

In academia the domestication framework is used in research to understand and predict how people adopt and use new media technology in daily life, often using in-depth qualitative techniques like ethnography. In marketing, we can use it as part of our planning discipline, by ensuring that we understand how communication ideas complement, accelerate or are realistically likely to change audience behaviour – then think about how best employ technology platforms, as they’re used in practice, to best achieve it. Our mantra should be: think behaviour first, technology second. We sometimes do this intuitively; we should always do it rigorously.

– Mark W. Holden (@ibu7979)

 

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