Convergence: What's a Marketer to Do?

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If you follow this industry closely, you know all major trends begin with the letter C, such as customization, community and commerce. The latest one is convergence -- the idea that in the near future people will glom on to one primary appliance, a TV/PC /Web hybrid beast that delivers the news of the day, Ally McBeal, movie tickets ordered via the TV remote control and printed on a nearby laser printer, cubic zirconium trinkets delivered to your home via wireless remote click. In this brave new world, the TV remote and the mouse combine, and life will never be the same.


Of course, in the old days, before all these C words, we used to call this Interactive TV. And need I remind everyone that we have been talking about Interactive Television, excuse me -- Convergence, for more than 20 years. Along with HDTV. Along with Picturephone. Plus a host of other "don't hold your breath" revolutionary technology developments.


If you've seen the early videos of Interactive TV you know why it may never work. Videos of families awkwardly scrolling through text on their TV as a group activity, when clearly they'd rather be watching football. The problem is that television is communal; reading, researching and retrieving is not. Television is by definition passive while interactivity is not. And frankly, the sheer ergonomics may not work in many households. I may lie on the couch with my beer to watch football, but I will want closer proximity and privacy if I shift to financial transactions.


While there may be some latent demand for the Swiss army knife of home entertainment and computing, it's probably confined to a subset of the population. Web TV didn't exactly redefine the PC industry. Most of us still happily shell out coin for multiple special purpose devices such as bigger TVs and more powerful PCs. And while there is evidence to suggest we are putting all these devices in our living rooms, maybe even using them at the same time, that is still not quite the same thing as true convergence.


But let's say you believe in convergence. Not just PC and Web convergence, but this idea of ubiquitous information access across multiple devices, the idea of an "always-on" core utility in the home. If PCs and TVs and other devices really do converge, we're in for a radical redefinition of advertising and marketing.


We need to remember that today, on television, advertising is something you endure. On the Web, advertising is something you choose to endure as a means to a specific transactional end. This difference is enormous. In the future, if the television and the computer truly do merge, all advertising becomes a process of active consumer election. The consumer, not the marketer, gets to decide what he sees. And what happens next?


All advertising becomes direct marketing and selling. The new currency isn't just entertainment, but relevancy. Advertising becomes less about establishing a feeling or bond between the brand and the consumer, and more about getting them to point, click and buy.


We are already seeing this on the Web. The model which consistently works is the direct to customer model. Like it or not, if the Web, the TV and the PC come together, mass television advertising by definition becomes one to one direct marketing and e-tailing. Far from making the Web more like television, convergence will make the television experience more like the Web. This is not necessarily good news for the typical marketer in the typical category. Today, relevancy hardly matters for the mass advertiser. Intrusiveness makes up for that. But tomorrow, relevancy will be the price of entry. And there will be no such thing as intrusiveness.


In this post-convergence world, everything we're already concerned about becomes turbocharged with exponential complexity. Ubiquitous access across multiple devices and richer opportunities to establish a dialogue with customers will create appalling fallout due to increasing consumer demands for relevance and topicality. Measurement will occur within and across media. Fees will be paid based on outcomes, not eyeballs. And partnerships will need to be built to seamlessly link content and transactions. In this new world, all marketers become publishers, e-tailers, and multimedia producers: It is a rich-media (read: expensive) place.


Competition for the consumer's attention will become ferocious. The challenge will be to become topical, learning new ways to demonstrate the virtual value proposition.


Sadly, not all advertisers will be able to play in this brave new world. The new currency of relevancy and the need for service-level wrappers to enhance that relevancy may leave vast categories of advertisers out in the cold. Consumers won't care about paper towels and aren't particularly curious about toothpaste. I may take flyfishing forecasts from LL Bean via my Palm Pilot, but never Tide stain alerts. I'm not going to click on my TV remote to order Pepto Bismol for overnight delivery. Commerce links will work for impulse purchases and complex categories, not for low-involvement goods.


Most critically, the direct marketing/e-tailing mindset shift, with its relentless focus on measurability, will frighten many advertisers away. If the television and the PC converge, it's not clear where mass advertising money will go. Perhaps billboards or radio. Maybe all that money will go into multimedia production dollars to create ever-more-compelling consumer experiences.


I'd still bet, though, that we've got some serious time before all this happens. Until then, let's be careful what we celebrate. We are an industry fueled by sucking on our own exhaust. We see the Victoria's Secret Super Bowl/Web event as a glimmer of TV/Web convergence, rather than as soft core porn/alcohol consumption convergence. We tend to focus on fantasy rather than reality. We're hung up on broadband when we haven't come close to optimizing narrowband. Most critically, we have to build in the notion of customer focus, customer realities, and an data-driven understanding of customer needs and wants. This infrastructure and architecture needs to come first. Convergence won't change that requirement. It will underscore it.


Kathy Biro is president/CEO of online ad agency Strategic Interactive Group, New York, a subsidiary of Bronner Slosberg Humphrey. Reach her at kbiro@sig.bsh.com.
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