Talk with me! (Alexander Bard)
nextMedia: The digitalisation is changing everything around us. Do humans have to change, too?
Alexander Bard: We ARE changing! I’m declaring that a smartphone is now a human being with some fat and muscle tissue surrounding it. One of the leading thesis of all my work is “technology is the driving force of history”. Human beings really don’t change at all, technology is the change. So whatever changes throughout history is technology.
Technology has a dramatic effect on us as human beings, I mean, language is a technology. To speak is to use technology, to write is to use a technology. To print media, is another technology. Radio is a technology, television is technology, the internet is probably the most dramatic technology of them all. These technologies change us and the whole idea of what it means to be a human being changes over time.
When we first had written language, text was so expensive. To make a book like Futurica Trilogy in 1449, before the printing press, cost 150.000 EUR to make one copy. After the printing press it cost you 30 Cents. So before you had the printing press, books were so expensive they were regarded as holy and sacred. That’s exactly why the beginning of the gospel of John at the beginning of the Bible says “In the beginning there was the word and the word was God”, because the word was something sacred. Very few people knew how to read or write so it seemed like a sacred activity. Priests knew how to read and write. Then it became commonplace to read and write and by 1850 everybody could read and write so the value of texts suddenly became the great texts vs. the bad texts and today it’s the capacity to communicate at all which is the key.
So, we change because our communication changes and our technology changes all the time. And what I’m doing research on is basically to write what is called “The Metaphysics of the Internet Age – what does it mean to be human now?” And that’s something very, very different from 30 years ago. We do these huge surveys where we enter over 40.000 teenagers from around the world; these surveys have been done since the 1960s. We can now show, that the difference between someone who’s 40 years old and somebody who’s 20 years old is the biggest and most dramatic difference we’ve ever measured, which means that a 20-year-old today cannot recognise him or herself in their parents.
The whole idea of being an individual is what parents believe in “Oh I’m an individual, I’m a Me, I’m an I, I never change. There’s something inside of me that’s always the same, eternal.” If you’re 20 years old, you don’t believe that, because you’re one person in the morning, one person in the evening, one person on one social media site, another person on another social media site and if you go on a dating site, you’re one person with your face and another person with your genital organs.
So, if you’re 20 years old you’re now schizophrenic. Schizophrenia used to be pathology, now it’s a winning formula, because the more schizophrenic you can be, the more people you can be within one body, the more successful you are. That’s how the internet works. And if that is not different from what we had 40 years ago, I don’t know what’s different. To me that’s a dramatic paradigm shift, so the whole idea of what it means to be human has changed and is changing as we speak. And this is where I come in. My work is about different generations understanding each other. I’m basically giving the word to those who are 20 years old and giving them concepts to understand their world better. When I give lectures to university students they go “YES! This is our world and now we have words for it!” Because they need new words, a word like dividual rather than individual. A dividual is a person who is many people at the same time.
nextMedia: Are we living in a revolutionary time right now? Are there any similar events in history to what we are experiencing at the moment?
Alexander Bard: By the late 18th century, around 1770/80 France had become the first country of the world where over half of the population could read and write. And almost 80% of the population of Paris could read and write in 1780; of course in 1789 we have the French Revolution. What happened was that you had tabloids all over Paris and Marie Antoinette was the Lindsay Lohan of her age. So everybody was reading about Marie Antoinette everywhere and the king and the queen didn’t know. They had no idea there were newspapers, they completely missed out on it. They were like today, these old men of 55 years who run corporations around the world and suddenly there’s a women who’s the Chief Digital Officer coming into his office and she’s the guy running the show now and he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what’s happening underneath his nose. So I would say, the era we had between 1780 and 1820 was a similar revolutionary era. The only difference is speed. The internet only arrived in the early 1990s and it took only 20 years for the revolution to kick in, because things move much faster now. And we’re right in the middle of it as we speak.
nextMedia: Which effects has this on the field of marketing and communication?
Alexander Bard: I would say: “There is no such thing as Online Marketing, it is impossible!” Marketing is something you do with mass media. Marketing you do with newspapers, radio and television. You put an advertisement in these media. Now if you move to the online world, advertisements are called SPAM and we hate them. So you cannot longer advertise in the online world.
Online marketing actually does not exist. The online world is all about online COMMUNICATION. That means, you cannot talk TO anybody, you have to talk WITH people. And the shift from talking to people, which is what marketing people do, to talking with people, which is what communicators do, is incredibly difficult. To begin with I think not a lot of marketing people will be able to handle the change. You probably need a whole new generation of communicators to be able to actually talk with the people. Otherwise, the marketing people have to go to somebody who has a blog. Then pay every penny they have to the blogger and the blogger will communicate with people for them. That’s increasingly the trend we see right now.
So there’s this 40 year-old marketing person, why would I talk to him? They can just skip that now with the internet. The internet is all about: When you would you talk to people with newspapers and radio and television very few people had the power to run a newspaper or a radio station or a TV station, you needed a license, you probably needed to be proven by the state and you needed lots of money to get started. To start a blog you need NOTHING! You need a laptop and a Wordpress account and that’s it, it doesn’t cost you anything; anybody can blog. And suddenly that means you have an enormous democratisation of the information flows just about anywhere on the planet.
Only in India this year, there will be 300 million smartphones sold, so it’s also a global phenomenon. Places you wouldn’t even look at before suddenly become incredibly powerful. A fisherman in Kerala in India can be as powerful as we are in Germany or somebody in California, because we all use the same cheap or zero cost tools. And suddenly we’ll talk with each other. But the shift from talking to, to talking with is incredibly difficult so I actually provoke people when I do those speeches and say: “Don’t you ever think there’s anything like Online Marketing! It cannot even exist in an interactive environment. You have to talk with people. That means, you have to be so interesting that people would want to talk with you. Otherwise they won’t listen.”
nextMedia: Consumer Insights become more important and sometimes lead to new products. What will happen to traditional companies, who have not yet turned social or digital?
Alexander Bard: Well, they will die! In 1449 we had 300.000 monks and nuns around Europe, who handwrote books professionally. They were highly paid, they were highly regarded and incredibly powerful. In 1550, 100 years after the printing press arrived, there was not a single hand writer left in Europe. They probably demonstrated a lot during those 100 years, saying: “Stop the printing press, it’s killing our jobs!” Well, it did and then they were gone. So unless you go digital, you will not exist in the future. You have to have a digital strategy.
If you don’t have a digital strategy, where will you be? Everything will move online anyway, and we’ve known that for 20 years and now it’s really happening. We know more about consumers, yes we do, for that reason there is big data. People leave traces of all their behaviour, everywhere they go they leave traces and that has one great benefit.
Before, the only way to find out how consumers think was to talk to them. You would have to interview them, which is very costly. They would only say what they thought, they wouldn’t actually be honest, because they don’t actually know what they do. Now you can register their behaviour and it cost almost nothing. This is, of course the reason why GMail and Hotmail, Wordpress and Twitter and all these services we have online are for free. Because what all these companies do is that they take the data, they know everything we do.
They’re not really interested in us on a personal basis, they’re interested in us as swarms, groups of people doing group behaviour like all the people coming to an event. That’s the benefit for marketing people: you don’t have to guess any longer. The great thing with people is that people may not be honest when they talk, but they’re honest when they behave.
So if you register people’s behaviour, you know exactly how they think. The subconscious directs their behaviour, not their consciousness. They just ignore that everything is being registered, they don’t even pay attention. I can give you 2 perfect examples: If you were in fashion 10 years ago, fashion was something you would have to move to Paris and Milan to do. You probably have to be a gay man to be accepted. These days, if you’re a customer and you like fashion and you walk into an H&M shop in Germany, everything you do is registered. You don’t even know that you’re now the designer yourself. H&M registers everything their customers do. The first two companies in the world to do that were H&M and ZARA. And now H&M and ZARA, a Swedish and a Spanish company, are much bigger than the entire Parisian fashion industry. They are the two biggest fashion companies in the world, simply because they allowed the customer to become the designer.
The customer doesn’t even know; that’s the interesting part. They register what you buy, which clothes you touch, things you ignore, the things you look at, where your eyeballs go in the shop, things like that. And of course, they register everything you do online as well when it comes to fashion. That way they find out exactly what you do, so they can specifically order the design team: “This is what our customers like, let’s do more of that”.
nextMedia: Do you believe Content Marketing and Storytelling are the right means for companies to talk to their communities? Or is mass media the only choice, especially with Facebook having turned from a social network into more of a media company?
Alexander Bard: Well Storytelling is the opener, but it’s not the key. You need a story about your brand to tell to people, then hopefully the story is so attractive that it sticks and people remember your brand, that’s what you want to achieve. But that’s only the opening of the door. Once the door is open, you really have to have something interesting to communicate. And what’s interesting to communicate is increasingly to give people tools to create their own thing. You have to allow people to become co-creators. For my fourth book, coming out in September, we studied participatory culture, went to the Burning Man Festival in America, which is key to everything in Silicon Valley. You don’t get anywhere, to Google or Twitter, if you haven’t been to Burning Man first. Even those ideas were shaped there.
So, these participatory festivals were interesting, because people go participatory festivals, now there are about 30 of them around the world, and they create a temporary utopia, they ban the use of money, things like that, so everybody should feel equal. But the most important thing is that you’re not allowed in, unless you’re artistic and you’re a co-creator of the event. So you’re responsible for your own entertainment. All the 70.000 people, who are allowed to go to the Burning Man Festival in August this year, first have to prove that they are artistically involved in one of the projects. The whole event, Burning Man, is co-created by all the 70.000 participants.
Increasingly companies like Google and Twitter work the same way. You’re given the responsibility for your own destiny once you walk into the building and you get employed by Twitter or Google. You probably become a co-owner as well, of the company and then you’re expected to co-create everything that happens inside the building. This idea of co-creation is absolutely key, because the thing that happens to us when we have a Smartphone in our hand is that we realise that we are co-creating everything. We don’t passively consume anything anymore.
What I did was a separate study, where I interviewed people that went to the Burning Man Festival to look if they would still go and buy a ticket to a rock concert after they’ve been to Burning Man and they never do. Once you’ve been to participatory festivals and you co-created the event, you will never ever go and buy a Coldplay concert ticket again, because it’s too passive. There’s this shift here from passive consumption to co-creative production and consumption. The whole idea of a producer and a consumer disappears and we all become co-producers and co-consumers regards to everything. This, I think, is the key. If you can get people involved in your brand, so they feel it’s their own brand. When they’re actually involved in what you do, you’re fine. That’s absolutely key here.
nextMedia: Alexander, thank you very much.
Autor: Jan C. Rode