Community service

Consumers have become so resistant to on-line advertising that brands have to identify a relevant group and create a useful tool for its members before they can even think about trying to sell to them. Michael Nutley discovers more

The centre of gravity of interactive design is shifting. For years the PC screen has been the only interface that mattered, because the challenges posed by mobile and interactive TV were curtailed by their technological limitations. But, in the past 12 months, all that has changed.

Three new technologies have emerged that point the way to new modes and methods of interaction, while, within the marketing community at least, there’s a sense that there are better, more powerful ways to reach potential customers than microsites and banner ads.

The first new interface technology to appear was Nintendo’s Wii games console, and its controller that tracks three-dimensional physical motion and transfers it into the game. This was followed by the launch of Apple’s iPhone, with touch-sensitive operation and a sophisticated browser, which looks certain to revolutionise the experience of consuming data on a mobile phone.

Then, last autumn, Microsoft started demonstrating Surface. This is at base a touch-sensitive computer screen laid out horizontally, and in its demonstration form it looks like nothing so much as a coffee table built for sleek sci-fi movies such as Minority Report. Using a combination of Bluetooth and next-generation bar codes, it can recognise what’s placed upon it and display information accordingly. So it can download photographs from a digital camera and allow those images to be manipulated using hand movements. Or, in a retail environment, it could read drinks’ prices off the bottom of the glass and display them along with totals.

Each of these technologies offers new ways for people to interact with computers, or new situations for that interaction to take place. Together they’ll break the dominance of the window, icon, menu and pointer interface and bring computer use a step closer to transparency. But, of course, there’s going to be a whole new set of challenges that have to be met before people start to use this interface.

At the same time, there’s a shift going on in the way people think about how brands communicate with customers on-line. Back in the late 1990s, GM O’Connell, founder of one of the first digital groups in the US, came up with the idea of advertising as service. The thinking was that, as interactive media gave people unprecedented control over their media consumption, advertisers would have to find a new way to communicate with them, to get them to drop their guard and accept marketing messages. This would be achieved by producing advertising so relevant, so targeted and so useful that consumers wouldn’t even see it as advertising.

The popularity of this idea has risen and fallen in the intervening years, but it’s once again gaining ground. Social media sites such as MySpace and Facebook are the hot new media properties, and it’s clear that people who use these sites have strong views about companies advertising on their personal pages. According to YouGov research, almost half of them don’t want it, and most of the rest feel neutral about it. Very few actively want it, so there’s a whole new imperative to find ways to get marketing messages through.

On a panel at the Online Marketing Show last summer, planner and blogger Russell Davies was asked who he thought would lead the way in digital marketing in the future. His response was that it wouldn’t be digital groups but interaction designers, ‘people who can create something useful’. Hence the rise of Web applications, widgets, devices that allow the user to opt in to receive information, usually from a branded channel.

The example everyone cites in this case is Nike+. It won a Lion at the Cannes Advertising Festival last year, but it’s not an ad by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a simple piece of technology in the service of a simple insight (that a lot of people like to run while listening to music). What makes it work is a great interface that encourages people to use the information they gather as a result, and share it with their friends. The system works with any shoes, not just Nike’s, so the company’s ambition is to build a community of runners that it can then talk to, learn from and, ultimately, sell to.

This is the other big trend, the importance of communities. And increasingly it’s not about building communities from scratch, it’s about recognising the communities that already exist and giving them new tools and ways to interact. Couple that with the new mobile interfaces emerging, and there’s a whole new world for designers to think about.

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