* It’s been a longstanding thesis of mine that Google’s ability to reorder information in microseconds, based on our declared intent through a search query, has habituated us to expect an immediate and relevant response from nearly every website – and in particular, commercial sites. In time, I think this expectation will leak into realspace as well. In this post, I explore what that might look like.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been using what I call “The Gap Scenario” to illustrate how marketing is going to change in the next few years, in particular as it relates to the intersection of physical and digital spaces. Yes, I’m talking about Gap, the retail clothing brand, but I’m also talking about the “gap” between where we are as an industry, and where we are headed.
Yesterday I got a chance to talk on camera about the concept (it’s in the first ten or so minutes), but if you’re like me, it’s sometimes easier to read than watch video. And to be honest, until I write something down, I’m never entirely sure I’ve thought it through. So here goes.
Imagine it is a few years from now. Not much has changed in your life (as much as, say, it has in the past three years. We often get a bit ahead of ourselves when it comes to thinking in the future). You happen by a Gap store, and eager for a bit of retail therapy, you walk through the door.
By walking through Gap’s door, you have declared an intent – just as certainly as if you had entered “Gap clothes” into a search engine.
So what happens next? What response does your “search” elicit?*
In a few years, this is what I think will be pretty standard. First, you’ll have a smart phone on you, one that is running several background processes (think of them as “ambient apps”) at all times. One of those processes listens for signals coming from the environment around you, and when it finds a signal that it finds may be useful, it responds to that signal with a ping saying “I am here.”
This is why, when you cross the portal into Gap, your phone buzzes (assuming you’ve instrumented it to buzz. It might ring, or it might stay silent, because you know as soon as you go into Gap, there’ll be a response waiting for you. My point is that the response is immediate).
As you cross into Gap, you take out your phone and take a look at what Gap has to say to you. And what might that be? Well, it depends on any number of factors, but my guess is the Gap App will welcome you into the store, and perhaps ask if you are enjoying the jeans you purchased at the downtown store last month. It also shows that four of your friends have recently been in the store lately, and another three have purchased something online. Would you like to see what they bought?
Another alert reminds you that it’s been a few years since you bought anything for your daughter, who must be growing up. Might you be interested in a Gap tee or scarf most favored by girls in her age group? Special 15% off applies for folks like you, who have “Liked” Gap on Facebook.
Interested, you stroll over to the Teen section and see a blouse your daughter might like. You hold your phone up to it, focusing the camera on the tag. The Gap app immediately scans the tag and provides another search result, including price, available inventory instore and online, customer reviews culled from various sources, and recommendations for related items, complete with a map icon which, if pressed, shows where those items are in the store.
But for whatever reason, you put your phone in your pocket and head for the mens department. You came in for your own retail therapy, after all. You know that if you want to buy that blouse, you’ve already shown an interest in it, and at any time you can complete the purchase through the app, or, importantly, by asking any Gap associate throughout the store.
And that leads us to the other side of this scenario. When you walked through the front door, you were immediately identified as a returning customer. All the data about your interaction with Gap, as well as any other related data that you have agreed can be publicly known about you, has already been sent to the store, and to the mobile devices of every Gap associate working in the store today. You know this, and further, you expect anyone you might ask a question of to know as much about you as you care to reveal. In a way, it’s both comforting and empowering.
As you head upstairs to the mens department, you pass a Gap associate who smiles, checks her phone (which thanks to something like Presence has lit up with your profile) and says hello. The social action of her checking her phone as you approach is something you consider normal, and you wait for what she might say next.
And what she says next – the next turn in your conversation with Gap – will be critical. Will she be human, empathetic, nuanced? Or will she be corporate, stunted, odd?
Well, that depends, in the end, on how Gap trains its employees, and whether Gap allows them to be themselves. Does Gap hire folks with a high social IQ? Or does it hire folks who secretly hate this data-driven corporate shit, so they grit their teeth as they ask you if they can help?
An important question indeed. But this day, you’ve come to your favorite store, where the employees are fluent in the dance between social data, commercial intent, and real time physical interaction. Your associate simply nods and says “let me know if I can help you,” smiles, and lets you pass. She reads from your face and body language that you don’t want too much more than that. She was right.
At the mens department you find your favorite jeans, but don’t want to dig through the piles to find your size. Instead you point your phone at the stack, and the Gap App tells you the store, alas, is out of size 34. Would you like to purchase them online, and have them sent to your home? They’ll be there later today, because a store across town has them in stock, and Gap provides same day delivery within a 50 mile radius. You press “Yes”, the purchase is confirmed, and, your retail desires fulfilled, you head toward the door.
As you leave, the associate you passed earlier thanks you for your purchase.
Well that was pleasant, you think, as you walk down the street. Out comes your phone again, and you bring up the Gap application again. Maybe you will get that blouse for your daughter, after all.
Now, think about all the elements that have to work in concert for this scenario to play out. To my mind, the easiest part is the technology and the platforms for that tech – they exist already. The smart phones, the app world, the social instrumentation – all solved. What’s not solved are the business processes that sew it all together. This scenario incorporates many distinct practices of traditional marketing. Customer service, CRM, direct marketing, instore and online promotions, and even brand marketing – because above the line brand work is what ties it all together by making the promise this scenario will pay off.
Getting all those pieces to work in concert is the hard part. My experience with large brands and the agencies which support them is that they have necessarily specialized, creating silos that are very good at what they do (direct marketing, CRM, etc) but not very good at working across the organization. That’s going to have to change. It’ll happen first with retail brands like Gap, but it’ll come quickly to consumer packaged goods (who will want to answer the search even if it happens on a supermarket shelf) and small businesses as well.
Helping them make the transition is a huge opportunity. More on that in another post.
*replete with MOLRS, of course.