Hurtling Towards a Post-Digital Era

Hurtling Towards a Post-Digital Era

A few years ago, I read about a surprising trend in architecture and design: technology-free spaces. Architects were hearing from clients that they wanted entire rooms in their houses that were absent technology—no Wi-Fi signal, no cell signal, no cable, no screens.

They wanted rooms that offered force-field-like protection from the digital world—an oasis, if you will, where, even if you smuggled in a smartphone, it simply wouldn’t work. The idea was to design rooms that did nothing, and allowed nothing, for people who wanted to do nothing.

But in my house, and I’m guessing in your house too, there exists no such room. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Every room has WiFi access, and, post pandemic, we’re online more than ever before. What few boundaries still existed between home and work are now completely obliterated.

We essentially wake up in our offices, work, and then go to sleep in them, using the time in between email and Slack messages to laugh at memes while reacting to an relentless stream of news and responding to an endless stream of texts. We’re always on because we don’t know how to be off anymore.

In a recent Fast Company article called “Gen Xers and older millennials really just want to go back in time to before the internet existed,” Christopher Zara writes, “According to a new Harris Poll shared exclusively with Fast Company, most Americans would prefer to live in a simpler era before everyone was obsessed with screens and social media, and this sentiment is especially strong among older millennials and Gen Xers.

“Asked whether they would like to return to a time before humanity was “plugged in”—meaning before people had wide access to the internet and smartphones—77% of Americans age 35-54 said they would, the highest of any group.”

Even if you’re not a Gen Xer like me, or a Millennial, I’m sure this comes as no surprise. The digital pendulum has swung so far in the direction of always-on connectedness that it makes perfect sense that we’re longing for the days when we could go to the grocery store without forty-two notifications and three missed spam calls.

Frankly, it’s too much. All of it.

A big swing

The thing about pendulums, though, is that they always swing back, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re headed towards a post-digital era. I’ve thought this for some time now, and, ironically, I think A.I. is what’s going to usher it in.

Not only is the pace of technological adoption unsustainable, it’s also somewhat unnatural. I’m not convinced we can adapt to living in virtual reality when we’re still trying to figure out how to live in actual reality.

From a marketing standpoint, digital fatigue is forcing change and it seems like the last truly effective direct-to-customer digital-marketing tactic—email marketing—is going the way of the phone call. When’s the last time you answered a number you didn’t know? I’m guessing it was a long time ago. When’s the last time you answered an email from someone you didn’t know? I’m sure you see my point.  

As an agency owner, every day, I get about a dozen “we’ll help you grow your agency” or “we’ll deliver 50 leads a week” emails. They’re relentless and frustrating and virtually unstoppable, unless your email is configured to only receive messages from senders you know and allow, which more and more companies are doing these days.

What was once a valid route to getting someone’s attention is now one more digital dead end. (Permission-based email marketing is still fairly effective. I’m talking about cold outreach here.)

So where is all this leading and what does it mean? Firstly, it’s leading to a post-digital era, which won’t be exactly like the pre-digital era, but will instead see us innovate novel ways of merging physical and digital marketing tactics with physical and digital products.

I was in a meeting last week with a company that sends out more than a million catalogs a month. They do this, at great expense, because their customers want to flip through the pages and feel the paper in their hands while figuring out what they want to buy. They may indeed complete the purchase online, but weighing the decision of what they need, at least in their case, is a process better served without an internet connection.

I spoke with the CEO of a medical device company not long ago, too, and he told me their most effective marketing tactic—and I say this in all seriousness, in the year 2023—is fax marketing. Doctor’s offices still have fax machines and faxing a one-page advertisement that prints out and sits on the machine until someone picks it up results in more sales than any digital marketing technique they’ve tried.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or perhaps it’s simply the one message that still gets through, but it’s fascinating and worth pausing to think about. What did you used to do that you don’t do anymore that might prove to be effective once again?  

If you look back at the history of digital marketing, it was far from revolutionary—at least in some ways. (It just remixed some old ideas—at scale.) For the first time ever, the internet took enormous populations of people and merged them together. Next, websites and web applications segmented those populations by demographics. All digital marketers had to do was put advertising in front of those groups—and it was more convenient than ever. You didn’t have to stand outside with a sandwich board. You didn’t have to hire an airplane to pull a banner. You didn’t have to attend a conference. All you had to do was cough up some money, click a few buttons, and you were directly in front of your ideal customer.

The problem, though, is that, over time, humans get really good at filtering out the messages we don’t want to hear. And when we get tired of that, we just leave the digital world altogether. We put away the phones. We turn off the television. We take out the Airpods. Not forever of course. But for a time.

And the messages that still get through are the ones that show up in places that now seem surprising—in our mailboxes, in the magazines on the tables of our reception areas, on the signs on the sides of city buses.

The messages that get through are the ones that show up in the physical world, and, like those technology dead spaces architects are designing into homes, they simply don’t do anything. They just exist, with clever messaging and compelling photography, ready to engage people whenever they feel like it. These sorts of messages do more work by doing less work. They don’t flash or vibrate or call attention to themselves unnecessarily. Which is exactly what makes them powerful.

If there’s one point that I want to make, it’s this: digital marketing has made us lazy marketers. We design a few things, or make a few videos, and we launch them into the ether. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it certainly doesn’t make us crafty.  

The post-digital era will be one where the most creative marketers thrive. We’ll take pages from the history book of advertising and we’ll evolve. We might augment reality, but we’ll move away from the idea of virtual reality.

Because, in the end, reality is where we live.

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