Navigating the digital landscape

Growth in digital communications underpinned Phoenix’s decision to invest in 1000heads, a UK-based consultancy advising major companies worldwide about how to navigate social and digital media. As platforms such as Zoom, Houseparty, Instagram and Twitter keep us connected as never before, 1000heads’ CEO Mike Davison explains where we are headed next and how companies can adapt to the rapidly evolving online environment.

One of the few highlights for those working from home over the past few months has been the opportunity to get a peek into colleagues’ domestic set-ups thanks to the joys of video calls.

But the small delight of being nosey or feeling superior about the quality of literature on a workmate’s bookshelf may soon disappear, given the rapid advances in video conferencing technology and virtual reality that will soon make meetings seem as though everyone is sat round the same table.

The convenience of such technology, along with a huge rise in social media usage, has become so apparent in recent months that it is likely to lead to permanent shifts in the way we work and the way businesses operate, according to Mike Davison, CEO of 1000heads, a consultancy specialising in advising on digital media strategies.

Video conference call services such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which have become ubiquitous in the past few months, already provide users with fake backgrounds, including scenes that make it seem as if the user is in an office rather than at home. This is just the beginning.

These fake backdrops are “a form of augmented reality”, says Mike, and the companies behind these software tools are developing virtual meeting spaces where you put on your headset and interact with other people as though you were sat round the table with them. “It’s more interactive and immersive than current video conferencing technology,” says Mike.

Who the key players will be in this rapidly evolving digital landscape is unclear. Facebook put a significant marker down through its acquisition of virtual reality equipment provider Oculus back in 2014, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that new platforms could quickly gain mass appeal. Take Houseparty, for example. Before the pandemic, how many consumers had heard of, let alone been regular users? “That app exploded over the course of the pandemic,” says Mike. “We are definitely seeing a new wave of fragmentation in social media, as well as a broadening of the term itself as technology facilitates new types of social interaction.”

This has significant implications for brand owners using social media channels to try to grow their businesses. Companies are not only going to have to increase their spending on digital marketing if they want to remain relevant, but they are also going to have to engage with an ever-increasing number of platforms. Mike says: “It’s not like you can just abandon Facebook in favour of TikTok, for example. Companies need to have a blended mix to their digital strategies.”

This has been made more urgent by the way different demographic groups have embraced digital technology. The older generation have been large adopters of social media platforms over the course of lockdown in an effort to stay connected; these so-called ‘silver surfers’ are unlikely to revert to their old habits.

Brand owners that have failed to respond to these changes will quickly realise they are, at best, falling behind and, at worst, in danger of obsolescence. “This crisis has exposed laggard companies to a do-or-die scenario,” says Mike.

Navigating this new world, however, is challenging for even the most tech savvy companies. For a start, being good at one aspect of digital marketing, such as search engine optimisation, won’t help when it comes to reaching customers via Tik Tok, for example. Adding another layer of complexity is that the people on social media use the various services in myriad different ways, making it harder to reach specific audiences.

1000heads, whose clients include Google, Facebook and Nokia, has coined a term to describe how companies need to think to meet this new challenge head on – social transformation. Rather than simply creating a product and a message that is broadcast far and wide, regardless of the medium, companies need to be more thoughtful about what they are saying and to whom. As Mike puts it, this requires companies to be “empathetic, conversational, authentic, and interesting” – not words often associated with big business – and make a fundamental shift in the way they approach marketing.

This may sound like a tall order. But as we have seen with the way video conference calling has become so routine, change is there to be embraced.