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The (Social) Future Ain't What It Used to Be

It’s like déjà vu, all over again—the famous malapropism from Major League Baseball icon Yogi Berra–couldn’t be farther from the truth.  But had Yogi ostensibly experienced the same “déjà vu” enjoyed by today’s futurists and trend-spotters, I wonder what his take would be on predictions today in the business world’s accelerating technological disruption. 

I recently attended the annual content and speaker rich conferences Pivotcon and TMRE [IIR’s The Market Research Event].  Each conference, which attracted a broad spectrum of brands, technologists, market researchers, media networks and advertising, marketing and communications agencies, showcased leading edge social media intelligence and analytics technology (albeit less at TMRE than Pivotcon), complemented by social and mobile research case studies.  Equally prominent as the technology disruption discussions— but more significant—was interest expressed in predictions from such keynote futurists as Jane McConagil, Douglass Rushkoff, Jared Weiner, and forecasts from data scientists, ethnographers and brand analysts. 

At TMRE Malcolm Gladwell came full circle, cautioning market researchers of the myopia in weighting conclusions on the left side of the U-curve.  He cited research from his latest book David and Goliath, warning of the pitfalls in the faulty execution of data—e.g., short-sighted correlation leading  to the perpetuation of faulty premises, thus resulting in things like excess spending in public education to control class size and California’s “Three-strikes” law.  While public policy remains unchanged and spending has grown, data shows effectiveness of these policies has been either neutral or nefarious, even contradictory to initial premises—i.e., data showing no improvement in public education and exponential growth to unprecedented size of California’s prison population, with very significant collateral damages.

So why, when comes to discussing, adopting or executing on readily available rich social media intelligence, why do I still sense Luddite-like 19th century English intransigence from some in the market research industry?  Resistance to change?  A laggard C-suite? Silo entropy? Fear of obsolescence?  Job insecurity?

Striking at the very core today of all business, resistance to technological disruption in the market research industry appears to stem largely from the fear of failing, especially given there is no single “social silver bullet” on the market.  Intrepid companies, on one end of the spectrum, are recognizing that social intelligence technology is rapidly advancing.  They are bravely forging ahead in the social platform vetting stages and experimenting.  Others (even last year!) are convinced their initial foray into social intelligence “trying” off-the-shelf tools was “unsatisfactory.” And then there are those, at the spectrum’s other end, who have totally abandoned social intelligence, or who believe it is nothing more than a “fad.”  Never mind that McKinsey says businesses are losing out on $1.3 billion in social!

According to Brian Solis, a Pivotcon guru and lead Altimeter Group analyst, only 3% of companies rest in middle of these two extremes and are integrating social into their operations. 

Altimeter’s latest report on the state of social business finds that most companies have a presence in, or are engaged in social, but only 3% are fully engaged.  While social business is considered to be the primary driver of brand experience improvement, according to Altimeter research most brands see “social chaos.”  And although fewer companies are using social data for insights, they get richer customer insights when they do “experiment.”


The paradox is that Big Data is not new.  When it is mentioned in today’s world of business many still feel overwhelmed by a sense of “data drudge.”  The good news is that the technology to execute on the data and deliver highly reliable social intelligence across the spectrum—translatable into actionable insights—has come of age.

At TMRE and on a pragmatic note, Roush Fenway Racing’s Kevin Thomas, VP strategy marketing on behalf of its NASCAR sponsorship marketing, presented a terrific template for jump-starting a social initiative in companies big and small: 

Marketplace Challenges

  • Increasing demand for marketers to justify budgets
  • Nontraditional marketing levers at company disposal
  • Overcoming emotion-based decision for sponsorship


  • Increase internal ideation and activation resources
  • Leverage owned-channels to deliver greater value to partners
  • Align with third-party researchers to deliver measurement

Back to the future of things—now aptly called the Internet of Things—at Pivotcon Michael Zimalist, VP, R&D operations at The New York Times, described just how much the future has changed.  Bucking the trend for newspapers, and largely owing to the newspaper’s innovative social content strategy, 2013 was the first time in 160 years that The New York Times (NYT) subscriber revenue overtook ad revenue.  This also was due, in part, to the newspaper’s experimental drive with disruptive technologies and futuristic think.  For example, NYT has developed a “Timesean” app now available for Google glass, feeding rich Timesean windows for wearers as they roam cities worldwide.  The modus operandi? Go where the subscriber is—e.g., the home fridge LED screen. After peaking into the fridge, a subscriber can correlate his/her biometric info to New York Times article nutrition/recipe feeds right on the screen surface.


At TMRE Mr. Wiener cautioned market researchers who essentially are  “suffering from educated incapacity”—where knowledge overload leads to extreme myopia, undercuts innovation and outside the box thinking.  Or, as aptly printed on Seek Company T-shirts:  The problem is that everything is incredible and no one sees it.  The antidote according to Wiener:  “Use alien eyes.”

Perhaps a good place to start is with a new pair of “specs.” Yo, Yogi! How about a Timesean space travel Google glass app?   

At TMRE this futurist thinking also was echoed by VP Consumer & Customer Insights Charles Vila at Campbell Soup Company, who stated:  “Imagine stepping outside one’s reality to imagine an altered state of things future.”  

Mr. Vila and his team have discovered a social holy grail in the Internet of Things: 

Digital is resetting consumer expectations, with customer values dramatically changed to include “My ROI,” fueled by personal brand experiences and customer service AND “iHealth 3.0”—a belief that we are all accountable for our actions in a collaborative, multi-stakeholder driven society—translating into an undercurrent of intolerance where “I” hold you responsible for your unhealthy lifestyle which I’m paying for as a healthy mindful person. 

So in our new millennia it would seem that Yogi Berra was right about one thing: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” 

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