January 27, 2014
The Technology Trap
I have developed a rather distressing reputation as a dinosaur who hates technology. I may be a dinosaur, but I don't hate technology.
As a former science teacher I love science and technology and am a sucker for all kinds of tech gizmos that I probably don't need.
I have another distressing reputation as an apologist for the broadcast industry, particularly TV. Once again, I plead innocent. I don't own a TV station (I wish I did) and have no particular interest in the success or failure of the medium.
In fact, while Nielsen says the average American spends about 7 times as much time watching TV as he does online, I probably spend 7 times more time online than I do watching television.
So why do I have these bad reputations? I think it's because my annoying personality has given me an inflated regard for the difference between a fact and an opinion.
Most of what I read about the advantages that tech-based advertising (i.e., online advertising) has over traditional advertising seems to be opinions masquerading as facts. With the exception of search, I have read a lot of assertions, but very few facts that convince me that the web is an uncommonly powerful advertising medium. If anything, I have been convinced of the opposite.
Thus far it appears that most of the new technology-based advertising methodologies have delivered substantially less than promised.
There is no doubt that the traditional advertising world has its fill of questionable practices and gross inefficiencies. However, having been ceo of an ad agency that did both online and digital advertising, it seems to me we spent a lot more time "massaging" our online numbers than we ever had to do with TV numbers.
But the technology delusion goes deeper than just media. Technology voodoo is becoming the new marketing voodoo.
I used warn my clients that marketing is not magic. It is not the answer to every problem. If your product is lousy, marketing can't fix that. If your location is lousy, marketing can't fix that. If your store is dirty, or your employees surly, or your business model screwed up, or your parking lot a mess, marketing can't fix that.
It seems to me that today the magical voodoo answer is no longer marketing, it has become technology. The truth is, unless you're in the tech business or you make machines or gadgets, consumers really don't care that much about technology.
Even when you get a technological advantage, it is usually very short-lived and soon turns into just another cost of doing business.
The construction guy who put the first flush toilet into the first home must have had a huge technological advantage -- for a couple of months. Then everyone started doing it.
Go back 20 years. Having a website was seen as a giant asset. Companies who announced the launch of a website actually saw their stock prices go higher. Today announcing the launch of a website is greeted with as much excitement as changing the plants in the lobby.
I don't know what bank introduced online banking. But they must have thought they found a gold mine. Today, every bank has to have online banking and it probably costs them each a fortune to maintain.
As new technology is adopted by everyone, what starts as a competitive advantage quickly winds up as just another cost of doing business.
I had a client with a very large advertising budget. About 95% of the budget was spent on traditional media (very effectively, I might add.) About 5% was spent on digital media. And yet I would say that when it came to discussing media, probably 70% of the time was spent on 5% of the budget.
Because of my speaking and consulting gigs, I have had the opportunity recently to attend many business conferences. It is remarkable to me how much time is spent on technology voodoo and how little time is spent on solving the real problems of real customers.
Most of the technology talk I hear is of the gee-whiz, jet-pack, moving-sidewalk variety that almost never comes to fruition. And if it does, it creates a giant QR-code yawn among consumers.
Technological improvements are nice. But they are not an instant fix for most business problems.
Technology seduces us into thinking we can solve our problems by spending money instead of changing behaviors. Which is about the most damaging trap a business can fall into.