2017: From Mom's Digital Trail to a Brand Safety #Fails

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Pete Blackshaw.
Pete Blackshaw.

The death of my mother was far and away the biggest event for me of 2017, both personally and digitally.

Fifteen years of Alzheimer's made it a long goodbye, but as with my father's passing 10 years earlier, her life was given extra resonance and meaning thanks to social media's generous power of storytelling.

The power of digital; keeping the story and memory alive. Mom on-demand, one click away!

Curiously, this surge of web warmth surfaced halfway through a year of online confidence cracks. From "fake news" and brand-safety mishaps to once unthinkable privacy breaches like Equifax, the web felt different. Platforms once considered tamperproof openly conceded flaws. Trust took a hit.

Mind you, I never lost faith in digital, but 2017 raised my guard.

Digital hits and misses

When my wife Erika and I took the plunge and purchased iPhones for our 12-year old twins, so much dissonance drenched the decision we created a private Facebook group entitled "Kids Just Got an iPhone: NOW WHAT." We knew we weren't alone when several hundred parents quickly joined.

While my online purchases skyrocketed in 2017, my wife and I fell victim to a brilliantly executed online scam that set us back several thousand dollars.

But despite the dips and doubts, 2017 also refueled my passion tank. A week in Shanghai for leadership training opened my eyes to a breathtaking world of "can do," digital-first entrepreneurism. While WeChat sat idle on my app menu for over four years, this curious Eastern blend of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Paypal reignited the second I arrived in Shanghai. And when a Shanghai offline retailer prevented me from buying a gift for my daughter because I had neither WeChat or Alipay set-up on my iPhone, I felt like I had come of age.

Meanwhile, my captivation with voice activation barked on. Amazon's Echo Show (voice + screen) was a disruptive game-changer for our family -- even if its screen felt like a reincarnation of 1990's PointCast.

My voice journey reminded me that the simple stuff always wins first. Despite hundreds of skill choices, our family first gravitated to basic stuff like "setting the clock" for cooking or kid pick-up. Spotify and NPR came second, followed by jokes. (Free tip: Every brand should have five great jokes.)

My thumbs produced more than 100 short films and work "how to" videos on iMovie. My son filmed me walking on my hands across four U.S. states at the Four Corners monument, earning on of my highest "like" yields of the summer. I produced an entire ski movie using Snap glasses.

The explosion of "Stories" furiously threw me off balance. I blinked, and suddenly they were everywhere. Like 300 million other consumers indulging in Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook stories, I joined the party with creative zeal. Then again, did anyone notice?

Induced by long business trips, I inhaled too many Netflix downloads, especially the documentaries. "What the Health" prompted a three week meat moratorium.

My first DNA test knocked my socks off, especially the precision of my Italian ancestry. That said, I scratched my head over 23andMe's groundbreaking genome discovery that I can smell asparagus.

As campaigns go, I loved Fearless Girl—even earmarked my Facebook profile to a photo of my daughters next to the statue—but scratched my head after the sponsoring financial firm settled a $5 million suit over unequal pay.

Scott Galloway's acerbic, sometimes sarcastic industry-rants tripled my email click-through average. Mary Meeker forced a double-take when she dedicated 100 pages of her annual report to gaming.

I designed my first chatbot, and unblocked my doubts about blockchain. Airlines earned my respect with iPad apps linked to unlimited in-flight movies. In-flight Wi-Fi still drove me nuts.

Bots, voice, talking fridges, smart robots and other artificial-intelligence powered novelties prompted me to deliver a year-end TEDx talk titled "The Concierge Economy." Is your "bell" ready, I asked?

I happened to be in Mexico City during the tragic earthquake and was beyond frustrated that it remains so difficult to give money to charities online.

Final word

Lastly, I thought a ton about brand purpose and values in 2017, and this obviously took on extra meaning when my mother passed.

You see, mom was an indefatigable change agent. She was a pre-millennial millennial, and practically memorized brand nutrition labels. The trail of social and digital storytelling following her death sourced in large measure from her uncompromised #FearlessGirl persona where action spoke louder than words.

That's a great insight for all of us in branding going into 2018. Thanks, Mom.

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