Seeking the Human at Web Summit

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An attendee uses his mobile phone to film a Facebook Live video during the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, on Nov. 7.
An attendee uses his mobile phone to film a Facebook Live video during the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, on Nov. 7. Credit: Paulo Duarte/Bloomberg

One of the fascinating aspects of the annual Web Summit in Europe is the astonishing array of new technologies and start-ups on display. But as everyone at the Summit in Lisbon this month obsessed over the alphabet soup of technologies (AR, VR, bots, AI, IoT, etc.), there was an eerie discomfort that permeated the space. While the excitement about new technologies justifiably keeps increasing -- the annual festival grew significantly this year! -- there is a basic perspective that our industry is in danger of losing.

Attendees, particularly marketers, are intensely focused on chasing the next technology. The promise of finding more targeted and engaging ways to interact with consumers is our holy grail. But in a world of robots taking over the Earth, an evergreen truth remains: We are all (so far, at least) human first. This is the core truth that drives us. And it's how we unlock the ways that brands, products and services can and should earn a meaningful role in people's lives. As an industry, we need to shift from a technology-first conversation to a human-first conversation.

Brands can play a major role in this rebalancing. When people are separated from their mobile devices or technology, an increasing number suffer from what has been recently termed "nomophobia," the anxiety or discomfort caused by being out of contact with a mobile device or computer. Brands can counteract this fear when they create digital experiences that provide seamless assistance to people.

When we think about the notion of bots creating efficiencies for customer service or transactions with brands, the interaction can feel distant and alienating. But what if the brand could sense how you are feeling as you interacted with it? What if it could sense your anger, frustration, or anxiety?

One of the most in-demand startups at Web Summit was Affectiva. Affectiva's automated facial coding system uses a webcam to detect human emotions. The company has collected over 1 billion video frames of people watching online content (including online advertisements) across 75 countries, amassing what it claims to be the world's largest repository of emotional response data to digital media. This type of data can provide an objective way to see and communicate what someone might be feeling, and so improve a brands' effectiveness. Affectiva's innovation already proved its relevance to marketing, serving as the underlying technology in Barcelona's Teatreneu "Pay Per Laugh" program several years ago. (McCann was involved in this work.)

In similar territory, Mike Schroepfer, the CTO of Facebook, spoke at Web Summit about a future in which VR avatars are able to express emotion and connect with people. When we imbue these technologies with sensitivity and emotion, they are able to assist us in ways that are more human and make technology seamless, as we observed from Schroepfer's talk.

Many panelists spoke about the filter bubble, and how algorithms are making our worlds much smaller, reinforcing the echo chamber effect. We live in narrow silos, which results in the human casualty of always having more of the same in an over-curated world. If algorithms give me only what I want, I won't discover anything new.

But brands don't have to be so predictable. Smart brands are mastering "the artful surprise." We can use data and storytelling to introduce serendipity. William Sargent, the CEO of Framestore, talked about how, in the future, film will incorporate the ability to interact with other worlds and create unexpected wonder. He showed the film of Lockheed Martin's "Field Trip to Mars," which was created with McCann. In it, students are amazed when the windows of their school bus transform into screens, allowing them to suddenly look out at Mars instead of the street, delivering the first group VR experience ever. When the bus turns a corner, the view of Mars adjusts appropriately. This is a beautiful example of storytelling enabled through technology. The children are literally transported to another world through the brand's use of artful surprise.

Finally, there is the Internet, which has provided an incredible sense of transparency, and the potential for increased trust. But as the world has become more and more networked, it is difficult to know what to trust. With everything tracking and interacting with you, there is a greater need for new standards and laws that address human-first concerns.

This is the case even when familiar technologies spread into new areas. In the talk, "Making Our Devices as Intelligent as Possible," panelists in Libson discussed how airplanes have been self-flying for 20 years, and how this is now accepted as normal. Will self-driving cars be considered normal too? Perhaps, but not before safety concerns lead to changes in insurance and traffic laws. The question of standards applies to connected homes as well, which are ahead of the curve of self-driving cars. The panel agreed that there is a lot of innovation, with different companies trying different things, but that standards and laws to protect us will always lag behind.

The challenge is that these diverse experiments need to happen first. Then consumers and experts can choose the innovation that works best, and develop the associated standards. It goes hand in hand with privacy and security. As soon as standards are chosen, privacy and security laws need to be deployed on a large-scale basis. The challenge for brands is that they need to establish a fair value exchange for what people are willing to share, and how intimately they will integrate smart technology into their lives. The brands that win will be those that use people's data to make their lives better. The data can actually lead to a sense of self-actualization. It is only when brands provide this transcendent value to people, and do so with acceptable transparency, that this trust can be maintained.

Web Summit provided some amazing technologies this year, but the ones that stood out were those that addressed deep human needs. Technologies that provide significant value exchange and lead to a feeling of self-actualization, like self-driving cars that provide added safety and free us to do more with our time, will earn people's trust. Technologies that use artful surprise, like Lockheed Martin's VR-enabled bus, will tap into people's need for curiosity. And technologies that provide seamless assistance, like Affectiva, will reduce people's technology-based anxieties. When the brand and technology intersect with human needs and a human touch, we will truly unlock the potential of this exciting technological world in which we live.

Accelerating this value connection between technology and brands does not have to be the job alone of those of us on the marketing side. The business opportunity is there as well for developers who factor an understanding of human and brand-based needs into their core thinking. As we look to next year's Web Summit, it just might be that technology innovators who make the human link will be the ones whose booths and presentations will attract the biggest crowds of marketers.

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