The Rise of The Phone Zombie

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Earlier this year the picture below was trending on Twitter, with the ironic statement (and I paraphrase) ‘What on earth is this guy looking at? The World or something?’. It looks like we’ve become a society of phone zombies.

Instead of engaging in conversation with our friends or family, it seems we are constantly distracted by our smartphones. As if proof were needed, a recent IPSOS study identified this trend. They surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries and 60% of them agreed that they were ‘constantly looking at their screens’. In the UK though, 71% said they were glued to their phones (second only to China). Perhaps our zombie behaviour is best summed up by Buzzfeed’s, 23 Pictures that Prove Society is Doomed. This phenomena doesn’t just impact on our social lives, there are other risks. One cyclist, writing in London’s Metro paper, explained that phone zombies were the most frequent hazard she had to contend with. Maybe in the future our smartphones will need proximity sensors to alert us of traffic hurtling towards us.

Is the phone zombie good or bad for marketing? A decent ad person would spin the problem into an opportunity. For example, we reach for our mobiles within 15 mins of waking and check them up to 150 times per day. That’s a lot of marketing opportunities. But perhaps, just perhaps the best thing we can do is to help society act a little less like the living dead and occasionally speak to other people. The Brazilian beer brand, Polar tried to do exactly that. They created the phone nullifier. A bottle wrapper was able to block the phone signal for anyone within a few feet, thus nullifying the phone zombies and ensuring that people enjoyed their drink, whilst conversing with their real friends.

Arguably though, the phone zombie could be seen as a natural behavior. Humans, especially the younger variety, enjoy media that distracts us from the real world. The Victorians complained that young people spent too much time reading books. Television and video games have constantly been blamed for corrupting teenagers. Perhaps the phone zombie is just another example in a line of media distractions. Before smartphones, commuters were hiding behind newspapers on their journey to work. And maybe the only reason the man in the picture is looking at The World was because on that day, his battery had died.

The Challenge for The Fashion Brand, Apple

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Whilst some are calling the iWatch a game changer, many tech observers have missed the point. The iWatch is a fashion accessory and it makes Apple a fashion brand. Whilst previous products from the iPod onwards have had a lifestyle element to their branding, the watch puts Apple firmly into the fashion accessory market. The industry bible, Women’s Wear Daily pointed out that Apple’s real competition is not from other tech providers such as Samsung, but the from the mid-range watch manufacturers such as Swatch and Guess. Both of these companies are developing their own products due out within the next 12 months.

Apple understand the importance of being a fashion brand. They have made significant hires from Burberry and Gap, not to mention the addition of leading designer Marc Newson. A number of fashion and watch journalists were invited to the launch event, which further demonstrates the importance of the sector to Apple.

What was the fashion industry’s reaction to the iWatch? Generally favourable, but not totally blown away. It’s probably best summed up by Alex Blanter from A.T. Kearney, who specialises in fashion insight:

“Everybody is still trying to figure out how to make a smartwatch a truly must-have device, rather than an interesting and curious novelty,”

An interesting take on the iWatch came from HSBC Research who looked at the market for the product in China. They pointed out that luxury watches are bought not to tell the time, but as a status symbol. Is the iWatch a sufficient status symbol for that marketing? They pointed out that the most significant market in this area were as gifts. On that basis, Louis Vuitton or high end sporting goods are competitors as much as watch brands. Perhaps that is Apple’s biggest challenge. Whilst smartphones are (arguably) an essential item, the iWatch is not. As an accessory, watches are replaced much less frequently than smartphones. Whilst there is clearly a market amongst the early adopters, does it have what it takes to compete in the higher end accessories market?

One thing that is in Apple’s favour is that they’ve created a product that has watchmaker’s credentials. The Hodinkee watch blog declared the iWatch to be a bona fide time-piece, from the overall design, through to the straps, the astronomy face and the rotating crown. The review makes a convincing case for the iWatch as a genuine watch. An odd press release from Guess also suggests that Apple have made a significant entry (or threat, even) to the market. In A Letter to CEO of Apple, From CEO of Guess Watches, Cindy Livingston said:

‘We personally welcome this new challenge to remain relevant to our young, sexy and adventurous consumers.’

This is not the first time that Apple has entered an existing market saturated with products. Aside from the brief partnership with Motorola, Apple had never launched a phone before the iPhone. Whilst the success of the iWatch as a tech product remains to be seen, when it comes to a fashion audience maybe Apple have got it right.

Why Can’t We Use Mobile to Manage the Ebola Virus?

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I recently spoke at an event about the role of mobile and big data. The two most useful examples related to health. The first was how the movement of mobile phones in Kenya helps to identify the movement of mosquitos and thus the spread of Malaria. The second was how Swedish and US researchers used mobile movements track people in the Haiti disaster area, and the number who had left subsequently. From this they could identify the number of missing people.

Could the same approach be made to manage the spread of Ebola? If health organisations could use location from the mobile operators it would be possible to see where people  from infected areas have moved to (including overseas). From this they could spot where the virus might appear next. That could deliver a much faster response and to isolate the outbreaks more quickly. Just a thought. Or maybe it’s already being done?

Mobile and The Big Data Question?

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How can brand marketers leverage ‘big data’ to engage more users? That’s pretty much the question that I was asked to speak about recently at the DMA. The explosion of mobile is certainly creating a lot of data, from active channels such as social media updates or sharing, to passive data such as location services or WiFi connections. However, using that information in brand marketing is not that simple. Whilst it’s straight forward on a technical level, but even where individuals are not identified, they are wary of intrusion because mobile devices are so personal. Perhaps the answer lies in focusing on the user, being useful and delivering a better service. The best examples of this come not form brands, but from using mobile data to bring improvements in areas such as healthcare.

The following Slideshare is from my talk, ‘Mobile and The Big Data Question’.

A Wearable Engagement? Two Things Brands Need Consider

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There’s been plenty of talk about the future of wearable computing. Both major manufacturers (such as Samsung and Sony) and start-ups (such as Pebble and Fitbit) have been producing a range of fitness tracking, smartwatches and the occasional pair of smart glasses (think Google Glass). It’s also generated plenty of hype, where the talk has been vastly in excess of the actually uptake. In spite of this, wearable devices will still impact on our consumer lives. Brands are already thinking about how they can use this as a channel to deliver service or engagement to customers. It’s not easy though. With so many devices appearing, we will see consumers adopting the right devices for their needs, personal preference and budget. Through that, we will see each user with a unique technology eco system – no one will be the same. This raises a few thorny issues, that I’ve blogged about elsewhere, that may lead to the inevitable brand marketing fails.

Data and Privacy

Dull though it might sound, the whole issue of collecting data and user privacy is a major challenge. Brand marketers love collecting ‘data’. The more the better (it’s often used as a KPI). Wearables are great at generating data. Lots of it. However, brands need to be careful how they use it. If you think of mobile devices personal and unshared, then wearables are likely to be even more so. Think of what they do. Tracking things like health, for example. It’s unlikely we would want to share that information with a brand. Not only that, but too much marketing may simply lead to consumer fatigue. Read more here

The Right Content

Whether it is for performance or engagement reasons, content marketing has become the core strategy for many businesses. At the moment we think of content very much in terms of delivering to ‘screens’. In the world of wearables, it’s not always about screens; in the future brands will need to think of content in terms of touching, feeling and hearing. Read more here

The world of wearables is an exciting, but a largely beta one. These are just two examples of the challenges to brands, but there will be many more along the way.



No One Wants to Steal Your Crappy Idea*

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The other week I delivered a short presentation to a major software company – it was a meeting where I would share some ideas and insight around innovation. Someone met me outside and handed me a non-disclosure agreement to sign before I entered the building. I happily put my scribble on it because it confirmed one thing to me. There would be nothing of any interest or significance that would be disclosed to me.

Whilst I can understand the point of an NDA for commercialy sensitive information, such as financial or sales figures, asking for confidentiality for an idea is pointless. They cannot be copyrighted, and enforcing non-disclosure is very difficult. I would take the opposite view and argue, instead, in favour of disclosure. Good ideas should be shared. That is part of the innovation process.

NDAs are popular with start-ups. They are convinced that their ideas are so amazing that anyone who hears them will ‘steal’ them and try to make money off it.

This is totally nuts for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, an idea is exactly that. It’s an idea. It’s not a product or a service. Right now in cities such as London, New York or San Francisco there are thousands of start-ups desperately trying to raise money to commercialise their ideas. I know. I’ve just been through a start-up incubation programme and met a lot of these guys. Raising investment is hard. Really hard. In particular, investors don’t invest in ideas. They invest in businesses. Start-ups need to create a viable product or service, boot-strap the initial stages (that usually means living off baked beans for a while), find some clients or build a massive audience, and then jump through endless hoops before there is the slightest sniff of investment money. To think that someone will run off with ‘your’ idea and make millions from it is therefore far fetched.

Secondly, as a general rule, the longer the NDA, the crappier the idea. I recently heard about someone who claimed to have the most fantastic concept for an app. Before telling even their closest friends they made them sign a detailed NDA. And the app? It was for making gift wish-lists (now why didn’t Amazon think of that?).

The fact is that ideas are best when they are shared. The crappy ones are quickly thrown out, and the good ones are refined and developed. There’s a great TED talk from Steven Johnston about innovation ( where he explains how coffee houses were a place of discourse and the development of ideas in Victorian Britain. Perhaps that’s what start-ups should be doing right now?

A few years ago, it occurred to me that there were a growing number of smartphones that were always on and always connected. Yet they weren’t used for at least 8 hours per day. My idea? Why not use those spare hours to process some useful data? Say, genetic data that might be used to find cures for degenerative diseases or cancer? As with all ideas, this is not entirely original. SETI@home does that with PCs to identify galaxies. And looking at some of the open source software to manage the data (such as BOINC), apps had been built before. However, I felt my concept had sufficient benefit to be worth exploring. I spoke to many people and shared it as much as possible, as I wanted the idea to develop and become a reality. I got some people in the health sector interested, and found some others willing to develop the app. A copywriter friend even came up with a name, WeCure. Getting the scientists involved proved trickier though. In the meantime, Samsung released a similar app for Android ( In a world of sharing ideas, Samsung’s app is a good thing. Apart form anything else, it helps me understand how to build ours better. One feature of my app concept was that users can share how much data they donated through social media – ‘I just gave 1gig to help cure cancer’. Apart from helping to spread the idea, it also rewards users by publicly showing that they have done something good. I’m still plugging away, refining my idea and trying to get it off the ground.

So why do so many start-ups insist on trying to protect their ideas? I think that for these people, NDAs act as a form of validation (and probably spurred on by the kind of secrecy that Apple loves). Getting others to sign them is a way of saying ‘our idea is really worth something’, even though it’s probably crap. And maybe those people who sign the NDAs help to maintain the delusion. Eventually, I hope that people will realise that ideas are better shared. Look at what Google does. They put all of their products out in Beta and take plenty of feedback. Look at the amazing scientific ideas that came out of sharing ideas in the coffee shops in 19th Century England. Oh, and if you know any helpful genetic scientists, then please send them my way.

*I think I borrowed the title for this blog from something I read a while back. I can’t find it, but here’s something on a very similar theme:

Don’t Expect Wearable Tech to Catch on Just Yet

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At the recent tech shows, SES, MWC and now SXSW, the big talk was around wearable devices. However, they are not that new.  We’ve had wearables for decades, in the form of:TV Camera

All of these can be categorized as either accessories or single task devices. In many ways, today’s generation of wearables are really not that different. In terms of use, is a Pebble Watch really that different to a Bluetooth earpiece, for example?

Predictions for wearable sales show growing numbers:

Sounds like a lot? Compare that to smartphones, where 456m were sold in the third quarter in 2013, making sales of close to 1 billion per year. To give wearable uptake a bit more context, think about the rapid adoption rates of iPads or apps. There’s a long way to go for wearables.

I think there are three primary reasons why wearable uptake will be so slow:

This last point is the greatest barrier to adoption. Whilst online news and blogging sites are full of technologists who love all the gadgets, that doesn’t seem to represent the majority. Most people just aren’t that bothered. We love our smartphones, which have become the centre of our digital lives. Health is certainly one area where wearables can offer real benefits, but aside from specific applications, wearables have a long way to go before they become truly useful.