The sheer scale of content available online means audiences are more discerning about where and how they spend their time, and brands have to try harder to cut through the noise and hold a viewer's attention. Some brands attempts to break through by being funny. Done right, it can be extremely successful and even go on to influence internet culture. Humor is a step in the right direction towards differentiating your brand. But at the end of the day, no matter how entertaining you are, being funny is just great brand communication. Humor might make internet advertising more intelligent than the average TV commercial, but it's not a good fit for every brand, it's not easily defensible as a sustainable advantage and it provides the user with little more value than they started out with. Utility, provided via tools and services, is a different beast entirely. This is where you want to place your long-term bets, and the good news is that anyone can be a toolmaker. Those who craft the best and most useful tools will eventually find their way into people's hearts and lives and become legendary.
Today's internet user has a tremendously short attention span. She confidently navigates a seemingly never-ending flood of information, exploring digital highways and digital nooks and crannies alike. The immense number of digital things competing for her attention makes her time a valuable commodity. If brands are familiar or personal favorites, she will be more patient and willing to spend time, but with so many potential experiences, it will take something valuable and out of the ordinary to make her return to any. It is in this distracted context that utility drives attention and value.
Utility Drives Value
Good digital technologies help us do more things on our own, and provide just the right kind of assistance at just the right time. Think of tools and services like Google Maps, Yelp, Mint, Spotify, Fandango, Catch The Bus, Skype, and so on. Hobby tinkerers who enjoy making things for the internet have realized what brands have been slow (and really, too stubborn) to grasp: that the best way to make something spread online is to make it inherently beneficial to the user; to make it worthwhile. Some are using this insight to take on entire industries by making the most of the vast opportunities the internet provides to built interesting and useful things- APIs, data, open and free technologies, distributed collaboration.
It's a tough reality to step into if you're a brand, especially if "digital" is new to you. Most brands aren't used to making products for marketing purposes; the traditional campaign remains the conventional standard-bearer for the brand message. Brands aren't yet comfortable creating digital things designed to be used by people. They see digital as just another marketing channel, and that's that. It's noticeable. Just look at Stella's "Le Bar App" or Vogue's "Vogue Stylist". Because brands generally fail to see tools as much more than promotional vehicles, once they enter the tool-making game they insist on releasing apps and services that are campaign-based, and that are not maintained or pulled when the campaign is over. They don't keep their digital ecosystem clean. The apps grow outdated, leaving a messy impression and reminding consumers who find these things of just how self-interested brands are. And because we're smart enough to know how self-interested brands are, we are less-likely to cut the brand the same slack we would an independent app maker who has moved onto another project.
Utility, provided by tools and services, is where you want to place your long-term bets, and the good news is that anyone can be a toolmaker.
Own The Interaction Space
Tools are far from a sure bet. Many brands are nervous about becoming tool-makers because it's scary to think outside of your comfort zone. You can't fault them for that fear. Tools don't come with blueprints. They need to be built and designed by someone who knows what they're doing. They need to align with brand and strategy, and most importantly, they need to deliver actual value to consumers, which demands intimate knowledge of those consumers' behaviors, motivations, and needs.
The novelty and challenge of tool-making isn't all that is keeping brands away. Many brands worry that tools aren't something they can own. They worry that their investment will ultimately benefit their competitors as much (or more). What this fear fails to realize, however, is that a good tool provides the opportunity to own the site of interaction. Consider mobile, for instance. Someone is going to have a one-to-one relationship with your customer, directly via their mobile phone. They're going to be right there, right in you customer's pocket, at their service in just a handful of swipes and clicks. You can't buy your way into mobile. You can only earn your way in by providing customers with value. Will that value be coming from you or from someone else? (This isn't doesn't mean success comes only from first-mover advantage. Doing it right can be more important than doing it first).
There's no better time to get started than now. Making tools is very much like learning how to ride a bike: your first time will probably be pretty scary and you'd be wise to attempt just a short distance. By the end of your second ride, you will be much stronger and your posture will hint at confidence. Your third time you'll ride without hindrance, and you'll actually enjoy yourself quite a bit too. After that, it will all be a matter of improving your cadence.
The trick, as a brand, is to push beyond seeing digital as just another marketing channel. Convergence presents multiple, rich opportunities to put useful tools in people's hands– and a valuable tool is something you rarely put down for long.