#DIF13 – David Shing: ‘leaving the age of social and entering the age of context’ (videos)

20 Sep 2013

AOL's digital prophet David Shing delivers his keynote at the Digital Ireland Forum: Global 2.0 event at the Convention Centre Dublin. Photos by Conor McCabe Photography

Internet content giant AOL’s digital prophet David Shing said today at the Digital Ireland Forum: Global 2.0 in Dublin that after the world’s awkward fumblings with technology during the Information Age, and the embarrassing and punitive lessons of the Social Media Age, we’re now entering the Age of Context. This will be a world where wearable tech and big data will combine to hopefully make our lives better.

Shing told the forum that at the moment major brands around the world are trying to captivate audiences via social media using breaking news events, such as the recent birth of Prince George in England to strike a chord with audiences. He cited brands including Charmin, Coca-Cola, Oreos, Starbucks and Hasbro’s Play-Doh of trying to cash in on the princely arrival.

He said a major change is under way, where the digital conversation between brands and consumers is being recalibrated. “Not everyone is getting it right.”

He said brands spending money on apps rather than effective mobile-optimised websites were wasting their money and that fewer people are downloading apps.

“The web is about iteration. Mobile is about surprise and delight. When you do anything with mobile, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

SoLoMo – social, local, mobile – is a real viable trend and he said most people on the planet shop and buy within an 8-mile radius of their home and that 68pc of mobile minutes used are within the home.

He said a massive revolution is coming to advertising. “There’s going to be a revolution in the way we market things driven by the power of social. Brands will move away from generic ads and behavioural assumptions towards actions and specifics. If I type in a search for ‘pink shirt’ I should get a direct reply from brands telling me the walking distance to where I can buy the item.”

He also cited the example of clever marketing on Pinterest by a brand that succeeded in posting a large number of photos in a timely sequence to dominate a fashion page.

Interview with Shing


I asked Shing afterwards if the global marketing machine is set up for a challenging age where sophisticated analytics and software will vie with instinctive derring-do on new networks and across a range of form factors.

“It is a challenge, the marketing machines aren’t set up for it yet but they can be. It is a matter of understanding where the consumers are and how they wish to participate in that environment. The Pinterest example was driven by someone who understands what it means. Can my brand participate in a very authentic way? Yes it can. When Vine came out we saw all these brands jump on Vine asking themselves, ‘how can I make a story that lasts six seconds?’ Are they set up to play? No. But are they starting to jump on the ship? Yes.”

He said brands are moving away from programming around seasonal content to maximising the effects of one-off events, like the Queen’s Jubilee, to understanding what is breaking “to have the mindshare of consumers because that is what digital is really good at right now.

“As consumers, we need to make decisions – do we really believe in that brand, the way they are participating in it? It doesn’t make me feel any better or worse about them but I give them credit by participating in it because they got my attention.

“Now will I see that brand differently? I don’t know, but maybe I will when it breaks next. What they’re doing is getting better for being set up for it but they’ve still got a way to go, that’s a good thing if they’ve figured it out. When things become contagious how do I embed that, amplify it in a different way than today?”

Content is king

I asked Shing if AOL’s decision to expand its content empire with the acquisitions of brands like The Huffington Post and TechCrunch were driven by that contagiousness of content, the need to be part of the conversation.

“Yes, 1000pc. The Huffington Post, for example, has amazing social currency. Compared with the hundreds of comments a newspaper may attract online, if I go over to The Huffington Post, it has attracted thousands on a similar story. It has a totally different kind of social currency.

“One of the other things we are building on is video. We are second in the world after YouTube for video and we are the No 1 destination for premium video content.

“We put video in the context of where the consumer is – if you’re reading content about fashion and you come across a video, there’s a good chance the video came from us.

“It’s got to be premium. We’re not talking about cats on skateboards, we’re talking about video that is really brand-led and story led.

“We’re funding a lot of original video content. At the other side of the table is our investment in amazing technology, and a lot of that happens here in Dublin. We’re building technology that allows us to make safer bets on how marketing will perform.

“Dublin is doing all the smart stuff and they are building out some really interesting algorithms in the back end that creates amazing revenue cachet for AOL. We look to Dublin as a major tech hub, only they themselves don’t brag about it enough.”

Moving into the Age of Context

In the Age of Context, consumers’ habits via social networks and through wearable technology will create mountains of data for data scientists to wade through.

“Everywhere I go will be really important. If I have a device on my wrist that will only display some of the information I can see on my phone, that will create interesting challenges for brands to participate by coming up with something that is contextually relevant to what I’m doing.”

Shing says he has begun shying away from the big public social networks, retreating to places online that are private for him and his friends; a movement he also believes will create challenges for brands.

“I see the big social networks as big contact books now. Where I’m spending more and more of my time where I know my real friends are is in closed private networks, where I feel safe and engage in subject matter I really care about.”

Shing says technology will retreat into the background but will be harnessed to meet our “needs states” with relevant information and entertainment based on time and place.

“At different times of the day we feel motivated to work, be entertained, seek downtime. Marketers will need to programme in terms of needs state and context. It’s not going to be about screen sizes, it’s going to be about human behaviour.”

At the Digital Ireland Forum: Global 2.0 event today, Shing played a video of Facedeals, a service that sends deals to users based on where they were using facial recognition from their Facebook profiles.

“That’s going to be more a novelty because the Age of Context will amplify trust and privacy issues. We as consumers will have to opt in and some will more than others. Privacy and trust will be big issues for a particular generation. If a brand tries to sell me a jumper just because I walked by a certain window and it was able to read my temperature, that would be just creepy.

“But the context opportunity lies in how brands will harness big data to make people feel like VIPs based on where they are and what they are doing at a certain time – it’s about creating a one-to-one relationship rather than a one-to-many relationship.

“This is where it is going to be a movement rather than a moment.”

David Shing outlines future digital trends

Part 1:

Part 2:

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years