Majority Report

Technology is driving human behavior at such a pace that it has surpassed content as a mass motivator.

If you’ve ever worked with a hardware company, you know about the endless cycle of product innovations. Color? 3G? 3D? New features sell products and over the last decades we’ve seen that cycle get faster and faster.

Take mobile phones. They’ve been around for a while, starting off with portable phones that were literally just a phone in a bag. Then over the years devices got smaller and smaller without really adding features — being small was the feature. Then the StarTac sort of won at smallness, and then new features started creeping in: SMS, color screen, camera, GPRS, 3G, Internet, GPS — all interesting incremental features. And then a really cool thing happened when iPhone and later Android made their new smartphone platforms open to app developers: everything exploded. The features that technology companies kept packing in were finally at the fingertips of people with ideas of how to really utilize them.

Let’s use augmented reality as an example. AR is an entire medium that has recently become possible at scale. AR isn’t really anything new: it’s been around since the early ’90s in the aerospace industry (the Wikipedia entry on AR is pretty good). But it hasn’t been until the last few years, when almost everyone seems to have a Webcam and a phone camera, that it’s made any kind of sense to consider it as a mass medium. Last year we did a project for Esquire magazine that used AR not just for marketing, but as a major editorial component of the magazine. If you’ve got a newer iPhone, get the Yelp app and try out the “monocle” feature: it uses the GPS, compass and camera features to overlay Yelp entries on a live view from the camera. The company Layar has a mobile AR app that reportedly has been downloaded 2 million times. Almost every Android phone comes with Google Goggles, which is a powerful tool for analyzing images and searching the Web for information about them, from logos and architecture to products. 

The app Foursquare is another example. Basically, you can “check in” at a location, broadcast this to your friends, see where your friends have checked in and, for all your work, you get points and badges. It’s a good game built around going places and doing stuff, which people like. It’s also really popular: Reportedly there are over 1 million check ins a day. That’s a lot of people engaging in a behavior that, a year-and-a-half ago, didn’t exist. Enough people are participating that a bunch of competitors have emerged, and existing sites like Yelp have copied the feature set. It’s also enough people that “people who check in” is a pretty substantial demographic for marketers.  

Now, this was not actually a new idea — the founders had previously made a similar application called Dodgeball that they later sold to Google, but it wasn’t very popular. Not because it was a bad idea, but because Apple and Google and BlackBerry, etc., hadn’t yet put an Internet-enabled smartphone with global positioning in everyone’s pocket (and made the hardware accessible to developers like the ones behind Foursquare). Suddenly, making an app about knowing where people are right now wasn’t just a niche idea because advanced hardware and open systems had become ubiquitous. Basically, all this hardware drove us to the point where we could create a software experience that created a behavior that has scaled to a size that’s big enough to be a sort of a mass medium in its own right. Crazy.

This is all real, right now. If technology is leading behavior, it makes sense to keep an eye on new features that are just reaching meaningful scale and think about what opportunities there are. Millions of Kindles and iPads have been sold. Reading books has gone digital, but there is a completely untapped market for interactive books and other reading material. I’ve written here before about what the next generation of sales might be like on tablet computers: you’ll be able to buy a new TV, one with apps on it, and will be able to plug it right into the Internet to look at Web videos or check the weather.

The pace of technology development is influencing our behavior, and quickly. Technology and digital media have been fragmenting our industry for the last decade, and those fragments are getting pretty damn big. Technology is now the leading indicator of where marketing is headed as we go from the age of mass media to the age of mass behavior. It’s not the TV upfronts that are telling us what the kids will watch next, it’s SXSW, CES, E3 that’s telling us what the kids will be doing next. 

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at