Mother of Invention

I hate the term “emerging media.” It should be banished from the lexicon of marketing and advertising. My problem isn’t with “emerging,” it’s with the loaded word “media.” For the past 50 years, our industry has mostly been about exploiting the opportunities created by mass media audiences, rather than creating something that has real value.

However, brands now have the opportunity to create proprietary and differentiated content, commerce, communities and even customized products. And this is due to emerging technology. Even if marketers are still vexed by it all, the meaning of this new (and emerging) technology has become crystal clear in the minds of consumers who readily adopt everything from Facebook to Google Maps.

Technology is something that is invented. If it’s any good, you use it. If it’s insanely great, it changes your life. For marketers, emerging technology shouldn’t be something we exploit — it’s something we need to invent. So, rather than use a Web site as a piece of brand communication, pegged to the look and tone of the TV spots and print ads like a set of matching luggage, why not add some useful functionality like the Mini car configurator or the ability to compare movie tastes with friends on Netflix? Or create a differentiated social network like Nike+? These examples succeed because they use technology in the service of real human needs: to build something that is a unique expression of my personal style, to find my next favorite movie, or to run better (and have more fun doing it).

We are now in the era in which brands must create new transformational technologies. Don’t think about how to exploit Facebook as a media venue or stick a TV ad on YouTube — think about how to create new ways that serve your customers and your brand. As a guide, think about it in terms of the four C’s: content, commerce, community and customization.

Emerging content: In the era of mass media, the type and amount of relevant content we could create was limited by the expense of purchasing media. But in the digital age, the limits are gone. This era will be critically important to the growing field of mobile technology, where opportunities exist to move the delivery of content closer to the point of sale.

Emerging commerce: The way in which goods and services are purchased has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, spurred by the e-commerce revolution. Is your brand utilizing technology to change the way in which your products and services are distributed? As brands as diverse as Apple and Nike have learned from their own stores and e-commerce sites, from a brand experience perspective, nothing beats controlling your own sales channel.

Emerging community: Communities are the hot topic of the emerging media day, and Facebook’s growth rate is dizzying indeed. But in all honesty, there isn’t a lot that brands can do with Facebook; once every brand has created its mix of groups and widgets, the wall is hit. The more forward-thinking brands are developing their own technologies to support the formation of online communities and social networks around the passions that their brands foster, from running (Nike) to capturing and sharing the world around you (Flickr). Even something as simple as inviting customer reviews is a first step to fostering a dialogue around your offerings.

Emerging customization: Technology allows marketers to offer customized products and experiences. What started as a trend is quickly becoming an expectation, driven by the popularity of product configurators (Dell, NikeID) as well as the customization of content experiences, from StyleShake.com to Pandora. Brands must offer experiences that are customizable and relevant.

Right now, media and technology are moving in opposite directions. The primary media format that drove our industry for 50 years — linear-narrative video — has become completely democratized. Customers are as likely to create interesting linear content as we are. And although the production values of Dove “Evolution” or Smirnoff “Tea Partay” are out of the reach of the average consumer, any narrative created by a brand is just as likely to be eclipsed in viewership by something homegrown.

Emerging technology is becoming more complex and difficult to create, while consumer expectations of what technology can deliver are rising with each adoption of something new. We won’t likely see a shining example of the four C’s created in someone’s garage. Just as they once owned the airwaves, brands alone have the capital to own the technologies that their customers use in their daily lives. So let’s ditch the “media” from emerging and add technology to marketing.

Barry Wacksman is evp, chief growth officer at R/GA.