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The Digital World Goes Out and About

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Integration used to mean your microsite looked like your TV and print ads, and your TV spots were tagged with a URL.

The notion was solid at the time: TV really was the best starting point for most campaigns, and a Web site was the best place to send your potential customer for the next, or last, part of the marketing experience. The process was nice and clean and linear. The Web site was just an extension of the commercial. It was 60 seconds of extra consumer attention you couldn't afford to buy.

Integration is starting to mean something very different. It's not just about making sure there is a cohesive story across media, but about how one medium interacts with another. Does it make sense to serve up the same Web experience on a laptop and an iPhone? (Google doesn't think so.) Increasingly, we're looking at how to use digital experiences to create (and augment) physical experiences and interaction.

Last year, everyone focused on the augment part of that, and it meant one combination in particular: QR codes and Webcams. This year, we seem to be augmenting larger swaths of the world, a smearing of digital bits across everything. Some of the ideas use the sensors we have in our pockets (GPS, camera phone, etc.) to interact with the world around us. Things like Foursquare, Yelp, Google Goggles and Stickybits let you comment on the real world, which is the first wave of apps making things very different. In all these cases, the medium with which the mobile is interacting is a physical one: locations for Yelp and Foursquare, and "stuff" for Goggles and Stickybits.

What all these services are getting at is allowing the world around us to speak back. For Foursquare, that currently comes in the form of tips and deals. For Stickybits, it's content attached to a product (via the bar code). It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, "If these walls could talk."

And that's just it. Increasingly, these walls and cartons and soda cans will need to talk. But what will they say? And what else should be talking?

It's clear that mobile is going to be one side of the conversation. But the other end is limited only by the imagination. What if your commercial talked to your iPhone app? What about the store? (It could tell your mobile device where you are and what's available nearby.)

Even more powerful is when there's a computer on the other end for your mobile device to talk to that makes something new possible. Which is cool, because we've spent years programming computers all over the place, mostly Web sites, but also computers for events, malls and even places like Times Square. When there is a computer on both sides of a conversation, things get interesting and rich and fun because you're not just playing back the same thing over and over. It's interactive.

If that's where our medium is going, how do brands participate? To start with, it seems like we should be thinking about each and every touch point and how our experiences can bend and adapt. It also means that a piece of functional technology could be more effective than a tagline at tying together your marketing experiences. It might mean you've got to act like you're in the software business even if you make soda, because interacting with your customers, more often than not, will need a computer interface.

More than anything, though, it means brands have to get more interactive. This could mean getting more social -- not just having a Facebook page but looking at the tools available to make sure every touch point with your audience is actually interactive. Stop thinking of interactivity as a siloed category where you only converse with your customers online. Think more along the lines of how you can create interactive experiences around retail and on air and in print and on package and on premise and whatever else you can think of.

We've got to figure out how to take the best of the Web and bring it to wherever our audience is, so it feels like we are right there, like magic, when they want or need something from us. Which is what it's supposed to feel like in the future, right?

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group.