How Marketing Will Change in a Post-Phone World

Human-computer interaction will soon be screenless

I have a hypothesis: once everyone gets their hands on an iPhone X, it won’t just mark the device’s 10th year of incremental evolution; it will also represent “peak iPhone”—the point at which it will never be more influential, ubiquitous, or dominant. Not long after the X makes its way onto the mass market, the iPhone will begin to make way for its little sister: the Apple Watch, a product that has been much maligned but little understood. This is a shift that will fundamentally rewire the way we think about marketing, experience design and the world around us over the next several years.

The Apple Watch Series 3 is a big deal because it comes with LTE cellular connectivity. This means that—when coupled with Airpods (what I call S3+A)—it will become the first truly credible post-phone internet device. S3+A makes all the things we currently use our phones for—playing music, text messaging, making phone calls, getting directions, or ending a debate with a Wikipedia factoid, possible without your phone (or as Apple puts it: “Stream 40 million songs right from your wrist.”) It’s Samantha from Her, version 0.001. Finally, you’ll be able to walk down the street while actively online, without crashing into people or stepping into traffic.

The Series 3 is part of a broader trend that will play a central role in our lives in the years to come: digital’s transition from the phone screen in front of us into the broader world around us. From desktops to laptops, laptops to phones and tablets, and now phones to watches and smart speakers like the Amazon Echo, the screen size of our portals to the internet has shrunk consistently over time.

The combination of ubiquitous high speed connectivity and vanishing screens means “digital” is no longer limited to how people interact with brands and software on a phone or a desktop. Gartner estimates that by the end of the decade at least 30 percent of human-computer interaction will be screenless—activated by voice or location—and the coupling of S3+A combined with the rise of smart speakers will be a big part of how this prediction comes to life in the real world.

It is hard to overstate how big this change will be for marketers. Just as the industry has begun to figure out how to bring mobile, social, and search together to be effective in digital, the game is poised to change yet again. This transition poses two fundamental challenges to contemporary approaches to marketing:

  • Shrinking spaces for visual messaging: As watches and other wearables become primary internet devices, marketers will have much smaller canvases on which to convey their messages. Fewer pixels for advertising are a major constraint, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: the range of options for screen based interactions are also reduced on such small screens.
  • Friction in audio: More interaction will shift to audio and voice prompts as screen sizes shrink, but audio also provides marketers with a similarly limited range of opportunities for advertising and sponsorships. More importantly, what happens when people, ordering by voice, learn to trust their smart assistant to figure out pesky details like which brand to choose? Where’s the opportunity for persuasion when the purchase funnel consists of a user saying “Alexa, buy more toothpaste!”? What happens when the bathroom cabinet or toothbrush is smart enough to figure out the toothpaste is empty and reorders automatically?

As people become less dependent on phone interfaces and more dependent on the internet that ambiently circles around them, marketers must adjust. Brands will need to create a new generation of internet-enabled “anticipatory” services that do things on your behalf to replace traditional advertising. These services will depend on machine learning to make product recommendations, selection, and delivery so good that we will trust them to match us with the right products and services. The services that will win will be the ones that answer consumers’ biggest questions and solve their biggest problems.

Making this shift will be the great challenge for brands over the coming decade, requiring verticalizing entire businesses to provide complete solutions to consumer problems. As challenging as this will be for most companies, the alternative—trying to maintain creativity and effectiveness in a world of shrinking screens, niche audiences and challenging channels—will be even harder.