The Drum | ‘A More Worldly, Wise Internet’: Are Marketers Facing A New Breed Of Online Users?

For The Drum’s Predictions Deep Dive, we assembled a panel of marketing leaders in the digital and social spaces. Their prediction? That as mature audiences, the rules of engagement online will continue to shift.

We’re now ankle-deep in The Drum’s predictions week. But when we brought together agency leaders in the social and digital spaces to look in the proverbial crystal ball, their first priority was to tell us that certainty is a rare thing in their world.

“Especially in social, you can’t predict,” says Kyma Media’s managing director Hannah Anderson. “The social platforms change their minds every other week. If we make a prediction at the start of the year, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. If you’d asked me three years ago if TikTok (then Musically) would win, I’d have said no. At the time, long-form content was king and Facebook was going to become the new Netflix. Predictions, as a whole, are all potentially futile.”

Well, there’s your pinch of salt. But if we leave grand visions of the future to the side, there’s plenty that our panel could agree on. Not least that we’re witnessing, right now, a shift in the hearts and minds of online audiences.

generation wise

According to at least one of our panelists, a long-building wave is cresting: “we’re looking at a suddenly more worldly, wise internet,” says digital agency Croud’s director of data strategy Kevin Joyner.

Joyner goes on: with audiences’ growing “skepticism and mistrust of the media, people are more familiar with automation; with the power of AI to create things; with fake content and cybercrime; with issues around privacy. Their expectations are lifting. A lot of what is important in the year ahead has to do with responding to those worldly, wise concerns. It means using creatively to foster trust, security and authenticity. When you’re talking to someone who’s mature, who has been through a lot, you speak to them with greater respect. Advertising is heading in that direction.”

In other words, marketers are now dealing with generations of internet-literate users who are all too familiar with the rules of the game online, and especially who’s selling what to whom. “People are more aware that there is a value exchange online,” says iCrossing’s paid social director James Mortimer, “and that, often, they are the value exchange.”

Some elements of this psychological paradigm manifest as a kind of online armor: people are more aware of how data about them is collected and traded; they’re better at sniffing out fakery; they’re increasingly bored by lazy re-targeting for products they’ve already bought; and their subconscious are adept at screening out all the noise of unimaginative ads (manifesting as ever-stronger banner-blindness).

But, our panel says, it would be a mistake to write off this ‘wiser’ generation as simply resistant to advertising online. As AgencyUK’s head of digital Adam Connett says, “they don’t mind being advertised to if it’s relevant”. Indeed, as we become more aware of the digital economy, says Connett, we become in some cases more receptive to ads than ever. For example, deepening parasocial relationships between online creators and their fanbases, watching an ad for its whole duration, or clicking it, or using a creator’s discount code can increasingly “feel like a kind of advocacy; it’s a real value exchange”.

From this battery of observations, our panel drew a range of conclusions: that creativity in digital ads is more important than ever; that community and advocacy will only grow in importance; and that while concerns around privacy and data sharing are real, they won’t shut down the digital economy. As VMLY&R’s US head of social Liz Cole puts it, “people want to laugh; they want to be entertained; they want to be cool; they want to feel like they belong. It’s all very basic. That stuff often supersedes some of the more philosophical considerations”.

The digital-cultural singularity

“We’ve crossed the threshold where so-called internet culture and regular culture are no longer different things,” says Cole. It’s not hard to conjure examples to prove that digital culture has truly demolished that threshold: Reddit users affecting the stock market; movies made from viral threads; the US’s first meme president.

It’s salient for brands and marketers alike to pay attention to this cultural shift, says Cole. “We’re having to move from what used to be a very channel- and format-oriented approach to planning content and ideas and campaigns into one that is much more consumer- and culturally-lead, using those platforms as a palette of different ways to tell a story, and hoping that it’s going to resonate far beyond the people that actually interact with it on the original platform”.

All of this speaks to another shift: a shift in power, toward communities, creators and consumers, whose agendas and interests marketers will do well to keep track of. Predicting them will be hard, but paying attention shouldn’t be.

For more takes on the year ahead, by and about marketing agencies, check out our Agencies Predictions hub.

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