David Shing, or “Shingy" as he is popularly known in the digital industry, was in New Delhi recently to deliver a keynote lecture on why Innovation is out, Invention is in and what brands must do to truly connect with consumers on digital where attention spans are getting shorter by the day. Shing is vice president at Oath Inc., a Verizon subsidiary created after merging AOL and Yahoo, which offers content and advertising solutions to brands like e-commerce giant Amazon, auto major Skoda, Standard Chartered and Dell Inc.
In an interview, the self-proclaimed digital prophet talks about native advertising, social media platforms becoming closed networks and why brands must invest in creating their own digital assets. Edited excerpts:
Why did you invent the title Digital Prophet? Is it time to change it now?
I love the eyebrow raise on my title (laughs). Digital Prophet is somebody who distills trends, understands contextual behaviour, and how it applies to brands, agencies and clients. My boss wanted to call me evangelist and I didn’t want that because Google and Microsoft already have evangelists. So, I’m basically a forecaster but I also do a lot of creative work on brands.
Honestly speaking, I couldn’t care less about the title. My business card doesn’t even have a designation; instead it comes with a radio-frequency identification chip so if you tap it against your phone, it will take you to a website that I have programmed (www.shingy.com), which has details on what I do and love.
How do brands create more engagement online?
The challenge with brands is that while they claim to be digitally savvy, 16-18% of their ad budget (and more so in India) goes to television. The same brands take their 30-second television ad and run it on digital platforms and are flabbergasted when it doesn’t perform. Television is passive and its content will never work on digital. A lot of brands forget about the secret ingredient that digital gives—immense scope for interaction. If you want your brand to be popular on digital, then create captivating content which has an element of surprise in it, making it instantly share-worthy. Building platform-specific content is another secret ingredient that works on digital. Brands get lazy and use a single campaign across media platforms, which doesn’t work.
Personally, I loved auto maker Bajaj’s INS Vikrant campaign which promoted the bike V whose fuel tank is made out of the steel of aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, the ship that won India the 1971 battle against Pakistan. First the company created a brand (V) from scratch and turned a utility product into a spiritual one by emotionally targeting riders looking to own a piece of history.
I must say that Indian creativity is amazingly hot but not on television programming. I also loved the Savlon Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks campaign in which the brand turned a simple utility product (chalk sticks) into soap. It’s a wonderful product which can be used anywhere in the world.
What is the importance of native advertising today?
I’m quite bullish on native advertising which simply means putting your brain where you can’t buy media. There’s a real estate website Trulia in the US where women spend a lot of their time. Mattel, the makers of Barbie, listed Barbie’s house in Malibu for $25 million on the website. You can’t buy media on this website so they did a photo listing which took off—that is a great example of native advertising.
Native advertising can be scaled through platforms which are very engaging like mobile devices. I think vertical videos on mobile are a format which works well for native advertising.
If brands do not have native advertising which is gamified and has video format, then they are missing out on a big opportunity. That is why HuffPost is an important platform because it teaches brands to act like editorial. It simply means that brands should build content that creates conversations among consumers, giving them an opportunity to actively engage with them.
Which areas of opportunity have you identified for AOL in the digital space? How important is the India market for Oath?
We took two pioneering internet companies— AOL and Yahoo—to create Oath. There are two sides to our business which are unique—programming (content) and platforms (media platforms we own where content sits). We are focusing on these two along with third-party websites where we also help brands advertise.
In India, we feel the opportunity is huge. Only 57% of 1.3 billion users have mobile internet so there’s still a massive opportunity to cash in. Indians are also a much more engaged audience on mobile devices. The video consumption in India has grown nine times in 2017 over 2016 because of affordable data owing to Jio’s launch. While most countries are saturated globally when it comes to mobile adoption, people don’t mind burning data to consume content. I must say the Jio SIM card is mind-boggling, people keep two SIM cards in India—one for data and another for calling. It shows that although Indians are cautious about their overall spends they are not cautious about content consumption.
For instance, the Yahoo sports app has close to a million downloads. Indians love information and it is the duty of brands to curate that for them well.
Do you notice an app fatigue among consumers?
Almost 70% of people try the mobile experience only once. App fatigue is definitely there because developers are creating apps which are a reflection of mobile Web, which sours the user experience. Brands need to create an engaging experience on their apps. Luxury brand Louis Vuitton which started as a travel luggage brand had an app called “City Guides" which gives curated walking tours of cities like Tokyo, London and New York. So, instead of building an e-commerce platform, the brand highlighted its heritage of the luxury of travel through a content app. People are more likely to spend time exploring this app than a vanilla e-commerce platform.
A trend which is unique to India is people keep installing and deleting apps because of low hard disk space on cheap smartphones. There’s also an issue of battery burn. The average number of apps people have globally is around 40 while in India it is much lower.
At one of your talks you mentioned that “defriending" will be a trend online. Is that started to happen?
Yes I coined the term “defriending" back in 2012. I think instead of defriending or unfollow, there is a new phenomenon called “closed networks" which means people are becoming more private on social networking and digital platforms. Many have private accounts on photo-sharing apps like Instagram so by default they are blocking access to their information to strangers and engaging more on messaging platforms like WhatsApp. We will see more of this happening because a lot of these platforms are creepy or they are just not that interesting any more. People are active on platforms where they don’t have to be popular any more but have to be engaged. Publicity culture, which was emulated by social media platforms, will diminish and people will only engage with those who they really care about. When you have that circle of influence then you can have trusted information.
But where does that leave brands that are investing on these social media platforms?
I’m still flabbergasted that brands that spend billions of ad dollars building the brand would outsource the contact relationship with the consumer to social media platforms which may not exist in the next 10 years. Brands have to go back to building their own brands again, and not rely on the social channel. It is fine for now if their target is popularity but they have to build their own digital assets (an app or website).
How important are wearables and voice assistants today? Are consumers speaking increasingly to devices rather than to people?
I didn’t see voice assistant coming. My challenge with Alexa or Google Home is accent (Australian), the natural language barrier, but that is slowly being improved. Young kids are searching on their mobile phone by speaking to their phone (Siri) or (Google Voice). This just reflects that going forward brand sound or sonic branding will be very important as they will be seen less and heard more. Intel, for instance, can be identified within three seconds because of the signature tune.
I think wearables will be a massive category but only if they can create differentiation because apps on your phone can also track your activity. What we are seeing is that wearable tech brands are providing you services like email, SMS notifications and alerts to drink water. As phones get bigger, they will be put in a bag and potentially all time spent will shift to a watch. However, I must add that millennials still prefer phones over watches/wearable devices.
You also mentioned attention is the new currency. Could you elaborate?
The average number of times people unlock their iPhone is 80 in a day. You are interacting with your phone a couple of hundred times. Indians spend the maximum amount of time on phone. I think digital should be measured in terms of frequency and time spent on digital platforms. Engagement is time spent on any platform and it is the only thing left to measure. So, spending time on the Louis Vuitton’s City Guides app is way more valuable than watching a 30-second ad or clicking on a display banner on a website.
What do you do when you are offline and not tracking trends?
I spend a lot of time working on music (composing, writing and editing) because it’s emotionally enriching. I’m an acoustic songwriter, and I mostly write on misery and happiness (laughs). I’m currently working on a rock and roll album.