What you can learn from consumers' digital decade

As the decade I call the twenty-oh's ends, think on what a transformational change we have just all witnessed. Our obsession with the latest product from Google or Apple often clouds our recognition of the long-term effects. We all know where we are. But I think many of us have forgotten where we were, and just how dramatically things have changed in ten short years.

Bill Gates in 2001 called this new decade "The Digital Decade." Boy was he right.Consider:
  • When the last decade began, there were 2.6 million broadband households in the US, one out of every 40 homes. Now there are 80 million, or two thirds of the population. Broadband has gone from rare to ubiquitous.
  • Starting from zero, digital video recorders reached 31 million homes and HDTV reached 51 million in this decade. Together with online video and video on-demand, these gadgets have completely transformed the television experience.
  • Mobile phones subscriptions are now 270 million, out of 307 million US adults.(For a comparison, mobile phones were in 51 million households at the start of the decade, but back then having more than one phone per household was unusual.) Back in 1999 phones were phones. Now they are iPhones, Blackberries, and Androids -- computers and internet access devices.
  • Portable digital music players have reached 76% of all US households. At the start of the decade, they were in practically none, because the iPod had yet to be introduced. Mark Mulligan calls it "The Decade That Music Forgot".

And finally, it's worth noting that Google just celebrated its tenth anniversary. In 1999, most of hadn't heard of it yet. And forget social technologies -- in 1999, most of the social activity online was in chat and discussion forums.

As I look back on all this from the perspective of media and marketing, it's clear that consumer lead, media stumbles along behind, and marketers follow along behind.

2009's consumers spend 34% of their media time online. As a result, digital marketing spending has gone from $6.2 billion in 1999 to $25.6 billion, or 12% of all marketing spending, in 2009. But marketers still spend most of their energy and dollars on television, newspapers, and radio.

Within those industries, the spend shifts slower than the behavior. Newspaper sites still bring in far less than ads in the paper. Video on-demand and online video ad models are still under construction.

But what you can learn from this decade is that consumers move quickly, models move slowly, and marketing moves conservatively. When you see a technology shifting, that's the time to begin close observation of the models behind it. It will take years for those models to take hold, and in those years, you get the chance to learn. That's when you need to experiment and figure out how things work, because that's when it's cheap and the competition is hanging back. The objective is not to make money right off, but to learn the ropes. Because when the transformation happens -- and it will -- then you will have the advantage of knowledge.

The twenty-oh's were the digital decade for consumers. The twenty-teens will be the digital decade for marketers. Time to get cracking.

Note: most of these links are to Forrester Reports that are available in full to Forrester clients, or as abstracts for non-clients.

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