Let’s Get Physical

Let’s Get Physical

Let’s get physical. It might be the hook from an Olivia Newton John song, good advice for sedentary desk job workers, or an ill-advised proposition that will land you in hot water with your HR department. But today I’m calling upon the phrase to open a conversation about something different — the vital importance of real world experiences in an increasingly digital world.

For the better part of the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to help many of the world’s leading brands think about and act upon the rising wave of digitization — to consider how first the web, then social, now mobile, and next the Internet of Things (among other, erm, things) are forcing organizations to reimagine how they connect with customers, empower employees, deliver products, and recognize new revenue opportunities. If this work has taught me one thing it’s that, given the ubiquity of technology-driven change, it’s the foolish business leader who allows his company to stall, fall behind, or suffer disruption at the hands of new competition.

But if my work has taught me even one thing more, it’s that the leader who rushes headlong into the digital without first considering the basics of the physical experience humans have with her company’s products or services is a fool as well.

For example: I recently completed some social strategy work for a major retailer who had been struggling with fits and starts over the past several years, but was finally looking to impose some structure around how it engages its customers online. I suppose that, on some level, it was important work. But when — to get a good feel for the brand and all it represents — I made a trip to this retailer’s local store I couldn’t help but feel that whatever it might do online was beside the point. From the crowded and undersized parking lot to the poorly organized aisles, from the dismissive floor staff to the backed-up check out lines, the real world, in-store experience spoke more about the brand, its priorities and its relationship to its customers than any 140-character tweet, visually-inspired Facebook status or quirky Vine ever could.

I practically shouted aloud in aisle 7, why fix that when you need to fix this?

Depending on your point of view, this might come across as pointlessly contrarian or sound painfully obvious: The more things go digital, the more physical experiences matter.

While there’s no denying the fact that the digital stuff is the sexy stuff right now, there is also no denying that — for all the breathless buzz of circuitry — we humans remain resolutely physical and the vast majority of our experiences are still rooted in real world soil. And I’d argue that analog doesn’t just account for the majority of our experiences but the most meaningful of those experiences as well.

Think about the impression a handwritten note makes in an email world, the resonance of the human voice amidst a sea of texts, the still-satisfying feel of a printed book as e-books become the norm, or the excitement of a premium-priced live show in an age when MP3s stream for free. Consider the category-defining and category-defying wow factor of Apple’s retail experience (from its finger-friendly product displays to its checkout-comes-to-you purchase process), or how near-sighted trendsetters flock to Warby Parker’s brick-and-mortar eyeglass shops. The apps on our Google Glass provide a mere overlay to our physical world, and the big data implications of the Internet of Everything serve no greater purpose than enabling gadget makers to more effectively serve the true shiny objects of the digital age: the humans that populate this connected world. And let’s not forget that as I write this post, thousands upon thousands of the world’s digerati are flocking to a physicalpavilion in Las Vegas to ooh and ah over electronic manufacturers’ CES showcases stocked with tangible hardware that may ultimately find its way into consumers’ real world living rooms. Products that are packed so full of innovative features that quite possibly nobody wants or needs, yet are so devoid of innovative experiences that you can’t help but wonder if technology itself has jumped the tweeting shark as it leaves the real world behind.

Simply put, you can’t wax digital while allowing the physical realities of your business to wane away to nothing.

Australian futurist Anders Sorman-Nilsson writes and speaks extensively about the rising importance of digilogue – the blurred and blended experiences that sit at the intersection of the digital and the physical, appealing equally to our digital minds that demand access, convenience and immediacy and our analogue hearts that still crave connection, humanity and a personal touch (not to be confused with algorithmically-driven personalization). Similarly, when a business partner and I were called upon to help a radio company reinvent its business for the digital age, it became clear that their true opportunity lies not in dumping the old for the new but in blending the old with the new — creating and delivering an experience that is equally digital and terrestrial.

There’s a lesson in this as well, and it applies to virtually (maybe I should have written physically?) every business — including yours.

Digital transformation in absence of real world innovation is bound to lead to disappointment all around. The way sensors in Burberry raincoats interact with the mirrors in the apparel maker’s flagship London store to “show” shoppers how the garments perform in severe weather conditions is nothing but gimmickry if the coat soaks through when worn in real world rain. Tesco’s shoot-and-scan mobile shopping experience in Korean subway stations would hardly offer convenience if your groceries never arrived at your home. And your best-in-class website, case study-worthy social media customer service team, or mobile-first business strategy will peel away like the thinnest of veneers if it isn’t backed up by best-in-class products, a maniacal focus on excellence for every employee from the C-suite to the feet-on-the-street, and a customer-first mindset that plays out at every point of interaction whether online or off.

The digital must serve the physical, must support a real human experience that is truly remarkable. The digital era demands not only a vision for what’s possible right now but an equal focus on the timeless basics. Is your business ready to get physical in order to succeed in a digital world?

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