Companies are evolving towards increasingly complex and uncertain relationships, involving multiple stakeholders. Their customers constantly invent new ways of expressing their opinions and show no sign of hesitation when deciding to defect. They may even shout it loud and clear. Communication is at the forefront of a world of weak ties that form and break up uninterruptedly. Three major mutations help us understand the future of corporate communication. First of all, digital technology has multiplied the points of contact with the brand. Second, a new relationship to consumption seems to have reversed the balance of power in favor of customers, who seem to regain control. Finally, control over data has become crucial in differentiation and customer knowledge. By showing their ability to respond to instability and paradoxes, communication specialists may convert a threatening progress into an opportunity to give a full meaning to their activity: inform on the value and integrate the company into a narrative of common good. But the communication of the future cannot deal with these changes without reinventing its paradigm.
This article is the sixth of a series which will be published within the next months.
To understand what is at stake in a sector hit by severe turbulence, one needs to take a step back and look at the evolution of contemporary societies.
Brands in the liquid society
British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman draws a striking picture of the world that is emerging today: “solid” society, in which individuals were living until a few decades ago, has given way to a “liquid” society, where the network of links that define the relationship of an individual with their environment is likely to change constantly, in a fluid manner.
In this context, brands are caught between two conflicting logics. On the one hand they suffer from this culture of nomadism and are caught in the vagaries of fashion, more powerful than ever. On the other hand, they have reactivated, in their own way, the old feelings of belonging and loyalty, and some work as apparently safe and meaningful markers, known to all. One hesitates to even label them as institutions: indeed, they do not organize our social life. But they do provide little bit of intelligibility. They help us define ourselves.
Beyond any doubt, companies pay an increasing attention to their ties with their different stakeholders and in the first place, with their customers. In a liquid world that constantly seeks relationships, creating a community of customers or users appears as an ideal that goes far beyond communication or marketing: for many companies, it is a strategic issue. More modestly, to maintain and develop a reputation is crucial in a world where everyone has a say and where an adverse opinion can trigger a rapid snowball effect.
At the heart of the challenges of tomorrow emerges the need for leaders to understand the new vectors of relationships, knowing how to nourish them and enrich them. This understanding is the key to success because the relationship that a company weaves with its customers is both its strength and its weakness. Henri Nicolas Verdier and Colin have developed the image of the “multitude” to explore this new reality. “The multitude is you and us, it is the users who are drawn by a service or product like a swarm and can move away from it just as quickly.”
The multitude is not captive. It can turn away quickly “towards the next move.” In this new power of the masses, communication specialists are faced to the advent of “prosumers”: both “producers” and “consumers” of information. Studies are unanimous: marketing-communication managers find it difficult to cope with the infidelity of consumers and with the affirmation that their decision-making power is based on the advice of their peers. Many of them feel disoriented when faced with the personalization and hyper-segmentation of targets.
In a context of global “liquidity,” relationships become one of the greatest challenges of tomorrow for the communication industry. “Markets are conversations,” as would already say the authors of the Clue Manifesto in 1999. Communication is at the heart of these conversations and needs to reinvent itself from top to bottom.
This economy of relationship emphasizes the idea that a brand cannot exist without engaging in a dialogue with consumers, whether on its own digital interfaces or on social networks. Opinion communities operate as meetings or attentions. The authenticity and transparency values then take an unprecedented importance. The initial discourse produced by the brand has less importance here than the quality of the answers it provides to those who ask it questions. This quality can be measured on the basis of responsiveness, empathy, commitment of those who speak on behalf of the brand, their ability to listen carefully to what they are told, to take the consumers into consideration.
During a long period of time, communication was a top-down flow, an incantatory speech. But ongoing changes have transformed it without returning back: sincerity in commitment has become an obligation. Former publicist and sociologist Marc Drillech point out that “in a society that promotes obsessive transparency and is increasingly unforgiving, consistency and virtuous behaviors are no longer friendly levers for improving a copy strategy. They may become more cost-effective than maintaining artifices of speech and activism.”
More generally, in a world that no longer mistakes progress for growth, companies will be probably be increasingly watched on societal and environmental issues. The proliferation of labels such as ISO, CSR, SRI and the development of extra-financial rating agencies are symptoms of the rise of non-market values. “Currently, companies challenge us, communication specialists, on their role, their contribution, to the common good.” says Bruno Scaramuzzino, director of the Meanings agency and co-director of the Prospective Committee of “Communication and Enterprises.”
On the long term, the brand is an affirmation of sens, and communication is redefined as a relational economy of empathy. Backbone and first intangible asset of the company, it needs more than ever to remain a promise, a marker, and a coherent system of representation. The brand is the lifeblood of everything from the product offer to the digital through merchandising and events. It becomes, by metonymy, a true business plan.
While a multifaceted tendency impacts the representations of communication, the sector faces, from the instrumental point of view, paradoxical disruption. The consistency of the brand will most certainly be a particularly determining field in the future, with tools such as 360 project management, KPI management or the rise of concepts such as brand content. The development of foresight analysis is equally crucial, through different tools: innovation marketing, trend detection, datamining…
At the heart of these transformations, digital technology, which has redefined the customer experience, also disrupts the way we conceive relationships and transactions. Among the indicators – their spread constantly puzzles advertisers – those that measure interaction are now unavoidable. This is what conversational agencies such as “We Are Social” bring forward. Their commitment charter states the following: “We help you build relevant conversations with an audience through digital campaigns, conversational platforms, advocacy programs, creation and management of online communities, social applications and conversation response management.”
Among the most typical examples of the use of new tools, the agency recently made the news by accompanying the Banque Postale in a social customer service operation. By using “Vine,” the mobile video application from Twitter, this French public institution has just launched the first banking “Service Après Vine” that posts six seconds videos to answer the most asked questions from customers on the Twitter account of the bank. New tools imply new trades. Digital technology, in its new relational dimensions, tends to specialize and segment practices. Activities such as community management, buzz management, e-reputation, e-influence or advocates management are booming.
But even if digital tools and trades are able to satisfy interaction – the preferred indicator of the future – the sector still seems caught in the persistence of a few fundamental elements.
First of all, studies show that the two major reference indicators remain footprint and ROI; interaction is still a remote perspective. Second, the combination of new tools does not change the paradigm. For Dominique Annet, researcher in complex informational systems and author of L’après-communication, “despite the implementation of NICTs, we are still in a mechanistic communication system. It is plumbing: pipes that are optimized to get through as much content as possible.” So the business fundamentals are hard to die: creating value, taking care of the identity of the brand, participating in the company’s economic development by improving its reputation, bringing new ideas and developing transversal dynamics.
While the acceleration and glut of flows encourages them to rethink their tools, communication specialists are threatened by another danger: their submission to the present moment, something that isn’t really the symptom of a controlled communication. One only needs to take a look at how, due to digital technology and accelerating flows, the sale of daily newspapers has collapsed. On the other hand, quarterly publications that analyze and decipher the world on the long term have greatly increased. Managing time will be crucial, along with the ability of communication to adapt to hyperconnected worlds but also to take a step back, analyze, seek discretion and even silence.
Portrait of the communication specialist as a synchronizer
If one had to sketch the communication specialist of the future, he would need to be inserted in a world that doesn’t exist yet. At this time, all professionals agree to admit that the complexity of the environment has put an end to unidirectional mass communication (i.e. the transfer of information from A to B). The reversal of the balance of power (the power of the prosumer) but also the emergence of a network of nomadic talents, have completely disrupted the pyramidal structure of the profession. Once this stage is passed, the present way of thinking establishes a two-way communication (interaction from A to B and B to A), more segmented, horizontal in its structure. Operating both in real places and on the net, communication specialists renew their role with the requirement of “putting in contact” (conversation, co-creation, 360 brand consistency).
Dominique Annet considers the possibility of a third stage. In this new age of communication, “we no longer believe in the illusion that what A wishes simply occurs because A and B are connected.” According to the researcher, this new age of communication is not mechanistic, but systemic. Communication is neither uni- nor bi- but multi-directional. It isn’t intended for target groups, but for individuals and communities. The communication specialist of the future is neither an informer nor a connector, but a synchronizer. He is no longer a plumber i.e. a link in an assembly line. Nor is he a manager or an operator in a vertical structure. He is an expert, an entrepreneur, an experienced architect, an advocate of sensitivity, a leader in a network structure. She adds: “He is opportunistic and intuitive (and not careerist and calculator), able to think a spiral process (rather than a communication plan with a backup ROI analysis).”
In this regard, Bruno Scaramuzzino notes that the campaigns are becoming “devices” around which communication specialists gather different talents – atypical, independent profiles, perfectly suited to a particular operation.
But the synchronizer can’t deploy his know-how in today’s world. Foresight analyst Marc Halévy conducts research on all aspects of socio-economic transition from the industrial to the intangible economy. He delivers a scathing analysis: “The words marketing and sales relate to the good or bad use of techniques that have no future whatsoever in a post-industrial economy of frugality and simplicity. Once all materiality has being conquered, the expansion of humanity will only be possible by the invention of new intangible territories, where assets no longer relate to money, but to intelligence, talent and skills. Knowledge is at the heart of the future of humanity.”
It is in this intangible world that Dominique Annet imagines the advent of “post-communication”. The challenge is then to plan for a systemic communication where time is no longer real and suffered but virtual and experienced. The borders are abolished and space is immaterial. Trust has replaced control, push communication is supplanted by pull communication, based on the invitation and seduction. Borrowed from the world of music, the term “syntony” summarizes, according to the researcher, the ideal towards which the communication of the future should aim: “Creating support among communities towards objects (material or immaterial), harmony with the project of the organization.
By becoming a project, the company, following its leader, contributes differently to the common good. The brand, which has become the keystone of the project, creates and preserves differently the support it created. By becoming a device, a campaign steps into a network organization and horizontal hierarchical structures. The uninviting “liquid” society described by Bauman has the merit of exposing a new situation to the most daring communication specialists. It also outlines one of the challenges of tomorrow: that of not forgetting our humanity amidst the torments of liquidity. The emergence of “post-communication” calls for a new paradigm: something communication specialists have plenty of time to work on.
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