Ah, 2020—you bastard. We’ll euphemistically call you “The Year of Unanswered Questions.” There are the really big questions like: How long will this last? How will it end? How long will it take to get to something resembling stable?
There is also, of course, this question: What impact will this year have on us? Will it change us forever or will we bounce back to where our 2019 selves like some supple young thing a healthy pregnancy? As a marketing strategist, there are several specific impact questions I’ve been watching:
Fast-forward to Q2 2020 where suddenly all in-person meetings—from those between friends to those among disparate strata of authority like bosses and professors—were suddenly thrust into the informal setting of the Zoom, Meetup, WebEx call. Now, rather than being physically ushered through the doorways of structures whose architecture signals a transition to the professional or formal, our personal interactions take place stripped of all the trappings that cue us to the nature of our relationships. We’re all calling in from some thrown-together office space in our house. Suddenly, all our formerly structured relationships are all unavoidably authentic.
How many meetings have you had that have included introductions to your colleagues’ dogs? How many have been temporarily interrupted by a child who doesn’t grasp the concept of a timely problem? How many times have you secretly evaluated your colleague’s homes having gotten an over-their-shoulder glance at their work-from-home space?
Friends joke about how they have stopped skincare and makeup habits. Showers are now reserved for getting clean rather than getting ready. Professional wardrobes are neglected in closets. Hell, we’re not even sure people are wearing pants half the time.
In the meantime, organizations who never before trusted employees to maintain productivity while working from home have realized that employees can not only keep up the good work, they can do it while saving the company overhead. Will it last? When the world returns to something that seems like stable, will we continue to want nearly-all-access into the humanity of the relationships that used to have clearer boundaries? Will we become intolerant of people who rely on staging and costuming props to signal their credibility and authority? Or will we rush gratefully back to the boundaries that keep relationships in their place? I’m not sure, but I’m curious.
Since I specialize in higher education, I wondered how digital delivery would affect the classroom experience. Not that online learning is a new thing. On the contrary, online learning has been a growing field for a long time. There are plenty of resources on and research about the online classroom experience. But bear in mind—that is for students who chose the online experience because of the trade-offs of convenience, flexibility, and cost. What about the students who never made those trade-off decisions but who nonetheless found themselves sitting in front of a screen last April?
Now, in the Fall 2020, we’ve all spent hours and hours consuming experiences via digital delivery. In some States—like Colorado—outbreaks have slowed to the point where leaders are pushing to resume in-person delivery. Churches are getting ready to fully open again; my kids who have been doing online-only school will soon receive in-person options which I believe many people will take…this year. But will 2020 mark an upward trajectory of digital? Will we see a steady rise in the years to come? I’m honestly not sure, I feel like it could go either way. People are either going to be so tired of Zooming it in that they’ll reject digital options even when easily available. Or, they will realize how much less inconvenient it is to have to sit through the whole thing (classes, conferences, church services, etc.) when they only really want parts and can tune in and out, pants optional, personal interaction be damned. Or maybe the digital delivery vehicles themselves will evolve; hard to say.
Before the pandemic, the answer to this question would have included market research that delved into the audience to ascertain the best ways to make content credible, relevant, and emotionally engaging. Sometimes, in pre-pandemic consulting, my higher education colleagues and I would sit with a higher ed client who felt suddenly awakened to new insight because their own child had recently undertaken the college admissions process. We’d hear all about how that 1 kid experienced campus tours or responded to direct mail pieces. And while this was interesting, we would leave the meeting knowing that it was our job to get bigger, representative sample sizes from which to make fully informed decisions.
Now, in the throes of 2020, the audience has shrunk to that 1 kid. The one person in front of the one screen. I have caught both of my kids wandering when they’re supposed to be logged into a school session. When confronted, they shrug and say something like: “Oh, yeah we’re supposed to be doing X, but yeah, I’m not going to do it.” At our house, these situations have been immediately followed by lectures of “This is school,” and, “Yes, you will do it, even if it doesn’t see interesting to you…” But, grown-ups, let’s be fair, shall we? How many boring Zoom meetings have you attended without really attending? I have shopped for and bought at least one pair of shoes while supposedly attending a meeting.
So, I wonder: how much of the unanswered question of content value is really a question of community? Usually, community experiences must have enough content to appeal in some way to everyone at some time. It’s like community transportation—the train goes everywhere everyone might need to go, so I’ll get where I’m going; you’ll get where you’re going, but then again, I have to wait while the train stops long enough for you collect your stuff and “mind the gap” and you’ll have to do the same for me.
Last year, my daughter’s in-classroom experience required her to sit through other students’ questions and the teacher’s explanation even though she didn’t have that question and didn’t need that answer. For her, those moments and that exchange of content would not have been relevant or emotionally engaging—not “valuable,” but the community dynamic of the in-person delivery required her to sit through them. And now? Now she is an audience of 1 and the teachers are teaching to 25 of them 1 at a time…all at once. For some of those students, hearing classmates articulate their questions will be useful if they shared the same question, but for others, it just extends the train stop waiting game and the temptation is to shut it down as soon as progress towards one’s personal destination has slowed.
After this ridiculous year, will the 1-at-a-time, digital delivery change our demands on content value? Will it accelerate and amplify the micro-segmentation trend we’re seeing as a result of the personalizable digital experience? Pre-pandemic, we were already conditioned to crunch through extraordinary amounts of information by swiping up, down, left, right as it suited, engaged, and amused us. Someday, when we can engage communally again, how will we judge content as valuable? Will we emerge from the pandemic willing to tolerate anything that isn’t just right for me right now? Or, is there value in the train stop wait for those who aren’t getting on or off and if so, what is it?
I know I don't have the answers to any of the above. If you do, please don't hesitate to chime in.
Culture geek. Proud Colorado native.