Three Engagement Trends for Associations from Futurist Amy Webb

How are you going to get people’s attention in the future? What are the emerging tools for engagement? Amy Webb offers a wide-eyed glimpse of what the future holds for association media.

By Amy Hindman

Amy Webb is a digital media futurist. In 2013, she published Data, A Love Story (Dutton/ Penguin), a memoir about the world of online dating, consumer behavior, and finding love via algorithms. Her TED talk about Data is one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time and has been translated into 31 languages. But that’s only the beginning, and there’s not space enough here to go on about just how smart and accomplished this woman is, so we’ll have to settle for a recap of the golden nuggets she passed on to a captive audience at this past summer’s Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting, where Webb put on her invisible wizard hat and told us what the future of engagement might look like, especially for associations.

First, the backstory: When the new media juggernaut was in its infancy, Webb recounted why the first blog ever published was revolutionary at the time — because it inherently had an “ask” of the readers: blue words with underlines, what we commonly now refer to as urls or links. This was 22 years ago in the fall of 1993, when content became no longer one-directional but two-directional, and later, omnidirectional.

The first smartphone was called the i-Mode, and in the summer of 2000, Webb recalls her return from Asia during that time, when she had one of the first iterations of a mobile phone with a camera. By October 2001, we saw the first mp3 players. And today, well, we know what today looks like: iPhones and other smartphones in every hand and Apple stores and retail stores offering smartphones within a few miles of nearly every home, depending to some small degree on where you live.

What is the future then? In one video Webb presented, we see a man wearing a special cap that enables his brain to be connected to that of someone on the other side of the country. One man thinks, “Move my hand,” and the person on the other side of the country moves his hand. Thought transmission is next. It’s happening already. Webb quoted Arthur C. Clarke, who said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and I think she’s made me a believer.

Outside of the magic, there are three trends (“and a little magic, too”) that Webb says will affect associations in the near future.

Engagement Equals Mobile

How are companies, associations, and other people going to get our attention in the near future, and how does that translate to your membership? Webb implores us to ask ourselves, “When it comes to your members’ attention, how do you define attention?”

To some, engagement equals more — scale, in other words—but bigger does not equal attention. Twitter “follows” don’t necessarily mean a user is engaged. So then, how do we grab the attention of our members and reach the organizations that we want to? How do we reverse engineer a person’s attention to make them pay attention to us? The answer lies in mobile analytics.

Webb uses analytics to break down the nuances of a woman’s day-to-day activities, all of which are captured on her mobile device, to which she’s attached most every day, all day. She’s checking email, looking at push notifications, texting, checking the weather, paying a bill — and then there’s the math. It’s all just math. Less than five seconds on her homescreen, four seconds deciding.

Statistically, this woman makes visual decisions in less than three seconds about whether she’s going to engage with something or not. Is our content optimized so it will stick? This woman also is guided by her needs and activities at the moment in time she’s engaging with you.

How then does the average connected person make hundreds of minute decisions every day when it comes to content? Facebook understands this very well, using algorithms and formulas to determine that a particular post carries “x” weight, and “x” amount of people are engaging, and “x” tells how recent the content is.

How can you recast from “let’s have a responsive website, app, mobile whatever” to “what can I give them that they need right now?” Webb asks. “How do you know what they need right now?” has to be answered first of all, she says. Go to the smartphone. It tells us everything. The accelerometer is the sweet spot because it tells us whether she’s walking, driving, what her schedule might look like, where she is typically on a given day and at a given time, what she reads, what she listens to, and more. Time, activities, behaviors. When we use past behaviors to predict future behavior, we have a good shot at meeting her intellectual and emotional needs throughout her busy day and perhaps even on the weekends. Finally, we can create one version of content for this woman and another version for another woman, all informed by predictive analytics.

Outbrain is one tool that Webb recommends and is used by larger media companies like CNN, which, by the way, is tracking your behavior — which is why you get a customized version of CNN’s website each time you visit. This creates higher engagement, and this collected information serves another purpose too: revenue. This information is gold to your partners.

Key insight: Move past one-size-fits-all to engage with each one of our members rather than our membership as a whole.

Emerging Tools for Engagement

In addition to Outbrain, emerging tools to increase engagement take it a step farther. A tool like Watson (IBM) is a cognitive computing platform that uses algorithms and code to help computers think along with humans. Watson has been able to infer personality from personal communications and then recommend how to alter messaging.

Crystal is another with the same basic premise, scraping data and taking all of that information to make inferences about personality and how to relate, all via algorithm. For example, when emailing Anne, use these specific words; when speaking to Jake, use these specific words. And there’s more: If you’re having a meeting with a particular person, you can look her up and say, “I want to email Jen and engage her,” and Crystal will provide suggested language to achieve the interaction you desire. It’s a lot like spell-check for interacting with people.

For associations, this technology can be used to craft messages specifically for each member — one story with a thousand different versions using small changes in language that each member is more likely to engage with.

Key insight: How can you use tools to personalize message and content? Some of this you can do manually, but these automated tools are on the near-future horizon.

One-to-Few Networks

Most Americans are familiar to some degree with the network show “Law and Order.” The reason it’s so recognizable is because its formula is now so familiar that it reduces challenge to entry, Webb says. This is neuroscience, and it’s how we’re wired and how we think. Formulas help our brains process information faster so we can work less. Consumers are used to seeing stories written in these formulas. There are better formulas, though, and there are 22 story types to consider, including news items, Q&As, profiles, listicles, quizzes, explainers, photo galleries, briefs, curated links, maps, references like recipes, photo sliders, tear sheets, guides, polls, survey results, social aggregation, event liveblogs, polls, and more.

When and where to use these formula alternatives depends on time and attention, and that ties into the next idea. There are better formulas now, and they are best served on fewer channels.

Vox, a relatively new publication, uses story cards rather than a listical, so the user can click through and get updated quickly on the content posted there. It’s like a hyperfuturistic reference guide that’s meant for a relatively small audience. The reason it works is because it’s useful, is a time-saver, and you know what you’ll get every time because there’s a formula.

Webb says a new network called “This.” allows users to share only one thing a day! Oh, the horror. It’s meant for a small group of people and is not scalable, nor is it intended to be. The editor curates the submitted links and sends the Top 5 at 5, ranked as most interesting by those on the site. People are clamoring for an invite to “This.,” Webb says, because “you’re only getting the best stuff.” And again, it saves time and follows a formula.

What if there was a “This.” channel just for your membership, Webb asks, “Just one link/article/story/etc. per day for your members,” curated by you for them — or they could even curate it for one another.

Similarly, Webb mentioned that live social streaming channels Periscope and Meercat give users a sense that if they don’t watch it now, it’s gone forever, and they’ll potentially miss out on something great.

There’s also email marketing, and frankly, Webb asserts, many are not doing it well. She advises less graphics, less fancy, a “just a friend emailing to let you know what’s up” approach as being more successful.

Key insight: Useful, niche content that’s a fast, easy read. Conversational is where the paradigm is shifting for small audiences.

Amy Hindman is integrated publishing manager at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. AM&P truly appreciates her blogging about this Annual Meeting session for our members who were unable to attend.