Reshape Digital #3: Digital Anti-Trends

From automation and artificial intelligence to blockchain, many digital trends aren’t what they seem. Here’s what you need to know.

Today on Reshape Digital we’re talking about digital trends and marketing trends. If you’ve spent much time on the internet, you’re probably already familiar with these trends: concepts like automation, artificial intelligence, and so on. Content marketers and journalists like to beat them into the ground because they make great “listicles”. We’re taking a different approach and labelling them “anti-trends”.

Feel free to listen to our full Reshape Digital podcast episode #3 on this topic.

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What is an anti-trend?

We all know how quickly things move in the digital space, and there’s this popular idea that in order to stay ahead one has to stay on top of certain trends.

No digital trends are inherently bad. Where businesses run into trouble, however, is when they chase trends based on their popularity and the prospect of generating excitement around their brand. The attention received from technology journalists will only further validate this.

This is where cool new ideas become anti-trends.

We’re going to make the case that chasing these trends can become detrimental if they are not in line with your type of business, the trend is adopted too prematurely, or the trend doesn’t resonate with your pre-existing audience.

A better way of thinking about digital trends

By the time something has become a trend, it has entered the mainstream and you have already failed to attain the benefits of early adoption.

Steal this, repeat it, tweet it, if you must. There could still be benefits to adopting a trend, but early adoption isn’t one of them.

Many companies at this point will ask themselves if certain trends will become the new standard or not. Predicting what will catch on is extraordinarily difficult (experts are always wrong). Here are better questions to ask, based on what you already know:

1. Will adopting this trend dilute my brand or strengthen it?

Think of the sea of tech startups that copied Apple’s space-age minimalist brand. We all know there’s nothing new under the sun, but there’s nothing noteworthy about companies under the shadow of that grey Apple either. Minimalism is popular among big brands because they earn it over decades of brand affinity: that’s why we associate three white stripes with Adidas, a swoosh with Nike, and so on. “The best logos are simple,” they say. While true to an extent, it is mainly nonsense: every major brand with a minimalist logo once had a more complex logo that almost always included the company name. While simplicity is popular among designers, it can hurt fledgling businesses who are still establishing their brand.

 

Apple itself was far from minimalist in 1976 when the company was first starting out.

The Tinder dating app is hailed as a modern example of a company with a great minimalist logo. As you can see, it’s just another example of the myth of minimalism.

2.  Is adopting this trend attached to my company’s core value proposition?

Pivoting is okay: Netflix pivoted from a movie delivery service to a video streaming service and became one of the most valuable companies in the world. Slack pivoted from a failing video game company to a highly successful internal communication tool. These are unicorns. There are countless companies whose names you’ll never know because they pivoted at the wrong time, under the belief that they were future-proofing. These are donkeys.

Once a trend has emerged it should be pursued based on its inherent merits and how they relate to your business, not its “popularity”. If you’re wondering why I put “popularity” in scare quotes, it’s to mark the distinction between article-fodder popular among tech journalists and content marketers, and what truly resonates with your audience. Think about your business from first principles. Break it down to its fundamentals, assume nothing, and go from there.

One anti-trend that has come and gone is 3D television. TV manufacturers like Sony and Samsung piggybacked on the popularity of James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster Avatar, believing their customers would be eager to invite 3D technology into their homes. Predictably, every tech blog was abuzz with talk of this new era in home television. Millions of dollars and unsold television sets later, it became clear that this assumption was false, and 3D television was one of the first major anti-trends of the 2010s.

The Gartner research firm produced a helpful visualization of the birth and demise of anti-trends:

Somewhere along the peak of inflated expectations, countless startups are launched and companies with otherwise strong value propositions pivot to meet perceived demand, only to find themselves slumping into the trough of disillusionment. Along the slope of enlightenment, a more realistic vision of the technology is defined. Mainstream adoption emerges along the plateau of productivity, where expectations for the technology never reach the original peak following early adoption.

That’s enough background. In the spirit of irony, here’s a trendy “listicle” of current anti-trends:

Anti-Trend #1: Artificial Intelligence

AI is a popular trend and every technology company, young or old, is attempting to leverage it. The truth is that many people don’t actually know what AI means. Many consumers and brands alike conflate automation or algorithms for artificial intelligence. A good buzzword, but in practice, a frequently dishonest term. A better solution is to tell your audience how your technology actually works. 40% of European AI startups don’t have any AI. Further, 1250 of 2830 AI startups do not use AI in a significant way in their products.  

Unbridled optimism: This stock image for “artificial intelligence” screams anti-trend.

Anti-Trend #2: Listicles

They take no time to prepare and are good for SEO, so their popularity is understandable. We are arriving at a point, however, where listicle production has outpaced real innovation - in other words, everyone is writing the same thing all the time and it cheapens your brand to jump on that bandwagon. Don’t assume that because it will work for Buzzfeed’s audience it will work with yours. A more impactful SEO metric is whether the reader stays on your page instead of clicking on the next search result after visiting you. Medium actually found that blog posts that take seven minutes to read perform the best. Substantial content wins every time.

Anti-Trend #3: Automation

Automation has been an absolute game-changer in nearly every industry, and businesses are obsessed with it for good reason. In practice, automation results in an average of 15% increased sales and 12% decreased marketing costs. Naturally, everyone wants to automate everything, but this can be a trap in itself. Some processes are not as effective when automated, but more importantly, some automations take longer to configure than the amount of time they actually save. Automate where necessary, but remember the value of actual humans.

Anti-Trend #4: Rule-breaking

We hear this all the time: “Break the rules to get ahead!” It’s a cool bumper sticker, but sometimes the most innovative thing your company can do is choose a rule that works and stand by it. Good rules are good because they work. This is what separates the “trendy” companies from lasting institutions. Commit to something. OPIN is committed to Drupal because it’s the best enterprise CMS. Full stop.

Final Thoughts on Tech Trends and Anti-Trends

Anti-trends are dangerous because they can soak up a lot of time and resources with little return on investment, all under the cloak of being a forward-thinking organization. Innovation is always a gamble that can pay off big, but jumping on a trend is not the same as innovation.

Business leaders, especially those in the startup space, should understand the nature of how trends emerge. They should also develop approaches around how they deal with these trends, and strive to develop their business strategy from first principles.

Did you like this article? It’s just a taste: this piece is based on the most recent episode of our new podcast, Reshape Digital.



Listen to the full episode for more anti-trends, some fun banter, and further insights.