A forceful speaker with wild hair and a rambling, manic style, Shing delivered his message to an enthusiastic audience attending the Northside Festival, a three-day tech conference held each year in Brooklyn.
As a spokesman for a brand woefully in need of rehabilitation – AOL has approximately 2.5 million subscribers today, down from 25 million in 2002 – Shing was brought on board to identify “new opportunities for the business, actively changing brand perception, and assisting in building the external profile of the company across the globe.” He adopted the title ‘digital prophet’ himself. “I fly all around the world and go to conferences,” he told The New Yorker, “I listen to where media is headed and figure out how our brands can win in that environment.”
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An Australian, born in 1970, Shing is agnostic when it comes to what technology or platform people choose to access their content. The laptop replaced PCs, tablets replaced laptops, smartphones replaced tablets and it’s possible that souped-up watches will replace smartphones. “VR (Virtual Reality) is an incredible experience,” he says, but the expense of pioneering VR devices like Facebook’s Oculus still limits wider adoption. But does it really matter whether someone is playing a video game online or on an Xbox or using VR? “It’s all just games.”
Many “gorgeous objects are coming at us,” he says. By 2025, he notes, the world will be flooded by a mind-bending 34 billion connected devices. Wearables may be the next big thing. Samsung Labs is developing gear that will read you your email messages. A startup called Pavlov is using artificial intelligence to develop a wristband that actually gives you a slight electric shock to modify your behavior. Spending too much time on Facebook? – zap! Goofing off when you should be at the gym? – zap! Another company is outfitting sports fans with haptic wearables that let them feel what players on the field are feeling in real time. A linebacker gets sacked, you register the force of the blow (though without suffering any injuries or a concussion.) “You don’t have to go to Disney World,” Shing says. There’s even a wearable outfit under development that changes shape in response to someone’s gaze –an alarming prospect for fashion police and voyeurs alike.
But all the excitement over these wondrous wearables should be tempered by the reality. Many people who buy wearables like Fitbit, a popular activity tracker, stop wearing them after a while. And even if these devices are being promoted because they offer feedback about a wearer’s heartrate, say, or blood pressure, Shing says, what tech companies are really interested in is the data they collect. That means that consumers who buy wearables and the companies that make them have completely different agendas. “You won’t ‘seek info,’ he told Forbes, “it will seek you…while you might set your own goals for, say, fitness it will be (embedded) devices telling you what to do.”
When everything has built-in intelligence and 37 percent of American kids under the age of two can manipulate phones better than their parents, the problem doesn’t lie so much in the technology itself but in how we can “curate the experience.” “Web users are growing up,” Shing told Forbes, “which means being more discriminate about time and consumption habits, which also means un-following the time suckers, and choosing friends wisely.”
The power of expression today is a new form of entertainment whether people are using Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or WeChat or all of the above, “There’s no delineation between the digital and physical.” It’s no longer the Me Generation, Shing argues, it’s the We Generation. Technology has given people the ability to be a celebrity – even if celebrityhood often doesn’t last any longer than a Snapchat video. To promote their customized ‘brands,’ teenagers, for instance, will climb to the top of high rises in Hong Kong to take what Shing calls ‘extreme selfies,’ even though they risk falling to their deaths. In fact, more people die from taking selfies in perilous situations each year than from shark attacks, Shing notes.
.NorthsideFest in full swing! Loving shingy's ideas on stage: “The power of expression today is a new form of entertainment” Nside 44b18H0C7n
— Brian Quinn (@brianquinn) June 8, 2017
“One thing about the new generation is that they’re bored. They want to be entertained. But that’s not all. Principles matter more than price to them.” By principles, Shing is referring to values like trust, transparency and privacy. “You can do amazing things when you trust people” in a closed network among interconnected people. Shing cites a designer handbag priced at an astounding $4500 and promoted in a private network. People trusted the site so they assumed that the handbag must be worth the price. It quickly sold out.
You need to take the long view, Shring says. “Why do people want to connect with you?” That question is particularly pertinent to brands. “People want to physically engage with brands.” To make the connection, several companies have devised ingenious ad campaigns, some of which are so memorable that consumers only need to hear a couple of notes to identify the brand (Intel) or see its logo (Nike’s swoosh). “If you focus, you cut through the clutter.” It’s not just about computer chips or running shoes, “it’s about trust.” Put another way, a consumer thinks: I like to run marathons and Nike just helps me do it. In that sense, Nike becomes a “supporting actor” in our lives. Compare Nike’s stunningly successful branding with its competitor Reebok, What’s Reebok’s logo? Few consumers would know the answer.
The bottom line: Companies need to engage people on an emotional level. They can no longer simply look on them simply as consumers. It doesn’t matter so much how you tell the story just as long as you have a good story to tell, says Shing. “You need to reach the heart, not the head.”