Despite the ease of email and simplicity of social media, meeting people in real life is still essential for successful business relationships. According to a 2018 Ofcom report, the average person in the UK now spends more than one full day a week online, double the duration of ten years earlier.
A large proportion of this time is taken up by different forms of communication, with around a third being via social media, according to Global Web Index. These figures show just how much the way we relate to each other has become biased towards digital online systems. Facebook, Instagram, Skype, Twitter, and the venerable email are clearly taking precedent over talking to each other in the flesh. But how much have we lost along the way?
Are we ‘alone together’?
Concern has been rising for some years about the social impact of this shift from the physical to the virtual. Back in 2011, American psychologist Sherry Turkle coined the phrase “alone together” in her book of the same name. She was referring to our tendency to compulsively communicate via social networks when at home on our own, and ignore our physical companions in favour of our smartphones when out with friends. For those dubbed as “digital natives”, there’s a crisis of epidemic proportions with sometimes tragic consequences.
But the impact of online communication on the way we do business is just as substantial, if not more so. Online conferencing systems like Skype have made the expense of business travel seem like a massive waste of money. As far back as 2008, The Scotsman newspaper ran the headline “Video killed the passenger numbers” in response to falling business air traveller income. According to McKinsey, the average American worker spends 28% of their working day reading and answering emails – more than twice the time spent on the phone.
Unless you work for an airline, it’s hard to see the downside from reducing air travel budgets and carbon emissions thanks to videoconferencing. Nevertheless, there are clear negative side effects to not meeting your clients and customers in the real world alongside these virtual forms of communication. Even with videoconferencing, as you generally just see a talking head, it’s very easy to miss visual cues that can tell you the meaning of what is being said. With purely text-based communications like email, instant messaging and most types of social networking, you have even less to go on, and very frequently can fail to spot humour, anger, and (particularly) irony, sending the conversation off in entirely the wrong direction. This is something no amount of different types of smiley and emoticon could ever fix.
Benefits of networking
For this reason, big networking events remain an essential feature of the business landscape. Although many have fallen by the wayside over the last decade or so, huge festival-like conferences such as CES in Las Vegas for technology and SXSW for film, music and media in Austin go from strength to strength. If you’re in marketing, branding, or advertising, there’s Advertising Week, with conferences running year-round in London, Mexico City, Tokyo, Sydney and New York. These events are an opportunity to build the kind of relationships that are simply impossible online, which can then be empowered by further digital connection.
“Nothing will ever beat in-person communication,” argues Rebecca Eaves, director of Advertising Week Europe. “Humour, empathy, listening to the unspoken as well as the spoken are all so much more powerful in real life. Social networks, like all networks, can be both brilliant and challenging – we have greater knowledge and insight into what our peers are up to, think about and have passion for.
“These are all good conversation starters, but they are never the whole picture. Virtual networks abound and are the starting point for most talent searches, job hunts and business leads. But nothing can replace the phone call, the chat over a coffee, a face-to-face conversation in building relationships, networks and businesses.”
Face to face engenders creativity
The benefits of physical meetings and “just picking up the phone” aren’t only about the emotional aspects of doing business. There are very quantifiable advantages to eschewing heavily text-focused online media in favour of real-time alternatives like a meeting or telephone conversation. A well-managed meeting with all stakeholders present can, in theory, make decisions straight away, which will lead to greater productivity.
For related reasons, the instant to-and-fro of an in-person discussion can engender much faster creative thinking than slowly swapping thoughts over an extended period of text-based exchanges. The beauty of a big conference-style event is that all the important people related to a particular area of business are likely to be present. So, you can meet up with them and potentially develop new concepts and connections quickly that can then be built into something valuable via more remote means afterwards.
If you’re in the marketing, branding, or advertising businesses, you can inaugurate new strategies at an event like Advertising Week Europe that will set the tone for the rest of the working year. “We aim to enlighten, educate and entertain by bringing the brightest and the best in advertising together,” explains Eaves.
“The thought leadership programme is the beating heart of the week, but the celebration of our industry, bringing together talent to meet, debate and have fun, is also a really important part of what we do. Our Mixing Hours at the end of each day are open to all and are a chance to unwind and meet up with fellow delegates. For those invited to lunches, dinners or our concerts the opportunity to entertain colleagues, make friends and new business contacts is front of mind. And we particularly love it when creative collaboration during the week initiates something much longer-lasting in real life. Our Culture and Commerce lunches, where we pair up an organisation such as WACL or the IPA with a media partner such as Grazia or MIQ, are great examples of this.”
None of these types of outcome would be easy, or even possible, to achieve purely via email, social networking or instant messaging. The technological developments of the last decade have undoubtedly revolutionised how we communicate, and whilst there are problems and dangers from them, overall the net result has been a shift towards much higher levels of communication. This has enabled flexible working and a faster pace of business. But these benefits should always be seen as an augmentation and enhancement of our traditional modes of interacting with each other. Because if we truly lose the art of face-to-face communication, we will lose a core part of why we do business in the first place – and most of the enjoyment with it.
Interested in learning more? Join us at Advertising Week Europe to dissect the latest trends in Marketing, Advertising and Technology. The 18-21st of March is right around the corner, experience this industry happening with 20% off thanks to The Drum! Use code AWDrum20 now!