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WEF 2015: The marketers’ guide to the new digital economy

Calls for businesses to embrace connectivity in an economy spinning around technology reverberated through this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF). Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Alibaba shared ideas on how marketers can navigate this transition to digital first business models.

To enable digital is more than one company can do

Pierre Nanterme, chief executive of Accenture, warned companies looking to become digital enterprises would fail if they tried to go it alone. The speed of technological transformation is overwhelming he said with most chief executives (80 per cent) aware that “the internet of everything will be disruptive” but only “7 per cent have a plan”.

“To enable digital is more than one company can do and we need to partner, between us and between us and our clients.”

This is easier said than done, especially when companies are busy trying to reinvent themselves in the short term at the expense of anticipating the long-term market transitions. Google, Facebook and Microsoft highlighted the scale of the challenge at the forum when they called for the industry to work together with governments to avoid the balkanisation of the Internet.

Design digital from a security mindset

The importance of cyber security was thrust into the spotlight at this year’s WEF. Several technology stalwarts, ranging from Yahoo to Salesforce, shed light on their efforts to date to resolve the disconnect between data protection and data retention. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer said customer faith in these attempts had worsened in recent times as a result of “some vendors” monetising data on customers without a security mindset.

“You need to have transparency but you also need to afford the individual choice and control”, added Mayer. It is this principle that has seen the business willing sacrifice revenue opportunities around big data, she claimed, in order to win the trust of consumers for its expanding digital footprint.

She added: “When you look at mature industries, we all tell our governments where we live, what we look like in order to drive, how much money we make and how we make it in order to partake in civil services. There are a lot of areas where people already give up a lot of information about themselves but they ultimately get a lot of benefit.”

Ecommerce has a massive role to play in shaping the digital economy

The founder of Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, Jack Ma declared his company will be bigger than US retail group Walmart within ten years. It points to the shifting dynamic between physical and virtual retail, serving as a microcosm of how digital is forcing marketers to redefine customer journeys.

“If you want to have 10,000 customers, you have to build a new warehouse. For me, two servers”, said Ma. “The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is great but last century. Today, the interest can help small businesses sell things across the oceans. My vision is, if we can help a small business in Norway sell things to Argentina and Argentinean customers can buy things online from Switzerland we can build up an e-WTO.”

His vision of an ecommerce version of the WTO is reflective of companies, both large and small, rapidly building up their digital practices to ride the wave.

The Internet will disappear

Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt said the Internet, as we know it will disappear, but the new technology will allow marketers to get closer to consumers. The growing ubiquity of mobile technology and internet-connected devices is levelling the playing field for companies, throwing up new opportunities and threats around personalisation.

“There will be so many sensors, so many devices, that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room and….you’ll be interacting with all the things going on in that room in a highly personalised, highly interactive way that emerges because of the disappearance of the Internet.”

This future may be years away but it is the mindset needed in order to survive the digital revolution.

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, said: “One of the technologies I’m excited about is what does it mean to redefine what mobility means. It’s done a fantastic job of democratising access and enabling all this inclusion.”

Women and young people can give technology the human touch

Women are one of the secret sauces of Alibaba’s success, proclaimed founder Jack Ma, who added 47 per cent of his overall staff and 33 per cent of people in senior roles are women. The entrepreneur said women were responsible for keeping the online marketplace in touch with users.

“Women think about others more than themselves”, he added.

The call for companies to cater for other traditionally under-served demographics was echoed by pop star Will.i.am. He urged businesses to inspire those from under-privileged backgrounds by encouraging a “new of learning” such as becoming entrepreneurs in technology.

“Technology is a multitrillion-dollar industry if you take telecoms, hardware and software and couple it all together, and annually it [represents] loads of money” he said. “But for some reason, kids in inner cities and even in good neighborhoods don't dream down that avenue by default. It's not like any of them ever wake up in the morning and say, 'Man, I'm going to get my Michael Dell on. Why aren't kids wanting to go that route? Why don't they try to Bill Gates it and think, 'If I come close at least I'm still cool. Role models.”

As companies adapt their business models to the digital economy, diversity within their organisations will be key to recruiting the coding and entrepreneurship skills needed to thrive.

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