Interview with David Shing, AOL’s Digital Prophet


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2016)

Everything is going mobile, virtual, and computers will do our jobs in the near future. Not so fast. AOL’s digital prophet David Shing puts a few pieces of the “digital story” into context offering a glimpse of how our digital consumption behaviors will adapt thanks to smart brands and omnipresent devices that bridge sight, sound, motion, touch, feel, scent to deliver a deeper emotional experience.

David, sketch a profile of the digital consumer of the near future, say 2020. You stated in an interview at the Digital CMO Summit 2012 that we are going back to being more human. To your prediction, gesture and emotions analytics technologies by companies like facial recognition pioneer Affectiva and voice intonation pioneer BeyondVerbal seem to enable computers to become more human. How will it impact our behaviors? How will it impact our digital consumption?

David Shing: Technology is absolutely influencing our behaviors, just look at the development of “Tech-neck”, spurred on by a generation that is constantly distracted by the device in our hands. Although technology is not changing our need - our human need. If we can learn from people, especially on mobile devices, we can change the relationship on how we connect with them. Traditional advertising connection methods were promoted by awareness-based branding, but as we move to a world where machines are learning our behaviors, location, mood and context, we can challenge the relationship and move to a world where advocacy will reign over awareness and connect with people in new ways. Delivering value exchange with people by providing information or entertainment or utility - when, where, what, why and how - will change our digital consumption habits. Some say mobile is everything. I would rather turn that around and suggest everything is mobile. The power of the mobile device that is always on, always with you, and always logged in, is the key to the future of this platform. And it goes way beyond the humble phone and the gestures we make and into every part of our moving lives through a deeper connection of community, communication, education, home, health, money, security, work, play, entertainment, utility and conversation. As more devices become multifaceted, they measure so many dynamics of one’s personalized data, sometimes measuring stuff with no idea how to deal with it. However, services that turn that data into predictive context and elegant simplified services will win.

In January 2016, you spoke about the immersion experience of virtual reality shifting how we will consume movies at the cinema. Instead of sitting, we’ll be moving around and potentially interacting with carefully positioned brands in those digital environments? Or do you envision a more custom and personalized experience as each consumer becomes a protagonist in his or her movie script but in a communal setting called the cinema? How do you accommodate for different generations of consumers in that same cinema?

D. S.: I am bullish on VR. Why? I mean the immersive quality is incredible, but until it helps bridge our humanity and not distance us from real relationships, it will not be the phenomena people believe it will be. But if done correctly, VR is going to be an amazing opportunity to flex the imagination for creators. Today, when you watch a film, it is the director’s point of view. When it comes to VR, you are the director, it’s your point of view. Not just based on where you look or how you interact, but also potentially based on how you feel, your emotions, and the content could change and adapt based on that response.  So the theater could feel less like rows of seats and all of us facing forwards and more like a private space with 360 degrees of movement and control. Less shared by a group of people in a community experience and more of a highly customized personalized immersive experience. In essence, it’s less about the primary hardware controller and more about devices that bridge sight, sound, motion, touch, feel and scent to deliver a deeper emotional experience.

What part of the digital tech landscape excites you personally the most?

D. S.: Regardless of physical technology or digital technology, the common theme I get most excited by is the quality of design. Design is the first thing. It drives a connection with people, and the better, the more appealing the design is, the deeper the relationship. However, I am always reminded of Leonardo Di Vinci who popularized this quote; “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” and as more and more technology is delivered on smaller and differently shaped screens, I could not agree with that quote more. 

You are a sought after, globetrotting speaker and a consumer of useful brands and apps that enhance your life – what global brands stand out to you for staying experimental in their quest to continuously engage tomorrow’s consumer digitally and most rewardingly? 

D. S.: I am a fan of brands that understand the difference between value and advertising. Especially when it comes to connection on different devices. There are tons of brands that understand this, from apparel brands like Nike and adidas with highly personalized and customized experiences for subjects people are interested in - to Lego “who” is influenced by people who hack their products for interesting new ideas and get the crowd to vote. Even CPG brand giants like P&G and Unilever do an excellent job of reflecting cultural change as marketing and build deeply engaging stories and experiences that seem true to their core brand DNA. They all start with the “why” and not just the “how” and “what”, and that’s inspiring because the reward for people could be new products, customized experiences, deeper knowledge, emotional connections or even just great fun that enriches the human experience.

Which brand has been most successful in reinventing their product and why?

D. S.: There are many examples of brands successfully reinventing their products. Those who focus on the why, before the what and how, and develop something that connects with people in new ways. Nespresso focused on convenience, Sodastream focused on design, Nike focused on community, Apple focused on an ecosystem, TOMS shoes focused on generosity, Coca-Cola celebrated individuality, Bang-Olufsen focused on design, Mini-Cooper on perceptions. Each one of these brands focused on something that was core to the DNA of their brand and reflected that back on the reinvention of products they already developed, but with greater purpose and value. However, I would argue the brand that has most successfully reinvented its product is AOL. A company in a short few years has moved from universally known as a dial-up internet service provider, connecting people to the web, to a business that now builds brands that are at the intersection of culture like the Huffington Post, or or Engadget through building content that deeply connects people through code to the things they love. That’s been pretty cool to watch.  

You don’t have children yet, what would you do to foster interaction with your child? What brand uses technology most meaningfully to prepare tomorrow’s digital consumers for life?

D. S.: I’ll assume that interaction with children needs to happy on a very visceral level. Be present, be childlike, and be open. However, there are brands who are attempting to develop children’s curiosity and exploration. Lego Robotics and Fisher-Price “Code-a-pillar” who are both developing real products that encourage children to play with their products in a way that help them understand the power of code. Taking the ethereal into the practical manipulation of products. 

If you could rewind time, what experience would you yearn to experience once more? And if you could use today’s technologies, how would it change that experience? If you could fast forward, what experience would you hope to experience in the near future? Why and when will we experience it?

D. S.: I spend a couple of days a month (not in a row) of no technology and practice the lost art of human presence. Instead of building long playlists of music with no beginning or end, I love the tradition of playing albums from beginning to end in the sequence the artist intended. Perhaps that’s the experience I am hoping for in the near future and luckily I get to experience that right now. How fabulous.

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David Shing “Shingy” was born in Australia as one of 10 kids, growing up in a two-bedroom house. He has spent most of his adult life in the digital world working for both large and small creative companies. At first he served as AOL’s European Head of Media and Marketing before taking on his current mantle as AOLs Digital Prophet in New York City.

Picture credits © Gino DePinto, AOL


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