The 50-Year Digital Relationship

I occasionally meet people who think the Internet is going to go away someday.

Yes, some of its pieces do move around a bit. Bye, Friendster! Hello, Peach!* But its core benefit—your ability to find any information, any time and to build relationships around common interests at any distance—aren’t going anywhere. Ever.

Why would we choose to lose that? It has fundamentally altered the way we see and think about humanity—for the better.

Given this, here’s a thought experiment worth considering: How might you use digital to build a 50-year relationship with someone?

If a 25-year-old comes to your website today, gives you their email address and says “I want to be part of what you’re doing,” how do you give yourself a shot at them still being involved (ideally more so) in 2066 (when they’ll be 75)?

It turns out that the means of delivery, the things the Internet has let us do over the last two decades or so, give us a good clue as to what will need to remain consistent in your digital program (or whatever it ends up being called) over the next half century.

Have somewhere to consistently tell your story

Twenty-five years ago you told your story through a broadcast ad (if you were lucky enough to have the money), a piece of direct mail or, most likely if people wanted the entire story, that beautiful mass-market piece of communication—the annual report. In other words, your story was pretty static, and in relatively few people’s hands.

Today, it’s much more accessible–people learn your story through a website (yours and Wikipedia), a video or a post shared into their Facebook timeline by a friend. Using the phone in their pocket they instantly discover what you’re all about and how they feel about your work and, in so doing, build their mental model of your purpose and brand.

Fifty years from now, someone might be able to simply think about your organization to access your story, but the core remains the same. How are you telling people about your work in a way that resonates emotionally and rationally? How are you recognizing the role that I, the customer or supporter, am playing? How are you personalizing the content to make it relevant to my interests and choices? How am I going to get a truly great experience from your organization?

Provide ways to take action that are as simple as they possibly can be

Twenty-five years ago people might have filled out a coupon in a magazine to receive a catalogue, only to fill out another coupon to order, to then wait 4-6 weeks for dispatch of the item they were after. In 2016, that sounds like a pretty awful experience, but it matched the expectations of the time.

Today, everyone can use digital platforms to take all sorts of actions—buying, donating, advocating, sharing, joining with others to achieve a shared outcome. Over the years, it has become exponentially easier to do these things, and people’s expectations of being able to do them easily increases accordingly.

Within the decade, you’ll likely simply ask a digital assistant to make happen what you want to happen (see Siri, Alexa or the fridge that orders milk when you run out). It’s a world where the user experience is barely separate from the originating thought; tell your personal assistant you want to give £25 to an organization or buy a product and it happens, with the payoff practically instant.

If you’re not tracking the race to simplicity that’s happening across the market, your competitors are. If you’re not meeting the dramatically increased expectations of your supporters and customers, you’re losing out in the short term, and losing altogether over the next five decades.

Stay in touch in real time, in both directions

Alongside getting information and taking action, the third major shift the Internet has brought about is the ability to create and maintain ongoing relationships at any distance that are engaging and enticing, relationships that help people get into the world of all the things you do.

In the past, you might have received an annual update. Or a piece of direct mail that told the story of the latest campaign an organization was running. Or you’d see that new campaign on TV or in print. This constitutes a relationship of sorts, but only going in one direction—with no opportunity to listen or respond, or show your relevance to the world around you as it unfolds.

Today, social and email are great relationship-building channels, particularly when, as well as telling the story of your ongoing progress, you’re sharing your success with customers and supporters by giving them the credit they deserve. You’re inviting them in, letting them collaborate with you and helping them discover others who care about the same things and giving them the means to build relationships with each other.

And these platforms allow you to do it with increasing degrees of personalization at scale, using demographics, behavior, psychographics and context to do what people do entirely naturally: relate to others.

The future likely has you doing ever more of this, and using technological aids such as artificial intelligence to do it ever more accurately.

What hasn’t changed (and won’t)

The Internet has fundamentally and permanently changed the conduct of our relationships with one another and the organizations with which we interact. Those who understand this, or are working hard to learn how it affects them, will take an advantage long into the future.

Regardless of how the Internet is transforming our lives, there are some timeless truths about relationship building that should always be minded. A relationship has its ups and downs, its good days and bad. But it also has at its core the essence of what it means to be human: being honest and authentic, sharing love and pain and growing as one to achieve something great. If a relationship has these things, it sticks together, through thick and thin, through analog and digital, all the way to 2066.

*Disclaimer: I am not on Peach.

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