Digital Adds Nothing

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I’m fed up with everything being digital.

Digital Marketing, Digital Business, Digital Economy. Pick a noun, whack the word ‘digital’ in front of it, et voilà, it’s now completely different and special!

Except it isn’t. The only time the word digital adds meaning is when you’re contrasting it with something that is analog. You know, like the difference between vinyl records and compact discs. Or discrete and continuous mathematics. Or electric circuitry.

That’s where it came from, I know. Digital computers. As distinct from analog computers, and how many of those do you see these days? Digital is shorthand for saying “involving computers somehow”.

Computers. That have been around for over 70 years now. The 1980s was thirty years ago.

What’s The Difference?

Here’s the thing: what’s the difference between a business, and a digital business? A business that uses computers?

Spreadsheets have been used for running businesses since at least VisiCalc, which was first released in 1979. “Using computers in your business” isn’t new and special.

Ok, so maybe digital is shorthand for “business that uses the Internet”? The dot-com boom/bust was in 1999, seventeen years ago. Try again.

Calling something digital is actively harmful when it clouds people’s thinking that using a computer somehow makes an existing business process magic.

It doesn’t.

Digital Marketing

Sloppy marketers are the biggest abusers of this digital-prefix mania. I guess they ran out of ideas after putting the letter e in front of everything. Remember e-marketing?

Let’s use them to show how whacking digital in front of everything makes otherwise smart people stupid.

AdAge loses its mind

Jason John doesn’t read his own article.

This article in AdAge has been marked up by my old biz school professor, Mark Ritson, to show how adding computers or the Internet doesn’t change the principles of marketing. The article directly contradicts itself.

What people seem to have forgotten in all the excitement about computers is that there are an awful lot of humans out there doing things. Marketing is all about influencing humans, not computers. Digital marketing, if there really was such a thing, should probably be about convincing your fridge that it needs a new toaster as a companion in the coming utopia of the Internet of Things (as distinct from the Internet of non-Things, whatever that is).

People, Not Digits

In fact, most businesses are about people. You’re making products, or services, that people want or need. You tell people about those things through advertising. You try to understand what people want by conducting market research. You hire and pay people to create the stuff your business sells. People talk to other people about the stuff and convince them to exchange money for the stuff. People use your stuff and hopefully tell other people about how great it is and that they should but some too.

It’s all about people. Companies aren’t autonomous intelligences that wander the landscape, occasionally spurting out a new kind of chocolate bar. They’re run by people. People make the decisions. People decide to kill a popular product line, or to move production to Mexico, or to hide their investments in offshore tax havens.

Until we really do have AI, it’s people all the way down.

Digital To Finger

In a fit of pique, I quickly hacked up a Chrome browser extension to replace every occurrence of the word digital with finger.

You can grab the code from my Github here. It’s based on the Snake People-to-Snake-People extension, which is worth a go as well. You could also use the XKCD substitutions extension, which can now do arbitrary string replacements.

Run it for a day, and be amazed at how silly people sound as they prattle on about Finger Marketing, or Finger Businesses.

And then have a think about what the digital prefix is hiding. Strip it away, and then ask yourself:

Is this really any different?

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