Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Brands can profit in in the long run by…hiring a geek!

“Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.”

Bill Gates made this statement in the 1980’s. His prediction could not be truer in our new digital age. Businesses are more competitive than ever. We operate in a world that requires businesses to be proactive rather than reactive in terms of innovation. Market leaders can no longer be “me too” brands.

The challenge is even bigger for larger, less nimble multinational companies who rely on more traditional, process-driven systems that ‘just work’. Instead, the trend seems to be to hire consultants or, in the case of South African media giant Naspers, of creating digital innovation hubs within the business that are set up as separate entities specifically so that they are freed of the red-tape bureaucracy of the holding company’s normal systems. What if there is no budget for a hub or consultancy? I propose there is a different solution. Hire a geek!

Geeks are changing the world

Geeks (or nerds for that matter) have been changing the world since the 1600’s. It started with Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci and during the last century, in the 70’s and 80’s, geek pioneers included Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Saul Dell and John Carmack. In the latter category, all were college dropouts who have since created some of the biggest software empires today. Society probably did not pay too much attention to these individuals when they were positing their world changing theories, but despite this, they have managed to create products that make life easier, help the world access information quicker and help us all find smarter ways of working.

In the 90’s the internet went global and the world changed beyond recognition. The introduction of the personal computer, the laptop and cellular telephones amongst other technologies, has fundamentally changed how we work, socialize and engage. The uptake and implementation of these technologies may have started slowly when people were skeptical of the long-term impact on their lives and business but things have changed. The digital natives, to borrow an Ogilvy One phrase, now live in a constantly innovating world and the change agents are becoming younger and younger. Where the last generation had VHS there is now live-streaming, on-demand TV on your cell phone. Where once the radio and music tapes were the cutting edge, Apple has revolutionized an industry with iTunes. Where once local kids played hopscotch on the sidewalk, kids today play multi-person, cross-border strategy games on wireless gaming consoles.

In only 10 years, people converted to smartphones to help them streamline the way they do business, track appointments and stay in touch via e-mail. Gaming is now a national sport in some countries and a way of relaxing for some. People connect online with others they have never met in real life to share information on various topics.

In effect, the whole world is going geek. This once ridiculed group is now revered as freethinking, free-spirited, passionate enthusiasts who occupy almost every level of society. People like Robin Williams, Masi Oka as well as Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling have embraced their inner geek and used their focus and passion to lead inspiring lives.

Why should I hire a geek?

Currently, geeks fit the need of the business world perfectly. Any geek worth their salt is comfortable creating, using and implementing new systems as well as embracing new ways of thinking. They are also more likely to successfully cope with change, are optimistic and extremely productive if you give them the right work.

Geeks are often also early adopters. In terms of innovation, social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook started with a few tech-savvy sign-ups who passed the new technology onto their friends. It did not take long for, literally, the whole world to catch up.

Traditional marketing has been much slower on the uptake but the value of these online networks and the insights and connections they can provide, has quickly become evident and, judging by the budget being spent on online consultants, social architects, web / application developers and online content development, the geeks are still leading the way. Whether it is to form a community online, survey a huge crowd of people at the same time or have one-on-one discussions with brand ambassadors, marketers are looking to employ tech-savvy experts to help them tap into the social web.

The question is, why aren’t more businesses bringing this expertise into their businesses? The current trend to all things digital is unlikely to change and the quicker businesses can develop their own geek ground patrol, the better.

It’s all geek to me

The bottom line is that the fundamentals of marketing have not changed. Brands still need to develop strong personalities that cut through the clutter and build cultural and emotional relevance with consumers, based on sound insight but the mechanisms of connection have altered for good. Brands need to find ways to merge “old school smarts” with young, fresh game-changing thinking. To borrow a phrase from the internet, the real world veterans need to ‘mash up’ with the digital natives in order to win in the future.

To take some advice from the world’s biggest geek Bill Gates “If you give people tools, [and they use] their natural ability and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.”