Experts are terrible at predicting the future. At the dawn of the age of air travel, experts shared a compelling vision: a personal airplane in every garage. When the tape recorder was introduced, experts warned of the death of radio. Listeners would simply record the station and then listen to what they wanted. And, inspired by a “Jetsonian” view of the future, agricultural experts projected a future of perfectly engineered strains and species, cultivated in massive farms.
As I write this from a crammed airport, listening to music streamed through Pandora, picking at my locally grown organic eggs, it’s clear the experts were totally off the mark on how the future would shake out. Innovation is shaped by so many diverse social factors that often expertise becomes a disadvantage. It imposes too narrow a view.
So when I listen to experts talk about the future of social media, I am skeptical. Rather than creating a vision, it’s more useful to look at the pieces and contemplate what kinds of pictures they might create when combined.
Two pieces of the digital advertising puzzle that will shape the future of commerce are the ability to (a) step into our customers’ minds and (b) give customers a customized brand experience. I recently interviewed the CEOs of two companies that are charging forward in these two exciting spaces. Combining them points to exciting opportunities for those who embrace them quickly.
1. Step into customers’ minds.
ChoiceStream  provides customized recommendations for companies like Tesco, AT&T, Zappos, MTV, and Ticketmaster/LiveNation. It helps these companies suggest to their online customers what products and services will interest them the most. In an interview with founder and CEO Steve Johnson and Chief Revenue Officer Lori Trahan, I found it remarkable that they spoke less about vision than basic capabilities. They did not try to predict the future but instead focused on sharing what ChoiceStream does well, arguably better than anyone else: crunch through your purchasing and other data to predict what you would like.
The ability to do this well is valuable for obvious reasons. The company, which charges a share of the incremental sales it generates for clients, claims that in just two years, its service is delivering, on average, a 5%-8% increase in sales for Zappos, the $1 billion online retailer.
But what is even more exciting is where the ability to dissect an audience down into fine granules and understand what they really want will go next.
2. Deliver a customized experience.
After understanding what customers want, your next challenge is to give it to them. A fascinating digital marketing agency called Tahzoo  can help you do that.
Brad Heidemann is a former Microsoft executive with lots of subsequent experience in digital marketing. Two years ago, while on a road trip, an idea hit him: there is a fundamental, irreversible shift underway in how companies should advertise.
According to Heidemann, companies that wanted to advertise “used to have five TV channels to choose from, now they have 300.” They used to worry about managing the brand experience across TV, print, and radio, and now they have to think as well about mobile phones, iPads, and who knows what else is around the corner.
Yet the branding process remains remarkably linked to an old model introduced by David Ogilvy in the 1950s: do tons of research, come up with one message, and execute it across a few platforms.
“Now we have a new paradigm,” says Heidemann. “You have multiple conversations with audience segments. A good example is DirectTV, one of our clients, which has six to seven ad campaigns running simultaneously. So [on the digital side], why do you have one digital place for all of your transactions?”
When your grandmother logs on to her bank web site, the site should recognize her and show her bigger buttons and easier-to-read text, and adjust the navigation options, knowing she probably wants to check her bank balance. When your son does the same, the bank should know he is logging on from his mobile phone and probably want to quickly apply for a new credit card.
Your ability to customize the content to these finely diced customer segments can create a real competitive advantage. For the most part, all of this digital marketing stuff is tactical because your competitors could copy anything new you try within a year. But to transform your marketing machine to be able to offer personalized experiences requires a significant redesign. Instead of one set of ad copy, you need to have an inventory of text, images, and even logo permutations at hand. Then when one of your digital access points (PC, mobile, iPad) recognizes what type of consumer is logging on, that site selects the best content for that person.
Put these two capabilities together--the ability to step into your customer’s mind and deliver a brand experience tailored specifically to that customer--and you have the beginning of something transformative. Like the airplane or audio cassette, we cannot predict where it will go. But we know that these core abilities will change things, potentially massively.
[Image: Flickr user Cea. ]