William Higham is a Consumer Futurist, speaker and author. He is also CEO of forecasting and strategy consultancy The Next Big Thing. 

He will be delivering the afternoon keynote at this week's Future of Digital Marketing conference looking at Digital Marketing and the Next Generation. 

I caught up with William today to talk about the future of digital marketing. 

For the uninitiated, can you explain what a consumer futurist is and does? 

I study how consumer attitudes and behaviours are changing.

It’s my job to help brands understand what their customers are likely to think, do and want in future, so they can better plan their strategy, products, services and marketing campaigns.

I can tell you whether that new product or strategy you’re planning to roll out next year is likely to resonate with your customer – or turn them off.

Can you tell me a little about Next Big Thing, and some of the work you do for clients? 

We’ve been studying consumer trends for over ten years now. We’re based in Islington, London but have scouts across the globe (from Mexico to China).

We’ve worked with clients from across most sectors: AOL to BBC, MTV to HSBC. And we’ve helped them come up with new products and marketing strategies, discover new markets and avoid costly mistakes.

How can you predict what’s on a consumer’s mind and how behaviour might change in future? 

We run our own research and study others’ over time, to understand how consumer attitudes are changing.

Attitudes typically drive behaviour, so by understanding changing attitudes, we can better predict changes in behaviours.

Are consumers feeling more or less optimistic? Are they caring more about cost or convenience? As a result, will they therefore favour products that look to the future or to the past? Will they choose brands that save them money or save them time?

I have to be half investigative journalist and half psychiatrist.

With so much technological change over the past decade or so has the task of predicting consumer behaviour become more difficult? 

Not more difficult I wouldn’t say, but certainly more important.

The growth of personal technology over the last ten years has empowered consumers to such an extent that it is they, not the brands, that call the shots. I call today’s consumer the 'smart consumer': like smart phones and smart homes, they are more connected and have access to more information and choice than ever.  

In the past, changes in consumer trends were nice to know: they could help you fine tune new product or marketing choices. Today though, they’re need to know. If consumers adopt one technology over another, it can entirely disrupt an industry, or even - as companies like Kodak and IBM have found to their cost - wipe one out. 

What do you think the consumer of the next generation will be like? How can brands and marketers connect with this consumer? 

On the one hand smart, empowered, tech savvy. But on the other, more in need of humanity, community and comfort.

The former is becoming a hygiene factor – they expect your products and services to be always-on, friction-free and omnichannel. But to truly distinguish your product and gain their loyalty, you'll need to offer them the latter: create human products and build a brand family. 

Brands and marketers talk about demographics like millennials and baby boomers. How useful are these terms? 

They’re very important but they’re too often misused. I’ve had clients describe millennials as everything from teenagers to thirtysomethings.

It’s crazy trying to generalise about any cohort that big! But it is useful to consider cohorts in generational terms, if you do it right.

The environment we grow up in and the things that happen to us as we grow, typically have a huge impact on our attitudes, not just then but over time.

Consumers who grew up in the same circumstances, with many of the same external influences – technology to media, products to politics – frequently have relatively similar attitudes to many things: from purchasing to privacy, loyalty to lifestyles.

Is the consumer ‘landscape’ more fragmented than this?

Of course, generational impact is just one factor. The PEST categories all have a huge influence too: new technologies, political moods and the impact of our social and economic environment must all be taken into consideration.

But generational influence is a big factor and should never be underestimated.

Don’t forget to purchase your tickets for this year’s event here: Future of Digital Marketing 2015

Graham Charlton

Published 8 June, 2015 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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