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Lessons from Mobile World Congress, 2016

New world, new audience?

Lessons from Mobile World Congress, 2016

New world, new audience?

The tailwind that is IoT (Internet of Things) has put a new spring into MWC’s momentum this year – a show that was already on steroids. However, with success comes a lot of white-noise and seemingly, new audiences, as the volume gets turned up, and boundaries between industries (all industries) blur in a world rapidly being defined by eco-systems.

Everyone’s banging the same drum. So what will differentiate or engage? And is it the same audience?

Certainly, long gone are the days of a small cadres of telco and infrastructure CEOs, and their entourage, rocking up to listen to Bill Gates in a plenary and then wheel and deal in the cafes and restaurants along Cannes’s croisette. The trade-show was at best a side-show in those days. The reverse being true today. However, MWC is going through another seminal change – that’s really just getting underway in Barcelona.

The connected world is code for the evolution of eco-systems. And eco-systems involve many players coming together and singing off the same hymn sheet. Hence the expanding MWC audience (echoed in the growing attendance figures) and the focus on conveying openness and social innovation – change with the greater good in mind and the transformation of life as we know it. Not to mention privacy and security upping the ante in a micro-connected world.

Hence why this year we saw a more active move away from the cosy world of exclusive lounges to more front of house engagement. The message? All welcome, as everyone will enable this new world.

Indeed, I think we’ll see an increasing shift towards more immersive experiences in the coming years, to amplify the transformative potential of near-field communication and connectedness.

Intel was a good marker of this shift with their interactive stories. As was Microsoft, with its open consulting work-spaces. The warm woods, homely hints, greenery – all inviting. It had soul – something brands will need if their message is to show they can offer up a co-creative partnership, and not merely technology. That’s a challenge for many tech firms exhibiting, who naturally lean towards the cool, clinical side of technology and science.

This year was about the potential of IoT – Mobile Everything summed it up well. And next year?  It will likely be ideas that can accelerate the IoT revolution.

But ultimately, there’s still power in ubiquity… and credit to Google there. For all the big investments in ever-larger booths, I had to smile at the genius of seeing a cute green Android hugging the reception desk of 100s of exhibitors. Cheap real-estate with high value.  That stole the show for me. It was a simple promotional tactic. Whether or not you like collecting enamel badges (these were offered up wherever you saw the green fella – and ok, too train-spotting for this author) it reminded visitors that Google’s Android has an all-pervasive place in the connected world.

Combined with chill-out zones and high fives from trendy mixologists of marshmallow madness (a smoothie by any other name) Google got their message across. We can safely assume the future is about creativity and collaboration, not connectivity per se. Soon connectivity will be as common (and uninteresting) as electricity is, some 130 plus years on.

Our clients provided some pointers to where the booth culture and storylines are converging.  NetScout went with an open, all-welcoming stand. The message was firmly geared around the infinite connectedness of life today, and the need for constant vigilance and monitoring at a near sub-atomic level. Hence we dialled up the concept of being Guardians of the Connected World.

Safe connected world story

And BlackBerry’s bold departure from handsets to a fully integrated enterprise platform with novel applications for the modern business, also dialled up the accent on creating a secure new world. Oh and yes, that little green-Android annexed real-estate on BlackBerry’s reception desk, a nod to the firm’s device agnostic future.

And Netcracker focused on how operational and business  support systems for the modern enterprise and mobile network, will enable infinite applications to be rolled out, fast.

Collaboration space

So, what of the future?

With IoT the audience is widening to anyone who thinks the connected world is going to transform their business. In other words, everyone. Banks, airlines, hoteliers, luxury brands, the list is endless. Even ambitious web agencies are rolling up to get a head-start on the disruptive tech and trends. These new audiences come to the party with different expectations. The closed cosy world of backroom meetings and ceremonial contract signing will need to give room to more immersive exploration of the practical applications and diverse interests that an eco-system needs to embrace.

It was interesting to see more companies are now setting up demos with white-boards for a two-way discussion and brainstorms. Demos and products are being increasingly done in-the-round, literally around a table (workshop-style – collaborative) as opposed to a one-way presentation.

Human craft and skill is surfacing as a story, like Huawei’s designer sketching on a tablet, surrounded by old-world, tactile materials: leathers, fine-woods and yes, even tools from the 16th Century. Genius in terms of messaging. That one display dialled up craftsmanship and human spirit in an Asian brand.  Watch out Designed in California.

I felt more brands could be looking at their business to society story.

The elephants in the room – privacy, security and things like, equal access to this brave new world – are opportunities to engage on a deeper level. After all, with control of the eco-system comes a lot of power. That makes people nervous.   

Brands need to reveal their social conscious as something at the heart of how they think, innovate and connect.  The growth of this show, and the fact IoT by definition brings an ocean of consumer applications and products (like wearables, e-health apps, drones and e-cars) to the floor can make it seem even more like mass-consumerism gone-mad, at the expense of the greater good.

Huawei? I thought they did a good job of opening up more of their booths this year, and conveying quality (verging on a luxury) boutique vibe. The year before their infrastructure hall seemed cocooned by a Great Wall of China (literally). The impression last year was one of exclusivity, not inclusivity.

Free space conveys scale without over-powering

Whilst a large swathe of the Huawei world is still invitation only, this year there was a far greater sense of openness, inclusivity and quality.

To be fair, Huawei has the difficult challenge of conveying confidence and a seat at the top-table, or indeed the head of the table, without being seen to over-power. It’s a difficult balance. Huawei (aka Brand China) has a great opportunity to position themselves as the gateway to the Asian economies and use their focus on community and family as values that have merit in a world obsessed by individualism, when a lot of the world’s biggest challenges require an inclusive, community orientated mind-set.

There was an inescapable positive energy at MWC this year. However, success can be overwhelming and that’s a real challenge for this event. The show’s becoming uncomfortably congested and snow-blindness sets in quickly with the visual noise. 

Coming away from this year I felt more could be done to relieve congestion – possibly offering two day access only… so some people sign up for the first two days or the last two. That creates programing challenges with the conference but there could be creative ways around that.

And near-field technology and match-making apps could be deployed to ensure when the visitor passes through the halls, more is done to identify what might be of real interest to them. It’s too easy to float by booths, mesmerised by the visual noise, unaware of what might be the next game-changer. 

Heaven knows the applications exist to deliver customised content in every square meter of hall space. So it should be more than easy enough to parse the space with smart-wifi, to deliver timely content and useful tips about what’s on show – respecting the principles of content governed by time, place, context, relevance, moderation and personal consent.

Apps with user profiles could enable better match-making on-the-fly as the visitor moves through the hall. There was so much on offer it was really hard to identify the stuff that was of most interest to one’s world. Everything is buried in visual noise and the sheer distraction of walking from A to B without feeling like one’s in a pinball machine. 

Summing up. Thoughts if rolling up next year?  Ensure the booth has soul (warmth and openness).

Keep the message tight because the white-noise is blinding, and is only getting worse.

Think hard about what really differentiates you, and it’s probably not your products – ironically. And if it is your product, it probably sits in a bigger universe with a big (human) story. 

Most products and platforms are quickly copied. It’s increasingly about values and what you’re like to do business with – hence why it’s hard not to come away from MWC and like Google for their reverie and cheeky creativity.

Immersive and interactive technologies that inspire engagement (and ideally convey some greater purpose behind the technology) have a place in this show, as a way to talk about this new connected world.

New ideas need to be easier to find and understand amongst the visual noise, and here hyper-smart Wi-Fi could help match up visitor interests with relevant exhibitors.

Bring on next year.

Further reading