Ford's Futurist Sheryl Connelly Forecasts 'Game-Changing' Trends at Ad:tech Keynote

NEW YORK—Thinking about the future can be both terrifying and exciting, Ford Motor Company futurist Sheryl Connelly said in her keynote address on day two of the ad:tech conference here.

Connelly's opening trend centered around the growth of the world population and concern that the planet might not be able to handle it. With some projections suggesting the world population will be as high as 11 billion by 2050, many wonder whether resources will soon become too scarce, she explained.

Smaller families are also becoming more prevalent, Connelly pointed out, and while small family sizes may have been mandated in China, reports now show that Western families are having fewer or no children by choice. This change has led to the emergence of other trends, namely the rise of the aging population of the world and the growth of the dependency ratio in several countries.

"An exploding population of older people is coinciding with longer life expectancy worldwide," Connelly explained. In some cases, this is altering the dependency ratio, or ratio of individuals that aren't working to those that are. "In Japan, the number of workers will soon be outnumbered by the number of people depending on those workers," making it difficult for the country to thrive economically, Connelly said. The growth of BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, and China], specifically China and India, will be a "major game changer" as well, Connelly said. India, where the ratio of workers to dependents is high, will become a dominant force in the region, she believes.

The increasing urbanization of the population is another growing trend, largely due to its impact on mobility in major cities. According to Connelly, Henry Ford saw the ability to move as essential for freedom and prosperity, an idea shared by current chairman Bill Ford. "As more and more people move into major cities, mobility, a critical component of innovation and freedom, will be in jeopardy," Connelly said.

The lack of high-level talent in workplaces is becoming problematic as well, Connelly pointed out, as the post-recession period brought on a shortage of skilled talent. The recession did, however, lead to the creation of more jobs for women. "Jobs in healthcare and the service industry are growing as male-dominated construction and finance jobs decrease," Connelly said. "By 2050, the number of female billionaires will outnumber male billionaires," she added.

Connelly closed her keynote by turning her attention to society's addiction to information, and the impact of information overload. "The abundance of information can also lead to fatigue among consumers, in some cases to the point where they delay buying in hope of getting a better deal only to end up looking at the next-generation model of the product and possibly never buying it at all," Connelly asserted. "If you give customers too many choices, too much information, they can't make a decision," she added.

Participants in ad:tech's Social Advertising panel echoed some of Connelly's predictions, focusing especially on society's dependence on information as well as information overload.

"It's not enough to just build audience anymore. There's so much information out there, so many channels, that now you have to not only get customers' attention, but also be continually relevant," Rudina Seseri, partner at venture capitalist firm Fairhaven Capital, said.

If social media is leveraged correctly, however, brands can experience a tremendous amount of success, the panelists agreed. "If you're a marketer today, there's never been a better time in terms of reaching out and connecting with customers. Part of the challenge now is growing ROI, but it's only a matter of time before social becomes a central anchor for driving sales," Dhiraj Kumar, head of performance solutions at Facebook, said.

While there isn't currently a proven way to measure how social media is driving ROI, Kumar said, there's no doubt that it works. "We don't trust brand messages as much as we used to anymore. Now we trust messages from friends. That's why social is so powerful," Jeff Lakusta, senior social ads specialist at Wildfire, a division of Google, agreed.

Still, there are right and wrong ways to use social media, according to the panelists. The consensus was that social shouldn't be looked at separately from other forms of outreach, such as phone calls or emails, because these approaches are all communication channels used to build relationships. Each social network should be approached individually, though, and used differently. "Brands need to know how to communicate differently on different social channels. They're all useful for different things," Greg Gunn, vice president of business development at Hootsuite, said.

The panelists also agreed that society has changed as a result of the growth of social media. Consumers no longer want to interact with content passively—instead, they're actively engaging with brands and driving major trends, forcing advertisers to constantly think ahead. Sometimes, according to Connelly, that entails going one step further than what consumers want right now.

"If I had just asked consumers what they wanted," Connelly said, quoting Henry Ford, "they would have said faster horses."

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