Jeffrey Cole has long been at the forefront of digital trends and emerging technologies. He successfully predicted the demise of MySpace in 2005, and now he expects Snapchat and Tumblr to soon surpass Facebook.
Cole is currently research professor and director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, in Los Angeles. During a recent trip to Sydney, he shared his insights on the future of the digital world and what it means for global business leaders.
CMO.com: What are some of the parallels you’ve noticed between powerful digital players in the U.S. and those in China?
Cole: I spend a lot of time in China, and we have seen some truly massive companies emerge from there recently. It’s not hard to see the parallels either between, for instance, Tencent and Google, Alibaba and Amazon, or WeChat and Facebook.
What’s interesting is that Alibaba has not done as well in the U.S. as expected, but it’s a monolith that kept Yahoo afloat for quite a few years. It turned out that if you took out the near $25 billion stake that Yahoo had in Alibaba, along with Yahoo Japan, Yahoo itself was worth less than zero.
CMO.com: Who are the most successful digital players at the moment, and what do they have in common?
Cole: The companies identified as real power players in the digital world about five years ago were Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, and they have taught us some great lessons.
First, they’re all moving aggressively into each other’s business territories. Facebook has search and email, Amazon released a phone, and Google is in the shopping business.
Second, they’re all products of the 21st century. All four of these companies have popped up in the past 16 to 20 years, so there’s no reason to believe that equally large competitors won’t appear in the next three to five years, or that we will lose an existing player.
CMO.com: You’ve witnessed the rise of each of these companies. What has surprised you about each of them?
Cole: Google is now the highest valued company in the world, but the only part of Google that makes money is paid search. Google actually believes it could be out of business in three years, and I think this is the secret to its greatness.
Looking at Apple, the problem for Tim Cook is he has held to the highest standard of innovation [for] creating game-changing products. When Apple comes out later this year with the iPhone 7, and it has a slightly better camera and a slightly faster processor, people are going to be hugely disappointed.
People want to see him in a pair of blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater, standing on stage in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, coming to the end of his presentation and saying, “Oh, one more thing,” and then introducing a product that changes the world. They’ve done that three times with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. The odds are they won’t do it again.
Amazon, I think, is taking over the world. I say that with a smile but also with a lot of fear. If you want to see the real successor to Steve Jobs, the smartest guy in the room, the guy who can see around corners, it's not Tim Cook. It’s Jeff Bezos.
CMO.com: Where does social media fit into all of this? What impact has it had in the overall digital landscape?
Cole: Twitter has become the best customer-service tool any company has ever created because companies can deal with problems quickly and in front of other customers.
Twitter is also an indispensable news source. It’s where the first reports of terrorism in Mumbai came from; it played an important role in politics and the Arab Spring.
CMO.com: What will the digital world look like in 12 months?
Cole: In the developed world in 1975, most people spent 16 hours a week in front of a screen. Last year it was 47 hours, and that figure is set to reach 60 hours in the next five to six years.
Forty-seven hours is over a third of all awake time if you factor in sleep. Those hours are divided across three or more screens, and we’re seeing that change. Of course, the screen that has taken over the world is the smartphone. We access it on average 150 times or more a day.
CMO.com: Finally, what is the big secret to digital success?
Cole: Almost everybody is nervous about digital media. Nobody thinks they have a grasp on it. Even the companies that use it really well, such as Nike, American Express, and Coca-Cola, think they’re behind. Nobody is comfortable because there’s so much to learn, and it moves so quickly.