September 2008 | While in many parts of the world the new business quarter may be all about inflation and expensive oil and collapsing housing markets, the online world remains a hotbed of innovation and opportunity. So let’s look at some new ways the offline world is making the most of the online steamroller.

“OFF=ON”

 

Introduction | When something previously deemed ‘emerging’ has managed to completely invade the mainstream, you know it's time to throw overboard any remaining doubts and inhibitions, and just get going to claim your shrinking piece of the pie.

Case in point: the near-total triumph of the ‘online revolution’ (1.4 billion people online, anyone?), which now has the ‘offline world’ more often than not playing second fiddle in everything from commerce to entertainment to communications to politics.

In fact, ‘offline’ is now so intertwined with ‘online’ that a whole slew of new products and services and campaigns are just waiting to be dreamed up by … well… you? Our definition:

OFF=ON | More and more, the offline world (a.k.a. the real world, meatspace or atom-arena) is adjusting to and mirroring the increasingly dominant online world, from tone of voice to product development to business processes to customer relationships. Get ready to truly cater to an ONLINE OXYGEN generation even if you’re in ancient sectors like automotive or fast moving consumer goods.

For this briefing, we chose to focus on hands-on innovation. Which to us means coming up with new goods, services and experiences. And as this is about current OFF=ON developments, we’re excluding researched-to-death topics like straightforward ecommerce or cross-media strategies.

After all, it’s the start of a new business season, we’re all busy, and you’re all ready to get something new executed fast. So here we go:

1. Online symbols turned objects

Let’s start with some fun stuff that nevertheless falls into the sign-of-the-times category. To marry well-known digital visuals (from pixels to logos to black-and-white QR compositions) with physical objects creates a powerful OFF=ON message. Learn from:

  • The Houston Fence, located on the corner of New York’s Broadway and Houston, is a temporary outdoor installation inspired by QR-code patterns. These bar codes, when scanned with a mobile phone, allow pedestrians to seamlessly connect to online content such as websites and blogs. Meant to be read in different scales and speeds (pedestrian, cars, bikes, etc) the two sided-fence uses put-in cups as ‘pixels’ to create a permeable pattern in the sixty chain-link fences that have been set up alongside Houston Street as safety barriers for the Houston corridor reconstruction project.

 

  • Japanese casual fashion retailer Uniqlo is offering special Google-branded goods to selected users in Japan who install a Uniqlo button for the Google Toolbar. Products range from keitai straps to Google bags.
  • Spanish-born Cristian Zuzunaga, a 2007 graduate from the Royal College of Arts in London, believes the pixel is the icon of our time and has designed a Pixel Couch that will be produced by Danish manufacturer Kvadrat and sold through Moroso.
  • Hanging from a purple ribbon, this now sold-out pixelated lilac was offered on ModCloth.
  • Seattle-based designer Jana Brevick regarding her Jacked—Cat 5 Compliant Wedding Set: "A wedding set for the unconventional! The female ring has a choice of four opaque colors: turquoise, white, orange or black. The male ring stands tall and dramatically transparent. The world is your technological oyster.” These rings, too, are sold out.

2. Born online

The by-now-commonplace practice of letting customers customize and personalize an existing offline product online (from Nike ID to personalized M&Ms) is being joined by products that start out online-only, then find their way into the offline world. Witness:

  • With the rise of virtual worlds, the burgeoning fashion market for avatars brought real-world brands and designs into the virtual realm. Now, the trend appears to be going the other way as companies begin to let consumers get their avatar fashions made into real-world clothes. EA and H&M recently held a Sims 2 H&M Fashion Runway Contest in which any Sims 2 player could participate by designing an H&M-inspired outfit using the game's design tool and uploading it to TheSims2.com Exchange. The winning outfit has been made available for purchase in nearly 1,000 H&M retail locations in the US, the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Hong Kong and China for USD 14.90.

    The Sims also got into bed with IKEA, making available digital versions of existing IKEA furniture, but no (known) plans exist yet to introduce new Sims-made IKEA furniture in a real world IKEA store near you.
  • A new partnership between Swedish avatar dress-up site Stardoll and German t-shirt commerce site Spreadshirt allows users to take virtual clothes they create or see online and get them made into the real thing. Users will be able to take logos or graphics from popular labels in the Stardoll world and get them emblazoned on real-life t-shirts, hats and other items.
  • But let’s not forget about the avatars themselves: Fabjectory turns virtual world characters/avatars into detailed, full-color, real-life statuettes. The figures are built on a Z-Corp rapid prototyping machine. 1/400th of an inch at a time, the machine lays down a plaster powder that it covers with a type of colored glue. Fabjectory currently is available for Second Life, Nintendo Mii and Google Sketchup and is looking for other virtual world operators to partner with. Prices for a real-world avatar vary between USD 50–200 depending on character complexity and the virtual world it's from.
  • Oh, and then there’s FigurePrints for World of Warcraft characters, and Japanese Tsukulus, which lets its customers print 3D figurines on the spot in their Tokyo showroom.
  • Moving on from avatar gestation to turning *any* virtual design into atoms: as discussed in our earlier MAKE IT YOURSELF trend description, New Zealand’s Ponoko turns two-dimensional designs into three-dimensional objects by way of laser-cutting plastics and wood products. Besides creating products for themselves, users can also sell their designs through Ponoko, with the company handling payments and shipping. Which makes this OFF=ON venture into a great GENERATION C(ASH) showcase, too.
  • Ponoko was recently joined by Shapeways. Part of Philips' Lifestyle Incubator, Shapeways lets users upload 3D designs and have them produced on one of its 3D printers.

  • And let’s not forget about yet another ‘born online’ sub-category: crowd production, which sees groups of creative consumers build new products from scratch online. From phones to sneakers. It just doesn't stop ;-)

3. Digital lifestyle lubricants

A booming OFF=ON category all by itself, a digital lifestyle lubricant is a traditional product that incorporates functionalities and enablers to make it more compatible with the online world. From iPod chargers sewn into coats to web-based connections for plush toys.

Want to add your own lubricants? Here’s a selection of examples to get you going:

  • The new JVC Everio camcorder enables one-button uploads to YouTube. The button also limits recordings to 10 minutes, which matches YouTube's file-size limit and eliminates the need to manually time recordings or edit and shorten footage before uploading. Casio offers a similar service. Now that’s what we call ‘thinking with your audience’. It also fits with our ‘END OF TRIBEVERTISING’and the beginning of 'TRIBE OFFERINGS' trends, but we’ll saving those two exclusively for our 2009 Trend Report ;-)

  • Webkinz are stuffed animals that each have an attached tag with a unique Secret Code printed on it that allows access to the virtual Webkinz World, where users will find a virtual version of their pet. Every pet gets its own room in Webkinz World and kids can decorate the rooms and buy items for their pets from the W Shop. Webkinz has begun the process of localizing Webkinz World to broaden its international reach. Aiming for a roll-out by mid-October 2008, Webkinz is translating key features, like the adoption process, into French, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese.

    For more web-connected toys and objects, see Chumby, Nabaztag and Dash Express
    .
  • Fashion and tech have an ongoing love affair, from O'Neill's NavJack to the above creation (which made us smile); Erik De Nijs—a third-year product design student at the HKU school of arts in Utrecht, the Netherlands—came up with these "beauty and the geek" concept jeans. Surprisingly enough, there's no dedicated website, but that may just be part of a budding 'ON=OFF' trend ;-)
  • Planes and trains adding wifi is no longer a story, but automobiles are still in an early phase of the OFF=ON cycle. For a move towards digitizing cars, keep an eye on Ford’s SYNC and GM’s Onstar, while true en-route online access is made possible by Autonet Mobile. The latter turns cars into wifi hotspots, allowing multiple people to connect their computers to the internet. Autonet runs over both 3G and 2.5G cellular data networks and is capable of receiving WiMax signals. Users simply plug a router into their car's cigarette lighter, start their wifi device(s) and surf the net. Autonet Mobile claims to be effective on more than 95 percent of roads in the US.

    Avis was Autonet's first corporate customer, rebranding the service as Avis Connect, currently available at 13 locations across the US for USD 10.95 per day. Autonet recently also entered into a partnership with Chrysler to create Chrysler UConnect, which is offered in all 2009 models and will also work with earlier Chrysler models.

4. Mirroring online behavior

This is where OFF=ON gets most interesting. A whole new set of business practices and processes, not to mention client involvement and marketing techniques, have emerged online, and the offline world is slowly but certainly adapting. To clarify, this is not about linking online to offline (which is very useful but not new; think, for example, of brick & mortar pick-up locations for online purchases), but instead about mirroring offline what’s being done better online.

Case in point: last December, The Wall Street Journal reported on shops (Brookstone, Staples and Canadian supermarket Loblaws) taking a page from the e-commerce world, featuring endorsements from shoppers on product displays in their physical stores.

Clearly, that’s just the beginning. From real-world supermarket layouts mirroring more intuitive website layouts, to allowing for more in-store customization, catering to consumers who are accustomed to mixing and matching whatever they feel like online.

It’s a pretty heady mix of trends like INFOLUST and FREE LOVE and other trends that encompass changing behavior and expectations among consumers who live part of their lives in a limitless online world. Please re-read our EXPECTATION ECONOMY briefing for more on the drivers behind changing and ever-higher expectations.

To get hands-on, let’s move on to an ‘offline’ business that is mirroring the best that the online world has to offer:

  • TCHO is a San Francisco-based chocolate manufacturer. Its founders started Wired magazine, so it’s no surprise they’re taking a high-tech approach to the production of an age-old delight. In its factory, TCHO combines recycled and refurbished legacy chocolate equipment with the latest process control, information and communications systems.

    The company's "obsessively good" dark chocolate is created in limited-run "beta editions" that are only available online and at its factory store. Continuous flavor development and customer feedback mean that varieties are constantly evolving, with new versions emerging as frequently as every 36 hours. TCHO also aims to change the way people describe chocolate and has created a new taxonomy based on common-sense terms like "nutty", "fruity" and "chocolatey" to help people find the types they like best. Products are named accordingly, such as the recent Beta C Ghana 0.2x release, for example, in which the "C" stands for chocolatey. Finally, TCHO embraces a social mission that goes beyond Fair Trade to help farmers by transferring knowledge of how to grow and ferment better beans, allowing them to escape commodity production and become premium producers. TCHO's 50g chocolate bars, wrapped in plain brown paper, are priced at USD 4 each.
 

Checklist

What other (superior) processes and changed consumer behavior now taking place online can you incorporate into your offline business? Here are a number of keywords and phrases defining the online world, ready to be projected on a white wall ;-)

  • Sharing
  • Constant, 24/7, always on
  • Keeping in touch
  • Cheap, fast and easy
  • Snack culture
  • Free
  • Ongoing feedback
  • Transparency
  • Anonymity
  • Customization, personalization, creation
  • Searchability
  • Easy befriending & connecting
  • Instant gratification
  • Collaboration
  • Micro celebrity
  • DIY
  • Multiple personalities
  • Total control (or at least the illusion of it)
  • Overload
  • Beta testing
  • …and so on



5. Speaking ‘online’

Remember our tips on how to apply a trend? The easiest one suggests that you babble away in the language of those consumers who are already 'living' the trend: show them you get it,* show them you know what they're excited about—this really is marketing, advertising and PR in its simplest form.

If nothing innovative comes to mind when brainstorming about OFF=ON (something we have a hard time imagining, but hey), at least try to speak your digi-audience's language:

*Though make sure you back it up in execution of whatever it is you’re peddling, OK?

  • Instead of providing long-winded explanations of camera features on paper like a lot of other brands, Leica built a “pixel dog” out of Lego and placed it in public places around Germany to promote its new Leica D-Lux 3 digital camera. The aim of the campaign was to demonstrate how ill-defined objects can look when you don't use a high definition camera like the Leica D-Lux 3 Meister Camera. Which of course doesn’t pay homage to pixels like our earlier examples, but it did get quite a bit of attention.
  • DHL China's recent 24 Hour Online Tracking street campaign in Beijing was intended to drive awareness of its online 24/7 tracking system. DHL's agency Ogilvy & Mather attached a large silhouette of a computer cursor on DHL’s vans which worked the routes around Beijing’s Central Business District. DHL couriers also wore cardboard cut-outs of big white mouse cursors when delivering packages.
  • The Langham Place hotel in Hong Kong offers a selection of technological treats that includes state-of-the-art IP phones which guests can personalize with their own photos, flight details and more before they arrive, and there's a mobile version they can use anywhere in the hotel. Smell the technology, indeed.

* The above doesn't even include text messaging/SMS shorthand speak. Or chat abbreviations. Or Web 2.0 monikers. One thing though: if you do this, you make sure you get it 100% right. Just saying.


And yes, ON = OFF, too

Wait, there's more. The attraction is mutual. Just as there’s immense value in incorporating online into everything you do if you're a predominantly offline brand, there’s also brand equity in being visible in the bricks-and-mortar world if you're 'from the web'.

In fact, expect ‘online’ to enjoy being 'offline' more than ever. Three quick sub-trends that are currently fueling ON=OFF: visibility, warm bodies and mobile mania.

1. Visibility

Reality check: many consumers still value the physical over the virtual (and as we will see further down below, even the very wired are venturing out more, not less). So online brands want to be seen and want to be part of the real world to add visibility to their brands. Not to mention that despite the rapid growth of ecommerce, consumers still spend the majority of their budgets offline. Examples:

  • Etsy, the online marketplace for buying and selling all things handmade, has a brick-and-mortar space, called Etsy Labs. It’s located at 325 Gold Street in Brooklyn, New York. It functions as a community workspace where Etsy offers classes, open crafting times and occasional events. Every Monday from 4pm–8pm Etsy also holds an open crafting night where the community space in its offices is open to the public.
  • Threadless, a popular online t-shirt design business, opened its first store in Chicago last year. Threadless Chicago incorporates a shopping area and a gallery, both showcasing work by winning Threadless designers. One of the main goals of the Threadless store was to have real, live, tangible events around the launching of new tees every week. Threadless releases 8 or 9 new and reprinted designs online every Monday, and the Threadless store launches the new tees the Friday before they get released on the website. Threadless is considering opening additional stores in "smaller, artsy communities" like San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Boulder, Columbus, Boston, Minneapolis and Savannah (as opposed to launching retail outlets in traditional A-markets).
  • The msnbc.com Digital Café at the NBC Experience Store in New York’s Rockefeller Center aims to bring to life msnbc.com's trademark "fuller spectrum of news" in a casual café setting. Visitors have access to free wifi, and the digital café features five NewsArcades—Spectra touch screen kiosk news readers—featuring the site’s NewsBreaker and NewsBlaster games, in which players use a paddle to keep a ball in play and break the bricks on the screen to reveal headlines.

    According to msnbc.com, "By bringing the msnbc.com experience offline to create a news-infused café, we’ve created a digital playground where consumers can engage and experiment with news in unconventional ways."
  • Based in Shanghai, Duo Guo sells mobile content through specialized kiosks in brick-and-mortar retail stores. It has developed partnerships with large retailers in China and global media companies to bring games, ringtones, software and other mobile services to China's 500 million mobile phone users in a retail setting. Each Duo Guo kiosk is staffed by a salesperson who helps customers as they browse for content. As many Chinese consumers are reportedly wary of buying online, fearing that they'll be overcharged or end up paying for the wrong thing, the kiosks are doing brisk business. Launched last year and backed by US hedge fund Jana Partners, Duo Guo currently has about 25 outlets in Shanghai. It is in the process of expanding to Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Beijing, with hopes of having 100 stores by year's end, and 500 by the end of 2009.
  • From the web to paper: Bertelsmann is about to publish the Wikipedia encyclopedia in one volume in German. The first edition will contain 50,000 Wikipedia articles printed in full color and published as a hardcover with about 100 images. The jury is still out on this one, but it’s certainly ON=OFF ;-)

    By the way, a proven success in this field is MOO, a printing service, which points out on its site: "There's virtual communication like email, instant message or video. People belong to virtual communities like social networks, image sharing or interest groups. And in these communities they use virtual identities to share virtual content: writing, photography, design, music, video... Sometimes, we think life is just a little too virtual. So we dream up new tools that help people turn their virtual content into beautiful print products for the real world."

2. Warm bodies

The more people connect, date, befriend, network and socialize online, the more likely they are to eventually meet up in meatspace. Why? Because people actually enjoy interacting with other warm bodies. Or so we've heard ;-) From parties to travel to tennis matches to seminars to conventions to hooking up for a night, frequent online contact if not social networking actually often result in meeting up outside cyberspace. A small batch of examples:

  • Meeting up just because you can | Meetup helps groups of people with shared interests plan meetings and form offline clubs in local communities around the world. With more than 2,000 groups that get together in local communities each day, Meetup is the world's largest network of local groups. Meetup currently has 4.7 million members in 3,601 cities worldwide, 46,315 local groups, 4,916 Meetup topics and facilitates 102,000 Meetups monthly. Their tagline? “Use the Internet to get off the Internet!”
  • Meet-ups while traveling | Dopplr lets travelers privately share their future travel plans with friends and colleagues. The service highlights converging plans, informing members by e-mail, text message or Twitter that three people they know will be in Paris when they next visit. Dopplr also links with online calendars and other social networks and is accessible on mobile phones. Other similar and related sites include TripLife, Groople and Triporama.
  • Meet-ups and sports | What better excuse to meet up with people and play some ball than to become part of a social networking site just for tennis players, soccer players, squash players and so on? Case in point: Mesh Tennis, which lets tennis players find other players of their own skill level, in their own area.

    And then there are BikeSpace.net ("Map, Meet, Move") and FitLink and Walker Tracker ("Walk more, be healthier, meet other walkers") and SkiSpace and many more that we will leave up to you to find and, if relevant, partner with.
  • Meet-ups and sex | Adult FriendFinder—the ‘casual encounters’ site—now claims more than 20 million active members. Like cybersex, real-world sex is turning into instant gratification, with the help of millions of other willing and able participants. The rate-before-you-date features add a level of TRANSPARENCY TYRANNY. Warm bodies indeed.
  • Meet-ups and CROWD CLOUT | Let’s not forget about CROWD CLOUT and especially the team-purchase phenomenon, which involves strangers organizing themselves around a specific product or service. Think electronics, home furnishings, cars and so on. These like-minded shoppers then meet up in real-world stores and showrooms on a coordinated date and time, literally mobbing the seller, negotiating a group discount on the spot. Popular Chinese sites that are enabling the crowds to first group online, then plan for real world shopmobbing, are TeamBuy, Taobao and Liba. Combined, these sites now boast hundreds of thousands of registered members, making money from ads and/or commissions from suppliers who are happy to have the mobs choose their store over a competitor's.

Warm bodies and FEEDER BUSINESSES

Last but not least, with sites like Facebook having hit the 100 million member mark, and chat being the new email, it’s no surprise that warm bodies-FEEDER BUSINESSES are popping up, too. Here are three services that add a touch of real world to burgeoning online human interaction:

  • Online flower store Social Flowers has created a way for consumers to send flowers to their Facebook friends without having to ask for their personal details. How it works? Users install the Social Flowers Facebook application, select a recipient from their friends list, pick a floral gift and pay. Social Flowers then sends the recipient an email and a Facebook notification requesting their address, and the flowers are delivered by one of 30,000 local florists in the US and Canada. Social Flowers aims to extend its service to other social networks as soon as possible.
  • UK-based Light Agency has introduced a Mars-branded widget that makes it possible to send real candy. The widget allows UK users of Facebook to choose from a range of Mars confectionery gifts from its Celebrate Sweet Shop online. To send one, they simply select a friend, add a message and pay for the gift via tokens or their PayPal account. A message is sent to the gift recipient requesting their mobile number, and a unique Celebrate Voucher ID and gift details are then sent to them via SMS text. To collect the gift, the recipient just visits one of more than 12,500 participating PayPoint retailers and shows the Celebrate Voucher ID.
  • Availabot is a golden oldie (it’s an ancient two years old!!), offering a physical representation of presence in instant messenger applications, which means Availabot plugs into your computer by USB, stands to attention when your chat buddy comes online, and falls down when they go away. Brilliant, and somehow very ON=OFF. But it apparently got stuck in concept mode. So could someone please bring this to market? (Just the waves of PR should make it worth the effort.)

    Update: looks like things are stirring again ;-)

3. Mobile mania

OK, it’s really happening now. For years and years, futurists, cyber-gurus, trend watchers and other overly-optimistic gadget-fetishists have been predicting the glorious coming of the mobile web. Never mind that the lack of wireless broadband combined with archaic and money-grabbing mobile operators turned that dream into a sustained mobile nightmare.

But. The clouds are parting. 3G, 4G, even 5G are coming to the rescue, and of course (dare we say it) the iPhone! You can spend the next few weeks poring over the countless research docs on mobile-finally-meets-web currently being released (here, here and here, for a start), but they all show the same thing: owners of iPhones and smartphones and tablets and nano-notebooks are embracing an improved online-on-the-go experience.

But please forget proprietary portals or paying by the byte: all consumers ever wanted to do on-the-go was whatever they were already doing on clunky computers, and then some. Read: diving into the online world fast and without limits, on whatever gadget offers the best marriage between size, apps and portability. With some serious GPS action thrown in, too.

Which means that cyberspace as we know it (read: a wondrous world of control and make-believe restricted to desktops at home or in poorly-lit offices, and laptops that don’t venture too far from spotty hotspots) is about to vanish, and will be replaced by something that is everywhere, enabling consumers if not enticing* them to actually venture out into the—you guessed it—real world.
Though when that happens, what will constitute the real world will be up for debate. Anyway. Get ready for a generation that is (finally) always online while offline. And vice versa.

* Helped by thousands of GPS-aided apps, refined local search tools and other PLANNED SPONTANEITY services, being online-on-the go will mean more offline adventures and experiences than ever before.

Next for OFF=ON, and ON=OFF?

Yes, we know, we know, those of you who are hyper-wired and live in a Web 4.0 world may crave something that looks beyond our short-term-future findings. Which means you will inevitably end up at Kevin Kelly's thinking. Watch his ‘Next 5,000 days’ TED video, which deals with the web of things and more, here. If you haven’t done so already, of course.

10 ways to apply OFF=ON

It doesn’t take marketing genius to apply OFF=ON and ON=OFF to your own brand. Here’s what you can set in motion today:

  1. Incorporate online symbols into one of your next designs.
  2. Have customers design something from scratch online, then bring it into the real world.
  3. Add any kind of online functionality or access feature to existing physical products.
  4. Study and then incorporate winning characteristics of living and doing business online into your offline processes.
  5. Infuse your campaigns with the language of the online-versed.
  6. Give your online brand an offline presence.
  7. Partner with any kind of relevant meet-up venture.
  8. Introduce a 'warm bodies FEEDER BUSINESS'.
  9. Hop on the mobile-meets-web bandwagon. Start with introducing an iPhone app. Hey, if British Airways can do it...
  10. Look beyond the next 6 to 12 months and dive into leading online gurus' visions. After all, even if their exact timing is sometimes off, their predictions so far have all come true.