Future-Proofing – A Stab in the Dark or Genuine Illumination?
Future–proofing is a phrase familiar to anyone working in B2B communications.
This is particularly the case if – like Mulberry – you have existing or past relationships with clients operating in software (SaaS), food production technology, construction, health and safety; or who are producing cutting-edge heating products for installation in locations designated explicitly as architecturally-designed – ‘buildings of the future’.
Keeping up with the latest technology cycle
In B2C there is a different emphasis encompassing the new and improved. Product cycles respond to and fuel the consumer imperative to keep-up with the latest technology. Future-proofing is hardly top of the list when the predominant urge is aligning consumer preference and the tightly defined window of optimising marketing budget and sales – until it’s time to repeat the cycle all over again.
B2B technology typically involves taking the longer view. Purchasing is generally less frequent and more considered. Advantage is typically presented around the value-added beyond the purchase, such as consultation, linked services and the benefits of specialist sector knowledge.
Future-proofing is also a phrase that is frequently involved in issues of managing change – whether that be on a fundamental level of handling resistance to new systems and technology within an organisation – or in retaining the value of products or intellectual property.
So what is future-proofing?
The concept varies with perspective, but in broad terms it’s about trying to buffer your operations and products against stress or seismic shock, in whatever form that manifests itself in your short or long-term future. It might, for example, be technological developments, demographic changes affecting your customer base; or the impact of an unforeseen cultural or economic tremor.
In the B2B world future-proofing is increasingly applied for sustainable and environmental reasons – anticipating water scarcity, increasing utility costs, the need to repurpose labour, or deal with potentially cataclysmic outcomes predicted by global warming.
Future-proofing is effectively a form of risk management that concerns building in resilience through technology, training, systems and work practices to counter prevalent short-termism, however pressing those immediate needs may be. It’s also about retaining an overview – easily lost in meeting your customer expectations of speed of delivery – and in the face of the all-important element of cost. Without a collective will and a budget that supports analysis, future-proofing is not a conversation that is likely to happen to any effective degree and even less likely to result in any agreed implementation.
Look beyond the future you’re being sold
It’s convenient to dismiss the future as something to deal with it as and when it arrives. After all, is future-proofing any more than a guess?
It is a guess to a certain extent, however, instigating a process of anticipation and planning backed by your experience, knowledge and expertise means it is, at the very least, an educated guess.
Technological advances tend to dominate our ideas of the future. The images are obvious and pervasive – from robots, to artificial intelligence, to the constant – ‘here’s the future today’ – preoccupations. Nevertheless, the broader need to be agile and responsive holds true to your content approach as well.
Most companies are no different from individuals in that they operate while awkwardly straddling their past, their present and their perceived future. This compromises both technological choices and the content strategy; where the comfort of sticking with what has always worked is often given extra justification by B2B clients who are traditionally conservative in approach.
As much as there is a shiny technological vision of the future, just dealing with the here and now, or the legacy of the past can leave little room, time or budget for manoeuvre – let alone deep reflection.
Back to the future
The debate surrounding content and technological change is often rooted solely in the practical issues of how your content – your copy and images – are viewed. Despite the prevailing orthodoxy that channels – where ever-tighter expression must be achieved in less word count are presented as an unassailable trend – this is not simply a black and white case.
With old-school technologies that have been summarily dismissed, such as books and vinyl records, resisting the prophets of doom and being reappraised beyond the context of an ironic or limited revival, the future remains a grey area. It is never the conveniently marketed clean break with the past that is so routinely presented. Every means and style of expression is still potentially up for grabs.
More than a warm feeling
As a written term used in content future-proofing is primarily a feature or benefit. It is often casually used; a buzz word, a throwaway for a new product; a must-have that is almost deliberately vague but ticks the boxes and gives a suitably warm feeling to a procurement manager.
Realistically, any future-proofing expectation in this transaction involves getting a couple of years of use out of a product while keeping costs to a minimum, rather than some grand strategic choice that sets operational precedents for a decade. Where it differs is in the associated messaging which is defined by the level targeted – whether C-suite or production manager.
Is easy replication the key to future-proofing your content?
Maintaining flexibility toward the unexpected in an uncertain world may be the drive in future-proofing your content but this should never be at the expense of the virtues of consistency, clarity and creativity. Content best practice – or in many cases just doing what you already do is as good a starting point as any for future-proofing content.
Initially defining a coherent structure – selecting the words you use, the messaging that permeates your copy and informs your choice of images, along with the consistent tone applied, makes it easier for the meaning to be replicated across channels – whatever those may be in the future; or for translation and transcreation purposes. Easy replication is the key and will ultimately define your system and technological choices.
A balance between plain speaking – though not in any strident sense or affected simplicity – and retaining the creativity that differentiates is a difficult enough task for content creators in the current multi-channel environment. Achieving this in a landscape with potentially even more channels, and ones that might also be radically different, with the minimum effort – and cost – while keeping everyone on the same page gives a sense of the challenge future-proofing brings. There is inevitably a commitment of time and money for even limited redesigning and reformatting.
The aim is to achieve a content system that combined with a resilient strategy can effectively roll with the punches. However, an efficient future will only be realised if it is based on an efficient present. With technology difficult to anticipate, your current content strategy will either be a launch pad or a liability. To ensure it is the former, your strategy should incorporate an established and robust common written, verbal and visual language which serves as reference. One that can quickly be replicated and nuanced for use in various channels.
A transferable core of content
The issue with any universal solution is that it can inhibit or effectively prevent differentiation – specifically creativity. Most of your mundane level content is easy to recycle and can be taken forward with the minimum of effort. If any process of recycling content takes more time than the original then it is time to reassess.
Basic information about core products should only require minor adjustments and amendments in the future. As another element of your content bedrock, it is an excellent and easily transferable asset that saves time and money.
A step up from this is the content you purpose for goods and services. You can update this and make additions without any major structural amendments so changing context or channel has minimal impact. From here there is a potential for things to get messy. Creative marketing content is often where the point of difference between products or services is presented in the marketplace; as well as a differential between agency approaches.
Recycling and resizing this remains the most problematic in ensuring a smooth transition in a future-proofing process, more so where there may be a commitment to the concept of channel neutrality. Needless to say, as with all content you put out there, processes of appraisal, measuring performance continuously and adjusting as required are important to retain maximum impact, regardless of how the landscape and channels change.
Nothing is guaranteed in the future. However, the sooner you start assessing how resilient your content is to unexpected external stress and define what it means to your strategy, systems and technological requirements, the more likely you will take the future in your stride and find that the proof is out there.
Michael White is Senior Creative Copy and Content Writer in Mulberry’s London office and has many years of experience writing, conceptualising and editing short and long-form content for a very broad range of B2B and B2C audiences.