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The biggest question in marketing these days – one that may well determine the future of marketing itself – is how marketers ought to engage the next generation of hyper-connected consumers.

The world of marketing has made an enormous evolutionary shift in recent years as brands struggled to find insight to better connect with their audience(s).  From the embrace of storytelling, to the power of big data, to the emergence of cutting-edge technologies, marketing is suddenly the place to be in terms of both business and career development.

Indeed, if the technologies that support modern marketing are on trend – and they are – marketing itself is at least as hot. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a stunning 41 percent increase in marketing and market research jobs by 2020, a scant two years away. That’s the largest percentage of job growth of any sector (confirm).

Fashion Marketing student researching VR in local TOMS coffee shop in Venice Beach, California | Wendy Bendoni

It’s now a given that marketing is inextricably tied to state-of-the-art technology.  Success requires mastery of the new rules of the digital landscape and an understanding of how social currency influences consumer interests and expectations, and signals shifts in buying behavior.

Consider the touchpoints of marketing’s bold present/future. It’s all tech, all the time:

o   Social media

o   Marketing entertainment

o   Digital insight

o   The VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) experience

o   Personal branding

o   E-commerce entrepreneurship

While marketing has always been about the power of storytelling – even if it wasn’t always characterized as such – technology has (pardon the pun) dramatically augmented and redirected that power.  Twenty-first Century marketing harnesses business’s new ability to create actionable strategies with big data. That in turn has unlocked the world of immersive marketing and how it can be deployed to best capture an audience.

Because most brands miss the true power of VR/AR/mixed reality and instead create gimmick-based experiences, brand messages often get lost. The big news is that this kind of immersive experience that cannot be shared on social media — word-of-mouth drives consumers to experience the technology themselves precisely because it cannot be shared. While the average attention span is eight seconds, VR demands that the consumer focus on the message the brand is sending.

Having worked with the virtual reality community from entertainment to the medical industry, I have long believed that a new approach, and a new narrative in brand storytelling, was needed to marketing to consumers outside of the gaming world.  Some time back, I began listening to AR /VR developers as a way to find “the missing link” in marketing strategies.  Collaborating with my university’s film and media technology departments, I now specialize in exploring consumer acceptance of immersive marketing.  I’m proud to be teaching the only class in the nation on VR/AR/Mixed Reality and how to market to the consumer (which may be why the class has been oversubscribed).

From that experience and others, it’s clear to me that educators need to develop an industry-driven curriculum, offering students courses that introduce new data insight through social media and online tools that prepare them for a career in everything from buying to trend forecasting.  The pace of change in popular culture is often breathtaking, but that dynamism can be understood and managed – that’s the mandate of the modern marketing curriculum.

Marketing students working in new immersive experiences with SILVR Thread | Wendy Bendoni

Earlier this academic year, we pioneered an “Innovation Think Tank” course, tracking consumer interests and emerging behaviors in five different areas: eating, travel, shopping, homes and cars. I like to think of it as an anatomy class in the art (and science) of identifying shifts in popular culture, where students can dissect today’s trends and gauge tomorrow’s – all in real time. In this fall’s course, students heard from industry experts before undertaking a comprehensive capstone project that enlisted the creativity of the entire class, which functioned much like a social media marketing firm. And it’s been anything but theoretical: our goal is to foster industry collaborations and internships for students who demonstrate scholarship in social media and related online disciplines.

That’s the beauty of this push-pull fusion of technology and marketing in the classroom; tomorrow’s marketers become fluent in the lingua franca of a transformed discipline. As VR, AR and MR technologies mature, there’s a growing need for new marketing strategies that can tap such immersive experiences. The world of storytelling is key for these new mediums, given that consumers now are able to co-create an experience using VR. Although virtual reality can be used to create a better customer experience, it’s essential that marketers not “push” products but enable customers to feel connected.

For me, the proving ground has been fashion marketing. My book, Social Media for Fashion Marketing: Storytelling in a Visual World (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2017), explores digital disruption in the fashion industry: how social media platforms upended the status quo, the rise of hyper-connected consumers, the emergence of digital storytelling, strategic marketing in the digital age, and measuring the impact of social media. In conversations with digital teams from Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Nike and Kenneth Cole, it became clear that disruption has been pervasive, and that only the smart flourish. As Alex Badia, WWD Style Director, put it,social media has become the biggest transformation that we have seen in the fashion industry since I can remember.  The direction of fashion is now in the power of the consumer.”

As someone who has spent a career studying and consulting on how brands engage with consumers, that direction seems eminently right to me.