What to make of Meeker

About the author

Heather is a key member of our assessor team. PhD, BSc, PG, RSA, CAM  

Mary Meeker is an internet trend thought leader. When Mary speaks, the world listens. A partner in the venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, her annual Internet Trends Report is widely cited as the must-read document to understand the tech industry.

The 2018 report comprises a deck of 294 slides – and can be downloaded in full as a pdf. Alongside this long-form format, within hours of its release on 30 May, the report’s content has been extensively deconstructed and reconstructed into short-form articles, highlights, blog posts and social media comments.

The work is presented with a hope that “others take the ideas, build on them & make them better”.  In this PR Place post, I provide some initial PR thoughts on the report’s key internet trends.

Make it easy – a need for seamless, frictionless communications

3.6 billion people use the Internet – that’s half of the world’s population and up from one in four of us back in 2009. Whilst the pace of growth has inevitably begun to slow, daily usage continues to rise to an average of 5.9 hours per day – more than double the time spent online a decade ago.

Mobile devices have driven this increase in online usage. Smartphones and tablets account for the additional three hours a day online, with time spent using desktop/laptop fairly static at around two hours a day.  With a small but notable increase in use of other connected devices in the past year, online communication strategies need to allow for seamless cross-device access.

Better, faster, cheaper devices, easy access to wifi, intuitive products and simpler payment options all support frictionless online transactions. The same ‘make it easy’ ethos should be applied to online communications.

Make it personal – a need for human, personalised and timely communications

Another trend supports greater human connection – driven by messaging, live video streaming, and support of offline neighbourhood activities. Yet we’re also seeing an increase in the accuracy and take up of automated voice technologies. Online experiences continue to improve as technology enables real-time personalisation, which in turn increases engagement. This is essential in realising long-term relationships and return on investment.

From a PR perspective, practitioners need to demonstrate strong understanding of interpersonal, video-enabled, social and spoken communications to ensure organisations reflect human intelligence when employing technological developments.  

The report discusses how Enterprise Service Networks (ESNs) for internal communication and collaboration have developed along the same lines as external consumer applications. However, there is a lack of a cost-benefit analysis or contextualisation of the data as presented.

Nevertheless, it is notable from a PR perspective that similar attention has not been paid to personalising activities that are too often generalised and automated. Technology could undoubtedly be used to replace one-size-fits-all communications with more individualised, time appropriate, information for media and other contacts.

Make the privacy paradox a priority – a need to accommodate users, organisations and regulators

As anyone familiar with GDPR is aware, the concerns of regulators about data usage can have an immense impact on organisations and those they are engaging with. It is understandable that regulators want organisations to be accountable for the data they collect online from users. Likewise, we know that organisations need access to user-generated data to innovate and deliver better, cheaper and more flexible services.

This privacy paradox is identified in the report, where the financial and reputational consequences of failure to meet regulator and public expectations are clear. The best people to bring together these different interests are PR practitioners, including public affairs specialists.

Assessing the unintended consequences of new technologies, regulations and changing public opinions is an essential aspect of risk assessment – and one where PR/PA professionals need to be involved.

Make room for editorial – a need for quality as search becomes ad space

It is also important for PR/PA and internal communications disciplines to focus on the opportunities, issues and crisis management challenges presented by data that shows on-going growth of e-commerce, the changing nature of search platforms and the dominance of a few players.

The report highlights continuing commercialisation – and cost – of internet communications driven by the three global giants: Google, Amazon and Facebook. This goes beyond adopting an integrated PESO model as it suggests all communications will be paid for – including content that is owned, earned or shared.

Discussion about public inability to distinguish between advertising and editorial content becomes redundant when there’s a price tag behind all communications.

Moreover the sustainability of an open and equal internet is challenged by US moves to end net neutrality (whereby internet service providers are required to treat all online data the same). Censorship technologies (driven by artificial intelligence) and the right to data erasure are further issues with potential to affect the quality of online content, including independent editorial.

PR practitioners – individually and collectively – have traditionally valued accessible, quality journalism and editorial content. Whether there is room for this in a future internet is not something that Meeker explicitly examines.

Make room for societal concerns – a need to address issues and activism

Meeker’s report highlights how brands are increasingly taking a stance over fake news and what they deem to be inappropriate content. Leading such corporate activism – and anticipating issues of public and political concerns – is another strategic role for public relations.

There is also scope for public relations practitioners to examine the implications of social trends driven by the internet. Meeker’s report claims technology will address rising household debt with lower prices and opportunities to maximise income. It does not consider an ongoing digital divide, nor how technology could stimulate more innovative solutions to societal issues.

Indeed, the report anticipates that technologies will create rather than adversely impact employment. Data presents greater flexibility, alongside growth in freelance and on demand work only from a positive perspective.

Make it critical – a need for a wider interpretation of internet trends

The lack of critical analysis of all aspects of the trends considered in the report is striking. Any mentions of potential downsides of technology are brief and offset by a belief that technology and technology firms will overcome these.

These firms – ranked by market valuation in the report – are all from the USA or China. Internet users in these countries are indicated as more willing to share their data than those from most other European countries. Yet, in all countries the majority of people are not willing to share personal data in exchange for the benefits that Meeker appears to favour.

Without question, a huge volume of information and analysis is contained within the 2018 Internet Trends Report. It is commendable to see sources cited and a wide scope of issues included.

However, any reader needs to consider the limitations of secondary data reporting and analysis. A meta analysis always carries a risk of losing context and the original purpose underpinning the data’s collection.

The report also offers a particular perspective in its collation and interpretation – that of a partner in a US-based venture capital firm, writing for a particular audience.

As a useful resource it is free and accessible. It is a reminder for PR practitioners that insight and interpretation can be developed – and presented – in a professional, albeit subjective, manner as part of a thought leadership strategy.

Meeker’s presentation clearly states: “We use data to tell stories of business-related trends we focus on”. PR communicators likewise can use data to tell their stories – and will do so from a largely partisan position. As professionals, we should also consider ethical implications and obligations for personal and corporate responsibilities – which I contend requires greater critical examination than is evident here.