Norman Birnbach, President, Birnbach Communications
There’s a change going on, and while it’s driven by technology, some of the trends in 2020 will not be determined by a specific gadget. Here are 10 trends that we believe the media will cover this year, and have nothing to do with politics. As an agency, we focus on technology, and last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) focused on specific cool, innovative and off-beat technology that we may (or may not) want or need. But we feel that it’s important to take a 10,000-foot perspective on the implications of the technology: not just what a particular device does but how it changes what we do and how we live and work.
We think the following trends will be the focus of think pieces in the media in 2020:
- The Gig Economy isn’t just for millennials. Older Americans are entering the gig economy driving for Uber or Lyft, working in food service and retail as well as personal care/health aides. Americans in their 50’s or older are taking gigs either to augment their retirement or because they can’t find steadier work after getting laid off from a corporate job. Since older Americans tend to vote more, we think there could be more attention paid to the gig economy, specially its low wages and no benefits.
- Consumer spending patterns are shifting. It’s usually referred to as the sharing economy for such things as AirBnB to stay in someone’s place instead of a hotel; Citi Bikes or electric scooters to get around, or any number of sites that rent the latest fashion trends. But it’s really a non-ownership economy or a convenience economy. People are forgoing ownership for flexibility, choice and convenience – just as businesses have been opting for cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) to provide similar benefits. This part of the economy is expected to grow to $335 billion in 2025, up from $15 billion in 2014, according to Forbes. That doesn’t include convenience services that are poised to deliver more items (not just take-out orders), faster via drones or other automated technology. Even how consumers manage their spending — via fintech services instead of banks — is changing, and companies need to figure out how to rethink their offerings.
- The sharing economy will become more expensive. Making a profit will be more important for some sectors in 2020 than growth, which is often fueled by massive debt. The need to prove their value prop works and is sustainable will drive some sharing-economy companies to increase fees or to abruptly stop operations, abandoning their customers. WeWork, Uber, Slack and other once high-flying companies with billion-dollar valuations hit a hard patch that may affect other startups this year. Expect more attention to gross margins (a measure of profitability), detailed financial models for startups looking to raise money, and a focus on discipline. High-flyers will need to adjust, and that will have an impact on their growth as they raise prices. For example, Consumers who rely on food delivery services like GrubHub and DoorDash may pay more since restaurants are complaining those services cut into their profit margins. Or some of those services will shut down because they’re not profitable.
- Streaming — but not owning — content increasingly means you might be able to access the version you want. Streaming content has its benefits but consumers will become increasingly aware of the risks, which include ongoing monthly costs that will increase; content that disappears when a streaming service loses its rights even if you were in the middle of the program); and services that might disappear or abruptly shut down. Also, streaming services are Internet dependent so if you lose Internet access, you lose access to content and services. And, if there are multiple versions of a movie or a song, you may find that you can watch or listen to the one version the service offers — such as Greedo shooting first in the newest version of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” available on Disney+, rather than earlier versions in which Han shot first. The other risk is that the service may change dramatically, depending on profitability, market conditions, and changes in senior management.) We think these issues may get written about more in 2020.
- Going cashless will also affect consumer spending. The push to a cashless economy is increasing, and will have at least two effects: Tipping will increase because many of the payment windows offer an easy selection of different percentages for tipping the person delivering the service or good. They tilt the screen and you have to make a choice even if the vendor is handing you a can of soda. (This isn’t the case if you pay in cash.) An increasingly cashless society will make it much more difficult for the poor, who may be unbanked (as the banking industry calls it) and can’t get a credit or debit cards.
- Robots won’t take over in 2020 but will be more commonplace. While the market for consumer robots like vacuum cleaners will be strong, we feel that real growth in 2020 will be fueled by business purchases. We’re already seeing a slow-moving robot in a local supermarket (though we’re not entirely sure what it’s doing there.) We do expect to see growth especially in 2021 in robotics-related jobs such as data labelers (the people who label things so robots can identify them), AI scientists, even robot managers who make sure robots are working effectively.
- The age of plant-based “meats” has gone mainstream. Now that a number of fast food chains offer plant-based meats, it’s time to acknowledge this trend as mainstream. We expect additional growth of materials grown in the lab, replacing faux fur, leather, cotton using recycled plastics. That said, we don’t expect a lot of coverage of plant-based foods – except in terms of whether they’re actually better for you and for the planet – about this since newspapers have already done comparisons of the different brands of plant-based hamburgers.
- Too many podcasts eventually will overwhelm listeners. There are already too many podcasts that it’s difficult to listen to everything and still get your work done (whatever that may be). Or: there are not enough errands in a day when you can listen and catch up to all the podcasts you’ve been told you must listen to. Probably by 2021, we will have reached podcast saturation and there will be a backlash, both from advertisers and from listeners so that the proliferation of new podcasts will slow down, if not actually decrease. We’re not saying we want that to happen. We just don’t have enough time to listen to anything more.
- The expectations of well-design products will include connectivity and voice control. This won’t happen all at once in 2020 but consumers will soon expect everything to be connected. American consumer will want to control devices using their voice, either indirectly through virtual assistants or directly to the device, whether it’s our thermostats, lights, security system or what’s cooking in the toaster oven. You might even be able to find your missing keys or AirPods just by voice.
- The trade-off between convenience and data collection will get recognition. There may be two problems about which everyone can agree: 1) The torment of robocalls and 2) the problem of data collection that means everything we do — whether online or offline — is being monitored by someone, even if we don’t know by whom or what they are doing (or intend to do) with our data. Surveys have found that Americans don’t think the trade-off for convenience is always beneficial — especially since they feel a lack of control over their data, and that is likely to generate coverage, especially after specific data breaches, which will continue to generate media attention when (not if) they happen.
These trends are worth evaluating because they are part of the larger world that consumer and business media are likely to examine in 2020. Understanding how your organization may be affected by these trends may help stay relevant, and score some positive media coverage.
About the Author: Norman Birnbach is the president of Birnbach Communications, www.birnbach.