State Department's Senior Tech Advisor Discusses Marketing, Social, and Emerging Technologies [Q&A]

Anum Hussain
Anum Hussain



shahed-amanullah-quoteImagine if someone told you to stop wearing pants right now. This person explained how pants were the trend of a past generation, and to be an effective human being in the modern world, you could only wear leggings. This early adopter of leggings presented data on the life improvements and health benefits of wearing leggings primarily and leaving pants behind.

Would you listen, and change your entire wardrobe?

Unlikely. But as ridiculous as that example sounds, that's how many people feel when you try to convince them to use modern marketing technologies. People are so used to the old marketing communication playbook that adopting new technologies seems burdensome.

To help dissect the issue from an expert's point of view, a couple months ago I spoke with the Senior Advisor for Technology at the State Department, Shahed Amanullah, on why -- to put it simply -- marketing technology seems so darn hard. His insights as a serial entrepreneur, tech strategist, and all-around digital expert are presented in its original Q&A form below.

Expert Answers to Seven Questions on the Difficulties of Marketing Technology 

Question: As a senior advisor for technology at the State Department, have your experiences provided any crystalized understanding of why technology is so hard for people to accept and use?

Answer: Yes. I think that even though technology is used by great a number of people, there are still very few people who understand how profound its impact can be on people. They use it for entertainment or small tasks, but the few people who can change the world around them simply by using these technologies is still a small group of people. I would love to be able to try and help people to leverage technology to make a really big difference.

For example, we may seem to have more technology around us here in the States, but you’ll see people in Africa who have much less technology around them, and they use technology in more innovative ways. I met people in Uganda who were using solely mobile phones to crowdfund events like weddings. Yet here, we likely wouldn’t think of such unique cases. People need to find new ways to use technology -- creativity knows no bounds.

Q: Facebook has crossed the one-billion active user mark. Twitter, LinkedIn, and every social media platform out there are not drastically behind. Yet, we still see that companies and executives are reluctant to use these platforms. What makes these social technologies so daunting or unwelcoming?

A: Social media has introduced people to a global conversation that really reflects reality more than people realize. Reality is diverse. Reality is complicated. Reality is unexpected. And a lot of companies and a lot of people are used to simpler times. People who are used to interpreting and guessing what their customers are going to do in more predictable ways are confused by social technology. It’s the organizations that can react to the complexity of conversation on social media that have the most benefit.

Before, it was all a one-way conversation, but now it is two-way, and a lot of people aren’t used to the population out there talking back to you. Anyone who can not just put a message out there, but can hear what people say back and respond to it ... those are the people who will benefit tremendously from the playing field that we’re on.

Q: As a serial entrepreneur, you’ve founded multiple businesses that are tech-reliant. From to Relatia Networks, and everything in between, have you discovered any routine tips or best practices you follow for starting a tech presence?

A: Yes. People used to really plan out ventures carefully. I think we live in a day and age where we can be more fluid. Even if not articulated, it’s okay to play and start trying to build. A lot of businesses are shaped by customers.

Twitter is a great example. They kind of had an idea of how people would use Twitter, but they put it out there for people to play with. They got the idea of hashtags from users -- they didn’t come up with it themselves. They started listening and applying, having two-way conversations with its user base. If you try to create something and it doesn’t get traffic, it’s okay to put an ear to the ground and hear how people are using your product, then change the product and keep going until its something that catches on. It’s okay to fail.

It’s also very easy to have analysis paralysis and to overthink something. It’s more important to ask and move forward than to make things perfect. Get your idea out there; let it be shaped by your experience. You can try to predict but unless you put something out there and see how people react to it, you’ll never know. People need to get out that idea that you can plan everything before it’s out there.

Q: Of the roughly 294 billion emails sent per day, about 90% are spam or viruses. How much of that 90% do you think is due to a lack of modern marketing understanding versus a lack of understanding of how email technologies have evolved?

A: Here’s the dilemma of the world we live in: As it becomes easier to communicate, you need to be able to cut through the data to create something meaningful. One thing that people need to understand in a world of a billion emails a day is how to craft a message that gets read among chatter. You need to figure out how make your message stand out among the rest.

We have so many mediums to communicate (Instagram, Pinterest, texts, etc.) but that’s a lot for people to sort though. People don’t have that much time. We have to get back to the art of communication, the art of crafting a message that resonates with someone. Unless we learn that art, we’ll be lost in a sea of data.

Q: Nearly 80% of companies have reported saying they are not incorporating technology or adjusting their marketing practices for technology. What do you see as major hurdles preventing companies from taking advantage of new technologies that have become available?

A: People are still very scared of the medium. In the last 20 years, we’ve had such a dramatic shift in how things are done. Entire industries have been eliminated. I used to be a civil engineer, and that industry had a big shift from hand drawn work to computer-based work. People who couldn’t handle that transition ... you could see fear on their faces. They were being written out of history. Very few generations in history have been asked to change so radically in such a short period of time. If you asked me tomorrow to give up email, I’d probably react the same way. But we have to embrace this change because technology is moving so fast, and if we don’t keep up we’re going to miss out on the benefits.

Q: The average consumer is exposed to somewhere between 247 and 5,000 marketing messages every day. Do you think marketing technologies can help businesses stand out among all the noise?

A: This is where creativity comes into play, and it’s interesting because people think of technology as a very binary thing. I want people to get out of that mindset. Technology isn’t about getting training on a tool and using it to market yourself. It’s about enabling yourself to be more creative.

I’m so excited about what technology is giving us -- not because it allows us to project ourselves in numerical ways, but because it opens up the possibility to do more. But this is not what we’re used to doing. We’re not used to marketing this way. Companies used to put a message on a billboard and guess on how we interpreted it, guess on the effectiveness of it.

Now, we put our message out there through technology and we can micro-target -- we can tie a marketing message to an actual purchase. That is amazing. Powerful. Companies should embrace everything technology has. They should bring in creative minds, bring in techno geeks with spreadsheets, put them in a room together, and see them do really amazing things.

Q: Thank you for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Yes, there’s a lot of hype around new and old marketing. It’s okay to be excited, but take a good look at it, and separate noise from substance. There’s a lot of great substance out there. It’s important to know that marketing is becoming central to business. Marketing can be the difference between existing and not existing. Older companies are living because of established brand identities. Treat marketing just as importantly as you do the product or service.

While this discussion provides great expert insight, be sure to read the data insights revealed recently in our insights report appropriately titled Why is Marketing Technology So Hard? In this quick report, we will not only walk you through identifying the major tech challenges in marketing right now, but also address the best solutions for overcoming them.

Image credit: Abdi Photographie

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In this quick report, we will not only walk you through identifying the major tech challenges in marketing right now, but also address the best solutions for overcoming them.

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