The Future of Digital Communication: In Conversation with Polly Hammond
Since the introduction of the Internet, digital communication has evolved rapidly from how we interact with colleagues to how we engage with clients and prospects. These technological advances have changed the way we exchange information, express our ideas or do business.
How has digital communications transformed the world of fine wine? How will they continue to shape our ecosystem? And if everything digital must be powered by energy use and mined materials, how sustainable is the digital world — and is this question something that wineries should be worried about?
To answer all these questions and more, ARENI spoke to Polly Hammond, the founder and director of digital marketing agency 5forests, who consults, writes, and speaks about the trends that impact todays lifestyle businesses. She’s is also on the ARENI Advisory Board.
I want you to take a minute to actually define digital communication. That’s a very broad term. But what is it?
At its most simplistic, digital communications are anything that we transmit via the Internet or through our phones. It’s specifically the method of transmission that I define as digital. It’s literally WhatsApp, it’s Facebook and Instagram, and all of our social media. It’s email, it’s email marketing, it’s internal communications. It’s our productivity boards, it’s Slack channels, It’s Zoom. It is literally any way that we communicate through this whole network of cables and data centres all over the world.
When it comes to digital communication, it seems that everything is data. What does data look like?
I can best couch it in terms of travelling. We’ll take long haul flights, we’ll take short hops, we’ll take trains, we’ll get from where we are now to where we need to be and back again.
When we go into our phone or our internet, we load a website, and that request has to follow a pathway of short and long-haul transmissions across data centres and servers until it gets to the server where the information is housed. That server then responds by transmitting that data back to us on our device.
We have cables that run all over the world that are transmitting this data through fiber optics. From where I sit right now in Barcelona to something that I’m looking up in South Africa or New Zealand or Iceland, that data has to travel from me to the server, the data centre, where that information lives, and then back to me via this whole network of connections.
That information is broken down into packets. It’s like you’re cutting up the pieces of a puzzle and putting it into little envelopes that it can fit into. And then sending little envelopes with all of the embedded information that then helps it recompile in my device.
But the file weight has significance. How long it needs, how long it takes to get to us, how long it takes to present, and what the implications of transmitting that big packet of data may be.
When you visualize those big pipelines that we have to build, all the resources that it takes, and then all the resources that it takes to make those centres work, for sure there’s a huge environmental and energy cost.
It’s gigantic. If the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest consumer of electricity on the planet. It’s huge.
If the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest consumer of electricity on the planet.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
Can we measure the environmental cost of digital communication?
Absolutely. We can measure it in a sort of a global sense—what specific industries cost, what specific channels costs. What does a single business use? What does a single campaign use? All of it is measurable.
There are there are several parts of the system that we need to account for. Our devices are enormous in the context of carbon footprint. There are some statistics that say that it takes ten years of use to equal the carbon footprint of production for your smartphone.
And remember that that takes mining of rare earths in order to produce those, and that can lead to deforestation, that can produce toxic waste. There is a very clear manufacturing cost to the devices that drive digital communication. There’s actually one piece of research by the European Environmental Bureau that calculates that extending the use of electronic devices by one year would save the EU as many carbon emissions as taking two million cars off the road.
Extending the use of electronic devices by one year would save the EU as many carbon emissions as taking two million cars off the road.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
I know that many wineries are building very sustainability strategies with loads of initiatives in the vneyard and winery. But I have never really heard anyone communicate about the fact that they’ve also measured the impact that they have when communicating.
To be fair, it’s a tiny little cohort of designers and developers who are talking about this. And the reason for that is when we actively work with this, we see firsthand the implication. It’s not something that on an individual level feels big, but collectively it’s enormous.
Just to run through some statistics: digital technologies [will] represent almost 8% of greenhouse gases by 2030, and they estimate that it will represent almost 14% of greenhouse gases by 2040. Now, by comparison, right now we’re at 2% of global carbon emissions for data centres. That’s about the same as airlines.
This is growing. It’s insidious. I’m not trying to demonize it, but I am trying to say that this is something that every time we engage with digital communications, we are contributing in some form or fashion to this.
Digital technologies [will] represent almost 8% of greenhouse gases by 2030, and they estimate that it will represent almost 14% of greenhouse gases by 2040. […] This is growing. It’s insidious. I’m not trying to demonize it, but I am trying to say that this is something that every time we engage with digital communications, we are contributing in some form or fashion to this.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
Data centres are probably one of the worst offenders. I’m not trying to make it out to be something terrible. Obviously, using data, using Zoom, using email, using videos are better than having a thousand people fly to our wineries every year. Right? But because there’s a lack of understanding around how we use digital, what we have is an overconsumption. For anyone who is trying to mitigate their own carbon footprint, this is a very low effort change that collectively leads to a very high impact.
Putting a photo on Instagram — do we know how much it costs terms of energy?
If you consider it as supply and demand, putting the photo is actually the least carbon footprint you’re going to experience on Instagram. Doom-scrolling is the worst. That’s not even an action, that’s just passively lying in bed, you know, at 8:30 in the morning.
Because your phone has to download every photo. What are the fastest growing segments within digital communications that you can see in terms of volume of data?
Videos actually. So, think about videos — our own uploading of videos, YouTube, Netflix, every streaming service that we experience, reels, shorts… as a marketer, I love video. I am by no means saying don’t roll with video. But if we’re talking about what is driving data usage right now, 100% it’s videos.
But there are some non-obvious ones that have really changed in the past three years. The first one is organizational communications, inter-organisational communications: Zoom, Slack, etc…
What are the other main challenges that digital communication is facing in general?
Funnily enough, it’s not technology. I think that one of the biggest issues that we deal with is, [first], there remains a lack of understanding or perhaps incorrect expectation of what digital is and what digital can do and how it works. The entire thing feels like magic, right? If you’re not sitting around working in it every day.
I think that one of the biggest issues that we deal with is, [first], there remains a lack of understanding or perhaps incorrect expectation of what digital is and what digital can do and how it works. The entire thing feels like magic, right? If you’re not sitting around working in it every day.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
There’s this this lack of understanding of what works, how it works, and how we know it works.
It also feels cheap and free and easy. It feels fast. We’re all slaves to an algorithm. Oh, well, this week Instagram likes reels, but then nope, they don’t like video anymore…now they’re focusing on carousels. But LinkedIn really loves it when you create these 25 PDFs. That leads to a short termism really, like chasing the shiny new toy. On the flip side of that, is some organizations can struggle to adapt, right? So how do we balance digital versus everything else that we know is communication?
There’s the perception of low cost and easiness. This has meant there’s a lot of bad information out there. There are a lot of cheap and dirty options.
It is like everyone at home should be able to be a master of digital communications. That leads to things like the marketers that I deal with, who are exhausted because they are trying to do good work, but maybe the leadership team has no idea of what actually goes into what they do. Or they don’t get proper training, or they don’t get good support.
That’s one side of the fence. But on the other side, the side of the recipient, attention span is changing.
Do you know what? That’s not actually true.
One of the glorious benefits of digital is that each subsequent generation is the most well-read generation ever. We are consuming valuable content, nonstop. I can go online and I can read every newspaper in the world, in every language in the world. There’s no proof of that reduced attention span. Long form content wins across every single channel.
One of the glorious benefits of digital is that each subsequent generation is the most well-read generation ever. We are consuming valuable content, nonstop. […] There’s no proof of that reduced attention span. Long form content wins across every single channel.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
We have to talk about privacy laws. Because building a digital communications strategy also happens within a legal framework, and that’s also something that we might not be conscious of.
One of the most important things that we can do — and this veers from sustainability, but it’s so vital — is pay attention to what is coming for us. So, something like the California Consumer Privacy Act that might only for a time apply to brands who have $25 million in annual revenue or higher.
And this is where the consumer comes in. How does it change what I as a consumer think my rights are? Because if all of the major players in an industry, all of the big brands that I deal with every day are, by regulation, being forced to respect my rights, well, guess what? I don’t care if you’re under the $25 million cutoff, I expect you to respect my rights, too.
This is part of that short termism that I talked about; that lack of strategic approach means that we’re very reactive in digital communications and digital platforms and digital transformation. And that means that there’s always this beautiful window of opportunity for anyone, big or small, who is watching what’s going on. And they’re saying, how can I use digital to either deliver or to communicate something better than my competition is doing?
So, we’ve got data privacy. Ethical brands and ethical marketers have actually loved this. What data privacy has led to are changes in metrics and reporting. This leads to leadership adoption, communication, customer personas, journeys, the whole thing.
If we can no longer access the kind of information that we used to be able to get about our consumers because now there’s increased privacy, how do we as brands target segments, personalize, derive content, produce, whatever it might be? How do we make the meaningful decisions about when, where and how we deliver the content? And that’s where it ties in to sustainability.
But then also, I can’t not mention things like, you know, accessibility.
You’ve said to me that social media was dying, or it was slowing down.
There are a few things. First, generational adoption of social media is changing. That’s just sheer numbers. We know that. Second, there’s a lot more competition for our time and space in our mind. I think everyone I know has their own favorite social media.
Then we also have things like Twitter and Elon Musk and all of that. But, more importantly, there was a period of time and I hope that it’s waning where businesses used social media like they would use their owned media. By owned media I mean, your website, your blog. When we put all of our eggs in the Facebook basket and we’re running our entire business through Facebook groups and Facebook feeds and Facebook post and Facebook changes, we are giving our most important assets to someone else.
Here’s an example, and this is specific to wine. When March 2020 hit, we were spending a lot of time on the phone with wine brands and wine brands were saying to us, “Oh my God, what do we do? How do we solve this?”
The number of brands who had forgone building their own email databases because they were using something like Facebook or Instagram for communication was just startling to me. Because remember that we don’t own the records, the followers, the assets that sit on those platforms. And I think that we’ve seen a real move back toward blogging, which is fabulous,
Online content on our own platforms that we control and that we can track and that we can measure.
My wonderful 20 year old children, they don’t care about Facebook and they honestly are not that interested in social media. They love TikTok — TikTok numbers are one of the highest carbon footprints on the Internet. And they also read blogs.
How do you regard fine wines [and] digital communications?
Like so many things in wine, what we actually have is we have two very distinct bands. We have wine-with-money and wine-without-money. Wine brands with money have dominated the digital space and have kind of set the anchor for what we think, or what many brands think they need to be doing in order to achieve.
We have wine-with-money and wine-without-money. Wine brands with money have dominated the digital space and have kind of set the anchor for what we think, or what many brands think they need to be doing in order to achieve.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
And this is where fine content achieve fineness, right? We had some pretty hardcore early anchoring and I think that we are entrenched in some of that belief because we look to them and maybe don’t look outside of that circle and say, okay, well what are other tangential industries doing with their digital communications? So that’s the first one.
I have had many conversations, notably with French people that would argue that you can taste money in wine.
Oh, heck yeah.
I get brands coming to us all the time with this notion of building — and this is not just in wine, you know — “I’m building a luxury brand”, and their perception of what is luxury is interestingly not consumer driven. It’s not driven by the real needs of the luxury customer right now. And this is why I say this is a challenge, [because] we’ve got this anchoring.
The wine-without-money category is often, ‘we don’t have the internal resources, we don’t have the knowledge skills, we don’t have the people, we don’t have time, whatever it is, we’re trying to solve problems as efficiently as possible’. And sometimes that means that we jump over really big important steps.
How in the context of digital communication, how do you establish excellence — how do you become the best in your category?
I love this question because I think that what we think works and what really works are a little bit at odds with one another. If you look at wine-adjacent industries — fashion, beauty — what they’ve done [is] they’ve cut to the chase. They’ve made things very fast to get exactly where you need to be.
But if you go into a lot of winery websites and you scroll across their top menu, you just have scads and scads and scads of pages, right?
What luxury brands have done is they’ve made it very, very simple for you to get exactly what you need in the least amount of time possible.
What luxury brands have done is they’ve made it very, very simple for you to get exactly what you need in the least amount of time possible.Polly Hammond, Founder, 5Forests
The other thing that they’ve done that I do not see wine brands doing is deep personalization. Target. Segment. Personalize. That is one of the beautiful things that digital can do: deliver the content that matters to that person.
Is there any visual or language element? Do you need to have golden stuff on the site?
If you’re trying to demonstrate that you have high quality in everything that you’re in, high quality in your product, right, and you’re not serving high quality in everything else, there’s an inherent discomfort.
A great example of that are sites that don’t work on phones. And you’re looking at it and you’re like, wow, you make like a super premium wine, and you’re trying to get me to pay this amount of money and you can’t make your maps work. On top of that, things need to be consistent across all of your channels.
It means don’t use cheap fonts on your website. That is such a marker of sameness; using the same free stuff that everyone else is using. Don’t use the same stock photography that everybody else is using.
How do we make that environmentally and socially sustainable as well?
Are we just churning out content through social media, blogs, videos, whatever it might be? Not great quality, because we have a belief that it’s cheap, free and easy. Once we realize that actually every one of these items that we transmit has a significant cost, that gives us a greater internal drive to actually do the thing that’s most important, which is meaningful, mindful communication.
That’s what’s going to drive effective metrics. Great content. Go for longform — less, but better.
Is there also in that in that sustainability question, is there anything related to tools?
There are definitely tools that you can use. We have just launched a new initiative for 2023 that’s called Earth First e-Commerce. It’s free audits. It is for anyone operating in e-commerce. E-commerce has some very specific challenges as opposed to static websites when it comes to becoming digitally sustainable.
You can Google carbon calculators of websites.
You can get renewable hosting for your Web site, entirely driven by renewable energy, which sounds really good. And we love it when it’s an option, but sometimes those servers are really far away from you. If I’ve got a client in South America and the closest renewable energy host that I have is in Europe, that’s actually a bad choice for them, because those packets have to travel really far and then travel back again.
So make certain that you’re hosting someplace that is either renewable, or that is close to your audience base. And don’t have too many fonts on your site! They take up space on the internet and they serve no good purpose.
I want people coming to me with sites that are low carbon footprint, that are built sustainably, that are delivered sustainably. That would make me so happy. Ask your agency, ask your in-house designers, have a conversation at the dinner table. Ask your teenagers if they know that doomscrolling on Instagram actually has a carbon footprint, and make it a topic of conversation, just like we talk about the airline industry.
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