“This wise old man, he never spoke, because he believed that language deceived. By its very nature it clouded the truth... he believed that the truth lived only in silence. He communicated by other means. The food he prepared from his garden conveyed his affections, gratitude, indifference, far better than any words could convey. It was said this wise old man could change minds in that way. He could soften the hardest of hearts, without ever saying one word.”
-Portrayed by Jeff Bridges on The Old Man

Over the last six months we’ve seen a lot of headlines about the future of work:

The future of work conversation is relevant to commerce because, in many ways, as it exists today, eCommerce is an asynchronous modality. In the same way that we can work remotely across time and space without going to an office, customers can buy products across time and space without real-time, in-person interaction.

We see a similar debate in our industry about how commerce will function, with many recent bets made that the recent explosion of eCommerce would be sticky, persist, and even grow from peak pandemic levels. That proved to be untrue (Phillip called it last year: “for the next few months, be wary of the data your year-on-year reports are telling you”). We’re seeing the repercussions of these beliefs at this very moment, with improperly deployed capital being reexamined, and cuts being made. Eerily, this feels like the most layoffs I’ve seen in my field of work since the GFC of 2008.

It struck me a few months ago: we aren’t considering the why.

The reasons for this mayhem are a laser focus on circumstances (i.e. current context) and a subconscious misunderstanding of the reasons behind the growth rate of our industry. The limiting factor of growth in eCommerce is not the adoption of technology, as often purported. That was proven this year: the adoption of technology occurred at unprecedented levels during the pandemic, yet contracted this year as the threat of the pandemic waned. 

Ecommerce is governed and grows in concert with our ability to effectively communicate with our customers - whether it be new technology channels or old. The idea of purely asynchronous purchasing as an infinite growth lever is flawed because communication through our two communication levers—pixels and the written word—is inherently limited. The winners in our industry will move beyond digital channels and employ more diverse and effective communication strategies. (Note: This assumes you have a good product to begin with).

The Limitations of Language

Language by nature is limited. Language in a silo as a communication modality is such a challenge that the philosopher (often considered the most influential of the 20th century) Ludwig Wittgenstein spent his whole life attempting to address the complexity of language. His views evolved throughout different periods of his life and commentators have had to break down his phases into early, middle, and late (or maybe not… there are a lot of viewpoints on this and what he was saying in general). 

His early viewpoint, as described in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was that language was insufficient for expressing many things (and there are many interpretations of this view). During his middle period, he ventured into phenomenology. His late period focused on how language had the potential to be valuable for people entering into already established language constructs from their individually contextualized experiences and personal constructs based on these experiences (this is 100% oversimplification of a certain take on Wittgenstein).

In short, Wittgenstein recognized that language is more than just a one-to-one representation of objects, actions, descriptions, etc. Language is an active representation of our lives and experiences. As a result, language is inherently limited, sometimes to the point of being utterly useless and usually difficult to realize any value from unless you are able to use it well, and more importantly not in a vacuum. He coined these limitations as language games. These language games are our unique contexts, practices, and cultures in which our words actually have meaning. These limitations point to using other communication methods in conjunction with language. Language games rely on the context which bleeds over from other language games.

Why does this matter? Potential customers are often engaged in a different set of language games than the ones proposed by the brand. 

In a sense, digital-only brands are a series of language-games set around products. They can appear to be the same, but some combinations of product, purpose, use, meaning, etc, are different. In fact, brands do this on purpose—we literally call it differentiation. 

Digital brands that differentiate have the task of having to re-educate their potential customers and then engage them in their limited construct.

Language Fails Without Context

The education a brand must provide is hard in a digital-only setting because language games break down without proper context—the context that is derived from other forms of communication and engagement. This February, Jennifer Senior published an article in the Atlantic titled, “It’s Your Friends That Break Your Heart. As a key point of illustration, she documents the sad story of two brilliant writers, Elsa Albert and Rebecca Wolff, who struck up a friendship after they met in person but then continued the friendship mostly via correspondence. Or in other words, they became penpals. They intended to publish their exchanges. It was a relationship of glorious depth, but it devolved over time and flamed out hard at the end.

As Jennifer muses on the demise of the relationship, she reflects on her own friendships.

“It’s that last one where I’m always falling down. Keeping up contact, ideally embodied contact, though even semi-embodied contact—by voice, over the phone—would probably suffice. Only when reading Elisa and Rebecca in atom-splitting meltdown did I realize just how crucial this habit is. The two women had become theoretical to each other, the sum only of their ideas; their friendship had migrated almost exclusively to the page… Elisa and Rebecca were creating the conditions of a pandemic before there even was one. Had anyone read The Wellness Letters in 2019, they could have served as a cautionary tale.”

Even the most “compatible” of friends who start out on the right foot will likely encounter faults and folly when the relationship—even an engaged relationship—remains contained to words.

The more deeply you know “of” something than actually have a relationship with that thing the more likely you are to hate it. Things are flawed, so relationships are necessary for the world to function.

I think of my own relationships with others in the industry. Perhaps this is true for many of you as well: my relationships in the commerce community greatly accelerated upon engaging in person at my first conference (apparently I’m old, so that would be Magento Imagine, which is where I met Phillip!). I’ve worked remotely for the better part of the past seven years and when the pandemic hit it hurt me too—the conferences and in-person visits made remote work viable, effective, and fulfilling but suddenly they were gone.

Moving from words, images, and emojis to in-person fundamentally changes the nature of a relationship. So much new information is revealed and often we understand the prior communication in a new way.

Think about meeting a Twitter friend for the first time in person. I’ve experienced it, and I’ve watched it happen. It’s joyous and heartwarming, and often takes the relationship to a new level. Or another angle: Phillip recently met a critic in person and it changed his whole outlook on that person, who expressed his respect and admiration for Phillip’s viewpoint. It changed the nature of Phillip’s understanding of the criticism and allowed him to accept and appreciate their exchanges in a new way. 

Real-time, in-person interaction allows the senses to be engaged—things that are hard to get elsewhere—body language, scent, audio tones often lost over the internet or phone, etc. Asynchronous communication on the other hand is open to interpretation. Think about other famous async communications such as ruling documents and laws. These have to be interpreted by judges, leading to all kinds of views on how to interpret. Think originalism vs living documents, let alone individual biases, specific contexts, and particular applications.

In the same way, images, while often more effective are also limited. Especially when it comes to purchasing, we can see that images in a silo can lead to misaligned expectations, resulting in returns, a lack of repurchasing, and scathing reviews.

When we leave our exchanges to words and pixels, we’re dealing—as Jennifer Senior hinted at—with the theoretical, or in other words the fictional, because they’re missing so much of the information that words and pixels are missing. Halfway truths are lies. Halfway PDPs - the same. Even the most comprehensive, truthful PDP in the world is a narrative. And that narrative will be absorbed through different lenses. People have unique interpretations when receiving asynchronous communication. 

eCommerce as Fiction

In a sense, if you’re online-only, you’re limited to a channel that can’t ever tell the whole truth about your brand and products. You’re communicating limited information through a limited means of communication, rendering your brand a fiction.

Fiction is cheap and forgettable in the hands of amateurs. Same for your brand’s narrative.

The more asynchronous your customer interactions, the more adept you need to be at representing yourself. Another way of saying it: if you’re frequently updating your content, being responsive to customer interactions (whether it be social or elsewhere), doing events, generally engaging your community, etc, you have the latitude to invest less in the narrative. But if you’re responding less often on social, spacing out new product drops, infrequently updating marketing and copy updates, etc, etc, you’re going to need to invest more in narrative-driven resources.  

In addition, if you’re digital-only, your customers are as good as fiction to you. Their communications to you also fall into the realm of insufficient because you’ve given them limited channels to engage with you. Their ability to use those channels effectively is going to vary wildly (as I’m sure you’ve experienced). They have their own language games, and you don’t fully understand them.

Now we’re talking narratives upon narratives. One side of the story might not mesh with the other side. The main point of the narrative might differ. The heroes might exist in separate counterfactual modalities. These might be completely different stories with no intersection at all. Your leadership had better understand how stories work in order to distill the crux of what’s happening in the relationship, or it will break down fast.

Limitations don’t imply complete power deficiency - images and pixels wielded together as we do in eCom can be very effective (like, we’re a growing channel!). But they have to be well employed with skill. In August 2020, I wrote that Storytelling is Insufficient. One of my conclusions in this piece was that “those that rise to leadership roles will need to be artists.” 

I stand by this with a slight amendment. Leaders can’t just be posers pushing products through the facade of storytelling, but also can’t simply be artistic, they need to be skilled artists. Back to Wittgenstein—mastery is essential for language to be of use.

Mastery starts with the basics. Many retailers and brands still have a hard time publishing thorough product information. This is often due to a lack of properly constructed integrations between systems that contain this information, or correct inventory information, or shipping… yes the list of missing basics can be long. These are not consumer adoption problems. These are key pieces of information that are missing from the narrative, rendering it useless.

The need for more effective channels

Ultimately this investment in narrative-driven resources will fail without deeper engagement with the customer. Even Elsa Albert and Rebecca Wolff who were both very good writers couldn’t keep their narrative on track well enough to remain friends.

As Jennifer Senior put it, “It’s that last one where I’m always falling down. Keeping up contact, ideally embodied contact, though even semi-embodied contact—by voice, over the phone—would probably suffice. Only when reading Elisa and Rebecca in atom-splitting meltdown did I realize just how crucial this habit is.”

You need to create the context for your language games which could be as simple as:

  • Getting products on retail shelves and showrooms
  • Starting a live digital engagement channel
  • Offering sampling
  • Doing events
  • Engaging with customers via phone
  • Opening stores and equipping associates

These types of engagements allow for engagement beyond the limited construct of language. Taste, touch, smell, music, a handshake, tone of voice, body language… dare I say, vibe. These give meaning to our words and give us a shared context from which to communicate asynchronously. (Side note: Why do you think we call our newsletter The Senses? Our many words mean nothing without them).

A caution: if you look at these “channels” as bean counters do—simply as revenue centers to be honed for performance—you’re missing the point. YES you can and should sell through these channels, but there are a few other key outcomes:

  • If you are actively setting context for the market outside of digital, and digital is doing well, don’t discount the impact these channels are having on the success of that channel, even if they’re underperforming compared to digital.
  • If you have these channels and digital is performing badly, well duh, these are more effective ways to communicate with customers than digital.
  • If you don’t have these channels and digital is starting to flounder, perhaps consider that you’re missing a key, necessary way to communicate.
  • If you don’t have these channels and digital is still performant, you’ve probably done a good job fostering a compelling narrative with your customers. Either that or your product is off the charts (and channel literally doesn’t even matter, your main problem is likely production scale related). And maybe your leadership team will continue to run a top-flight narrative, but it’s almost always unsustainable—either something will get lost in translation or leadership will change.

You need a way to capture the context of the customers who are engaging with you. Interactions with in-store employees are typically a huge, missed opportunity. Notes could be logged, accounts could be updated. On that point, I’ll take a moment to criticize Costco: while Costco is so good at employing many of these context-setting channels, they could be doing more to capture the narrative back from customers. The free samples are a one-way communication method. Think of the opportunity that they have to learn from their customers. They could provide reaction and tasting data back to the brands, and also use this data to guide their customer experience.

In summary, sticking solely to a pixel-and-copy strategy will doom your customer relationships because relationship-building is nearly impossible through these limited mediums. 

And perhaps this whole article is an analogy for the future of work, setting up a language game unto itself. Yes, I believe asynchronous work (not just remote) will be a larger part of our future—especially as technology allows us to engage more of our whole selves and all our senses without the boundary of time (which is the true asynchronous differentiator). This means the investment will need to be made in team leaders that can quickly grasp multiple contexts and navigate the mediums available to communicate effectively. Bringing people together in a variety of communication mediums is key to success.