Before you let an algorithm digitise and automate it, ask what would a human do?

Humans like vinyl records because they use natural wavy vibrations at intimate and delicate frequencies that your whole body picks up, and reacts to, in primal and inexplicable ways.


Digital recordings are compressed in to binary data — bejillions of angular ones and zeros — that not only crush the fragile vibes but also leave no room for the pure heart and soul of the music. iPods are awesome but the crackle and whump of dropping a needle on a record beats the click-wheel every time. Which, as any fule kno, is why specialist vinyl record stores are thriving while HMV has died.

We don’t expect full AI apps yet, but the holy grail of every digital tool is to be able to mimic and better the natural equivalent and it’s uncanny how good they’re getting. At a conferencey-thing today, I was made to feel very far from the bleeding edge and way behind the leaders (a marketer’s mortal fear) because I wasn't planning to use automated marketing apps. I am a huge fan of digital innovation and like to think of myself as a social media maven, but often it feels like naturally human and personal communications are being crushed by their digital replacements.

I was sitting with some good friends the other day talking about the onslaught of ads on Facebook’s mobile app. “Look” I said to Katie waving my phone at her, “it says here you recommend Hotels.com to me.” “No I don’t. I’ve never used them,” she said nonplussed. An algorithm chose her to flog me holidays. A human, looking at our many neighbourly interactions wouldn't have risked the fib. It would have been clear that we would have rumbled the deceit.

Last week I got a hand-written letter in the post asking for a small assistance from my company. I was charmed and replied ‘yes, of course we can. Do you need anything more?’ A human had inked a bit of soul on to a nice-feeling bit of Conqueror — it was analogue and tactile and the thick paper quivered in my hand.

At the other extreme: I got a tweet linked to a blog post about content marketing, cloyingly begging for feedback and comment, on Christmas day. Both tweet and post may have been written by a human but they weren’t really about anything more than cheap SEO and were posted by an ill-timed app that killed any credibility the author may have had. A festive unfollow.

My company is a business IT supplier with a powerful e-commerce website that turns over tens of millions, but last year we grew over 70% in the direct sales part of the business. That’s the bit where ambitious sales humans call put-upon IT managing humans and together they banter and haggle and bitch and moan and share stories of goals, stroppy wives, fast cars, missing shipments, excellent service and deals are done. The sales team use digital tools like email, IM, social media and website monitoring to oil the wheels of commerce and to fan the flames, but the real deals are cut between people. Mano y mano.

We send prospects shiny brochures printed on quality paper, in the post, partly because to throw them away you have to hold them first. And partly because in that moment you might just feel the heft and sheen and realise that a human made a decision to try and tell you a personal story of quality and care and hopefully you’ll remember the logo. Maybe you’ll flick through it and even if you don’t read the stories, you’ll catch the headlines with words like ‘support, trust, quality and value’ and before it hits the trash you’ll have noticed that there are no pictures of gleaming shiny products — just pictures of people making them. And people helping people.

Less than 20% of our workforce actually makes our products, all the other 80% in some way look after the customers — the humans. And of course most of those humans prefer the waves of a voice, the wobbles of handwriting and the vibes of music. In our rush to use these wonderful, empowering, globe-straddling digital tools it helps to remember that.