Digital Nomads and Context-Driven Marketing

Richard Yao
Jan 28 · 8 min read

What brands need to know in order to effectively reach this rising high-value audience segment

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A hotel in Aruba has created outdoor workstations for digital nomads. Credit: Boardwalk Boutique Hotel Aruba

As we dissected in our brand new 2021 Outlook report, the accelerated shift towards remote work is giving rise to a new class of digital nomads and forcing many knowledge workers to reckon with a broken sense of time and location in everyday life. As more people embrace a telecommuter lifestyle and blend it with extended travel, new challenges arise for brands seeking to reach them, particularly around the increasingly fluid user identity across channels, which calls for a pivot from an identity-based marketing approach to a context-driven one.

The Incoming Class of Part-Time Digital Nomads

Now that we’re nearly a year into the pandemic, it seems safe to say that remote work is here to stay, and that some people may never return to an office on a regular basis ever again. Embracing the nascent Anyware Economy, a new class of digital nomads, people who choose to blend extended travel with remote work, is going to pop up later this year as the vaccines become widely distributed.

According to a recent Expedia survey, 57% of global travelers said they would be comfortable traveling if a vaccine is widely available; one in two travelers feel optimistic about taking a trip in the next 12 months. When this pent-up wanderlust is unleashed, people won’t be satisfied with short vacations and road trips. Instead, longer, hybrid work vacations, where people go somewhere to live for a month or two, will be in fashion.

Longer work vacations, where people go somewhere to live for a month or two, will be in fashion.

Digital nomads are not an entirely new concept, but it is one of the many developments that are being pushed into the mainstream spotlight by the pandemic. More than 10 million traditional and independent workers in the U.S. have combined remote work and travel, according to a survey MBO published in October 2020. Top destinations for digital nomads included exotic Southeast Asian locales such as Bali, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai, as well as picturesque yet cost-effective European cities such as Lisbon, Barcelona, and Prague.

Compared to the pre-Covid group of remote work pioneers, this incoming class of digital nomads will be different. They will likely start small, with extended work holidays rather than going full-on nomads with no homebase. They may be more modest in terms of their globe-trotting ambitions, choosing to try out second-tier cities and quaint beach towns over the kind of world-renowned exotic locales that their predecessors gravitated towards. Also, they will be more representative of the overall office workforce, instead of being concentrated among the creative and tech fields that allowed for remote work before the pandemic.

Various countries, especially those with tourism-dependent economies, are getting ready to capitalize on this trend. Europe’s first digital nomad village is set to open in February. Built on Madeira, a remote Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, the village can host 100 people at a time, who will be required to stay for at least a month per visit. Meanwhile, a hotel in Aruba is offering workstations on the beach for remote workers, and countries like Estonia, Georgia, and Bermuda are issuing special “remote work visas” to lure the newly mobile workforce.

Besides visas, antiqued tax codes that tie employment with residency remain another big barrier for people to embrace remote work. By and large, existing tax laws Americans owe income taxes where they work, but this fundamental assumption of the U.S. tax law is currently being challenged by a case that has reached the supreme court. If the ruling comes down in favor of a tax code reform, we could see a further boost to the shift towards remote work.

As we noted in our Outlook, this trend is the culmination of Democratized Creativity and Digital Culture — a new creative class that has permanently blended their work and their social lives. It is important to remember that this new class of part-time digital nomad will be much larger in numbers and far more mainstream than their pre-COVID forbearers. As this group of knowledge workers, which overlaps heavily with the high-value audience segments for many brands, it is important to consider how this shift in lifestyle may impact marketing strategies and brand messaging.

Digital nomads overlap heavily with the high-value audience segments for many brands.

Remaking Social Context Online

Work is a social environment. The office used to provide a shared social context for everyone that enters. One big problem with blending work with travel is that it further breaks down the kind of location-based social contexts we used to enjoy, however unaware of the benefits they provided.

As we have learned in 2020, one of the biggest challenges in adapting to working from home is to set boundaries between where you work and where you live, especially for those with limited living space. The office used to provide the perfect contexts for work, but now anywhere with a strong WiFi connection can double as an office. Yet, they are often devoid of all the professional and social contexts that an office naturally affords. We may join the work conferences at the desk, but FaceTime friends and family from the coach or the dining room table. Once the camera is off, we are left alone, thrown back into our own domestic contexts of family, roommates, or solitude.

Many fought to recreate the social context at work online, opting to recapture the spontaneity of a random discussion or water-cooler exchanges on Microsoft Teams or Slack. But the flexibility offered by working from home also means that there is a higher level of asynchronicity among co-workers, each with their own daily schedules and reacting to different stimulants in their homes. And without a shared context, the attempts at spontaneous discussions often come off as unwelcome as a spam text. And a digital nomad lifestyle, especially one that works across time zones, will only further contribute to the deterioration of shared contexts.

Without a shared context, the attempts at spontaneous discussions often come off as unwelcome as a spam text.

So instead of fighting it, the right path may be to simply embrace the asynchronous nature of remote work and reinvent a new kind of social context that takes this new lifestyle into account. As contexts become decoupled from time and location, shared goals and interests are what’s left to bind a social group together. Reinventing the social contexts for the incoming digital nomads will rely more on private chat groups based on projects rather than mandatory virtual happy hours.

The leisure part of the digital nomad lifestyle also offers intriguing opportunities to rethink social contexts. A crucial part of its appeal is the chance to immerse oneself in the local social scenes when off the clock. Still, keeping up friends and family back home matters, so the same way that many have kept up their personal connections over the past year, be it via FaceTime, co-viewing, or hanging out in MMO games like Fortnite, will still play a huge part. From here on, the social contexts will only become more platform-dependent, rather than locations, as we learn to navigate and switch between contexts. As a result, our digital identities are becoming more fluid, showing different facets on different platforms that each came with their own social contexts.

the social contexts will only become more platform-dependent, rather than locations, as we learn to navigate and switch between contexts.

Brands Need to “Read the Room”

As we noted in the last section of our Outlook devoted to the reinvention of social contexts:

As we move into this next phase of the internet, and both governmental and individual scrutiny of privacy practices increases, this Reinvention of Social Context will only help brands and advertisers, as we’re able to use data about the context — rather than the individual — to target our messaging. User behavior has provided a solution to the looming problem of data privacy.

In some ways, this will be a return to media practices of the analog world, buying adjacency in magazines and television shows. But now it will be supercharged by the scale of the internet, allowing us to programmatically find the right subreddit or Twitch stream where a well-defined message will be not only well received, but welcome.

Tying this back to the rise of digital nomads, brands need to prepare by getting the contexts right. Location and time are no longer the only defining factors in determining the context, and brands will have to learn to “read the room” before they barge into any digital channels with their messaging. Just because someone is taking a work holiday in Hawaii does not necessarily mean they are thinking about surfing and going to the beach every day. Targeting digital nomads on a work holiday requires a delicate balance, reading their behavioral cues for a better understanding of whether they are in work mode or leisure mode.

Some channels are fairly single-purpose and therefore are easier to execute channel-based targeting. For example, local restaurants catch digital nomad consumers in leisure mode via platforms like Google Maps and food-ordering apps, whereas a productivity software brand can reach them via the work-related newsletters to which they may subscribe. Some channels like TV and social media, on the other hand, tend to be multifaceted, and therefore require a more nuanced approach. Are they trying to catch up on news or chatting with friends? Are they browsing a subreddit on surfing or parenting advice? When trying to reach this highly digital-savvy group of consumers, being considerate of the digital context they are in is the key to engaging them and earning their trust.

What’s Next

While in the short-run, this new class of digital nomads will mostly consist of knowledge workers who previously worked in offices, this blurring of boundaries between work and personal contexts is coming to the desk-less workers too. Again, as we noted in the Outlook:

The 2020’s will also see an increased focus on technology for desk-less workers, an underserved market who make up the vast majority of the global workforce… By mid-decade, we can expect similar advances to come to factory floors and farms, as well, as the cost to deploy commodity smartphones drop below the benefits of digital communication within these enterprises.

We’ll also see advances in wearable devices for workers who are constantly using their hands — things like AirPods for voice services and communications, and glasses for heads-up displays with instructions and reference materials.

This means that the same context-driven approach will become even more important for brands to reach a wider audience via wearables, be it audio or visual, whose functions are already heavily dependent on contexts. To future-proof marketing strategy on these emerging marketing channels, brands need to start adding context-driven audience targeting to their arsenal and figure out the best practices on existing digital channels today.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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