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Inside the trillion-dollar selfie industrial complex

Mike Elgan | June 5, 2017
It's time to take selfies seriously. That front-facing camera is a doorway to the future of big business.

 

The selfie-driven experience economy

In his 1971 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler wrote that in the future people would spend a large percentage of their income on amazing experiences, to be provided by what he called an "experiential industry." Toffler's prediction came true; today we call it the "experience economy."

Even traditional businesses like movie theaters, hotels, retail stores, beverage companies and fashion brands are re-creating their products and services in a process called "experiencification."

To create "experiences," businesses must create "Instragrammable moments." It's important to not only enable customers to experience things, but to create photo opportunities that show them in that experience in the most positive way.

The picture is often more important than the experience.

I ate dinner Thursday night at that rooftop restaurant here in Marrakech. For a full hour, three young women sitting at the table next to us took selfies of themselves drinking, eating, hugging each other and smiling -- and they obsessed over their photos choosing the best ones, cropping, adding filters and so on. They were so focused on conveying to social media followers that they were having fun that they forgot to have fun.

Another recent example: We booked an overnight Berber-style camping experience in the Sahara. There were two options — the "regular" camp, and the newly created and more expensive "luxury" camp. The regular camp involved traditional camel-hair tents, which are cool, but look dull and lifeless in photos. The "luxury" camp had white plastic tents, which were inferior tents in every way but showed up dramatically better in photos against the dark orange sand.

Some of the "luxury" camp customers were wearing bright-red flowing Moroccan robes and Berber turbans (even though they were tourists from China) and spent hours on the dunes and in the camp posing for selfies.

The barefoot Berber owner of this camp (who started with nothing but two camels and a dream) understood this explicitly: He told me he could charge quadruple the price for a camp experience if the visuals were more instagrammable.

This behavior seems newish, but it really isn't. We all understand that people spend discretionary income on products that enhance, define and assert identity. That's why consumers spend more for a certain brand of car, purse, clothing or even smartphone. They're telling the world: This is who I am.

Selfies posted on social media express "self" even better than products do. But to get the best selfies, you have to spend on restaurants, vacations and other experiences that enable pictures to show the consumer in the best possible light capturing special moments in beautiful places. Understanding this shift of self expression from brand association to social photography is a major key to how innovative marketing is succeeding.

 

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