In a 21st-century buzzword tournament, “connect” would make the finals. It’s the de-facto relationship verb of digital life, and it seems to take on new meanings every year:

  • “We connected yesterday.”
  • “I’m losing connectivity.”
  • “Can we connect these software platforms?”
  • “Stay connected on the move!”
  • “Connect with us on Facebook.”
  • “It’s all about the connected devices.”
  • “We have to make one-to-one connections with our customers.”

You get the picture. Everyone and everything is connecting. But that doesn’t mean people feel connected or necessarily benefit from it. Why?

My colleagues and I at Widen, a digital asset management (DAM) provider, decided to investigate this. We surveyed 200 marketing, creative, and IT professionals about connectivity. We also conducted one-on-one interviews with 21 participants. In this blog, I’ll share key insights from our 2017 Connectivity Report and how it impacts marketing teams:

People Connect to Satisfy Human Needs

Our biological and social programming have made connectivity fundamental to life. Digital technology only feels “connective” insofar as it contributes to our relationships, abilities, accomplishments, and general wellbeing. However, digital connectivity can backfire.

“Collaboration,” a cornerstone of connectivity, is a good example. Business technologies flout their collaborative features all the time. Their formula is usually the same: We’ll connect your team; you can communicate with each other; ergo, you’ll be more collaborative…right?

Not necessarily, based on the results we found:

  • 53% of survey respondents say the best way to achieve a feeling of connection at work is by collaborating with co-workers.
  • 76% say that the most successful collaboration happens in person.
  • Not surprisingly, 62% of survey respondents want to maintain work connections in person.

So, a collaboration platform wouldn’t necessarily provide that feeling of connection that people seek through face-to-face collaboration. At the same time, we found some interesting results when we dug deeper:

  • Only 7% of participants feel that being connected means being part of a team or group.
  • And, only 8% feel being “connected” means being together in a physical space.

Yes, that seems contradictory. We have more tools and technologies at our disposal than ever before, and digital channels have paved the way for constant connectivity. Our technology says connectivity can happen anywhere, but our genes say we need to be together in physical spaces. Our language describes both of those interactions with the same word: connect (and its derivatives).

Culturally, we’re starting to accept meanings of connectivity that defy physical location. But we overwhelmingly experience the value of connectivity by being together. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were never alone–one-bedroom studio apartments and Netflix didn’t exist. For survival, they evolved to connect in person.

How Connectivity Impacts Marketing Teams

It’s common wisdom that marketing campaigns need to spark a connection. Great stories, photos, and videos speak to the collective human experience. But how can we expect that experience to emerge from teams that feel disconnected?

Meaningful, authentic relationships (both social and emotional) are the secret to making people smarter, happier, more productive, and more expressive. Marketing teams must cultivate connectivity before they can share it with their audiences. Sometimes, digital tools improve the quality of connection; other times, they degrade it.

Let’s take an example from Brad Grzesiak, CEO of the app development firm Bendyworks, who we interviewed for our research. He started sending employee engagement emails last year, then collated and posted the responses for everyone to see.

Each week, they sent three email questionnaires:

  1. One email is about what employees are doing to keep teams in sync.
  2. Another email is about the company (e.g. “Have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work because you thought someone might shoot it down?”) to encourage employees to voice concerns about the company and ideas they might not think to raise otherwise.
  3. The third email, sent on Fridays, is an ice-breaker style personal question (e.g. “What’s your earliest memory?” to start conversations that probably wouldn’t have happened among employees otherwise.

This is a good example of how email technology can improve access to information, ignite difficult conversations, and foster deep personal connections.

But doesn’t email often create the exact opposite result? Any given day, lengthy, cryptic emails invade our inbox. Extracting the useful information is almost as fun as reading an Apple user agreement. We also hesitate to bring up sensitive, difficult topics in emails because the margin for misunderstanding is so high. After work, we continue to check email incessantly rather than be present with friends and family (who might be staring at their own devices anyway).

Connective technologies are not “double-edged” swords. They’re swords with thousands of edges, some known, some misunderstood, and some to-be-discovered.

So let’s return to collaboration—the enigma that invited contradictory answers from our survey participants. In-person and digital collaboration aren’t mutually exclusive options. Teams need to think of them as complementary steps.

For, say, a content marketing manager, I’d recommend the following approach to collaboration:

  1. Ask your team to share prep work and background information before planned meetings.
  2. Brainstorm and talk about strategy in person during short, structured meetings.
  3. Continue to manage execution by phone, email, IM, Basecamp, Slack, etc.
  4. Hold a weekly standup or huddle at the same time every week for status updates.
  5. Conduct unscheduled check-ins to spend individual time with team members.

While this seems incredibly simple, it takes discipline. How often are meetings hijacked by sidebar conversation? Do you really spend equal one-on-one time with all your team members? Have you ever lost half your day to a brainstorming email thread gone rampant?

Connectivity is intrinsically valuable, but we can’t assume that all tools will contribute to it. That is a downfall of buzzwords–they can mislead us into believing that two things are the same when in fact they’re different.

So, to set the record straight: The most digitized team isn’t necessarily the most connected. “Digital connectivity” can be an oxymoron. Meaningful, personal relationships built on authentic engagement are the best markers of connectivity.

What other factors are critical to a marketing team’s success? Share your thoughts below!