Dear Mary,

It was thrilling being in the audience at Code two weeks ago to hear you present your 2016 Internet Trends Report which was, as expected, full of thought-provoking data and analysis about the state of the Internet and its impact on business.

When I wrote to you a few months back, my focus was on the mobile engagement crisis and the chasm between the pace of business innovation and consumers’ demands and expectations for mobile. While you didn’t address this explicitly in your presentation, as I listened I heard many other points which not only expanded my view of the engagement crisis – beyond just mobile – but also heightened the urgency to fix it. The big takeaway for businesses and brands: it’s all about the user, not the channel of engagement.

Here’s why:

“Easy growth is behind us.” The past two decades saw incredible growth with surging global adoption of digital and mobile. Business and communications have been forever disrupted. While the disruption and innovation continues, the days of easy growth are behind us. “New internet users are going to continue to be harder to find,” you told us. For businesses and brands, this means the competition to win, engage and retain users is going to be far more acute. Whether on mobile or web, the battle lines of engagement are drawn and the stakes are higher than ever.

“The re-imagination of communications.” You focused a great deal on how communications have fundamentally changed. We’ve moved from simple social conversations to more expressive interaction. From text to images, video and emojis, consumers not only expect, but prefer, to engage with businesses and brands via these new modes of engagement. Those companies that cannot keep pace will surely lose to those who can.

“Winning marketing must be hyper-targeted and personalized.” You gave examples of brands who are reimagining marketing successfully, like StitchFix who uses data and machine learning to provide, and optimize, each customer a differentiated, personalized experience. These are the kinds of engagements and experiences that are setting the benchmark for consumers – and other brands will be measured against them.

“Internet leaders are getting bigger and staying aggressive.” I can’t emphasize enough how much this point matters to the very survival of other businesses who rely on digital and mobile (increasingly, that’s everyone). The big players have the resources and the creativity – and the potential to eat your lunch whether you are a small web brand or a medium-sized mobile app. Engagement — done right — is a company’s best weapon in the face of this competition. With today’s leaders growing faster than the last generation of innovators, companies must act now.

The Missing Piece In Your Presentation: What Do Users Want?

As you rightfully pointed out, slower growth creates more risk but also provides many opportunities for companies to innovate and reimagine the way they do business. The second half of your presentation pointed out all the areas in which this reimagination is happening. It was inspiring to hear.

But the point you missed is not just what businesses can do but what consumers want them to do. More importantly, our industry needed to hear just how great the divide currently is between these two forces and how putting our customers and end-users front and center during the process of reimagining our businesses is critical to our future success.

Today, the engagement crisis is centered on mobile and businesses are still struggling to keep users engaged. New data my team and I just investigated shows that nearly one in four mobile users only use an app once. This tells me that something is already broken.

However, tomorrow and beyond, the battlefield for user engagement won’t just be smartphones or the Internet. The fight for connecting with users will be taken to third party messaging apps, in-car systems and voice activated experiences.

To me, the form that each endpoint takes doesn’t really matter. What is important is our understanding of how the ways that people are engaging with services/companies has fundamentally changed forever.

For brands looking to connect with users, the key is that these touch points need to be bidirectional, engaging and dynamic. They need to (respectfully) leverage each user’s data and, with the help of machine learning and AI, deliver an experience that is personalized, real-time, delightful, and, most importantly, engaging.

No matter how far our technology can take us, it all comes back to the user. As I sat there listening to your presentation, that’s where I kept landing. Engagement is engagement – no matter the endpoint. And, as we look back on another year of your report, I can’t help but feel that brands are failing to bridge that gap. The bad news is that it’ll only get more difficult as the number of tools available to us continues to sprawl and the big guys continue to get bigger and more aggressive.

You can bet I’ll be back next year to hear you present once more. Hopefully by then, things are looking a little brighter.