Getting Your Company Ready for the 'Custom Economy'

NEWS ANALYSIS: Ubiquitous virtual personal agents, affordable 3D printing and the digitization of everything will be the hallmarks of the 21st century custom economy.

Custom Economy

The 20th century was all about mass everything—mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption.

The current century will be all about customization. The one-size-fits-all products, businesses and marketing campaigns will be left in the dust. Is your company ready?

The quintessential 20th century company might be McDonald's. Some 40 years ago, the chain started churning out identical menu items in thousands of identical restaurants that prominently displayed how many billion burgers the company had served.

The ingredients were optimized for the mass market—no tomatoes or lettuce on the hamburgers, because such fresh plant foods will always vary. McDonald's marketing campaigns were singular and global, mostly broadcast on TV. Before the Internet, before cable, three TV networks dominated mindshare. And McDonald's serially broadcast its singular message into tens of millions of households nightly on the ultimate one-to-many medium.

From about the 1980s through the present day, you see a slow transition to the new economy—from mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption to individually tailored tastes.

In fact, if you look at all the major trends in technology, they're all leading to what you might call a custom economy. Here are three such trends happening right now.

1. Personalized advertising

The big anxiety in the world of consumer electronics is the relentless harvesting of user data by the likes of Google, Facebook and, well, just about everyone, really. Companies crave data—as much as they can get. But why?

The ultimate end game of personal data is super-powerful advertising. And by powerful, I mean highly customized.

In the mid-20th century, advertising was all about "manufacturing desire." There was no possible way to know what you, personally, wanted. So they told you what you wanted. TV advertising was about talking you into wanting something you didn't want before.

Within 10 years, anxiety over personal data harvesting will be gone and advertising companies will have so much data, compute power and artificial intelligence that they'll be able to divine exactly what you want—and also when and where you want it.

No two ads will be alike. Every advertising message will be utterly unique and just for you.

2. Everything will be digitized

Software has some interesting qualities that separate it from physical goods. For example, software can be copied, instantly distributed globally, remotely fixed, patched, upgraded and monitored. And it's free from the constraints of physical space.

As one ready comparison, think about the Library of Congress. It's the world's second-largest library. It occupies four massive buildings. You can't access the 36 million books there unless you visit, physically. The books are finished and permanent in their present forms; they can't be corrected or updated. Their contents can't be searched. They could theoretically be destroyed in a fire. (In fact, British troops did exactly that on August 24, 1814, when they put the torch to Washington D.C.)

Now, consider the Google Books project. The company claims there are 130 million books in existence. And Google plans to digitize all of them by the end of the decade. These can be copied, accessible globally, searchable, updatable and displayable in any format, from large type to the spoken word.

The Google Books project represents the digitization of a formerly physical medium, with all the attendant attributes of software. This digitization process is showing up in many places. 3D printing is a great example