The Rise of Reduced Screen Time—and What it Means for Digital Marketers

The Rise of Reduced Screen Time—and What it Means for Digital Marketers
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Kuhan Puvanesasingham

Smartphones are a lot like Asian carp. Asian carp were innocently brought to North America in the ‘60s as a new food source to help control unruly algae and snail populations. This fish quickly became one of the most invasive species in modern history, decimating vegetation and destroying the spawning habitats of countless native species across North American waterways.

So how exactly are smartphones like these guys?

This story also starts innocently. A decade ago, I vividly remember being awestruck in an Apple Store, swiping and pinching the iPhone for the first time (happily ignoring that thick layer of grubby mall-filth covering the screen). How we all coveted this elegant new marvel of handheld technology, featuring hot new App Store essentials like Photo Light Sabre, Bright Flashlight, or iBeer (a virtual beer to drink with friends!).

Fast forward 10 years and smartphones are now glued to practically everyone aged 12 and up, playing a central role in some of the most fundamental aspects of human life, and “disrupting” work, friendships, romance, commerce, transportation, and more.

Smartphones are ubiquitous. But ubiquity can be a dangerous quality, as it’s oddly difficult for us to notice something that’s everywhere. That kind of ignorance can have insidious effects; a silent invasion can literally happen in front of our faces without anyone noticing.

Masked by their undeniable convenience, over the past decade smartphones have given rise to software that has quietly eroded our mental health, relationships, sleep, attention spans, politics, privacy, and trust—and the mounting concern associated with this invasive technology is becoming impossible to ignore.

In 2018, the topic finally emerged as worthy of public discourse. Manufacturers now offer dashboards to help us monitor our usage, parents are rightly so restricting screen time for kids, and legions of people are deleting their social media apps. In 2018, we very well may have reached “peak mobile”.

2019 will be a defining year for smartphones. Many of us will undertake the responsibility to reduce our screen time, and this is greatly needed progress. Healthier device habits are unquestionably good for society, but what does this mean for digital marketers?

Who’s actually reducing screen time?

Young man lying on a couch looking at a smartphone

You’ve likely scrolled past articles celebrating social media fasts, encouraging device-free dinner time, denouncing push notifications, and praising digital detoxes. There’s a groundswell of very sensible public concern that’s bubbling up and popping into the mainstream.

According to a Pew Research survey, 42% of Facebook users aged 18-54 say they’ve taken a break from checking the social network for several weeks or more, while 26% admitted they deleted the app from their phone entirely.

Health-conscious parents instinctively worry about the effect these devices have on young brains, and as a result may naturally confront their own habits. “Technoference” is a term psychologists are now using to describe the negative effect mobile devices have on family relationships and child behavior.

The optimistic assumption here is that admitting you have a smartphone addiction is a leading indicator of reducing your screen time. So when a recent survey indicated 40% of mothers and 32% of fathers admit to having some sort of phone addiction, a massive behavioral shift could very well be on the horizon.

Let’s combine that with what we recently learned at an Adobe conference—that millennials are expected to outpace baby boomers as “the largest wallet” online next year. This “screen-conscious” segment is growing, it’s valuable, and it’s not yet figured out.

Don’t make the same mistake twice

View of a road leading to mountains from the driver's seat of a car

Data-driven marketers often suffer from rear-view-mirror syndrome, limiting customer analyses to static historical client data. Trust us, it’s a bit of a job hazard. But both customer segments and media platforms are dynamic, evolving creatures. If Facebook and Instagram have bumpy roads ahead, then riding alongside them with all of our eggs piled high in our basket might not be the smartest idea, no matter how good last year’s results were.

Sorry for the minor interruption here, but a quick economics 101 refresher if that’s cool. Does a reduced or limited supply of a good that is in high demand mean higher or lower prices? Anyone…anyone…? Higher prices. Yes, the law of supply and demand suggests that the less time particular segments spend on Instagram, the less available ad inventory there is, and competing advertisers will have to pay higher prices to reach these users. Hard to argue with them apples!

But watch out, as higher ad prices are known to trigger popular marketing slogans: Find efficiencies! Optimize! Personalize content! Segment! Add AI to our tech stack!

Sure, screen-conscious behavior may drive up acquisition costs, which hurts a little, but it’s foolish to believe this attention can be recaptured with just another form of interruptive media or surveillance capitalism.

We won’t find solutions by rummaging through historical data or layering in more ad tech. The digital-health-conscious crowd is partially immunized against our bag of tricks, and pursuing them even harder will just alienate them. Also, let’s not be jerks and slip drinks to the person that’s trying to quit—that’s straight up selfish. We need a fresher, more human approach.

The opportunity for an ethical hedge

Young man standing on the tip of a rock overlooking mountains

The first thing we need to do is reset our expectations for 2019 performance. A slowdown is inevitable, at least for some segments. We need to devote analytical horsepower to quantify this decline, adjusting forecasting models to include forces beyond what marketing levers pull.

This injury to our results opens the door for us to experiment in a more ethical space. As Craig Davis, former chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson famously said, “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.” Digital marketing can so often be myopically focused on ROAS, making it difficult to patiently invest resources into building a long-term, stable, and growing audience.

Lazar Dzamic and Justin Kirby’s recent book on strategic content marketing beautifully describes a framework to help tackle this problem. They suggest successful marketing efforts satisfy two aims concurrently: intent utility and emotional resonance. Intent utility, the measure of a brand’s ability to deliver practical, response-oriented content that satisfies a revealed intent, should go beyond our usual CTAs and keyword chasing. Emotional resonance connects with a consumer on a personal level, earning inherent value as interesting content, and is something they willingly seek and share.

But this kind of marketing doesn’t have to be airy-fairy, low-and-slow audience building. The authors suggest emotionally resonant content doesn’t have to be sluggish and expensive, nor does highly useful content have to be boring. By constructing a diverse team of professionals, including data experts, UX designers, account planners, and other creative talent, we can take incremental steps towards not only weathering the storm that lies ahead, but towards thriving in the digital future.

This is an experiment worth investing in. It’s human-centric. It’s fascinating. And if it inspires just a few like-minded professionals to restore a little ecological health to our society without abandoning our livelihoods, then I think we’ll have done something valuable.

Ready to create content that resonates? Get in touch with DAC today.