The digital attention deficit

There have never been so many demands on people’s attention.

As new digital services have emerged , like  social networks, messaging apps and connected devices — the volume of ‘notifications’ we receive has exploded. Fuelled by the ubiquitous presence of our smartphones, blinking and buzzing away.

These platforms are experts at mining our attention, using carefully designed prompts to exploit behavioural patterns and our pervading sense of FOMO (‘fear of missing out’).

On YouTube or streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime) people are nudged gently to watch one more episode or one more video.

On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp (to name a few) there’s always a new message to read or a feed to be refreshed.

Why? In the most simple terms: our time is money.

Snapchat, valued earlier this year at $20 billion, received huge early investment because teens and young adults were active users of the app.

Funding arrived, speculating on the potential to reach and command the attention of a millennial audience.

Yet attention is a limited resource, and may prove to be the defining commodity of our connected age, with businesses competing to monetise hours, minutes and seconds of our time across different platforms.

>See also: 1 in 4 British consumers want to digital detox in 2016

Facebook tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Snapchat after younger users appeared to flock to the newer, mobile-only messaging service.

It did, however, buy Instagram ($1 billion) and WhatsApp ($22 billion) on similar terms, and while the latter does not yet involve ads, Facebook made $6.42 billion in advertising revenue in Q2 this year, with 84% of this being from mobile. Instagram made an important contribution to this total.

Digital boom and bust

It makes sense to speak of a ‘digital attention deficit’ in economic terms, the crunch is already happening.

For marketers, this is the premium paid to reach users of platforms like Facebook, where previously organic reach was possible, or the possibility of users moving to ad-free services like Netflix over traditional TV.

For consumers, where attention is spread too thinly, evidence shows people beginning to step back from constant connectivity.

Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2016 showed that a third of adult internet users in the UK have sought time offline  –  the ‘digital detox’ phenomenon.

The study also identifies ‘connectivity creep’ as a pattern, which sees people spending longer online than intended, losing sleep, forgoing housework and neglecting time with friends and family.

Concerns are being voiced that the dilution of our attention has a deleterious effect on our concentration span, we flit from one digital distraction to the next.

>See also: How travel operators achieve digital transformation

People are caught between technology sold to us on the benefits of increased connectivity — being up-to-date, never missing anything, sharing every moment  – and a sense that this might not always be healthy.

Services to moderate and control the volume of notifications in our life are currently limited and will need to catch-up.

As the first webpage ever reaches its 25th birthday, those of us old enough to remember dial-up modems may be more cautious of our engagement with technology, supporting digital detox behaviours while remembering (and perhaps romanticising) pre-Internet society.

Although, for ‘digitally native’ younger people, this may never emerge as a concern.

For businesses, the opportunity to connect through digital remains huge, though recognition of this ‘stepping back’ behaviour should give a renewed focus to providing service, functionality and content which is helpful, rather than contributing to digital noise.

There are a few areas that specifically capture this tension and its implications.

The pace of social media

The sheer number of social media networks alone, added to email and messaging apps, creates a bewildering set of updates for people to keep up with.

Furthermore, new platforms seem to be characterised by a higher frequency of interaction.

Snapchat encourages photographic ‘snaps’ to be sent to friends (before vanishing) or added to a 24 hour revolving ‘stories’ feature.

It’s a bucket that constantly demands to be replenished with fresh content.

>See also: The traps of digital transformation: it’s a tool, not a target

Now this format has been shamelessly replicated by Instagram’s own ‘stories’ feature, moving the platform from a highlight reel of aspirational imagery, towards catering for what has been called ‘lifecasting’, where the frequency of updates is higher, more casual and instantaneous.

As mobile cameras have improved and data packages have become more affordable, ‘always-on’ broadcasting behaviour is in a position to become the new normal, unless people later choose to step back from this constant social performance.

Businesses need to recognise these shifts in patterns of behaviour and keep abreast of new formats, especially around video and potential for ‘live’ streaming, which may prove more appealing to younger audiences.

Non-stop wrist watching

Many smart watches are sold on the benefits of ‘at-a-glance’ notifications and the idea that you can instantly know who’s calling, what meeting is next, or when you’ve been emailed.

For those looking to retain some control over digital notification overload, there is a strong argument for sticking with a mobile phone, which can be left in a bag, offering some distance.

The smart watch is one step closer to us, it’s physically attached to the wrist, and the future of wearables suggests this proximity will increase.

It’s essential that businesses seeking to engage through newly connected devices and objects, ensure that notifications and requests for attention are personalised, intelligent and context-sensitive to maximise their relevance, supporting a level of control for the user.

>See also: Leading from the top – four ways CIOs have to take charge of digital transformation

Otherwise, adoption of this new wave of devices may be slowed if people decide increased connectivity is no longer a benefit worth paying for.

An overcrowded augmented reality?

Augmented Reality (AR) technology, in devices like Microsoft’s Hololens or Google Glass, differs from the full immersion of Virtual Reality (VR) where you step into and out of 360° spaces, sitting on top of our existing visual field.

The opportunity to layer contextual information onto our surrounding environment is incredibly exciting.

Applications like navigation make sense, and the creative potential for marketers is also huge  –  virtual buy buttons on posters for example  – but needs to be balanced by an appreciation of consumer impatience with interruptions to their experience. It’s worth considering who the gatekeepers to this new dimension of media will be.

A recent short film, ‘Hyper Reality’, gives a pessimistic glimpse into one possible AR future, where users are bombarded with promotions, though we should remember in the meantime that our natural filters are already very effective.

Individuals ignore almost everything despite the volume of advertising we’re exposed to every day and ad-blocking is wide-spread online.

A contentious industry subject currently, where issues of ad-fraud and questions surrounding the ‘viewability’ of display media are gathering pace.

Aside from this, there is a small but vocal movement with potential to gain mainstream traction around switching off and stepping back from digital.

From a health perspective, influential figures like Arianna Huffington (founder of The Huffington Post ) are advocating for better sleep and against the screens which keep us up at night.

Technology has responded by offering ‘night mode’ on phones to tune out the blue light involved physiologically in triggering this restlessness.

>See also: Why 2016 means the end for anonymous shopping- and what it means for marketers

Tools will emerge which allow for easier, more assertive control of notifications across the devices we own.

Most businesses sit squarely in the middle of these tensions, between connection and control.

Within the attention economy, we’re tasked with reaching consumers in the first place across a multiplying, fragmented array of channels, cutting through with brilliant creative work and secondly, once we have their attention, converting this effectively to purchase.

Recognising shorter attention spans and ever-present distraction, behaviour which can be observed and evidenced through website analytics for example, highlights just how small obstacles have to be for people to abandon an interaction.

In response, we can streamline customer experience, A/B test to optimise for these conditions and create content better adapted to the new spaces we’re trying to reach people.

At no point can a consumer’s attention be taken for granted, the risk otherwise is wasting people’s time at our own expense.


Sourced by Mark Linford, creative strategist at Amaze

Avatar photo

Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

Related Topics