There’s never been a time like this where transparency and efficiency have consumers questioning how they want to spend their time.
Take a moment to think about what time well-spent means to you.
Time with family
Time catching up on news
Time to try a new hobby
Time with friends
Time traveling somewhere new
Time connecting with an old friend you find on Facebook
Time doing research to further your career
Time studying to earn a degree
Time alone to relax
Every time we engage with social media platforms, they get better at learning our online behaviors – picking up what we like and don’t like to see on our screens. For the longest time, news feed algorithms specifically focused on providing us with content to keep us engaged and coming back for more. This led to more time spent on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, which allowed them to show us more ads. As we all know, the more ads they served, the more revenue they made through advertising. All of this led to a broken, unethical social media machine.
Today, however, we’re living in a new era of screen-time saturation. It feels that more and more often, people are in a state of criticizing how others spend their time. We’re much more aware of it because we’re frequently being told we spend too much time scrolling through distractions on Instagram, binge-watching Netflix, and yet we still feel overworked at our jobs. How does all of this add up? Chris Ferrel, digital strategy director at The Richards Group, recently wrote a blog post on this very topic – attention isn’t shrinking, we’re just becoming more selective.
Time spent with screens has become increasingly scrutinized as ethicists like Tristan Harris spread messages about the purposes of these platforms and the few designers who have a say in what behavior is being prioritized. Harris recognized a long time ago that there’s a system of checks and balances missing from the tech industry. He said, “Never before in history have such a small number of designers – a handful of young, mostly male engineers, living in the Bay Area of California, working at a handful of tech companies – had such a large influence on two billion people’s thoughts and choices.”
Consider the like button. At one point in time, the designers thought this button would help alleviate the number of comments left below posts. It was supposed to help clean up the feed with a simple way to signify agreement. Over time, certain behaviors and patterns tended to receive more likes than others, and we started to create a world of the highly liked and those more forgotten. You and I might not wake up every morning thinking our goal for the day is to earn more “likes,” but it’s not that far off for some people who are continually rewarded and emotionally stimulated by this form of social currency.
When you take a look from the inside, you’ll realize that these designers know they have an incredible challenge facing them because of the scale and speed at which these platforms have grown. Margaret Stewart, vice president of design at Facebook, spoke at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, noting that for a long time Facebook really did focus on time spent as one of its key measures of success. It recognized that the measure of time spent helped determine whether it was creating something of value for consumers. She said, “If people spend a lot of time using your product, it’s reasonable to assume it’s meeting some kind of need.”
But today’s landscape is shifting, and the changes being made by big companies like Facebook and Google are happening in three particular ways.
Understanding these three changes as you approach 2019 will have a profound impact on how you navigate your brand’s presence in the digital space. Transparency and efficiency tend to fall on the responsibility of big tech companies, but the world that has been created from these changes opens up a new space for brands to explore.
The volatile nature of our political and social climate continues to beg the question, “Why are we spending so much time online and then feeling badly after doing so?” Platforms have been rolling out updates and making efforts this year to help their users understand how much time they really are spending on these apps. The intent seems good, but it’s often criticized as a “way out” for these platforms to point a finger and provide some statistics about the time we’re spending.
Stewart recognizes that when a company looks at just one set of data and maximizes toward it, such as time spent, there are unintended bad effects for people and society. She supports this by saying, “It’s easy to fall into the trap of valuing what we can measure, instead of measuring what we truly value.” Big tech companies are taking new approaches to help consumers understand what these different data points and values are. However, these platforms aren’t going to tell us exactly how to spend our time. They can only provide the data to show us how we’re spending it.
Facebook is reinforcing this by pushing its campaign that says, “The best part of Facebook isn’t on Facebook.” It knows the most valuable content being shared on its site comes from the experiences people are having and in turn sharing back to their news feeds. Facebook knows that real social currency is a combination of celebrations, discussions, debates, and exploration that all take place in the real world. I think we often overvalue best practices and key performance indicators that these platforms recommend when we should really be thinking about the value of the story we’re trying to tell.
Similarly, Instagram released its Wellbeing for Parents initiatives on its site this fall. The information it provides includes tips and guides on how to manage privacy, comments, and time, while also recognizing that Instagram is a “place where teens relate to peers.” Instagram even takes it as far as providing a set of ten questions created through a partnership with social media and education expert Ana Homayoun to guide parents in a conversation about Instagram with their children. The intention is “to use these questions to learn more about how your teen is using Instagram, and to ensure they’re having a positive experience on the platform.”
Always a bit ahead of the curve, the Android operating system has had an incredibly transparent dashboard that features data to show users their digital well-being. The dashboard provides a complete picture of how users engage with their phones, showing a day-at-a-glance based on the time spent. This includes details about how frequently different apps are accessed and how many notifications are received. Apple just released this with its new iOS12 in September of this year.
YouTube helps take it a step further and encourages breaks. It’s even recommended that users schedule custom breathers as often as they want, pausing what they’re watching and nudging them to leave their screens. In addition, YouTube offers a profile to show how much time is spent on the platform, as well as time period comparisons to see if you’re spending more than the average time on the site.
Both of these platforms are owned by Google, which is a purveyor of the digital ethics space. Google positions itself as a brand that’s here to help users focus on what matters most. Its mission on well-being states, “In addition to helping you find answers quicker and get places sooner, Google is also building tools that help avoid daily distractions and look at devices less.” Which just happens to be the perfect lead-in for its version of screen-less technology, Google Assistant.
On the pendulum swing of time spent, today’s interest in disconnecting makes room for screen-less technology to save the day. Whether you’re a fan of Siri, Alexa, or Google, they all help by giving us a few minutes of time back in our day. Google continues to innovate a wide range of products to help customers find a digital balance that works for them as if screen-less technology is the perfect solution for time spent. This isn’t to say Google is trying to inject more technology into our lives. Instead, its mission is to provide users something that isn’t intrusive or parasitic to help them with their daily tasks.
Consider the opportunities to reach people and help them find what they need when their hands are full or they’re driving. According to Stone Temple, these are the top situations in which a user would prefer to use voice assistants. All the how-to videos that are frequently used on YouTube can now be accessed through screen-less tech, so you can listen to the steps while you work. What if Ikea took those messy guides you get when unboxing your new furniture and provided a voice app where you can ask for instructions based on the model number? It’s not intrusive; it’s generous and helpful to users.
Some voice commands help keep you off your phone when it’s most tempting. Personally, I’m a frequent phone user right before bed, which I know probably makes it harder for me to fall asleep. However, with Google Assistant, there’s no temptation to pull out my phone and set my alarm. It makes it easier to find peace and quiet by simply asking Google to handle it. And if you’re not looking for sleep but just want some uninterrupted time, Google offers a simple Do Not Disturb mode, so you can tell your phone to silence all notifications and communications.
Beyond its clear health-tracking benefits, the Apple Watch is another great example of efficiency that has been introduced into our daily tech regimen. Want a reminder to pick up dinner on your way home from work? Just ask Siri. Need to know if it will rain later when you’re running errands? Ask Siri. These useful pieces of technology aren’t just being introduced into our lives so we have another Apple product at home – this is a new habit-building way of life, arguably helping us live lives that are independent of our screens and providing us ways to stay on task.
Nir Eyal, author and instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School, argues that although people say we’re in a distraction crisis, we’re actually in a prioritization crisis. These new changes from platforms are being put in place because our digital habits have gotten so bad that we’re turning to our news feeds to tell us what we should be reading, watching, and buying. Instead, if we took charge of our schedules, we’d be much more productive and make choices based on how we want to best spend our time. To give credit to the big four players, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, there is a growing recognition that their intent should not be getting more devices and media in front of more eyeballs, but to contribute to a better way of life away from their platforms.
As brands, we also have to start adopting this mindset. How can our marketing and media be additive? How do we elevate our product or service with generosity? And in doing so, how can we build a strong brand without being a drain on attention?
One starting point is to begin thinking about what your digital strategy – and, in particular, your social approach – would be if you prioritized providing utility and value in our lives outside the online space. When a brand’s purpose is created to have a positive impact in a consumer’s life, that brand can provide more meaningful interactions than can be created with advertising alone.
How can your brand help its consumers fuel their passions? Brand loyalists are often already aligned with your brand positioning, so looking to them and their behavior may help drive this initiative to prioritize time well-spent. Marketing genius REI tapped into this when it built a system of classes and courses to help its consumers make the most of their time outdoors. REI doesn’t just sell its equipment to people; it truly extends its brand mission through all the different initiatives, events, and classes it provides, for free. Yes, for free. REI wants to better equip its customers by teaching them camping and hiking basics, how to repair a flat bike tire, and how to better understand navigation without a digital map in front of them.
Let’s turn to the travel industry for a moment. When Airbnb first started, it disrupted the space and started providing a service for people to travel and stay in a new city in ways that had never been done before. As its network of rooms grew, it became clear that the next step in building its brand was to enable users to find even richer cultural experiences aligned with their passions. Now Airbnb features Experience Spotlights that range from surfing to concerts and everything in between. It breaks down activities based on skill level and interest, which helps the novice feel a bit more comfortable trying something new. Not only does this system allow for diverse experiences for the traveler, but it also provides a way of life for the hosts who teach their skill sets to those who are interested. Airbnb is fueling lifestyles rooted in deep cultural roots unlike any business in the travel industry before it.
Time well-spent initiatives are being reinforced in other ways too. In many big cities, there’s been an increase in pop-up art spaces with immersive experiences. This growing trend has been drawing in thousands of visitors to experience these spaces, take photos, and share with others after being inside these specially designed installations. The Museum of Ice Cream, which started in New York, lit a spark that has turned this pop-up trend into what New York Magazine is calling “Disney World for Millennials.”
Snapple, one of The Richards Group’s clients, recently took the opportunity to join the FOMO Factory in Austin, Texas. Unlike a traditional museum or store, this event space is built to have you participate in the art as you move through seven different rooms that create feelings of nostalgia. Snapple is integrated with one of the rooms, bringing flavor to every guest, so they can experience all the colors in the vacation room with multiple senses. The bottles even feature custom Snapple labels that relate to the emotional state of the guests’ childhood. Taking selfies isn’t purpose-driven, but emotional ties to an iconic brand that brings back nostalgic memories certainly evoke the purpose of family, friends, and childhood.
The concept of experiential marketing isn’t new. However, having your brand play a bigger role in facilitating small, local-level experiences for people around their passions is new. If you’re reconsidering what to do with your social media budget and strategy as you plan for 2019, think beyond the use of the platform as you know it. Don’t create ads for the sake of creating ads. Great social media stories that endear brands to people are happening in the real world, not in the news feed. The platforms and technology that are engrained in our daily lives are becoming more transparent and efficient to bring us opportunities to take back our time in the real world, and I think we’re going to continue to see this message reinforced throughout 2019. If we can help our clients start to break the typical-time-spent mold, we can create work that pushes people toward their passions.