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Sinister or time well spent? The smartphone dilemma

By Archie Heaton

Whether you think they’re causing the downfall of society or they put a repository of information and connection at the tips of your fingers, discussion around smartphones has never been louder, says Archie Heaton.

Would you get rid of your smartphone? How about going back to your old Nokia, all buttons and monochrome screen? It’s a tempting prospect for those who hark back to a simpler time.


If you did, though, you’d be in surprisingly high-tech company. The ‘Time Well Spent’ movement is led by disillusioned Silicon Valley dropouts who argue that smartphones have evolved into mini-slot-machines in our pockets, trading little hits of dopamine in exchange for our precious time. In response, these former tech insiders are promoting ‘digital wellbeing’ – the idea of wrenching ourselves away from technology’s relentless grip.


Most of the population will not abandon their iPhones overnight. Yet there does appear to be a broader undercurrent of unease around the unabated insinuation of technology into our lives.


The view that technology is not making us happier is increasingly prevalent, regularly explored in newspaper columns and chat-show discussions. Facebook, often cast as Silicon Valley’s pantomime villain, has suffered condemnations of its privacy policies, resulting in the #DeleteFacebook movement. A recent report indicates that half of US twenty-somethings have done (at least on their mobiles) just that.


Indeed, this issue is now so prominent that brands such as Three are tackling it directly in their advertising. Meanwhile, Apple and Google are openly acknowledging our concerns with time-tracking features in their latest software updates that give users a real picture of their mobile usage, the option to set time limits, and the ability to batch-block notifications.


So, as digital marketers, should we simply down tools for the betterment of society? Shut down our social campaigns and email newsletters and refocus on growing vegetables instead? Well no, not quite yet. But we absolutely do need to rethink how and where we use these digital tools to communicate with consumers.


As consumers become more conscious of the time they spend on traditional feeds, we need to provide them with useful and engaging content – a genuine value exchange. And we need to reach them in different places and at different times.


For example, we have understood for some time that the little screen in our pockets is not the only way to deliver personalised comms in real time. In our award-winning work with The Economist, for example, we have used dynamic communications everywhere from Snapchat to outdoor displays to reach the right people at the right time with the right message.


Similarly, we knew that under-mailed VW commercial vehicle drivers would appreciate a beautifully crafted physical direct mail, rather than just another social post. From Virgin Atlantic’s Spotify playlists to The Economist’s use of both Kindle and podcasts, brands want to be welcomed into, rather than encroaching on, consumer’s lives.


As marketers, it is of paramount importance that we are attuned to our audiences’ struggles as they adjust to a constantly changing world. This means we cannot nail our colours to one technological mast but must remain agile and aware of how this trend affects the channels where consumers spend their time and the social boundaries surrounding the use of their data.


With nearly 60% of teenagers taking total breaks from social media, for example, the conventional wisdom of how to communicate with digital natives has been upended. That’s just one small audience segment, too. Which is why, for brands, misunderstanding the relationships between ever more complex audiences and technologies can spell disaster.


And the time it takes to tackle it? Well, that really is time well spent.

Archie Heaton works for Omnicom’s DAS network, and was recently seconded to Proximity London.