Scott Curtis
Scott Curtis 20 December 2018

Digital detoxing and brand engagement

Scott Curtis, Global Head of Digital and Innovation at Spark Foundry talks about how the growing rise in people switching off will affect marketing strategies

I’ve been doing something recently that I thought I would never do as a self-confessed tech geek and as the global head of digital and innovation at Spark Foundry – question how much time I spend with digital, and specifically my mobile. 

Let’s get something clear up-front, I love my smartphone for many reasons, and I’m like the rest of the UK population who spends the majority of my media time with my mobile. I use my phone to look up information, to watch videos, to listen to music, to control my smart house, for work, for buying things, for playing games, to read articles, to keep in touch with friends, to take pictures, for banking, for commuting, and so on. My phone provides me with just about every utility I need, and over the course of a short decade has not only become my most important device but has also made pretty much every other screened device all but redundant outside of work.

What I’ve been wondering is if I actually need to pick my smartphone up every time that I reach for it, or whether it’s now just a habit to grab that digital block, unlock and digest some digital goodness. My inclination - I’ve developed a bit of a deep-rooted habit and am picking up my phone when there is no need to.
So, as a self-diagnosed addict, I decided to do something about it. I decided to give up my mobile for a weekend. This would be a test to see if I could survive, or whether my fears would come true and missing my phone would consume my thoughts till I crumbled. I roped my wife into the experiment for a couple of reasons - firstly she’s a bigger addict than me, and secondly, I didn’t want to see her on her phone when I didn’t have one. Here’s how we did it in two super easy steps:

1.    I bought a cheap £15 Nokia that came with a sim card so that we could call forward to it in case anyone really needed to get in touch with us.

2.    Locked in the next weekend. We decided on the weekend as it would mean more quality time together as a family, and we also ‘need’ our phones more during the week for utility. We planned to run the experiment from Saturday morning till Sunday evening.

So we started out first thing on Saturday morning by turning off the phones. It felt weird, but we were feeling really good about it. Picture the scene - its 7:30am, the sun is rising along the deserted walk to take my daughter swimming - I had a moment. I was positively smug about detoxing from my mobile and helping my dopamine levels rebalance a little. 

That feeling lasted all the way till breakfast, where I missed my phone. I wanted to look at the news and see what people were chatting about on various WhatsApp groups, and my wife was missing her Saturday morning social media session. That feeling worsened throughout the day where we missed communications heading to a friend’s house for the afternoon, and also not having a camera there. We knew that the evening was prime phone time for web surfing, playing games and entertainment, so after getting our daughter to bed, we set up some board games as a way to avoid any phone temptation and had non-digital fun. 

The next day was surprisingly easy – the day passed as if we’d reached a new normal. No seismic shift was needed, and it felt like only Saturday was needed to break the cycle of screen dependency. Yes, it was weird to not be able to look up information or entertain myself as soon as the thought entered my head, and yes it was strange to feel disconnected from everyone digitally, and also strange to go to the shops rather than order shopping on two-hour delivery. However, we felt almost a little reluctant to turn our smartphones back on Sunday evening. Having a detox was lovely, it felt like something had healed a little.

Obviously, it’s going to be near impossible to exist in today’s world without a smartphone, and being a digital geek means there’s no chance I’m turning in my smartphone for no phone or a ‘dumb phone’, but having a phone free weekend felt great. 

So what does all this have to do with anything? Well, I believe that I learnt a couple of lessons from my digital detox that can be useful for brands and their digital presence. 

Firstly, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. I realised that I don’t need that constant connection to my phone in order to get a lot out of it, and the same with the brands that I connect with via my apps and bookmarked sites. The deeper connections are what brought me back to my favoured brands, and I actually used the experience to purge my phone of the rest of the apps that don’t fulfil a need or don’t have a connection with.

For example, I missed the tailored notifications that I receive from my favourite news app and chatbots I interact with. I don’t need to get an update for every breaking news story, but I do want to know about technology and sport. Instead of trying to get every customer to come back to every piece of content, allow them to customise their experience. They may spend less time with you in the immediacy, but will remain loyal in the longer run.

My wife is a social media addict and spends a large portion of her digital time within her social networks. However, what she noted was that a lot of this time spent was habitual and not adding value. What she missed most was feeling connected to her closest family and friends, and the apps that bought those people closer together.

Secondly, brands may need to start playing in this space smartly, as people become more conscious and mindful of their digital usage. As we’re becoming reliant on habitual mobile use, technology should always be seen as an enabler, and brands should be adding value to the lives of their consumers’ versus just grabbing attention and time spent.

Even though shopping in person for goods and food felt like the human thing to do, being able to buy anything instantly from my phone is much easier and unavoidable in today’s busy world. And whilst we should be supporting our high street and local businesses, every business should have a mobile commerce strategy.

Additionally, I liked coming back to my utility apps like my smart home control. We can’t forget that whilst brands need to be able to tell a story, that they should also understand that it’s often just good to be useful. The apps and services that provide me with a good utility generally don’t change for me and retain my loyalty.

Would I repeat it? Absolutely yes - it’s something that we’re planning to repeat at least one weekend per month, and potentially more. Although technology brings the world immeasurably closer, it also distances us from it, and hopefully by repeating the experiment we will start to reconnect with more offline brands and local businesses, and engage with increasing levels of screen-less entertainment.

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