What Our Smartphone Behavior Can Tell Us

By | 2016-11-04T16:57:31+00:00 July 17, 2014|Advertising, Insights, Marketing, Viewpoints|

Why don’t young people answer their phones? And to turn things around, why do older people still feel compelled to answer their phones? How do social conventions and accepted behaviors fit within the current milieu, where social media is a communication driver, information overload is becoming an acceptable fact of life, and isolation is a paradox within a media-driven world? The answers to these questions tell us a lot about the evolution of communication and our understanding of how we should evolve as marketers.

Putting social conventions aside for a moment, consider what all this means when it comes to reaching diverse segments of the population with effective communication strategies. David Plouffe, the political strategist who helped devise Obama’s technologically groundbreaking campaigns, believes that younger people expect visuals to be a standard communication element; an event without compelling visuals isn’t worth having. If you don’t have the visual with the words, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. There’s evidence of an intrinsic organizational structure within these behaviors and attitudes that represent the difference between successful marketing communications and those that are doomed to failure.

Human truths haven’t changed, and the emotional/psychological drivers behind all of our interactions remain relatively intact. What has changed are the interconnected channels that we choose to operate within – the neurotransmitters and receptors of everyday life, if you will. A study by Time Warner found that “digital natives” who grew up with new media switch media venues 27 times per nonworking hour; the “digital immigrants” who grew up with old-school technologies switch media venues 17 times per hour. It’s obvious that today’s consumers aren’t glued to any one medium; communicating over the phone is becoming downright quaint. This shift has translated to a new attitude towards verbal communication: inbound phone calls are disruptive, and outbound calls are intrusive.

According to the most recent Nielsen Media data, smartphones have drastically changed the behavior of how Americans—young and old—use their time on the phone. Over two-thirds of mobile subscribers now have a smartphone, and consumer usage of phones has rapidly shifted toward increased screen time with entertainment and social media. In fact, the average time spent actually talking on the phone is only about ten percent of the total time spent on all mobile social interactions; texting is three times more popular than talking.

Let’s look at the “rudeness gulf”—the generational differences regarding phone etiquette. Is resistance to answering one’s phone learned behavior, the degeneration of attitudes and conventions, or a defensive attitude that serves to regulate how we make the best use of our time? To the generation that was brought up using landlines, a telephone conversation has been almost as personal, and therefore socially acceptable, as face-to-face communication. The “sound of your voice,” with its various inflections, tones and volume, lets some of us imagine that we’re making a very personal connection – even if the person is thousands of miles away. That’s a mindset, not a reality. Until fairly recently, the available options for face-to-face communication were few: the telephone, e-mail, or (God forbid) snail mail. But to those growing up in a multichannel world filled with options that range from always-on smartphones, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and a dizzying array of new communication alternatives, phone conversations are impersonal, intrusive, and therefore rude.

The talking vs texting question helps us understand the dynamics behind cell phone usage and, by extension, the psychology behind today’s communication mandates. Deborah Tannen, a renowned linguistics scholar at Georgetown University, has explored whether emerging forms of interpersonal communication are separating people or bringing them closer together. “The view of those who didn’t grow up with new media is that texting is really not communication; it’s not like sitting down and talking to somebody,” says Dr. Tannen. “Actually, texting can be more intimate.” She contends that writing e-mails is like writing in a diary—you’re alone with your thoughts. And on the phone, it often feels like someone is bearing down on you. “My peers tend to view texting with alarm, disapproval and contempt,” Tannen says (Dr. Tannen is 69 years old). “But younger people consider telephone calls rude. It’s rude and intrusive to call people on the phone. The polite thing to do is to text. If it’s really necessary to have a conversation, you would text them to set up a time to talk because then you would know that the time you’re setting is convenient for them.” So, rudeness is in the eye of the beholder. But the more substantive message is that new media has made younger people more sensitive to intrusion—the invasion of uninvited communications within undesirable channels. At the same time, a fascinating irony is that ever-loosening standards of privacy are not viewed as intrusive—they’re the price one pays to use new media to its fullest potential. Because the median age of the U.S. population is 37 years, and getting younger by the month, these dynamics create a reality that is hard to ignore.

Based on Dr. Tannen’s research, the generational interpretations of texting, e-mail and Facebook may vary, but it’s clear that today’s variety of communication options makes life much more complex. But complexity represents opportunity to those marketers who can whittle the challenges down to some basic psychodynamic principles. Phone calls are “simple” when compared to almost every form of communication, but simplicity doesn’t always translate to efficiency. The true challenge is to strip away preconceived notions of social conventions when it comes to interpersonal communication, and focus on the realities of how people really want to talk to each other. A more informed look at how we now use our phones helps us lose those preconceived notions.

Telephone etiquette has been controversial since the telephone was invented, according to Claude Fischer, a sociology professor who has studied the subject at the University of California, Berkeley. “When the telephone first appeared, there were all kinds of etiquette issues over whom to call and who should answer and how,” he said in a New York Times interview. In upper class homes, a butler would answer calls. For a long time it was considered taboo to invite a person to dinner by telephone. Telephones were initially sold exclusively for business purposes; that quickly extended to husbands calling their wives when traveling on business, and wives began ordering their grocery deliveries by phone. “It took years for the telephone to be used for purely social interactions. The phone companies tried to stop that for about thirty years because it was considered improper usage,” according to Dr. Fischer. “We may have returned to the phone’s original intentions – and impact,” the Times article concludes.

Nielsen Media data tells us that social media is overtaking every other form of interpersonal communication on our smartphones, although it lags behind entertainment and information. The most recent year-over-year data shows a rapid increase in social media use on mobile apps (+37%) and smartphone web browsers (+26%). Every major social media platform has dramatically increased its audience on smartphone apps just in the past year: Facebook (+39%); Instagram (+79%); Twitter (+38%); Google+ (+117%); and Pinterest (+233%). Given these statistics, who has the time to answer a “traditional” phone call?

While social media is on its explosive trajectory, even more smartphone bandwidth is going to information and entertainment. Taken together, social media, information and entertainment are creating an ever-changing mobile mashup that crowds out every traditional form of advertisin
g and conventional communication. Marketing opportunities occur when communications are designed to fit within the fabric of these overlapping actions and interactions—literally joining the flow.

This begs the question: is it time to take the word “phone” out of “smartphone?” According to a recent study by the Online Publishing Association, the top smartphone activity is checking the weather—believe it or not, this comprises almost half of average weekly smartphone activity. Compare checking the weather to “direct communications” usage, which at only 12% includes using the mobile phone app, text messaging, and address book apps, with text messaging outweighing phone app usage by a large margin. The obvious conclusion is that actually answering the phone or making calls is a dying pastime.

When we think of our smartphone in the context of any traditional communication, we’re missing the point completely. Mobile technology represents the brave new frontier of marketing and advertising, a vast playground that invites meaningful interactions that are tailored to individual tastes and behaviors.

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About the Author:

Robert Palmer

EVP, Digital Innovation Officer

One Comment

  1. Debbie Irwin July 17, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    You hit the nail on the head and help this older generation gal to better understand why my kids don’t answer their phones.Then again, it could be because their dad doesn’t like to answer the phone either!

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