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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Camones

The New Online Strategy: Disengage

Internet users are wise to ploys for their time and attention.

This post was originally published on Medium.

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet report, released last week, is a 334-slide PowerPoint presentation that mostly shows smartphones taking over the world — both by the number of users and the growing time each one spends on their phone instead of a computer. But halfway through, slide 163 includes a chart from Deloitte that shows two-thirds of U.S. adults surveyed said they are “trying to limit their personal smartphone use,” a sharp rise from the year before.

Another slide shows that daily social media time has plateaued after three consecutive years of growth.

Meeker’s report is more confirmation than revelation. Most adults have come to realize that they’ve gotten sucked into too many feeds, messages and alerts than they had ever expected. They’ve seen countless reports about cellphone addiction in the past year. They’ve learned that social media designers copied gambling methods to lure people into sticking around for another spin. They’re aware that heavy screen time and depression go hand in hand.

Are we going to give up our phones and abandon the Internet? Get real. My iPhone tries to tell me I use a lot of screen time. If it were smarter, it would realize what I’m doing with it in my hands all those hours every day: I’m working. You probably are, too. That’s why Deloitte polled “trying to limit personal smartphone use” rather than “threw phone in the trash.”

But there’s an important point for designers, marketers and execs who’ve scrolled through Meeker’s dozens of slides plotting increasing mobile usage but haven’t made it to slide 163. With so many potential customers now conscious of how long they’ve spent on their phone today, it’s no longer an easy strategy to design products or campaigns whose goal is to keep people engaged by giving them more to read, tap and respond to.

Click counts and session times make easy success metrics that can be run up simply by giving people more to click on, or making it take longer to complete a task. It looks good on a chart. But talk to a longtime email marketer: Mailing lists and newsletters took off in the 90’s as a surefire way to get huge response rates. But eager respondents gradually tired of the growing number of messages in their inboxes. A Cathy cartoon I can’t find now had the tech-challenged suburbanite waving her arms in despair — “Ack!” — when after shopping online for a plane ticket, she was bombarded daily with cheery brand-loyalty emails from every airline in America.

Today, a newsletter that gets one in ten people to click is considered a runaway hit. Cathy would be ack-ing instead over constant notifications from services she’d signed up for to spend less time thinking about whatever they do.

Smartphone users — at least the adults who responded to Deloitte — aren’t setting a Screen Time limit as they might for their kids. They use their phones for real work and critical communications, and no one gets to tell them they’re over quota for the day. Instead, they’ve become discerning in what they choose to give their time to, and how much.

Your mistake would be trying to demand more of that self-monitored attention. Overall, they’re trimming back thoughtfully, but the opposite is true on a per-brand, per-site or per-app basis. Like the stack of unread New Yorker back issues on many a nightstand, brands that overload people with demands risk being abandoned. If you persist in trying to make them engage beyond their needs, they’re not going to thoughtfully curate their interactions with you to dial back to their own level of comfort. No, they’ll just start ignoring you completely. You’ve probably done this yourself already, blowing off a few persistent names whenever you see them yet again on your screen. I expect that in the coming year, a lot of internal reports will be agonized over to explain how an ever-climbing engagement chart has suddenly dropped to zero.

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