Winning the battle against your smartphone

Our reliance on our devices, and the feeling of round-the-clock connectedness, can impair our ability to concentrate, think creatively, interact in a social setting, and can even take a toll on our mental health.

As featured in the March 2019 issue of Entrepreneur Middle East magazine

Look around you. Chances are, if you are in a public setting at least, most people will be staring into a smartphone screen. Heads bowed. Protecting their device for dear life. Hypnotized by whatever happens to be on the screen at the time. It’s a defining characteristic of modern life. A visitor from the past would be forgiven for thinking that Earth had become inhabited by a population of zombies controlled by a slab of 6×3 inch glass.

Most of us will admit to being guilty of spending too much time with our heads buried in our smartphones. With access to a seemingly infinite amount of content, and social validation on tap, our smartphones are a constant pull, calling out to us, demanding our attention. The never-ending notifications keep us coming back for more, and social feeds that are constantly being updated give us a fear of missing out on something important. Sometimes it can all get a bit overwhelming.

Our phones are not just a time-suck, but can affect us in ways that might not necessarily be clear to us at the time. Our reliance on our devices, and the feeling of round-the-clock connectedness, can impair our ability to concentrate, think creatively, interact in a social setting, and can even take a toll on our mental health. But how can we limit this gravitational pull on our attention and pursue a more minimalist relationship with our devices? We can start by looking at the different ways that constant connectedness can impact us.

What effect does this have on us?

Our smartphones have a hold over us, even when we are not directly giving them our attention. A recent study by a team at the University of Chicago found that merely having your smartphone on the table in front of you can lead to a small but statistically significant impairment of cognitive capacity, similar to the effects of lacking sleep. The closer the device is, the more noticeable the decrease in brain power. The more heavily the user relies on their phone in their everyday lives, the greater the impact on cognitive capacity they suffer with it nearby.

Even when our device is out of sight, knowing that a potential call or notification could arrive at any time can cause our minds to wander, and can negatively impact our performance on tasks that require sustained attention. When a device does beep or buzz during a challenging task, it causes our focus to waver, and our work gets sloppier. If we are not in a position to respond to the device immediately, our blood pressure spikes, our pulse quickens, and our problem-solving skills decline.

Even just suppressing the desire to check our phone can hinder our thinking, and we do this routinely without thinking about it throughout the day. Our brains are constantly subconsciously listening out for a notification, and sometimes they even fabricate them. If you’ve ever felt a ‘phantom buzz’ you have experienced this first-hand.

Whether we’re by ourselves and just plain bored, in the middle of a challenging task at work, or with our friends or family, our smartphones have a hold on us that is increasingly unhealthy. All this is not just by chance, but a product of tech companies’ careful efforts to maximise the amount of time users spend on their platforms.

How does this tech get us hooked?

In today’s attention economy, most digital platforms prosper based on how much time we spend using them, which means that they are strongly incentivized to keep us hooked. They do this by taking advantage of our natural impulses and psychological dependencies to feel connected and make sense of our environment.

Many digital platforms use the same methods as the gambling industry to foster this dependence and ingrain their products in our everyday lives. Some of these techniques can even cause similar reactions in the brain as cocaine, drawing users into repeated cycles of uncertainty, anticipation and rewards. With features like Instagram’s bottomless feed, Snapchat streaks, and YouTube auto-playing the next video, users face an uphill battle to limit the amount of time they spend on these platforms.

I spoke with Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, who breaks down how tech companies foster a self-perpetuating cycle of engagement. Firstly, an external trigger, such as a notification, draws the user into an interaction with the platform, such as commenting on a post or uploading a photo. The chance of a variable reward (will anybody reply to my comment or ‘Like’ my photo?) motivates the user to stay active and engaged. The more the user participates in this process, the more invested they are in that particular platform. This process is repeated until the user no longer requires an external trigger such as a notification to draw them back to the platform, but begins revisiting due to an internal compulsion.

The variable reward is the key to creating this cycle. It’s the uncertainty of whether we have received a new message or whether there is any new content on a social channel that keeps us coming back for more. It plays on our constant need to feel connected and in control. “Our brains evolved through the millennia into incredible prediction machines, designed to help us make sense of our environment. And nothing holds our attention better than the unknown” explains Eyal. “The things that captivate, engross, and entertain us, all have an element of surprise. Our brains can’t get enough of trying to predict what’s next”.

The infinite scrolling and pull-to-refresh mechanism on our news feeds are eerily similar to a slot machine. You never know what you’re going to get when you pull that lever, if anything at all. But that’s precisely what keeps us enthralled. More often than not we don’t find anything interesting or gratifying but we can’t help ourselves. “It’s like opening a can of digital Pringles” says Eyal. Users are beginning to push back, in search of a more healthy relationship with their digital selves.

Tech companies are starting to adapt

Somewhat surprisingly, the big tech companies are starting to react to this trend of digital wellness, introducing a host of features to help users monitor and limit the amount of time they spend on their platforms and devices.

Facebook has recently launched a tool that tracks the time you spend each day on the platform, along with your average for the week. It lets users set their own time limits and reminds you when you are reaching or surpassing your threshold. You can even snooze Facebook or Instagram notifications for up to eight hours if you need to focus. Similarly, both Apple and Google have introduced features in the latest mobile OS updates that let you see how much time you’ve spent on each app, broken down by app category, as well as how many notifications you’ve received and how many times you’ve unlocked your phone. Even YouTube has introduced “Take a Break” reminders, as well as a dashboard that provides summaries of your behaviour while on the platform.

“Whenever a product causes people harm, what they will typically do is either use the product less, or they will modify it in some way” suggests Eyal, referring to the explosion of free apps and browser extensions that have come onto the market of late to help us moderate our tech use. At some point, users will have had enough. “So now we see tech companies like Apple and Google incorporate these features to help people moderate their use because it makes the product better. It’s no more than a market imperative”.

These are welcome updates for sure. But like all self-imposed restrictions, they will be simple to ignore, and their effectiveness will depend on whether users have enough self-control to stick to their limits.

Five ways that we can consciously disconnect

These updates might help us regulate the amount of time we spend on our devices, but here are some other techniques that you can use to maintain a more minimalist lifestyle when it comes to technology.

  1. Monitor your usage

Raising awareness of your own smartphone usage is the first step towards decreasing it. In addition to the big tech firms introducing their own usage-tracking options, there are a bunch of independent apps such as Moment, Space, and Mute that you can use to track the amount of time you spend on your device each day. Seeing this broken down minute-by-minute for the first time can come as quite a shock, and might even inspire you into becoming more deliberate in your behaviour. These apps also introduce a gamification element, challenging you to minimise your usage so you can beat the previous day’s time. It’s surprisingly effective.

  1. Reduce the amount of notifications you receive

App notifications are the most common way that we get dragged back into our devices and sucked down a rabbit hole – the most effective of external triggers. “About two thirds of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings” notes Nir Eyal. “And guess what – there’s nothing Mark Zuckerberg can do to turn those notifications back on”. You can manage your notifications in your phone settings and limit these to only the most important ones, for example, just messages from real people and not from random apps. Turning off social media notifications can be hugely effective in particular. You’ll see these notifications the next time you open the app again anyway. On messaging apps, try muting the notifications from groups and just set it so that you’re notified when an individual messages you.

  1. Delete or hide distracting apps

Are there certain apps in particular that you find sucking up too much of your time? Just delete them. You can still log into Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. on your mobile’s browser, but this added friction will mean that you’re less likely to do so. If you don’t want to delete these apps completely, then place them in a folder instead. Out of sight, out of mind. By simply removing these apps from your home screen you’re less likely to dive in when you’re aimlessly swiping through your apps looking for something to do.

  1. Reduce usage just before and after sleep

Using your smartphone just before bed can inhibit your ability to get to sleep and generally impair the quality of sleep you get when you do nod off. One of the most impactful measures you can take is to not sleep with it next to your bed. Buy a simple bedside clock for setting alarms and checking the time so you can charge your device overnight in another room. This will neutralize that impulse to have one last rotation through your most-used apps before going to sleep, and will mean that you can wake up without getting dragged back in before even getting out of bed. Charging your phone in another room throughout the day is generally a good habit to develop too.

  1. Use the grayscale setting

It might sound surprising, but simply removing your screen’s colour by activating the grayscale setting can reduce your impulse to use it. Colourful icons and graphics stimulate our brains and keep us engaged. That’s why notifications appear in red, because red is a trigger color that draws our attention. A grayscale screen looks less appealing and we aren’t as likely to mindlessly swipe through our device when this setting is activated.

This is not a new problem explains Eyal. “Humans have been struggling with distraction forever. Socrates and Plato talked about it 2,500 years ago. What has changed is that these technologies are constantly with us, and so now we have quickly adopted these new habits, and sometimes these habits don’t serve us.” But all is not lost. We are still masters of our own domain. “There is so much more that you can do as an individual than these tech companies can do to supposedly hook you”. Ultimately, it’s on each of us individually to wrestle back control and limit the hold tech has over us. If we really want to that is.

Posted by Rob in iPhone, Mobile, Social Media
A Jungle In The Desert

A Jungle In The Desert

Can Amazon shake up the digital ad industry in the Middle East like it has done in the US?

Originally featured in the March 10th 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

What comes to mind when you think of Amazon? Maybe the world’s biggest online retail platform – the ‘everything store’. Or perhaps it’s consumer products like the Alexa-enabled smart speaker and Kindle e-Reader, or an army of delivery drones and warehouse robots that are revolutionizing retail logistics. Or maybe even as one of the world’s biggest cloud hosting platforms. Truth is, Amazon is a lot of different things to a lot of different users. While its online marketplace might be what the company is best known for, Amazon makes money in a lot more ways than just taking a cut off products sold on its site.

One such way is its burgeoning digital ad business, a platform that is beginning to mount a serious challenge to the current duopoly of Google and Facebook. Amazon is gaining traction charging companies to promote their products on both the Amazon website and a growing display network across the web. Brands can pay to feature their products prominently in product searches, on individual product pages, and also as regular display ads for products for sale on Amazon itself and even on third-party sites.

In 2018, Amazon made $10 billion from its ad platform, a massive jump from $2.8 billion in 2017, making it the third-biggest player in the space, behind only Google and Facebook. To put it in perspective, Amazon’s $10 billion in ad revenue still considerably trails Facebook ($56 billion in 2018) and Google (a whopping $137 billion in 2018), although the fact that this vertical has grown so quickly over the last couple of years is a hugely impressive.

While these two Goliaths are far bigger currently, the advantage that Amazon has over them is that users actually shop on Amazon rather than just search the web as on Google, or browse social media as on Facebook. As such, their ads are seen in places where the user is in an active buying mindset. And while other platforms know what users are searching for or looking at, Amazon knows what they ultimately end up buying. Such information can be incredibly valuable to brands willing to pay for the right placement. Another trend that’s working in Amazon’s favour is that consumers are increasingly starting online product searches directly on Amazon instead of Google. This increased search traffic is attracting third-party sellers and the ad placements available give them a unique opportunity to usurp rivals at the point of sale, even when a customer searches directly for a competitor.

While Amazon’s ad platform is still less sophisticated than its rivals, it is constantly improving and recent months have seen a slew of new features that make the platform more robust and easier for advertisers to use. The company has been expanding a self-service option for ad agencies and brands to take advantage of its data on shoppers, which includes hundreds of automated audience segments, as well as targeting based on shopping behavior and customer demographics. To make it less confusing to brands, all advertising features have recently been folded under the Amazon Advertising umbrella, echoing a similar move by Google last year. Through its dominance in e-commerce in the US, Amazon has become integral to the advertising industry there. Brands are threatened by its power, but also know that they have to maintain a presence on the site or risk being marginalized, and one of the best ways to get seen now on Amazon is to buy ads.

Since acquiring Souq.com for a rumoured $580 million in 2017, Amazon has been relatively hands-off, at least from a consumer perspective. All that looks set to change, however, as the company gets ready to shutter the Souq.com site and rebrand as Amazon.ae in the UAE, later doing the same in Saudi Arabia. The revamped site would look similar to Amazon’s other international websites, like Amazon UK or Amazon Germany, giving it a more unified appearance and brand in the region. The new platform will also be better-integrated with the same logistics and seller back-end system as the US, which will presumably include integration with the growing ad network too. The Middle East e-commerce sector is growing at a rapid pace with online sales expected to double to $48.8 billion by 2021 according to a report by Fitch Solutions Macro Research. With more people shopping online, and starting the product search directly on these large e-commerce channels too, brands will need to maintain their presence there if they want to be seen. Assuming that these capabilities will soon be available in the Middle East, this presents an opportunity for forward-thinking advertisers in the region who are willing to try something new.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Amazon, Campaign Magazine, Dubai, e-Commerce
The Year Ahead For… Social Media

The Year Ahead For… Social Media

This article was originally featured in the Predictions 2019 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine on 13th Jan 2019.

It’s that time of year again, and while it’s usually a bit of a folly to try and predict the cycle of  broad consumer trends based on the layout of the Gregorian calendar, it doesn’t hurt to look at how some trends might continue to evolve over the coming months. While many yearly predictions can end up turning into a game of buzzword bingo (I’m looking at you Blockchain, AI, AR etc.), instead, the below focuses more on what the average user might experience on social media moving into 2019, and thus what advertisers should take note of. This is not an exhaustive list for sure, but it might help you make sense of the social media landscape over the coming months.

STORIES, STORIES EVERYWHERE

In the not-too-distant past, the News Feed was the centre of all life on social media, but in the last two years, much of this usage has shifted to Stories. People just can’t get enough of the ephemeral vertical video format. The incredible popularity of Stories has been one of the most noticeable trends in social media over the last 12 months, with every platform seemingly adopting the format. Today, more than 1.2 billion users around the world share Stories each day across Instagram (400m+), Facebook / Messenger (300m+), WhatsApp (450m+) and Snapchat (150m+). Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox has predicted that, in 2019, Stories will surpass feed posts as the top way to share on its channels.

At the same time, other platforms like YouTube, Netflix and even LinkedIn have introduced Stories-style video over the last few months and will undoubtedly aim to utilize this format in the coming year. With this in mind, expect to see vertical video continue to become even more ubiquitous across the board, giving advertisers more of an incentive to create custom creative for the format rather than just adapting current assets.

AD OVERLOAD

Ironically, despite the recent growth in popularity of Stories, advertisers have been slow to fully embrace the format. Expect this to change in 2019. With the feed having been saturated with ads for some years now, the Stories feature is prime real-estate for growth, so expect to see more and more ads there in 2019. While revenue and user growth is slowing on Facebook, Instagram is booming. As such, expect to see an even bigger push for ads on Instagram as Facebook looks to offset this slowing ad growth. The Instagram feed will inevitably continue to become even more clogged with ads, while advertising will also start rolling out on WhatsApp too. As these platforms struggle to meet revenue targets, the once-sacred ideal of user experience will continue taking a back seat to cold hard cash.

With more and more ads getting in the way of regular content, and users becoming more aware of, and resistant to, the concept of targeted advertising, at what point will they start pushing back? Ad blockers are becoming an ever-popular way of dodging this onslaught, and brands must tread carefully so as not to alienate their audience.

INFLUENCER MARKETING MATURES

With it becoming ever harder to make an impact on users with traditional digital ads, brands are looking for more left-field ways of spending their budget on social media. Influencer marketing might have been considered a gimmicky and somewhat contentious approach in some circles up until recently, but this is an area that is maturing each year. With new regulation being introduced in the UAE in 2018, brands can be more confident that their budget is being spent legitimately. But with more money at stake, it’s increasingly important to choose creators that are a good fit with your brand, and to carefully consider what type of content you want them to create for you.

There is a huge opportunity for creating impactful content via influencers, but brands must be willing to budget accordingly. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Social media marketing in general was initially seen as a fluffy channel where marketers could get free distribution until organic reach evaporated in 2014. Since then, marketers have been forced to re-evaluate this belief and consider it as they would any other paid channel; one that requires a dedicated budget and a well thought-out strategy. The same is now true for influencer marketing.

CLEANING OUT THE CLOSET

2018 was a watershed year for social media as most platforms faced increasing pressure from both users and the media over how they regulate content and manage user data. This will likely intensify in 2019. From concerns over user privacy and ‘fake news’ on Facebook, to trolling on Twitter and bot accounts on Instagram, many users are getting fed-up and these platforms are aware of the threat that this could pose to their sustainability in the long run. As users become more knowledgeable about how digital platforms make money from their presence, the platforms are being held to a higher standard and pressured into becoming more transparent. Expect to see more moves to appease these concerns over the coming months.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Campaign Magazine, Facebook, Links of the Week, Social Media
Vertical Take-Off

Vertical Take-Off

More people than ever are watching Stories, but marketers are still obsessed with the Feed.

Originally featured in the December 2nd 2018 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

In the not-too-distant past, the humble News Feed was the centre of all life on social media. Whether on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, this was where the action happened. Snapchat shook up the scene with its vanishing person-to-person photos in 2012, but it wasn’t until the launch of the ‘Stories’ feature in October 2013 that the focus started shifting from scrollable feeds to more intimate and spontaneous sequences of videos that effectively let everyone cultivate their own personal reality TV channel. In August 2016 this format really started to hit the mainstream when Instagram introduced its version of Stories. It proved so successful that its parent company, Facebook, rolled it out across the Facebook and WhatsApp apps six months later. Because Stories disappear after 24 hours, they inspire an urgency that most forms of social sharing don’t. There’s nothing like a little FOMO to grab people’s attention.

Today, more than 1.2 billion users share Stories each day across Instagram (400m+), Facebook / Messenger (300m+), WhatsApp (450m+) and Snapchat (150m+). People can’t get enough of them. Facebook Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox has predicted that Stories will surpass feed posts as the top way to share by next year. Where eyeballs go, ad dollars are not usually far behind. But it seems that marketers are a little slow on the uptake in shifting their spend towards Stories from the News Feed. Mark Zuckerberg himself has has attributed some of the parent company’s slowing revenue growth to an explosion in Instagram Stories usage. Basically, proportionately fewer ads are being seen in the Feed because users are spending more time watching Stories, but advertisers haven’t yet made this leap too.

The ads on Stories are hard to ignore because they take over the entire screen of the phone, offering brands a large, interactive canvas to play with. Many brands that have taken the plunge with Stories have reported a higher engagement over Feed ads, seeing users swiping up to learn more about a product when compared to clicking on an ad in the Feed, and generally viewing these ads for longer. While the Feed’s biggest selling point has traditionally been a chance to reach more people, even this is about to change.

So why are advertisers seemingly hesitant to embrace Stories?

Advertiser demand for new formats can typically lag user engagement as marketers figure out how to take advantage of them. Because the way users consume Stories is so different than the way they consume content in the Feed, everything from the creative strategy, to the story you want to tell needs a fresh consideration. Not to mention creating the assets. The vertical ad format is still relatively uncommon outside of Snapchat so many advertisers have a decision to make over whether to adapt current assets for Stories, or create them specifically from scratch – a potentially expensive process. Either way, there is certainly a learning curve for brands to navigate to keep up with consumers’ evolving digital usage.

For those first mover brands, the benefits are real. In addition to a potential boost in viewability and engagement, a lack of initial demand can lead to lower prices in the auction-based ad environment, an opportunity for savvy marketers that are quick to dive in. According to marketing technology company 4C Insights, the CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) on Facebook Stories, which only rolled out to the masses in September, is currently around 25 per cent cheaper than on the Feed, although this gap is expected to diminish over time.

As more and more platforms embrace Stories, and the vertical ads that go with the territory, it will gradually become more worthwhile for brands to create vertical advertising content. Both Netflix and LinkedIn are planning to introduce Stories-style video formats over the coming months, while YouTube and WhatsApp recently started rolling out vertical video ads within their apps. Similarly, Snapchat have recently launched another new format in the Middle East that features locally produced content, called Shows, which will also host vertical ads.

Facebook itself has been trying to make advertising in Stories simpler by allowing advertisers to easily modify their current assets for the vertical format at the click of a button on Ad Manager, as well as simultaneously rolling them out on Stories across both Instagram and Facebook for maximum reach. To boost uptake, the company has recently launched an initiative to educate SMEs and agencies on the benefits of Stories, a so-called Stories School.

The incredible popularity of the Stories format is even further proof that we are well and truly in an era of visual communication and Facebook knows how important it is to get ads on Stories right. Mark Zuckerberg admitted as much back in April – “one of the interesting opportunities and challenges over the coming years will be making sure that ads are as good in Stories as they are in Feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business”. With Facebook’s platforms accounting for over 1 billion of the more than 1.2 billion daily Stories users, they sure have more skin in the game than most.

Posted by Rob in Campaign Magazine, Snapchat
What next for Instagram?

What next for Instagram?

With Instagram’s co-founders both quitting Facebook, are we about to see a more aggressive pursuit of ad dollars on the platform?

Originally featured in the October 21st 2018 issue of Campaign Middle East magazine

Seemingly out of the blue on Monday, September 24, Instagram’s two co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who had both remained with the company since being acquired by Facebook in 2012, both abruptly resigned from the social media giant. The reason seems to be that Mark Zuckerberg had become overbearing in his control of the company, wanting to take the app in a direction that the founders disagreed with.

While this is a bombshell in-and-of itself, the fact that it comes hot on the heels of the two WhatsApp co-founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton also quitting Facebook back in April for similar reasons, points to a broader movement. Despite Zuckerberg being traditionally quite facilitating to the founders of the companies that have been acquired by Facebook over the years, it seems that he is gradually starting to exert his influence and take a more active role in the business side of things with these companies.

So what has changed?

While Instagram initially relied on Facebook to help launch and scale its advertising offering, now it is Facebook that relies on Instagram for future growth. While revenue and user growth on Facebook is flagging, Instagram is booming. In the latest earnings call in July, the company forecast a continued slowdown in revenue growth and a slimming of profit margins, but disclosed that the growing number of ads on Instagram is an increasingly significant contributor to Facebook’s overall revenue. They also emphasised an intent to secure more ad dollars from Instagram going forward. It is this fixation on perpetual growth that is worrying for Instagram users. As Instagram becomes more-and-more important to Facebook’s bottom line, there is a continued risk that we will see the platform being overly commercialised.

Users have been drifting away from Facebook recently, not just because of ‘fake news’ or privacy breaches, but also because much of the recent growth in ad revenue has come from smaller companies that have clogged the Newsfeed with spammier content. While early corporate advertisers tend to be big brands or smart startups with relatively high quality ads, over time that quality tends to dip. As a platform matures, there is a clear trade-off between making it more accessible to smaller advertisers, and maintaining the quality of ads, a compromise that can affect the aesthetics of the platform in general.

The worry for Instagram is that something similar could happen to it too, and that this could be more strongly felt as lower quality ads could jolt the user out of the polished, picture perfect world of the Instagram feed. We are already starting to see this in effect in Dubai, with ads for massage parlours and furniture-moving companies that look like they were created by an eight-year old on Microsoft Paint. Not to mention the raft of wannabe influencers that pay to promote their own posts in a bid to grow their following, and subsequently, their ‘influence’.

Interestingly, the Stories format is relatively untapped from a monetisation point of view so far. In fact, Facebook has attributed some of the company’s slowing revenue growth to increased Instagram Stories usage. That is, more and more users are watching Stories at the expense of scrolling through the feed. But you can be sure that Facebook are eyeing this up as prime real estate for growth, and have recently launched an initiative to encourage SMEs to run ads there. Expect to see your local dog walker or handy man popping-up in an Instagram Stories ad in the not-too-distant future.

Ultimately, an increase in ads combined with a reduction in the quality of these ads affects the user experience and the overall quality of the platform. If Instagram too becomes chock-full of trashy ads, the people that moved from Facebook to Instagram to get away from the bombardment might just move on to somewhere else again in time. Generally speaking, this has been one of the more successful acquisitions in tech history, with Facebook playing it excellently so far, waiting for just the right moment to introduce ads to Instagram. It’s only been three years since Instagram opened up their self-service ad platform to a broader market in September 2015. While this certainly is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, they still have to play it carefully or risk turning Instagram into an inhospitable wasteland.

Posted by Rob in Advertising, Campaign Magazine, Facebook, Mobile, Snapchat