future thinkers update

Digital ties that bind

by Paul Hudson
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The Now Culture gives rise to a new breed of ‘always-on’ challenging consumers who demand instant responses  
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Majority of us feel ‘upset’ when deprived of Internet

The internet has become so embedded in people’s lives in the Digital Age that it has begun to reshape the way consumers, feel, think and behave, posing significant challenges for organisations struggling to respond to the demands of the ‘Now Culture’.

Rather than regarding the internet as simply a practical enabling technology, our new ‘Digital Selves’ research revealed the seductive appeal of 24 hour connections and the ability to reach anyone anywhere in the world for consumers. We found that the internet has begun to stake a claim in consumers’ hearts as well as their minds.

Our Digital Selves project researched the impact of online and digital technology on people’s everyday lives in the UK and we found that more than half of the people we surveyed would feel ‘upset’ at the prospect of being deprived of an internet connection even for a short time.

The extent of people’s emotional dependency on technology in their everyday lives was surprising, with 40% avowing that they would feel ‘lonely’ if they were unable to go online or use other technological means of communication.

The project, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 individuals aged from 18 to over 65, included a challenge to participants to get through one full day without using technology and to record their reactions to the experience. While the idea of no internet had prompted widespread anxiety, people reacted just as, if not even more strongly, to the prospect of foregoing technology altogether, even for 24 hours.

Giving up technology was considered by some to be as hard as quitting smoking or drinking, while one survey participant described it as “like having my hand chopped off.”

A significant number of people ‘cheated’ by switching on the television or radio as they did not regard them as ‘technology gadgets’, underlining the extent to which technology is now part of the fabric of people’s lives.

Many participants found it extremely hard to resist the temptation to go online, especially those for whom online communication represents a large part of their social interaction. A total of 40% of people felt ‘lonely’ when not engaging in activities such as social networking, emails, texting or watching their favourite television channels.

Younger people, who tend to be heavier users of social media and text messaging, found giving up technology the most difficult while older people generally coped more easily when cut off from digital connections.

The clear message is that online and digital technology is increasingly pervasive, affecting all aspects of our lives. It is influencing our friendships, the way we communicate, the fabric of our family life, our work, purchasing habits and our dealings with organisations.

This stepchange has occurred faster than many of us had anticipated or realised as the true ramifications of living in the Digital Age only now become apparent and the implications for society both from a personal and commercial perspective are profound.

The fact that information (if not services) is digitally available 24/7 means that we increasingly expect organisations to respond to us if not 24/7, then a lot faster than they have ever been used to historically. In fact, we don’t just want things soon - in the Now Culture we all want them ‘now’ and we’re not prepared to settle for anything less.

Also, the more technically adept and digitally connected we become, the more opportunities and channels are open to us through which to make our wishes known. We can email an organisation, phone them, text them - and if we don’t get the response we’re looking for we can ‘tweet’ about it.

Organisations may have legitimate resource issues, technology issues or even deep-rooted cultural issues which make it difficult for them to respond adequately to this new breed of consumers (many of whom are extremely well-informed thanks to their ability to surf for information before they get in touch).

In the Now Culture the bar has been set higher in terms of consumer expectations of service while simultaneously there is a lower threshold for putting up with inferior service. In a separate poll we carried out recently, we found that poor service infuriates 27% of customers. In fact, the proportion of people who are angry about customer service has been consistently rising from 15% in 2003 to 17% in 2006, and 27% today.

This marked increase is linked to a dramatic and strategic shift in customer expectations which has taken place in tandem with a greater attachment to technology, the dawn of the Digital Age, and the emergence of the Now Culture.

However, there is no such thing as entirely homogenous consumer behaviour in the Digital Age, or indeed in any other. To formulate an effective strategy to deal with consumers in the Now Culture, requires a deeper examination of behavioural trends.

Our Digital Selves report highlights * five distinct segments of the population who exhibit different characteristics in relation to technology in general but in particular to the internet. Developing a familiarity with each segment is essential if organisations are to adopt the correct strategy for marketing and selling to consumers and for servicing their needs.

People were categorised based on a set of criteria which included: willingness and keenness to use the internet; skill level; propensity to explore and experiment online; confidence in using social media such as social networking sites; and also attitudes to privacy and security while online. Interestingly, the differential in terms of skill is not the key deciding factor between the segments, behaviour and attitude are also critical factors.

Most organisations are still taking baby steps in relative terms when it comes to understanding these different segments let alone getting to grips with how to engage with them. They have the additional headache of dealing with a plethora of contact channels.

The situation is already complex and multi-layered with a plethora of contact channels to deal with. What is clear is that while we have begun to get a good handle on the behaviour of adult groups in the Digital Age, including the distinct group of 18-25 year olds who constitute ‘Digital Natives’, today’s ‘technots’ and ‘tweenies’ and teenagers will pose a whole new challenge.

We are about to embark on a ‘Digital Futures’ study looking exclusively at digital engagement and adoption in under-18s which we expect to highlight even more radical developments in children and teenagers.

* Detailed information on the five segments is contained within our Digital Selves report. For further information on this research contact Alison Little at alison.little@intersperience.com

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