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How to delight audiences in the day of ‘digital well-being’

Why people are breaking up with their smartphones and stepping back from social (and what it means for PR pros)

Nearly ten years on from the iPhone’s 2007 introduction, no aspect of how we interact with each other or the world around us has been left unchanged. However, these changes, though rapid, have occurred incrementally, and—swept up in the successes of our own innovation—without much thought for their implications. Only in recent months have critics begun to step back and examine this, and concerns of smartphone and social media addiction have entered the public consciousness.

Snapchat scandals and Cambridge Analytica calamities aside, humanity’s digital attention crisis is shaping up to be 2018’s biggest tech debate. The movement, coined “Time Well Spent” by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, promotes a greater understanding of the manipulative methods used by Big Tech to addict us to their products.

For example, in a method borrowed from slot machines, to refresh Instagram’s feed, users must mimic the action of pulling a lever, wherein the app will either dispense a reward—new content, a follow, or “Like”—or nothing at all. Termed intermittent variable rewards, it is this unpredictability, psychologists insist, that keep users returning for more.

With users fighting back through all number of creative workarounds—disabling notifications, switching their phones to greyscale, even locking their phones in boxes—Silicon Valley has been forced to take notice. Despite going against their commercial imperatives to do so, these tech giants recognise that unless they embrace digital wellness, they’ll be regulated to do so. Earlier this year, both Google and Apple announced new tools to promote digital well-being, giving users more ways to restrict their smartphone usage and schedule break reminders. Soon after, Instagram began notifying users when they had caught up on all recent posts, and most recently, rolled out its own Activity Dashboard alongside Facebook’s.

For PR professionals, these moves present both a challenge and an opportunity. The attention we compete for online is already in short supply, and this guarantees that gaining it is only going to get tougher. However, those brands adding genuine value to their follower’s lives may have reason to rejoice. As more people begin to disconnect from their devices, surfing social media will become less of a reflexive exercise, but rather an activity performed with a purpose—to be entertained, to be moved, or to be inspired.

Only brands that fill this need by creating content that captivates and compels their audience, as well as connects them to a like-minded community, will rise to the surface. Those that continue to rely on clickbait, clumsy CTAs (“Comment ‘😍’ if you LOVE this look!”), and other copy clichés, meanwhile, will most certainly sink.

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