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Digital Addiction, Social Media and the Future of Marketing

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As a keen user of social media I often find myself in "lively discussions" with critics who dismiss the whole thing as a hyped-up flash in the pan. Some of the fiercest critics I meet are working in advertising and marketing, and I can sympathize with their point of view -- up to a point. Their chests are sore from the prodding fingers of digital interlopers proclaiming how social media is going to make the old media disciplines redundant. They point out that for all the excitement about social media, on average Americans still spend 20 percent of their day watching TV.

Over recent months there's even been more good news for my social media refusenik and digital doubter friends. Alongside the relentless addition of zeroes to Facebook's user stats, there have been media stories of "millions" deactivating their Facebook accounts; it seems some users are bored, some find it uncool to be rubbing digital shoulders with their mum and her friends, some don't like the commercialization and some are worried about their privacy. In fact the trend seemed to be confirmed in August, when Gartner issued a report headlined "Consumer Fatigue with Social Media."

According to ZDNet, disgruntled users have flooded Facebook with requests to see their personal data. Instructions on how to make the request and discussions about the possible repercussions have spread like wildfire through -- you guessed it -- social media.

Could it be that the tide is turning against social media, or are these just examples of journalists looking for eye-catching angles on a familiar story?

According to Nielsen's Social Media Report for Q3 2011, social networks and blogs are still the main destinations online, accounting for a quarter of the time Americans spend on the Internet. Facebook is the top destination and in May 2011 American spent 53.5 billion minutes on it, up from 50.6 billion in May 2010.

It looks like those reports of Facebook losing popularity may be a little premature.

Still, let's suppose that a growing number of consumers do decide to turn away from the dominant social media platforms. What will they do with the time and attention they save? Will they engage more in sports and physical activity? Watch more TV and listen to more radio and music? Read more printed books, magazines and newspapers? Socialize more face-to-face? Go to the movies more, see more plays and concerts? Spend more time gardening or fixing things around the home? In other words, will people spend time as they used to spend it a decade ago?

That would mean not only cutting back on Facebook and the like, but also turning away from the computers and smartphones and tablets they use to access social media. Maybe some people do have the discipline and determination to "go analog," just as some people manage to kick carbs and embrace salads and smaller portions. It does happen, but take a look around; it's a struggle -- many try and not so many manage it.

Experience shows that once people have had quick and easy Internet access they don't want to give it up, especially if they have a portable or mobile device. Sure, Facebook could go out of style, just as MySpace did. Many may decide to freeze out Facebook and turn their back on Twitter, but my hunch is that few consumers do that. And few that do will ditch their digital devices and cut their Internet connectivity. Despite the dire economy, sales of smartphones and tablets are surging; 29 million consumers bought an iPad in its first 15 months and Amazon is about to enter the tablet market with a lower-priced competitor that's gotten the media excited already; as Gizmodo put it breathlessly: "The first thing that hit us? This. Thing. Is. Really. Fast."

The power of mobile devices is increasing, the prices are coming down and the range of apps and content for them is growing -- including videos, live TV and catch-up TV. As they become lighter and handier, and connectivity increases, growing numbers of consumers will have a mobile device within reach all the time and everywhere -- including while they're watching TV. They may be spending long periods on these screens, as they currently do with TV, computers and games consoles, or they may be dipping in and out.

Either way, mobile screens will grab an increasing share of their attention. And whatever else they're doing with their device, some of it will involve interacting with others, whether it's through Facebook and Twitter or other services. So the choice for marketers is clear: Either disregard digital and work a lot harder and smarter for the shrinking non-digital portion of consumers' attention, or embrace digital and work a lot harder and smarter for the growing digital share.

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