First came donuts, then came munchkins

Do you remember the first desktop computer you or your family owned? And do you remember what you used to do when you went online? Maybe you played video games, used AOL email, MSN instant messenger, or just surfed the web. Maybe you were even an early Amazon customer? Well, whatever you did, I’m sure you remember this…

Think back to the room the computer used to sit in. Do you remember how you used to *stare* at that thick glass screen? You were in the peace and quiet of your home, surrounded by four motionless walls. There was nothing to distract you from your browsing; that screen had your attention.

Finally, do you remember how long you’d spend on that computer every day? Maybe you don’t remember exactly, but perhaps it was 40 to 60 minutes at a time.

Most consumers in developed countries had similar experiences: the length of each browsing sessions was long (about 30–60 minutes) and, unless your mum shouted ‘DINNER TIME!’ at you for a third time in five minutes, your browsing session was distraction-free.

Browsing sessions on desktop are long and infrequent.

Fast forward to January 2017, when the iPhone celebrated it’s 10th anniversary. How are you browsing now? At the risk of stating the obvious, you’re going online all the time, every day — on your phone.

Think about all the places you use your phone… In line at Starbucks. While you’re on the subway. When you’re looking up movie reviews. When you’re watching Netflix. When you’re posting a photo on Facebook. When you’re calling an Uber. When you’re getting dinner with a friend and they go to the bathroom. When you go to the bathroom. And so forth… These are all small moments, usually unplanned.

On average, consumers look at their phone 221 times a day. That’s once every five minutes. Additionally, the typical iPhone user unlocks their phone 80 times a day. No longer are consumers fixated on a screen for 30 minutes at a time. Now, consumers are only looking at their screen for 30 seconds at a time:

Browsing sessions on mobile are short and frequent.

In our ever-more-digital world, brands face ever-shortening windows of opportunity in which to capture a consumer’s attention.

This shift in browsing behaviour, from long sessions to short moments, has changed the environment in which consumers browse. Remember that room your desktop computer used to sit in, illuminated by the screen’s engrossing glow? Well, your attention wasn’t going anywhere. Brands had the luxury of your attention and time on desktop. Now, as a mobile user, not only do you have distractions in the world around you, you also have distractions on the very screen that draws your attention:

  • On-screen distractions (e.g. texts, Instagram notifications, important emails, breaking news alerts, Venmo requests, etc)
  • Off-screen distractions (e.g. the Starbucks barista telling you your coffee is ready, the people getting on and off your train, your Uber arriving, going to Spotify to change the song you’re listening to in your headphones, etc)

You also have a lot more choices of what to do online than you did 10 years ago.

Although we hear a lot about ever-decreasing attention spans in an ever-more-digital world, the reality is that people will give you their attention for as long as they used to if you give them an experience that won’t be overpowered by the new distractions of mobile.

Easier said than done, admittedly.

Looking to the future, if 2000 was full of donuts and 2017 is full of munchkins, what do the next few years of consumer browsing behaviour look like?

Well, the windows of opportunity to engage with consumers will get even shorter. This will be driven by voice-first technologies like Alexa and augmented reality technologies like Snap. Consumers will also continue to have more reasons to turn to their phones… More people will buy products on their phones. More people will pay for good on their phones. More people will control their home electronics on their phone. More people will broadcast live video streams on their phone.

As such, the windows of opportunities for brand to engage with you will continue to get shorter and more frequent:

In the future, consumers will ‘go online’ in ever-shortening, increasingly frequent moments.

As such, the consumer experience playing field will look like this: a lot more defenders (aka distractions) but a lot more opportunities to shoot and score with each consumer if a brand’s tactics are good enough to win the consumer’s attention. In a game of football/soccer, winning usually means passing between your players to get around defenders. In the game of consumer attention, winning means passing data and understanding between all your experiences to score a few more seconds of a consumer’s attention against a wall of distractions.

Why’s that? Well, although consumer browsing behaviour continues to change, building relationships with consumers is still no different from how you build relationships with the friends and family you text, Facebook, and email on your phone: you just build off your previous conversations and experiences together to further your relationship. Think about it this way… If you ignored every conversations you had with your best friend and ignored the answer to every question you had asked them, they wouldn’t be your best friend, they’d be confused.

That’s why collecting and using consumer data is so important as the average browsing session length continues to shorten. Data is not about being ‘smart’, it’s about creating a bond.

Every additional moment a consumer is online is just another opportunity to talk to the consumer, learn about them, from them, to build that bond.