We are addicted to our smartphones. More than 40 percent of us look at our phones within five minutes of waking up. Over the course of a day, we’ll check our phones 50 to 80 times. For 30 percent of us, our phone is the last thing we see before going to bed, Deloitte reports.
But how much of that time is spent mindlessly scrolling on social media, and how much is spent engaging meaningfully with content? How much of what we absorb on our phones do we actually remember?
If your social network time consists of a scroll-filled haze, you’re not alone. It’s as if the action itself—scroll, tap, rinse, repeat—matters much more than the content actually consumed.
Binky, a fake social app, exploits this idea. Like Facebook, Binky has lots of posts and content, all conveniently available via a never-ending timeline. Scroll through to find an infinite list of random things: Swiss cheese, puddles, the Denver Broncos. You can like these “binks,” you can swipe right or left to show your approval, you can “re-bink” and share. But unlike on Facebook or Twitter, nothing you do matters. The content is meaningless. Every action you take is meaningless. Your friends will never know you commented with a clever hashtag on a picture of a llama.
That’s because, according to the app’s creator, meaningful content isn’t the point anymore. Rather, it’s the act of scrolling purposelessly that matters.
“When you want to use your phone just to use your phone, you want Binky,” app creator Dan Kurtz quips in Binky’s promo video.
Binky mocks our addiction to perpetual scrolling. If all we care about is the act of scrolling through content, Binky argues, does it matter what the content actually is?
For all of us who have lost time scrolling, zombie-like, on any number of social platforms, the answer seems hazy. According to the Atlantic’s Ian Bogost, smartphones are the cigarette of this century. Like cigarettes, smartphones create a compulsive habit that “brings people together in a shared dependency whose indulgence also produces the calming relief of new data.” The act of seeing and touching a smartphone is far more important than digesting the information delivered, he argues.
Curiously, smartphones themselves seem to make us scroll even faster. People scroll and consume information much faster on smartphones than on desktop computers, research has shown. Facebook found that people process information significantly faster when they use a mobile device than on a desktop (1.7 seconds versus 2.5, Ad Age reported). Twitter came to a similar conclusion based on eye-tracking studies.
Age seems to be a factor as well. The younger you are, the faster you scroll and consume content. On Facebook, millennials consume ads 2.5 times faster than people in their sixties, Digiday reported.
Are younger users particularly adept at distinguishing good content versus bad content? Or are their thumb muscles just especially toned? Regardless, all this scrolling and content consumption doesn’t seem to be adding much to people’s lives—in fact, it’s the opposite.
Only 9 percent of Facebook user activity includes communicating with others, according to a study published in Computers in Human Behavior. Instead, people tend to passively, randomly consume content on the platform. And this passive consumption impacts people’s mental health, negatively impacting their mood and causing them to feel unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Researchers believe this is because people feel like they’ve wasted their time.
To recap: Especially on mobile, social network users are rapidly and mindlessly scrolling through their timelines, and often feeling bad about it after the fact.
In this saturated content environment, content marketers need to ask themselves: Is my brand’s content making things better or worse?
As mock social app Binky makes clear, people may use their phones and social media apps as more of a mindless distraction than for actual content engagement. The real “engagement” may be the act of scrolling versus engagement in the marketing sense. Sure, people will stop and linger on the occasional content nugget. But a lot of the time, their activity on social media is more reflexive and passive versus active and engaged.
That means marketers need better, splashier, and more valuable content to force users to stop the scrolling and ultimately engage meaningfully with the content. That initial half-second (or even quarter-second) of time as a user scrolls by may be the only chance to catch a user’s attention and entice them to pause, whether with a snappy headline, striking visual, or eye-catching video.
The other point here is how to look at content engagement metrics, such as shares or comments, versus impressions. The number of people who see your content might look good. But a lot of those scroll-by views are the passive, bored gestures of a public increasingly accustomed to scrolling for scrolling’s sake while forgetting most of what they see.
Psychological studies show that people tend to feel bad after using social platforms because, after a scrolling session, it feels like a waste of time. But if marketers can provide relevant, quality content that informs, surprises, or educates, that could perhaps put a dent in those negative feelings. We already know that compelling, educational content tends to win over customers for its value. It’s possible that such content offers psychological benefits, too.
Given the shortening shelf life of social media posts, it’s also important to look beyond social platforms as their content end game. Brands should shore up their owned assets—blogs, white papers, infographics, videos, etc.—that live on long after that half-second window of a user’s semi-bored scroll. Social platforms may be able to extend the reach of your content, but it’s still the quality of the asset itself that matters.
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Featured image attribution: Priscilla Westra