The average UK citizen is bombarded with anything up to 5,000 ad messages every day. Digital technology is fuelling this growth and we expect this figure to rise exponentially. Now combine that number of messages with the ever-increasing range of formats and environments available and you have a massively diverse, exciting, complex and fragmented brand eco-system.
The need to create engagement has never been so important for brands But, because everyone's attention is squeezed, generating the kind of quality time that builds relationships between people and brands is becoming more and more difficult.
Of course, the fundamentals of engagement have not changed: the desire to understand others and to be understood, the desire to be entertained and the propensity to exercise one's curiosity.
So, what is changing? It must be the environment, the very context of engagement. We believe it's evolving very quickly indeed. Old engagement revolved around push-style messaging in a more tightly packaged media landscape. In a controlled space, if you could shout loudly and often enough you would be heard and, if the insight and execution were right, loved.
But that was before Distraction Culture came along. Now, in developed consumer economies, more people have the technology and hardware they need to access more information, entertainment and culture than ever before - immediately and, in many cases, simultaneously and in the way they want.
This increasing availability vies for attention and focus. Therefore finding the time and mind space to concentrate on one thing is becoming ever more difficult.
And, as we all know, this Distraction Culture is hellishly addictive. The thought of being disconnected from all those e-mails, texts, social media networks, search engines - many would be lying if they did not admit that switching off can be more than merely disconnecting, and is more akin to closing down your identity.
In fact, there are interesting parallels here between "content grazing" (or media snacking, as it used to be called) and the fast-food industry. It's the immediate gratification and ability to control the frequency that is habit-forming. But, whereas with the fast-food industry the effect was easy to see, the effects of Distraction Culture are harder to observe because they are psychological, not physical.
People who live among Distraction Culture are addicted to their screens. They see them as a way of being connected to the world, something that they control, their value increasing as more people are available to connect to them - the classic "network effect". But what happens if we look at it the other way; that it is the network that is in control of them, and the other millions of people who are connected? What would be the implications?
All said, Distraction Culture does present a huge opportunity. The rules of the game have changed. Creating engagement demands an approach that combines informed thinking and dramatic, relevant execution that is as equally fast-moving as real-world culture. Then shouldn't agencies look to mirror in terms of structure or process the type of communications that resonate with a 2010 public?
When you think about it, agencies are metaphors for the kind of work they produce. Agencies that made old-style, compartmentalised campaigns were old-style, compartmentalised companies operating in an old-style, compartmentalised media world. In the age of Distraction Culture, agencies must consist of teams of diverse people, who are flexible, able to think and act quickly, and can steward on-brand communications for their clients that really help unlock the potential of this always-on, multi-layered content-grazing that their consumers are so addicted to.
This is New Engagement
Ironically enough, to really get the most out of New Engagement, you have to look at the basics. So, again, we are back full circle to the fundamentals of engagement that we listed earlier: the desire to understand others and to be understood, the desire to be entertained and the propensity to exercise your curiosity. These qualities are programmed into us. The real issue is how technology is changing the context in which they operate and, ultimately, how this is affecting us.
So where will the evolving nature of New Engagement - and Distraction Culture - take us?
First, that "switch-off time" will become critical to industry and society as a whole. Sooner or later, it will be recognised that the inability of people to focus on one thing for any length of time, due to the intensifying of Distraction Culture and content grazing, will pose the threat of doing real damage to productivity and social wellbeing. There was a recent expedition, funded by The New York Times, in which a group of neuroscientists, psychologists and brain experts made a five-day trip down a river in a remote part of Utah with the aim of escaping from connectivity. Their quest: discuss what effect "switch-off time" would have on the human brain. In fact, some theorists argue that technology and Distraction Culture are beginning to alter the way our brains physically operate; only time will yield the answers.
Second, the communications industry will have a defining role to play in the speed of culture. The ideas and techniques we explore while trying to unlock the potential of New Engagement may well find their way into mainstream culture. That is why the ability for creative, technical and planning to work together in tight-knit, nimble teams thriving on the chance to experiment will be critical. There is competitive advantage in speed.
Looking even further ahead, the acceleration of New Engagement will lead to a kind of "middle culture", occupied somewhere between humanity and artificial intelligence. This middle culture, where conversations between humans and artificial intelligence really intermesh to the point of new languages being formed, is already being driven by you - yes, you reading this article. How? With those sentences of strange, machine-like vernacular - or "Googlish" - that you type constantly into the search engine when you are craving engagement once again.
This is a condensed version of an in-depth article available at www.weapon7.com.
- Distraction Culture is only going to intensify over time and New Engagement is the way to cut through
- Agency structure is a metaphor for the style of communications produced. Old-style, siloed, compartmentalised agencies tend to produce campaigns of the same nature
- New Engagement is technology-driven, but it's always going to be fuelled by basic human traits.
Jeremy Garner is the creative director and Mark Brown is the strategy director at Weapon7
(From Campaign's 'What Next in Engagement" supplement, October 2010)