Digital MarketingStrategiesPersonal Digital Content: What It Means for Marketers

Personal Digital Content: What It Means for Marketers

Consumers are changing the way they access digital content. Marketers must change, too.

For as long as anyone’s thought about combining technology and publishing, the idea of “reading” has been central to the experience. From Vannevar Bush’s 1945 vision of the “memex ” to Ted Nelson’s Utopian fever dream of Xanadu to Bolter and Joyce’s seminal Storyspace hypertext authoring platform to the beginnings of the web and up to today, we’ve always seemed to be tied to book-like metaphors. We talk about “browsing” and “reading” web “pages” as if they were made of paper.

At the same time, web browsing has always been a somewhat arm’s-length activity. While more interactive than television, web browsing requires a physical interface – the keyboard/mouse combo – between us and the material we’re reading. The screen’s always been an issue, too: while we’re closer to it than a TV, we’re still a couple of feet away. Even if we actually held our laptops in our laps (being careful to avoid burns!), it wasn’t anywhere near the personal, tactile experience of, say, reading a book or a magazine.

It may be this mixing of metaphors that’s driven how we use content on the web and how content is delivered. On the one hand, we talk about the personal, one-on-one experience of going online and layer on publishing metaphors. On the other hand (especially now as more entertainment is being delivered digitally through services like Netflix and Hulu), there’s the “sit back” aspect that’s more TV-like where we stare at a screen at arm’s length. This tension between “lean forward” and “lean back” has made it so that short-form content and ADHD-friendly content consumption rules. Yes, there are some folks that read e-books on their computers, but the real e-book revolution didn’t come until Amazon’s Kindle came on the market.

The Kindle made consuming long-form digital content accessible to consumers. While it didn’t really look like a book, its trade paperback-sized case fit the hand like a book and its e-ink screen read like a book. You still had to navigate with physical buttons but – as I’m sure most Kindle users would agree – you quickly forgot that you were.

With the advent of the Kindle, text-based digital content became personal. We could hold it in any way we wanted, but it compelled us to keep it close…like a book. It didn’t need wires and keyboards and mice to use. It had a long enough battery life that charging it was almost an afterthought. If you’ve never had one, it might seem like overkill to say that the Kindle offered a glimpse at an intimate experience with digital media…but if you have had one you know it’s true.

But as intimate as the e-reader experience can be, it wasn’t until the iPad that the idea of personal digital content was realized. All of a sudden there were no keyboards, no wires, and no barrier between you and your content. The form factor and display were better too, allowing you to actually curl up with a movie, game, or the web in a way that wasn’t possible before. Adam Lisagor nailed it when he described the iPad as “TV for your chest“…showing the intimacy and immediacy of the experience, especially as compared to computer-based web browsing or TV viewing.

Why should this matter to marketers? Because the blockbuster popularity of the iPad (and iPad2) indicates that we’re in for a real change in how consumers will access digital content today and into the future. And online marketing is going to have to change, too.

A new study published by The Atlantic about how people use their iPads provides some of the best evidence that the iPad (or, to be fair, probably any tablet with a similar form factor and capabilities) experience isn’t the same as the desktop experience. And it also gives some hints about what kinds of content people want.

One of the first surprises is that almost a quarter of respondents had more than one iPad in their household, an indicator of the personal nature of the device. Another surprising fact was that 60 percent of respondents said that their usage has increased since the initial “experimentation” period, a good indicator that the iPad became more embedded in their lives as they realized the capabilities. Nearly the same percentage reported that the iPad hadn’t become their “primary computer,” indicating that the iPad was not about “work” in the normal sense.

Perhaps the most interesting question focused on what people were using their iPad for. Web browsing and communication (email and social media) were the two most popular activities, with “using other apps,” “playing games,” and “watching video” following behind. When asked how much of their “personal computing time” they spent using different devices, the majority reported that they were spending more of their time with their iPads.

Evidence that we are in for a change in how people consume content was the fact that 72 percent reported that they were reading books on their iPads.

Why is this such a big deal? Because if you combine the overwhelming numbers reading books with the majority who used it for web browsing, it’s clear the iPad’s the device that comes closest to what the dream of digital content was in the first place: a “book-like” experience that lends itself to long-form content.

At a time when we’re all striving for closer customer connections, more personalized experiences, and relationships with our customers and prospects, the intimate nature of the iPad experience presents a new paradigm for interacting with consumers.

“Intimacy” matters, and it offers a fascinating lens on consumer behavior and what kinds of marketing channels are best for interacting with consumers throughout the buying decision process. But what is “intimacy?” One of the best models can be found in the work of Reis and Shaver, two psychologists who published a model of intimacy in a 1988 paper.

Reis and Shaver posit that “intimacy” is made up of two dimensions: “self-disclosure” and “responsiveness.” In their model, “intimacy” between two people increases with the responsiveness and self-disclosure contained in their communication. As people get closer, they provide more information about themselves and become more responsive to one another. It’s a model that anyone who’s ever gone through the dating game knows very well: the more you get to know someone, the more responsive you are.

If you overlay this model on the idea of building relationships with customers, it becomes clear why certain marketing channels work the way they do. Mass media, for example, scores fairly low on both responsiveness and self-disclosure. It’s non-responsive (the TV doesn’t talk back to you most of the time) and requires no self-disclosure on the part of the viewer.

On the other hand, social media is both responsive and requires self-disclosure. When we “friend” someone on Facebook, they instantly get access to a lot of information about our personal lives. This explains why the “like” was a great innovation for marketers: it provides a less revelatory link between the consumer and the brand. It also explains why it’s tough to get people to “friend” your organization…they don’t have an intimate-enough relationship with you (unless they’re huge fans) to want to disclose their personal lives.

It’s possible to map various forms of communication against these dimensions, an exercise that reveals where it fits against an “intimacy” continuum. The more intimate channels lend themselves better to customers who already have a relationship with you while the less intimate are better for early exposure to your brand. It explains why it’s so hard to get people to fill out forms online after a single contact: they don’t know you and you may be moving “too fast” on the intimacy scale.


To circle back to our earlier discussion about the iPad, you can probably see why iPad advertising needs to be different. “In-your-face,” intrusive advertising becomes out of place in an experience that’s as “intimate” as the iPad experience. Respecting the intimacy of the experience, moving slowly, and waiting for the customer to take the lead in revealing themselves seems to fit better with the way that people operate with those devices.

In the future, marketers are going to have to pay attention to these aspects of the experience in a way that they haven’t had to before. We’ve seen some of this in mobile: people aren’t too keen on unsolicited ads on their mobile devices no matter how much marketers want to serve them. The smartphone is an intimate device, too. Mobile marketing has been evolving to meet the special relationship that people have with their phones. And as more and more web browsing is conducted by folks curled up with their tablets, all online marketing is going to have to respond or risk getting slapped in the face by the customers you’re trying to build relationships with.

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