Dear Diary, Worst Day Of My Life...More After This Word From Our Sponsor

We all understand that on some level our relationship to the mobile device is more “intimate” than the media that preceded it. But we either don’t take our own insight seriously and leave it at that, or we glance superficially at what this means. A couple of weeks ago in these pages I started musing on the notion of mobile intimacy and how we love conducting studies that impress us with the wild dependence we have on our personal phones.

These myths of great power have been attached to every major electronic medium of the last century. The dark theater of the movies, with films' radical compressions of time and point of view, seemed most like dreams. We often imagined TV having some kind of stupefying hold on us all. Billions of dollars of grant money went toward scrutinizing how TV purportedly warped our politics, dumbed us down, commodified us and our values, and demystified war.

We will spend the next few decades arguing (probably with fewer grant dollars this time) the true impact of mobile devices on American culture and our relationship to technology. But for marketers, it is imperative that they understand better how and why we regard this personal media platform so differently. As I reported last week, some research suggests that even the group most accustomed to the commercialization of mobile media, college kids, are getting annoyed with ads on deck.     

In my mind it is still an open question whether interruptive display advertising, as we have known it, even belongs on the smartphone. I asked several of my favorite thinkers to explore that very question this Wednesday at the OMMA Mobile show at Internet Week.

But if the mobile phone is not just another screen waiting to be interrupted by our sponsor, what is the most helpful metaphor to apply to the smartphone? Is it a “companion?” Is it best understood as a “tool?” Or perhaps we should regard it as a “concierge,” a human-like entity who seems to be working in our interests but may also be pushing on us the restaurants and services that have thrown him some favors.

Psychology professor Dr. Simon Hampton of the University of East Anglia believes advertisers are best advised to think of the mobile phone more as a personal journal or diary for the user. A report in the trade pub The Drum recounts Dr. Hampton’s talk at the IAB Mobile Engage conference last week, in which he says we can’t underestimate the profound kinetic and psychological connection we are forging with phones.

“We can draw a useful analogy between a smartphone and a diary,” he says. “Both are a record, autobiographical, sources of amusement, entertainment. What would you do if you could advertise in someone’s diary?”

Even more explicitly, Hampton argues in an earlier piece of research for the IAB, the smartphone is an extension of self. We don’t really interact with the smartphone the way we do with other devices, but more as we do with a part of ourselves. “Not only are they omni-on, they are omni-present. But they are also repositories of the self in that they store our memories, our autobiographies, they contain a paper trail of the self in the form of texts, images, searches, wish lists, and secrets,” he says.

Arguably, Hampton takes the analogy a bit far and suggests a more emotional investment in the technology than most of us recognize. He goes so far as to argue that the touch interface is the critical psychological link that helps us invest the device with so much emotional energy.

Well, yeah, kinda, sorta, to recall some of my tried and true old academic jargon. I am not quite ready to pronounce “my phone, my self” but his point is well taken. Back in the early days of mobile conferences, you may recall being asked by some speaker to hand your phone to the person next to you. Your discomfort with the idea was supposed to make the point about how important and private we regarded the devices.

But Dr. Hampton’s metaphor of a diary is at least an interesting exercise that can help mobile marketers think outside the CRT and LCD boxes that the PC and TV have bequeathed us. Of course, Hampton is British and was surely also associating the word with personal calendars.  But we aren’t deliberately sharing  “secrets” by personifying our phone as a “dear diary.” And yet the idea underscores how much we need to experiment with voice, tone, attitude as well as ad format. We need to know how promotions can talk to or with people on different devices.

Consider how quickly TV adopted the convention of pitchmen talking directly to you from the TV as if they were in your living room. Radio ads tend to shout. Ads on the Web don’t talk to us that way. What voice should mobile advertising adopt? The secret whisper?

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1 comment about "Dear Diary, Worst Day Of My Life...More After This Word From Our Sponsor".
  1. Doug Schumacher from Zuum , May 20, 2014 at 6:35 p.m.
    Steve Thought-inspiring piece. And after years of hearing 'this is the year for mobile', it's nice to be considering the actual experience and not a projection. As my mobile use expands, I've noticed that it easily becomes the gateway to a number of vastly different experiences. That's rather obvious, of course, but likely means that what's an ok level of intrusion in one use case (web browsing, searching) isn't the same for another (guitar tuner, flashlight, camera). That would indicate we'll likely have a broadening range of marketing opportunities, but of course it's up to the publisher (app, content, etc) and the marketers not to abuse their access. Thanks for the article.