Whether it be shopping, telemedicine appointments, video meetings, or text messages, people are spending much more time online and in front of screens due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from Syracuse University summarize the problem with a collection of findings, illustrating that the average person's time in front of screens has soared. In fact, the average adult now spends over 11 hours a day in front of a screen.
While some of the economic benefits may be accumulating for businesses like Amazon, which experienced a 37% increase in revenue due to the pandemic (and a resulting 80%+ increase in stock price), the side effects have been harmful to a wide variety of other businesses and industries. In fact, companies that rely on communicating directly with their customers are finding consumers more easily distracted and less able to focus on the most important messaging.
The high cost of digital clutter
Megan Coville, an occupational therapist, discusses the digital fatigue and distractedness fed by COVID-19, "Many of us are constantly juggling multiple applications at once... Tending to [it all] can be daunting. Our ability to focus can be greatly impacted by jumping between home and work needs. Our mental functions become overstimulated and exhausted when we have to quickly and repeatedly switch gears."
Even though digital distractions and clutter are at an all-time high, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Researchers at Stanford University and Harvard Business School show that the high price of digital distraction predates the pandemic. Stanford researchers show that individuals who are regularly bombarded with several streams of digital information do not pay attention, do not control their memory, and do not switch from one task to another as well as those who limit their digital distractions. In fact, in 2015, Harvard researchers found that the cost of digital clutter was a staggering $997 billion annually.
With so much digital distraction, businesses need to find new ways to cut through the noise. And yet, so many continue the heavy push of digitization — moving all their processes and consumer communication to digital means and ignoring the fact that digital distractibility is at an all-time high. For these businesses that are moving everything digital, digitization costs often include the risk of disconnected and discontented customers who are less likely to become brand advocates.
The true cost of a digital-only mindset
When digital and direct mail are combined for broader consumer reach, there is a 63% increase in response rates versus a digital-only approach. In fact, the average lifespan of an email is less than 20 seconds, whereas direct mail's average lifespan stretches beyond 15 days. This begs the question: What is the true cost of a digital-only mindset?
It is hard to argue that consumer access to their medical records is a valuable outcome of the massive move to digitize medical records. The same can be said for the increase in digitally available health insurance records, enabling consumers to understand their financial obligations for previous care received more quickly.
However, it is important for businesses to consider all sides to a digital transformation, with a close evaluation of the true cost of a digital-only mindset. From a more obvious information technology perspective, the explosion of digitization has led to many businesses utilizing a variety of dispersed technology platforms, where each division or department is using siloed technologies. This leads to vast process inefficiencies: workflow management bottlenecks, breakdowns in cross-group collaborations, and poor resource utilization, to name just a few. In fact, according to research from Ascend2, the leading barrier to the development and follow-through of an organization's marketing strategy is an overly disparate set of systems meant to collect and integrate consumer data.
A sometimes less obvious cost, and perhaps the cost most detrimental to a business with a digital-only mindset, is the cost of losing its connection with the customer. For the vast majority of consumers who have archived or deleted an email without reading it, a digital-only approach results in a decrease in consumer reach. For the many consumers who still do not spend inordinate amounts of time in front of a screen or simply choose to use their screen time more wisely, digitally sent correspondence may go unopened and become lost in the deluge of digital clutter. This poor email engagement is no surprise when you consider that, on average, Americans receive over 600 emails in a given week. Contrast that with direct mail, where Americans receive an average of 17 pieces of mail each week, and it is clear that a digital-only approach is leaving member engagement on the table.
Businesses may be saving money with a digital-only approach, but at what cost to their relationship with customers and to their future revenue stream?
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