American Marketer


Mobile addiction: Why we cannot put down our devices and 7 ways brands can tap into the fix

June 21, 2012

John X. Kenny is senior vice president of planning at Draftfcb


By John X. Kenny

It is hard to make it through a single day in recent months without running across a news outlet covering the massive revolution that smartphones are causing in our world today.

There is little disagreement that mobile computing is having a radically disruptive impact on every corner of both business and consumer life, and on a global scale.

The latest evidence of this disruption: Facebook pays $1 billion for revenue-less, two-year-old mobile company Instagram with 13 employees, while 124-year-old camera and film manufacturer Eastman Kodak languishes in Chapter 11 bankruptcy with more than 17,000 employees globally.

Worldwide smartphone activations now outnumber child births on a scale of three to one.

Not surprisingly, it is consumer adoption of smartphones that is driving all of this disruption.

But adoption may be too mild a term to really describe how the smartphone is affecting consumer behavior.

A recent study found that it is harder to resist a new text message than a nicotine fix.

More than 50 percent of consumers ages 18-24 buy $400 devices and spend more than $80 monthly on mobile data plans, despite making less than $15,000 a year.

One in three consumers would give up sex rather than give up their mobile phones.

In fact, the smartphone has become so critically important to the day-to-day lives of consumers, sex is only one of many daily passions we are willing to forgo in order to keep the device, per this Telenav mobile behavior study from July 2011:

Would choose daily use of mobile phone over daily use of ___________, if forced to choose.

Alcohol 70 percent

Chocolate 63 percent

Caffeine 55 percent

Exercise 54 percent

Sex 33 percent

Toothbrush 22 percent

Shoes 21 percent

Are we really addicted to our smartphones?

Not to snort at
Most definitions of addiction commonly used in cognitive psychology characterize addiction as any behavior that people engage in with above average frequency, and that causes them to neglect other important parts of their daily lives, including sleep, exercise, hygiene, diet and nutrition, work, and family and personal relationships.

It is not hard to connect that definition to a host of situations that we see becoming increasingly common in our culture around our phones in our lives:

• Text messaging 80 percent more likely to cause traffic accidents than alcohol due to its distracting nature

• Thirty-five percent of adults with families regularly check their phone at the dinner table

• Sixty-six percent of smartphone owners sleep with their phone next to them, and look at it just before sleeping and first thing when they wake in the morning

• Forty-eight percent admit to ending a relationship via text message, email, Facebook or Twitter

The reality is, mobile phones have moved beyond a necessity into an addiction with which we cannot live.

However, despite the addiction-like obsession that consumers have with their mobile devices, most brands are massively underutilizing the addictive power of this rapidly emerging medium.

Magnificent seven
Recent data released by mobile analytics company Flurry indicates that while consumers spend more than 23 percent of their daily media consumption time with mobile, marketers allocate less than 1 percent of their overall budgets to the mobile medium.

The power of mobile lies in its addictive pleasures. To unlock this power, it is critical to uncover the specific dimensions of why mobile phones are so addictive.

What is it about what we get from our phones, and the role our phones play in our everyday lives, that gives them such power, and drives us to crave them so badly?

It turns out that the same reasons mobile phones are so captivating for consumers are fundamental truths about behavior, indelible facts of human life that drive mobile addiction and brand affinity at the same time, unlocking the mysteries of mobile technology for business.

For us, there are seven elements that make mobile phones both addictive in life and irresistible for brand marketers.

Our addiction to mobile is based on our brain’s instinctual attraction to the power of now, surprises, social rewards, simplicity, free, fun and missions.

These are the key elements that marketers need to be aware of when considering mobile, and form the strategic pillars of sound mobile design.

The brands who will prosper in this new world are the ones that can harness their message to the addictive powers of the mobile.

We are addicted to new and now
Our brains give primacy to new information over old information, hence our nervousness when we hear our phones buzz when we are speeding down the highway.

Whatever has just arrived, our brains are hard wired to crave, regardless of what we already now, or the risk in glancing at that screen.

This phenomenon, known as “recency bias,” indicates our proclivity to treat new information as inherently better.

There are numerous documented cases of seasoned professional stock traders on Wall Street making horribly bad investments with client money on the basis of new information, even though historical data would indicate their investment choices on that information would be incredibly risky.

Why are we addicted to now?

Psychologists have long known that the brain has a weakness when it comes to the here and now.

Most people making plans for next week’s dessert will prudently choose fruit over chocolate. But when it comes to what we would like for desert right now, our willpower collapses and most choose chocolate over fruit.

While our ability to resist desire in the future is stoic in its resolve, our ability to resist desire in the present shares a frightening similarity to the resolve of a pigeons.

When it comes to long range planning, human beings are reasonably rational.

Sitting at our laptops we can plan ahead and make good decisions, weighing the appeal of offers we receive against other priorities. But, in the here and now, our skepticism collapses. This irrationality is compounded by the smartphone in two key ways.

First, the smartphone is for most people all about new and now information.

One of the primary functions of the smartphone is to constantly alert its user to the availability of new information for immediate consumption – new status update, new text message, application update, incoming call – the phone is effectively a new information input firehouse for the human brain.

Second, the native geo-positioning capability of the smartphone has collapsed a traditionally extended process of locating and organizing a broad set of diverse information into an automatic process that takes mere seconds.

Remember a time when planning to visit a new restaurant could take a significant amount of research and planning to accomplish?

You would learn of a new dining destination through a conversation with a friend. Later, you would use the phone book to locate the restaurant’s phone number and address. You might then actually call the restaurant to learn more about it and how to get there. You might even employ a physical map to plot out how exactly to drive there from your house.

Now, location-aware devices collapse this days-long process into mere seconds – simply key on the phone and load the mapping application. You become the pulsing blue dot in the center of the screen, and around which the entire world of social networks, consumers and editorial reviews, contact information, driving directions, and even traffic become instantly organized around you.

We call this phenomenon MeHereNow.

It is a dominant consumer attitude wherein the expectation of the user is that any type of information, product or service should be instantly accessible via the phone, right now, and useful right where we are standing. It is geography as relevancy, and it means that immediacy and location are the new context in messaging to consumers.

Take the app “ScoutMob.” It aggregates daily deals so that users get offers only when they check in at local merchants.

What is the difference between reading about an offer on your laptop versus your smartphone when you are MeHereNow at retailer that is making the offer? About a 450 percent uplift in offer redemption.

GrouponNow taps into MeHereNow as well. What is more useful than getting a $20 for $40 of Italian food offer at 9:30 a.m. on your desktop email? Being able to grab the same offer when you are on your way out for dinner with your girlfriend at 5:45 p.m., in the mood for Italian food, and heading to a specific neighborhood – right now.

Brands that make themselves useful and relevant to MeHereNow consumers on mobile can leverage our addiction to new and now and see massive lifts on lower value offers than what are typically offered online or offline.

We are addicted to surprises
Part of the huge appeal of mobile phones is their unpredictability. When we hear them buzz, we have no idea what might be in store for us, and that in turn is massively irresistible and motivating.

A famous experiment found that surprising rewards were three times as motivating as predictable rewards.

Children were given crayons and asked to draw. Half were promised candy if the drew, and half were promised nothing.

Regardless of what they were promised, all children received candy at the end of the day, half as a predictable reward, half as a surprising reward.

What happened next stunned researchers. They monitored the children the next day to see what happened. The children that received the surprising reward spent three times as much time drawing with crayons as those who received the predictable reward.

The mobile phone is a 24/7, all-the-time surprise machine in your pocket, and surprises are often key components of the most successful mobile apps.

Urbanspoon’s random recommendations are its raison d’etre. DrawSomething’s main appeal is that you never know what unique way the person you are playing will figure out to illustrate the given word.

America Express’ foursquare app is an institutionalization of the surprising reward, tying a standard check-in behavior to an unpredictable reward.

And geo-fencing text message offers and proximity triggered push notifications are consistently rated as highly useful and engaging by consumers precisely because it is like finding hidden digital treasure stashed all over, simply by just walking around in your normal routine.

The brands that tie surprising rewards in mobile are tapping into one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior

We are addicted to social rewards
The brains response to a human smile is equivalent to the brains response to 2,000 bars of chocolate. The question for brands considering mobile is why offer chocolate when you can offer social rewards? Ways for consumers to connect with each other will always trump simple material rewards.

Clearly, the power of mobile phones lies in its ability to connect with others socially, and immediately.

In truth, with social networking it is hard to be witty, charming or provocative all the time. Brands that give consumers easy content to share with others are providing a benefit that taps into our most primordial needs.

Already, 52 percent of Facebook’s 845,000,000 daily active users are connecting via mobile. Be it Spotify, Nike Fuel, the New York Times, or the latest cat video on YouTube, the common thread is that sharable content that enables users to connect with others is a reward beyond compare.

Mobile makes it easier than ever before to access and share, and we literally cannot get enough. Just ask Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

We are addicted to simple
If the desire for new, surprising, social information has not already made your brand addictive, consider the power of simple. The simpler something is to do, the more likely we are to do it, regardless of the rational costs or benefits.

Consider life versus death.

British health officials were shocked to discover that switching sleeping pills from a bottle to a blister pack led to a 20 percent decline in suicide rates. The “hassle” of individually extracting pills from blister pack led many to choose life over death.

This grim example shows the profound power of simplicity as an incentive to act, regardless of whether it is the right thing to do.

The key to activating simplicity in mobile revolves almost exclusively around removing friction from tasks and activities that were previously harder to accomplish than the current mobile method.

The entire ecosystem of apps is built on simplicity, taking the jack-of-all-trades browser into a simple, specialized device for one job.

What has got less friction than opening your laptop, booting up your operating system, logging in to your WiFi, opening your Web browser, typing in a URL and a ZIP code to look at the weather forecast? Clicking the weather app/widget on your smartphone. found that users who visited their PC Web site did so on an average of 3.9 times a month, but users who used their frictionless mobile phone app accessed the service nearly 14.9 times a month – 300 percent more per month.

Removing friction from your touch points for consumers and simplifying your brand value could be the most compelling argument why consumers will choose your brand on mobile.

We are addicted to free
Most offers come with a cost and a benefit, so we are naturally wary, but free offers have no costs and, as a consequence, are irresistible.

True, free offers involve us using up our time, but for some reason that psychologists have long recognized, we are far more giving with the seemingly unlimited resource of time, than with money, where our bank reminds us monthly of how much money we have left.

With mobile, the results of this willingness to spend time but not money has been profound.

The most popular apps are nearly all free. However, once we spend time with an app, we are more willing to value it and see it as worthy of our hard-earned money.

As a consequence, the freemium business model on the iTunes App Store has now generated an estimated $2 billion in sales.

For brands the lessons for success are clear: If your app is free, we are eager to spend time on it. If we spend time on something, we are eager to spend money on it.

We are addicted for fun
If free is irresistible, fun is our heroin.

Not only does fun not ask for anything in return, but it offers us an immediate reward. How else do you explain Angry Birds, a pointless, simple, stupid game that has 30 million daily users who spend 16 years an hour playing the game.

Fun is free on steroids, so make your brand as addictive as Angry Birds by making it fun. Examples abound. Geico’s Bro-stache is a shocking waste of time that has been downloaded 300,000 times. Sometimes fun is only you need to make your brand compelling.

We are addicted to missions
While we are addicted to now, social rewards, surprising, simple, free and fun apps, humans are not completely hopeless.

On top of these vices, we also hate leaving a task undone.

A famous experiment found that giving customers of a coffee shop a coffee loyalty card that offered them one free cup of coffee for 10 cups of coffee – with the first two started – had a 78 percent higher redemption than the exact same offer when presented as one free cup of coffee for eight cups of coffee.

Human beings hate leaving something unfinished that they have already started.

Taking isolated incidents and turning them into missions is at the heart of the most popular mobile apps.

Take foursqure, where simple check-ins become the first step in an epic quest to become mayor, resulting in 20 million users a week.

Nike Fuel is based on the same insight, taking everyday activity and turning it into a quest for your daily fitness goal.

Brands that can transform their isolated encounters with consumers into part of a larger long-term goal are tapping into humans’ hard-wired desire to finish what they start, even if they did not know they were starting anything.

SO WHAT HAVE we learned?

Yes, mobile is addictive, but understanding why it is addictive is the key to developing successful mobile strategies and winning with consumers.

It taps into our desire for now, surprises, simple, social rewards, free, fun and missions – desires that our brain find irresistible.

The brands that use these principles in mobile are poised to make their brands as addictive as the mobile platform from which they were born.

John X. Kenny is senior vice president of planning at Draftfcb, Chicago. Reach him at