Ease vs. overload: the blessing/curse of connection

Digitally connected consumers use wireless and mobile technology to make their lives easier and save time, shows the latest report from Nielsen. But other studies show technology has not enhanced our lives in any meaningful way and in fact leads to isolation and loneliness.

Nielsen’s report recaps developments from 2012 and provides insights into the consumer, retail and media trends shaping the New Zealand marketplace.

“Consumers are increasingly time poor,” says Nielsen’s managing director Rob Clark. “As a result we crave convenience, anything that makes our lives easier and provides us with more time to do what we love. Consumer connectivity has made a huge contribution to this.” 

Nielsen’s report, The Year That Was: How understanding consumers in 2012 will help you plan for tomorrow, shows that 3.4 million New Zealanders (78 percent of the population aged 2+) are online in a typical month.

“We are progressively using the web to save time searching for cars and viewing property (1.2 million New Zealanders visited an automotive site and 819,000 visited a real estate site in November 2012). Further evidence of this is the growth of online shopping, with over half of us actively purchasing online,” says Tony Boyte, research director, Nielsen.

Of online New Zealanders, 95 percent are using a broadband connection at home. And more than three quarters (76 percent) of broadband access for New Zealand homes is now via a wireless connection (up from 65 percent in 2011), compared to just 24 percent for fixed broadband (down from 35 percent). 

“Wi-fi allows multiple devices to access simultaneously from anywhere in the house, giving consumers the freedom to be anywhere they want while they browse.”

Mobile access to the internet has grown significantly. More homes in New Zealand have internet access than those that have PCs or laptops. 

“This shows that people are now using a multitude of devices around the house to make accessing the internet more convenient,” Boyte says.

Smartphone ownership has grown by over 11 percent in 2012 (1.7 million New Zealanders now have a smartphone) and there has been 52 percent growth in the number of people using their smartphone features. Tablet ownership has more than doubled to reach 395,000 and electronic book readers are now owned by over five percent of New Zealanders.

While it’s often said these new technologies save time and make life easier, what isn’t often mentioned is that they can also create a sense of isolation and loneliness, as pointed out in a column written by the The Research Agency’s Andrew Lewis 

As he wrote: “A recent study conducted in the UK that proclaimed the average 22 year old on Facebook has approximately 1,000 friends, ten times that of someone in their 30s, and something like 50 times that of their parents. An amazing number don’t you think? As a typical (late) thirty-something, with 120-odd ‘friends’, it’s hard for me to imagine what’s involved in managing such a diverse network of contacts. To my aged and cynical mind, it just sounds like a lot of work. And a very high ‘chaff-to-wheat’ ratio. And, as it turns, out I wouldn’t be wrong. It requires effort. Another UK study noted that 50 percent of these 20ish year olds were checking Facebook as soon as they woke up every day, 28 percent before they even got out of bed. And more telling still, in a recent study we conducted looking at New Zealanders’ attitudes and comfort with technology, this same group of young people—those attempting to process the most information, and those most reliant on digital interpersonal connections—were the loneliest and most overwhelmed of all age groups in today’s world.”

What became evident in our wide-reaching New Zealand study is that technology hasn’t made life easier or more fulfilling at a fundamental level. It has instead, for those most involved, made life more isolating and difficult.

Go back 15 years and only 14 percent of Kiwis were online. Only 21 percent even had a mobile phone. Social media didn’t exist and neither did Google. So this is the first population group to grow up fully immersed in the digital world, and their response to what this world provides them is significant in what it suggests about where things will go next. What people yearned for in our study was a slowing in the information flow. They didn’t want to go back to ‘the old ways’, but they did seek change. They talked about a new ‘ideal’ model of interaction with the online world, where information was selectively adopted, filtered and consolidated to the individual’s specifications. 

The upshot of this? It suggests, quite strongly, that people will actively seek to reduce and focus their involvement levels with the online world in the near future. It suggests, in a commercial application, that our new digital communication channels we are investing in are likely to start being filtered heavily for usefulness and “life contribution”.

Nowhere can this trend be more clearly seen than in the global rise of the aggregator website. In the space of three years from 2006-2009, aggregator sites in the UK took 50 percent of all car insurance purchases from direct brands; the world’s most popular news sites aggregate many other brands’ content rather than create their own; and even in the still freshly-minted daily deals market, there are now a huge amount of sites in New Zealand combining all the individual providers into a single reference source.

There exists within this trend, and the wider sense of human disillusionment behind it, a real risk for businesses in the digital space. While behaviour shifts have thus far opened up a wonderfully direct way of communicating with people, they show signs of turning in a very severe way for brand owners. People have experimented with having 1,000 friends, with opening a dialogue directly with businesses, but they show signs of tiring from this effort. We need to be aware of the strong chances of a swing in behaviour in the opposite direction. A swing towards ‘middle-men’ creating greater distance between our consumers and our brands than existed even in the pre-digital age.

The truth is, if we want to remain connected, we have to start asking ‘what’s in it for them’, rather than just ‘how can we leverage this connection for us’. Digital connections that enhance life are the only ones likely to survive. The rest? Welcome to The Age of the Cull.”

  • The infographic collates data from Nielsen and Colmar Brunton and featured in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing

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