Marketers Are Missing Out on the Benefits of Silence

Choosing not to communicate can forge a stronger bond with consumers

People are distancing themselves from technology, and brands should respect that rather than try to fill the silence.
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In a year of escalating Twitter battles, the #MeToo movement and increasing anxiety spurred by heated political climates worldwide, a digital time-out seems increasingly appealing.

As we dug into research supporting our annual Fjord Trends report (launching Dec. 11), this theme was pervasive. Consumers are reclaiming the headspace they’ve lost to the digital din, resetting boundaries and realizing the benefits of silence. Users are opting out and unsubscribing not only as a lifestyle choice but as a serious move to protect and sustain mental health. With so many people intentionally distancing themselves from digital technologies, the time has come for brands to rethink how they engage.

I’ve done my fair share of research about screen time and technology addiction, and let me say this: When we blame technology, we shoot the messenger. I gave my child an iPad at age 3, but parenting has never been the responsibility of the television, the phone, the iPad or the Wii. Similarly, the technology we create is not self-monitoring. We must consider the consequences of the power we wield and the things we create and unleash unto the world, else we risk being Dr. Frankenstein, fated to chase, subdue and even kill our little monsters.

With so many people intentionally distancing themselves from digital technologies, the time has come for brands to rethink how they engage.

It’s for your own good

There is a more insidious addiction at work in society today. We are addicted to the fulfillment of our own needs: to feel connected to the world, to check out for a while, to be witnessed by others or to voice our political and social perspectives unchallenged by dissenters. Regardless of your particular need, technology can help you get your fix in most cases. And much like fluoridated water, we—designers, advertisers and product owners alike—have taken advantage of an existing delivery system to slip our agendas into the lives of technology users. We may even believe that we’re doing it for their own good.

But are we?

Respect the silence

A deeper focus on content and communications strategy is necessary. It’s time to start asking different questions as we design products and services because there is an opportunity to design for and embrace silence.

As mindful design is increasingly adopted by technology firms, other organizations can benefit from a consideration of what they’re bringing to the table when they ask for a user’s attention. Quieting down, listening and genuinely considering the needs and well-being of customers is the new path to loyalty.

Asking, “Should we say anything in this moment?” might be more powerful than assumptive communications and content planning without considering whether we have a right to be heard or speak in the current climate. As users seek to establish firmer boundaries in their quest for clearer heads and hearts, brands should reconsider reward systems dependent on consistent yet superficial engagement patterns of clicks, likes and shares. Can comfortable silence create loyalty?

Earn the right to engage

What if you could only communicate with a customer by calling them? How often would you dial their number? What tone would you take when you had their undivided attention at the end of the line? Truly valuable products and services don’t have to shout or talk incessantly. A dependable dry cleaner, an online learning platform, a time-saving local handyman service—we never forget that we need them or why we love them.

Have we replaced thoughtful, human-centered products and services with cheap knock-offs just to corner a little market share? Businesses have an opportunity to pause before creating another app, enabling another touch point. We have to go further than giving people the ability to silence their notifications and putting the onus on the user and consider the value exchange with our audience as we architect solutions and plan communications. Focus time and attention on finding the service inside the product and consider whether your brand should or whether it has earned a right to engage.

In many cases, apps, notifications, marketing messages and cookies are the worst kind of stalker. The biggest, worst bully of them all, lurking in the corners of your device protocols, popping up when it is least welcome. The intervention of mindfulness strategies into our programming or parental controls being designed for devices doesn’t mean we’re doing good. These are small measures to account for ounces of humanity lost due to our own negligence. These are signs of failure.

But failure isn’t all bad. Agile culture has taught us that growth is determined by what we do with the lessons we learn. The beauty is that the frenetic pace of innovation has forced us to learn and unlearn behaviors multiple times in the last decade. So there is hope, but we can’t squander the opportunity to learn from the silent treatment users are giving apps, technology, ads, even the news. It’s time for us to shut up and listen.

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.