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The biggest untapped potential of the smartphone is its ‘always-with-us’ characteristic. During the course of a day, our engagement of traditional mediums of communication like newspapers and TV is very short. On the other hand, a smartphone stays with us almost all our waking hours and often sleep hours too. This gives the device a distinct advantage. But has it been fully utilized by organizations for their digital strategies?

Today, one key focus of many businesses’ digital strategy is e-commerce—getting their target audience to buy their products and services online. Although we tend to purchase something or the other almost everyday, purchases are mostly sporadic. Even consumer products, the most frequently bought goods, are at best purchased only every week. Even if all these purchases are done on a smartphone, it only accounts for a tiny fraction of the time spent on this device. What can be done by marketers to make better use of the smartphone?

While the purchase occasions of a product are infrequent, its consumption moments are not. One might buy fruit juices once every fortnight, for example, but one can drink fruit juice kept in one’s refrigerator multiple times a day. There are some products whose frequency of consumption cannot be increased within a time period. We cannot expect someone to shave more than once a day, or twice at most. Yet, there are many products that can significantly improve their market offtake by increasing consumption moments among its existing users. Oral care companies have been trying to increase the frequency of night brushing. Can smartphones, these always-on, always-with-you devices, be used to create more consumption moments?

In many cases, especially in healthcare, companies are keen is create sustained usage of their products. In many healthcare situations, although routine medication is prescribed, many people do not adhere to their intake regimen. In the US alone, the cost of medical non-adherence is estimated at close to $300 billion. The biggest challenge faced by India’s tuberculosis eradication programme is that those affected do not take the prescribed medication on a regular basis. This has even led to the emergence of a drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria strain. Can smartphones be used to create these and other such healthy habits?

The consumption moments for different products might be at different times of the day. Even for the same kind of product, different people have different time-patterns of consumption. Given individual needs, each person might need a different message to cue a consumption moment. Yes, this is a complex situation with far too many variables to make sense of. But thanks to recent developments in big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), managers are in a position to make sense of these complex variables and help identify an ideal consumption moment for each individual. Identifying such ideal points in time for each individual is only half the job done. It is much like taking a horse to a source of water. But how will we motivate the horse to drink the water? This is where the importance of appropriate stimuli to initiate consumption comes in.

While there has been a lot of progress in the science of identifying the right place and time for the placement of a persuasion stimulus, there has been very little progress (or even regression) in the creative quality of the stimuli used for digital strategies. The pet creative approach of the e-commerce industry is to put out bland product shots plonked with ‘price off’ or ‘buy one and get one free’ promo messages. This type of rational messaging would achieve nothing to create a larger number of consumption moments. Traditionally, advertisers have used the 30-second commercial or its variants to influence human behaviour. But this is not appropriate for the smartphone medium.

Studies show that an average smartphone is picked up more than 150 times a day and a person spends an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes on it. During this time, the typical person touches his handset 2,617 times. So the average duration between each touch is about 4.5 seconds. Hence, any stimulus that is created to trigger a consumption moment should work within this very short duration. The ideal for this medium would be micro-stimuli. That is, those that can evoke a behavioural response within milliseconds. Developing micro-stimuli that can generate desired behaviours or even change existing patterns of behaviour is the new challenge for the communication industry. A superior understanding of the human brain’s functioning will surely help in the development of these micro-stimuli. For example, road signs with specific instructions have long been used to influence the behaviour of vehicle drivers, but design interventions based on the evolutionary construct of how one’s brain judges speed with respect to a reference object were found to be more effective in reducing road accidents.

According to Statista, the number of smartphone users in the world today stands at 3.8 billion, which translates to 48.33% of the world’s population. For the first time, such a large number of people possess an always-on, always-with-us medium. The creation of electronic consumption stimuli is one way to take advantage of the full potential of this new medium of communication. Are we ready to think and act in this new direction?

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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