I’ve been doing something every morning and evening for the last 6 weeks.
When I began, I was prompted by relatively humble curiosity. But over time, this transitioned into a compulsion that conflated a kind of awe with a nagging sense that the behaviour I was witnessing had to mean something. What I was doing was counting.
Standing on a station platform, waiting for my train, I counted the number of people on the opposite platform (OP) … and then subtracted from that total the number NOT peering endlessly at their smart phone screens, headphones in their ears. OP: 48 – 9 = 39
Very soon, I found myself augmenting my OP findings with the number of screen-watchers I could identify on my platform (MP). MP: 64 – 7 = 57
I repeated the same activity on Tube platforms and began adding evening counts to those conducted during my morning commute. I don’t suppose the broad results of my research (which was not conducted under anything approaching laboratory conditions), will surprise anyone, but I’ll share them anyway. Assuming an average station platform dwell time of 20 minutes and a typical transient platform population of 60, 42 will remain focused on their phone screens for very nearly the entire time, raising their heads no more than half a dozen times, for a few seconds, to check for the unlikely approach of a train.
Tube platforms are different in that people dwell for less time and feel less of a need to check for approaching trains, so there is an even greater level of unbroken concentration on screens.
Of course, today, every train carriage and every bus is – essentially – a screening room, as pretty much all modes of public transport offer WIFI – and this extends into coffee shops, bars…etc. Again, this is hardly a revelation that is going to shock or surprise. We all know this because we are all part of the viewing community. However, what distinguishes these places of engagement and entertainment is the fact that the viewing we do in them is not a collective experience. It is exclusive and individual. And it is pretty relentless. I frequently have to negotiate people who are engaged in content as they travel up or down escalators… indeed, as they walk along the pavement.
Now, I am not sharing this personal experience in order to pass judgement about the role of the smart-phone and other devices in our daily lives. I am simply suggesting that we reflect on this reality and recognise that it is very unlikely to go away… AND asking – are we missing something? People now carry ‘content’ around like currency. Small change. The journey to work might be spent pursuing the story of Walter White as he goes from humble high school chemistry teacher to blue-meth, drug baron. It might be spent catching up with the latest revelations from the cast of Strictly, or from the Jungle. The way home might be spent following vlogs on YouTube or discovering how law enforcement professionals make a murderer. Of course, a lot of time is also spent checking profiles and posts on Facebook and Instagram… etc. But whatever the format or the platform, it is fair to say that people invest a lot of time and emotion in content that is clearly compelling, constantly refreshing itself and rich in narrative magnetism.
This content becomes part of the fabric of people’s lives – and, as a result, people engage in a lot of conversations about the content they are consuming. We share our enthusiasms and encourage others to enter the narrative worlds we ourselves are moving through.
OK. So, what is the point of this statement of what Basil Fawlty once called, ‘The bleeding obvious?’
Well. Have we made the connection when it comes to engaging with those communities that we share our professional lives with?
When it comes to sharing key information about brand values, working practice, innovation, transformational decisions… do we challenge ourselves when it comes to format and the nature of the platform. Is it so outlandish to conceive of compelling narratives that end on cliff-hangers and compel the engaged viewer to seek out the next episode? Is it really crazy to imagine light-hearted video vehicles that allow organisations to gently smile at the lessons they need to learn? (If the BBC can do it in the form of W1A, then…)
Why not turn vital messaging into compelling Vlogs presented by vloggers drawn from the corporate community? Isn’t it time to review and refresh the material that are traditionally created to meet the demands of a standardised and – arguably – outmoded ‘style’ and instead create the kind of content that people WANT to watch and SHARE and TALK ABOUT? There’s nothing to be lost in becoming a provider of content that has a distinctive voice and invites people to invest more of themselves in engaging and contributing.
Firehouse has invested in the kind of expertise that can turn key messaging into compelling and unforgettable content that will successfully compete with the material that currently keeps people focused on their screens, every chance they get.