The Digital Impact on the art of Conversation

21 May 2018 | Research & Business Knowledge

Sarah Mowl takes a look at the generational changes in how we communicate with each other, driven by the digital age

There’s been a lot written lately about our digital health and the overuse and addictive nature of social media.  However, whilst it’s very easy to demonize social media, the fact remains that it is a fabulous way to connect with people, old friends, families, favourite celebrities, brands.  I love the connectivity that social media provides.

Julia Hobsbawn* has written a very insightful book about our digital connectivity and recognises that this connectivity creates solutions and endless possibilities.  However, it also creates problems, not least in terms of how we communicate.  Like everything in life, we need to manage, find balance and understand the impact our digital world and social media can have on our lives.

It is this change in how we communicate that I find most interesting for the future of qualitative research and conversation.

Conversation, attention spans & focus groups

From a personal point I know that I have become more easily distracted over the past few years – I can barely go an hour without checking my phone. In conversations I often look up something or make a note of something on my phone. The nature of this digital distraction has naturally changed the way we communicate and therefore is affecting our face to face interactions and potentially the way we do focus groups.

In a report by Goldman Sachs – Millennials are the first generation born into the post internet world and many are more comfortable on social media than in face to faces settings.  Does this mean that the art of conversation is dying? How will traditional focus groups look in 10-15 years’ time? Will the standard 90 minutes become less? Will it be realistic to even expect a 90-minute group?

What is interesting is that we ask our focus group participants to switch off or put away their mobile phones for the 90 minutes – and whilst some might sneak a peak during the session if they can get away with it – most don’t.  It’s a good sign. (For those behind the mirror – can you say the same?!)

Attention spans and debriefs

We have shorter attention spans – even newspapers now warn you if an article is going to be a short read or a long read.  This also has implications for our reports and debriefs – are they getting shorter? Do our clients have the long attention span, or is the long report/presentation a thing of the past?  Having worked in academia for a few years, some of the reports I wrote were, I admit, rather long.  No way would anyone want to read one of those anymore!! We need to adjust and find ways to continue to deliver results in a short, concise and impactful way.

Connection between brands and customers

The digital backlash is interesting for brands and advertising – will we be seeing a return to more traditional ways of keeping in touch with consumers?  JD Wetherspoons decision to delete their social media accounts was met with both disbelief and praise.  The chairman Tim Martin claimed that social media had become a distraction for the company.  Will others follow suit? And what will this mean for branding, advertising and connections with customers?  Will this mean a further resurgence of face to face research?

Connections between generations

One of the huge differences in communication lies between generations.  The post internet generation communicate so profoundly differently with each other than the baby boomers.  For brands and organisations that have an older client base, this can be problematic.  It’s a mixed bag out there of very internet and social media savvy baby boomers and those who have never turned on a computer. Both can be very valued customers with very different communication needs.  This is where focus groups and face to face work can really help marketeers to understand the value and place of offline communication vs online.

The best communication tools?

Despite the rise of social media and the increasing ways we can research and communicate with customers, we still believe fully in the value of face to face.  What people publish on social media can often be a smokescreen to reality, but face to face and with the right tools we can get a little closer to connect, probe and uncover genuine thoughts and reactions.

Julia Hobsbawn takes Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ as a reference point to develop her model of a ‘hierarchy of communication’ and she places face to face at the top of this hierarchy.

‘Yet it is always our desire to see each other’s faces, to use touch, smell, sight, hearing in direct proximity to another person – that is the top of the hierarchy of connection and communication.’

Perhaps in this digital world the value of focus groups has never been greater.

*Julia Hobsbawn. Fully connected:  Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload. Bloomsbury