Have We Lost the Art of Communicating in Person?

If you’ve ever reached into your pocket to pull out your smartphone only to discover you left it at home and panic floods your body, you are not alone.

Our lives have become so dependent on mobile devices as they infiltrate virtually every aspect of our lives from making purchases, doing business and how we conduct ourselves and communicate with others in our personal relationships.

A recent survey series called Life on Demand from marketing agency Performics says over 90% of respondents of more than 1,000 people ages 18 to over 50,  reported being active on Facebook, just under half use YouTube and over a third use Twitter and Google+.

Over one-third of all respondents (and over one-half of 18-29 year-olds) use their phone daily for email, weather checks, calendar and schedule maintenance and social networking. Men are more likely than women to use their phone daily for updates on news, sports and the stock market.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents expect to be able to bank via mobile devices, and one-half to two-thirds also want to be able to order food, make reservations, check public transit, book travel and make doctor appointments.

In fact, one in five respondents use their mobile phone within five minutes of waking.

The findings represent the “pull of the participation age,” says Daina Middleton, the global CEO of Performics, the performance marketing division of Publicis Groupe and author of Marketing in the Participation Age. We’re all participants more than consumers, claims Middleton. “My mother, who’s almost 70, gets really mad if she can’t get a brand to respond to her.”

Middleton says her mom is not as adamant about using a smartphone all the time compared to young people who grew up with smartphones and tablets becoming second nature in their lives. Still, we all have expectations about the value of the exchange and the right to participate, she says, noting her mother would never relinquish her iPad and her iPhone.

One size no longer fits all and data has to provide more meaningful information, particularly in the way consumers view brands and make purchases, experts say. Marketing rules have moved from the emphasis on big advertising campaigns to scalable marketing in which companies evolve their brands by cultivating personal relationships with consumers and providing information that specifically affects a user’s life.

Brands often overestimate themselves, says Jonathan Reynolds, director of the Oxford institute of Retail Management at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Consumers don’t necessarily want a relationship with a particular brand unless there’s a beneficial reason that affects the participant-brand relationship.

What’s more, mobility affects post purchase behavior: Participants writing reviews, good or bad, on a product is important, says Middleton. Fifty percent of consumer participants respond to retailer prompts to provide feedback and 44% comment about a product on a social network, according to the Performics' survey.

“My opinion has more value to a company when I share it with my own strong tie friends,” says Reynolds. He says if he is recommending a technology product and a strong tie Facebook friend is interested in technology, his comments constitute “a reliable mechanism for a sales broadcast.” In terms of outreach, word-of-mouth has a stronger endorsement than the manufacturer’s own attempts to engage consumers about its product.

Companies Need to Play Nice

Online etiquette is importance when airing grievances, making recommendations and for company-customer interaction.

A complaint phrased constructively rather than aggressively or offensively is much more likely to get a response to rectify a situation. The same should hold true of personal interactions on social networks—although this is often overlooked.

In fact, with so much information about individuals, their friends and their activities available on social profiles and easily accessible at all times via mobile devices, 15% of unmarried males ages 18 to 22 feel it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text. Sadly, says Reynolds, breaking up online is not entirely new. In 2003, England’s largest workers’ compensation claims carrier sacked more than 2,000 people by text message, he says, and as expected, severed employees spoke of their anger after they learned of their fate by text.

Hiding behind the intermediary becomes cowardly, says Reynolds. “If that kind of behavior becomes embedded, it will be accepted as more commonplace. As our culture evolves we have to agree among ourselves how we will do things. Right now, the law is lagging behind Twitter.”

Reynolds says we need to relearn communication and interaction standards much like children need to learn how to be polite and respectful. Decorum requires a conversation about responsibility. “Consumers and bloggers talk about rights, but we less frequently hear about responsibilities.”

This may extend to impatience and the expectation for prompt responses, particularly to text messages. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents say they expect a response within five minutes, 23% within 15 minutes and 28% claim after a day it’s too late.

“The need for reflection and silence does get lost in the [mobility] movement,” says Dr. Nina Smiley, director of marketing at Mohonk Mountain House and co-author of The Three Minute Meditator.  “We have to step back and say we’re in charge and ask, ‘Is my device ruling me?’

Middleton agrees and claims the richness of an in-person conversation is often lost in an online iteration. But in your Facebook relationships, the rewards come with the ability to connect and reconnect with people who otherwise would have gotten lost in your life, she says.

“Mobility is necessary and wonderful in its place,” says Smiley, “but we may have gone a bit overboard. We need to understand its limit and have a mind-clearing moment.”