What the death of notifications could mean for PR pros

Many people are turning to “notification detoxes” to reduce interruptions in their lives. Could new technology like Google’s Little Signals provide an alternative?

Do you hate the sound of those pesky email or text notifications? Or maybe it’s the noise of a text or social media ping that fills you with dread or anxiety.

These constant interruptions don’t just make us feel bad — they’ve actually been shown to negatively affect our cognitive ability and concentration.

Such research has prompted well-being advocates to call for “notification detoxes,” sustained lengths of time where participants undertake the challenge of going interruption-free.

The Guardian interviewed Dr. Aishah Iqbal about her experience with a notification cleanse, and it does sound quite nice:

As Iqbal noticed the effect pop-ups were having on her peace of mind and productivity, she took action. “I turned everything off, and I felt better for it. That was something I could control: the distraction coming from my phone.”

Television ads, pop-up messages on websites and personal device push notifications are all tools communicators might use to reach their audiences. But if people start turning off their notifications or opting out in droves, what happens to your strategy?

Ads, in particular, are suffering, as consumers begin to notice and take action to rectify their notification fatigue. Paul Dyer, CEO of marketing agency Lippe Taylor, calls it a “death spiral.”

In a 2021 interview with PR Daily, Dyer said interruption-averse culture provides a unique opportunity for PR and marketing pros to truly earn their audiences’ attention.

“Advertising is a business that prides itself on being persuasive, and its greatest persuasion was convincing everybody about how effective it was,” he said. “And I think that what’s happened over the last couple of decades is that many people have come to just equate marketing with advertising as if they’re the same thing. They’re not the same thing.”

In essence, instead of bemoaning the loss of attention that pop-ups, commercials and push notifications are receiving, PR pros should look to create messaging that is less intrusive by nature.

Alternatives to mobile pings

One exciting development: Google aims to address this problem with its new “ambient computing” experiment, Little Signals.

From the Little Signals webpage:

Just as everyday objects might find simple ways to inform us — like the moving hands of a clock or the whistle of a kettle — Little Signals consider how to stay up-to-date with digital information while maintaining moments of calm.

The promotional video for the experiment is nearly two minutes of neutrally dressed people moving softly through spaces filled with plants, rain sounds and linen curtains:

What Google is proposing isn’t removing interruptions from people’s lives — it’s changing how companies can do the actual interrupting. Puffs of air or soft knocking sounds are a far cry from your mom’s questionable custom ringtone blaring over your next family gathering, but they still allow Google to get your attention.

The challenge that lies ahead for communicators is creating messaging that is respectful of your audience’s limited time and while still competing for a top spot in the attention economy.

Imagine a text notification that sounds like Morgan Freeman whispering in your ear — it’s soothing, but you definitely can’t ignore it. Or perhaps Enya’s next career will be as a sound stylist for companies looking to integrate soothing music into their marketing push.

In a dystopian, worst-case-scenario, new technology like Little Signals is ripe for abuse. Ever seen the Disney Channel Original Movie “Smart House”? People who are looking for a true notification detox likely won’t be thrilled at the prospect of their entire home being turned into a marketing channel.

Google’s product speaks to the evergreen need to earn audiences’ attention, rather than taking it by force. People have cottoned on to advertising and marketing tactics, and they don’t like them.


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