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From Digital Natives to Smartphone Natives


Start thinking about what it means to be a “smartphone native” and how that will impact your business

The disruptive effect of smartphones on media, communications, and commerce cannot be overstated. It is truly a revolution that will be felt in every corner of society.

Smartphones represent the greatest technological and social disruption since the Internet itself. And just as we referred to those who grew up with the Internet—who don’t know a world without it—as digital natives, we need to consider what it will mean to never have been without a smartphone. To be a smartphone native.

First, a bit of semantic clarification. The term “smartphone” refers to a mobile, handheld computer such as the iPhone. The term is more convenient than accurate. It’s practically an anachronism because the phone feature (voice calling) represents a small percentage of how we actually use them. They have broadband connections, web browsers, e-book readers, maps of the world, motion sensors, and HD video cameras. Indeed, our children will have a radically different idea of what a phone is than we do. Which brings me to a couple anecdotes.

My oldest daughter is three-and-a-half (I also have a nine-month-old). Over the years, she’s had a number of toy cell phones to play with. For most of this time, I’ve had an iPhone. My photo library is essentially her life story. Which is to say I take a lot of pictures of her with my “phone” and have done this for her entire life. So it should come as no surprise that she assumes each of her toy cell phones has a camera. In fact, she does much more picture taking than talking on these toy cell phones. Not coincidentally, this reflects how I use my iPhone.

The next example originated from her love of dance, especially with her cousins. Our extended family was together recently to watch a college football game. My daughter asked if we could play some music, but the game was being played through the stereo. Without thinking twice, she pointed to my iPhone and reminded me it could also play music. So in addition to having a camera, she takes for granted that “phones” store and play music.

In terms of the iPhone itself, my daughter is quite adept at using the actual device. The user interface is so intuitive that she’s been swiping through photos and playing videos for years—yes, years—as well as playing games on the iPad for as long as it’s been available. So in addition to taking for granted a camera, photo/video viewing, music playback, and mobile gaming, she’s become familiar with a touch interface long before the keyboard/mouse. As such, I’ve noticed she assumes all screens are interactive (as they should be) and attempts to manipulate them accordingly.

It’s safe to assume, then, that anyone younger than 12 or 13 today is a smartphone native. They won’t know anything different. On the other hand, those of us who (a) grew up without mobile phones and/or (b) used a basic feature phone prior to 2007 are smartphone immigrants. We take none of this for granted. Because we can’t. We’re incapable. And it’s not that we appreciate these technologies too much to take them for granted. It’s that they will always be foreign and new relative to what we’ve always known. So we end up in a constant state of adaptation just as we did with the Internet and World Wide Web. We can become proficient and even fluent. We can learn the language and assimilate to the culture. As immigrants, though, we can never know what it’s like to be a smartphone native. We can only imagine what it’s like to see the world through their eyes.

Smartphone natives won’t think of the features as much as what they enable and how they’re beneficial. Just as all phones have cameras, play music, and use a touch interface, all of them will be location aware right down to the meter, complete with elevation. In the dawn of location-based services (LBS), we’re transfixed on this as a feature and what that feature represents. Smartphone natives won’t care. It’s a bit like trying to explain to a 20-year-old digital native that we once had to dial up to connect to the Internet. They take for granted that the Internet is always on when they open up their laptop, which means they can immediately realize the benefits.

Likewise, when a smartphone native opens their device, its location will be known and precise. Today we have the dialup counterpart, which is to wait for a fix on our location and then manually choose from a list of possible places. These steps will soon be unnecessary. Which means the feature fades into the background so the benefits can be immediately realized.

Engaging with a place via the checkin or some other mechanism will be central to realizing a range of benefits. These include sharing one’s whereabouts with friends, participating in loyalty programs, receiving personalized offers, playing games, triggering relevant content, and making purchases. By and large, this will still be interactive. Which is to say these applications won’t automatically check us in i.e. the “passive checkin.” As consumers and individuals, we will still want to choose to engage on a case-by-case basis. It will just be a helluva lot easier and more intuitive to do so. We might get a push alert, based on our preferences, asking whether we want to check-in. It will be accurate, and a simple “OK” will do it. This isn’t to say passive checkins won’t be possible. They are and will continue to be. They just won’t be as popular as some might assert.

(Side note: Automatic checkins are a lot like automatic Twitter DMs. They’re the weakest of weak engagement and seldom warrant a response, though there are exceptions where it’s integral to the service. Passive checkins are what smartphone immigrants think we need precisely because they’re immigrants and think in terms of changing behavior.)

If you’re skeptical about checkins (location-based engagements) as a new consumer behavior, try to think like a smartphone native. This device is central to pretty much everything you do…work, school, travel, social life, shopping, and entertainment. It’s a primary conduit for experiencing and processing the world. You don’t know what it’s like not to have one, verging on a sixth sense. Most of your behavior is shaped in one way or another by having one at all times. So why wouldn’t it be central to your everyday interactions with people, services, places, and products? Especially if it enhances these experiences and adds value. To put it another way, learning a new language represents a change in behavior; learning a native tongue is just what you do.

Today, we are learning from the smartphone immigrants because the natives are still too young. We’re focused on the early adopters and pioneering companies of LBS. For a forward-thinking brand, however, it’s not too soon to think about how natives will shape the future of commerce and what they’ll expect in terms of service and reciprocal engagement via their smartphone devices. The opportunity this represents to establish long-term brand loyalty at an early stage is the greatest of this generation.

The best thing a brand can do right now is to start monitoring, measuring, and learning. By making sense of the data being generated by early adopters, we can better prepare for the revolution in consumer engagement that’s just around the corner…the revolution smartphone natives will no doubt take for granted.

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