Since the ‘60s, the world has experienced the exponential growth of technology, with processor speeds doubling every 18 months. As a consequence, our expectations of superfast development have crept out from the computer labs of technology giants and academic institutions and into the everyday lives of the average person. 

The idea of perpetually faster product development no longer applies simply to computers and phones, but also to shopping, entertainment and finance. Deliveries that previously took 5-7 days now take 24 hours, with Amazon now offering one-hour delivery in central London. Internet speeds too have improved, with websites that used to take 10 seconds to load now appearing within 1.3 seconds, while film rentals that used to require two-day delivery are now instant.
Our attention spans have decreased accordingly, averaging eight seconds, as we flit between devices 21 times an hour. Microsoft’s Attention Span Study in 2015 found idle time is a thing of the past, with 77% of us reaching for our phones when there is nothing to occupy our attention.
Businesses have turned our desire for immediate service into a cost-saving benefit by creating quicker options with little human contact. Tesco reports that 80% of in-store transactions are now self-service, contactless on the London Buses has saved TFL £30m each year and internet banking has saved the banking industry 90% in customer servicing costs, whilst fulfilling the customer need to make transactions 24 hours a day. Conversely, we are increasingly turning to social media to contact companies because the potential embarrassment factor of the shared conversation means response times are often quicker than traditional customer service channels, and can’t be automated.
We’re being primed to expect no wastage in transaction times in the near future, as the internet of things opens the possibility of devices anticipating our needs and ordering what we require before we even realise it ourselves.
And yet, we also know that experiences, over material goods, are now valued more than ever. In Britain, research from Eventbrite found millennials spend over £419m a month on experiences that enable them to spend 2-3 hours of quality time with a band or artist of their choice, or with friends collecting shared experiences that fuel stories to tell around the social media campfire.
What we see emerging is a heightened time-sensitivity, a tension between expecting services and utilities to get faster, and at the same time placing an ever increasing value on time-demanding experiences.

What does this mean for brands?

Traditionally, brands and advertisers have sought to spend more time with consumers to build brand affinity, be that through buying 60” TV spots instead of 30” spots, installing coffee bars in luxury boutiques to increase time in store, or striving to increase ‘engagement’ in social media. Metrics like high dwell time, both on content and on homepages, are still prevalent as key indicators of campaign success.
However, as time-sensitivity increases, spending less time with consumers may be equally (or more) valuable as a means of building a positive relationship. Depending on a person’s mind-set or the task at hand, the most valuable characteristics of a brand may well be unobtrusiveness, or utility. Think of your interactions with Google, or Uber – the less time you spend with them, the quicker you can turn your attention to the ‘next thing’ and the better those brands can be considered to have met a need. And this has business implications: Amazon found every 100 milliseconds of delay cost them 1% in sales. Google found that an extra 0.5 seconds in search page generation time dropped traffic by 20%.
Brands must now ask a new question when planning interactions with consumers. Rather than simply asking ‘how can we spend more time with people?’, brands must now ask:

–          How much time should we spend with an individual?
–          How can we tell how much time to spend with an individual?
–          What should we do with that time?

Complicated? Perhaps, but it can prove hugely profitable.

What does this mean for media and communications?

In order to decipher a consumer’s time-sensitivity at any specific moment, we need to be able to build a context around each individual to understand the balance between convenience and experience.

–          What are they doing?
–          Where are they going?
–          What mood are they in?
–          What are they thinking about?
–          How has their day been?

For instance, each person at a train station can have differing needs and receptivity levels depending on their context. They could be lingering on the platform as they wait 20 minutes for their train, or be rushing around frantically for a train leaving in 5 minutes. Each requires a different brand delivery. In both situations, they are most likely using their phone, but if we read the cues (what apps are being used, what are their search queries) a brand can assess how to engage, and deliver the key message in an appropriate manner.
We might think that some of these questions are almost impossible to answer, but there are countless signals out there, courtesy of our networked/digital world, that help us begin to get a handle on potential answers and consequently understand how to treat time with consumers.
Enter programmatic. Pulling from the data signals that now fuel programmatic buying and targeting, we can begin to build context such as:

–          [Time of day] x [location] = commute 
–          [Wi-Fi connection] x [tablet device] = down time

This enables us to build much more rounded view of the consumer and get better at determining short-term need-states, rather than long-term assumed behaviours. As more players enter this space and technologies improve their ability to understand users based on a growing number of variables, we will be able to amend communication objectives, format, messaging and length to ensure a brand is as sensitive to consumers’ time as possible.
As more data points become accessible, the industry will need to get better at two key things. Firstly, in combining data points in order to ‘paint’ more detailed contexts around a consumer. Realistically this will be a slow learning curve. Creating systems that can combine this data both in meaningful ways and in an automated fashion will take time. It’s a bit like teaching a machine to have empathy, after all.
Secondly, we must improve how we create and combine the assets needed for different consumer contexts. This is well within our reach. A big FMCG brand in Brazil recently ran a video campaign that consisted of over 100,000 different pieces of copy, with changing tones, moods, and even actors depending on the individual consumer and their digital signals. Creating assets in this way will require brands and agencies to operate differently, but represents a necessary step towards time-sensitive communications.
Under the title ‘Unequal time’, this piece was taken from Starcom Mediavest Group’s ‘Needs to Know’ book which examines the five key emerging trends for 2016