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Digital Fatigue: The myth, the reality and why we need to rethink audience engagement

June 20th, 2023 Mark Bornstein

Digital fatigue. A new combination of words that has taken on so much importance over the past few years that it has served many uses: a fear, an excuse, a rationale or a sign of an uncertain future where audiences simply tune out, to everything.

Is any of this true? Was all of it true? Or is digital fatigue just another reactionary emotion to what was a profound disruption in how we communicate?

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I believe that digital fatigue was a real thing … for a minute.

Where Digital Fatigue Got Its Start

Man Thinking on laptop

When the pandemic started and we were all suddenly staring into our laptop screens to communicate with our families, friends, co-workers, partners and customers via a variety of video conferencing tools, it was a jarring new reality to get used to. That was real.

But, what started as a communications band-aid, has become our daily reality, and it’s no longer new, or weird, or fatiguing to be on a video call. We adjusted. It’s not even the “new normal” anymore; it’s just normal.

But something else happened.

How Marketers Made Digital Fatigue Worse

two colleagues working on computer

During the past few years, our marketing was forced to exist only through digital channels. And that created a new problem.

For too long, many companies took these channels for granted, delivering the same content experiences, webinars and events in the same way, year after year. Heck, many companies had never even delivered a virtual conference or event before 2020.

But suddenly we were all doing it, and our audiences had a LOT of options to choose from.

The best analogy I can make is that it was like the difference between our TV options today (just think about how many streaming services there are) and when we only had three broadcast networks to choose from (does anyone even remember that.)

According to the 2022 State of Digital Experiences Report, there was a 135.57% increase in digital experiences delivered between 2019 and 2021. Marketers now face serious competition for the time and attention of their audiences. And those audiences expect better experiences, not just blatant, lifeless “marketing.”

The Myth of Digital Fatigue

lady at laptop

And this is where the mythological part of digital fatigue comes in. As audiences started voting with their attendance, preferences and purchase decisions, the brands that had not evolved their digital channels were getting left behind.

“It’s digital fatigue” they claimed with great exasperation. But no, they were just delivering bad experiences.

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You hear it again and again: Buyers are changing. They are increasingly self-educating and often don’t want to talk to a salesperson until they have already made a purchase decision.

In 2019, Forrester reported that buyers took, on average, 17 interactions to make a purchase decision. Two years later, in 2021, they updated the average number of interactions to 27. But you don’t hear as much about their expectations for the type of interactions they want is also changing dramatically.

What People Want (Really, Really Want) From Their Digital Experiences

Woman on computer

Today, audiences want more. They want experiences that are approachable, interactive, engaging, personalized, genuinely helpful and authentically human.

Maybe even entertaining. Is that a lot to ask? Not really. It sounds more like the marketing many of us got into this business to create.

Six Ways To Keep Digital Events Interesting and Engaging

man and woman taking notes

In 2021 and 2022, there have been some obvious trends that have led the way to create better audience experiences. Here are six key lessons to keep in mind as you create engaging digital experiences:

1. Audiences don’t want passive experiences.

They will likely tune out if all they can do is sit and watch or read something. Today, audiences want to participate actively in an experience.

The best virtual events, webinars and content experiences put the audience at the center of the experience. Surrounding them in ways to interact and engage through polls, Q&A, chat, surveys, gamification and other social tools.

They are not watching an experience; they are participating in it.

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2. Start thinking like a producer of great programming, not marketing.

One major change we have seen in webinars is that many brands are creating serialized programs that feel more like TV shows than a marketing webinar.

There are many webinar programming formats that we have seen, including news shows, talk shows, interview shows, game shows, awards shows and many more.

3. Conversations can be great marketing.

Whether in a video, virtual event session, or webinar, conversing with other interesting people around topics that matter to your audience can be a compelling way to keep people engaged.

Especially if you enable your audience to be a part of that conversation.

In fact, in the past year, we have also seen a rise in discussion-based experiences where the audience has the camera on and actively participates in the experience. Companies have now figured out how to re-create smaller, more personalized forums and birds-of-a-feather sessions in the digital world.

4. Segment and personalize.

So much of our marketing tend to be high-level thought leadership experiences promoted to our entire database to attract the biggest possible audiences (read leads).

But today, people seek content that speaks to their unique needs.

In the past year, we have seen modern marketers begin to create more personalized content experiences (often by use case, persona, industry, etc.) to engage people in more specific ways.

From industry-focused webinars to personalized content experiences spread across web pages to highly targeted landing pages that are customized and delivered to a prospect’s digital doorstep, the more personalized the experience is, the more they tend to engage.

5. BE HUMAN.

Our audiences don’t want to be marketed to, they don’t want to be pitched, and they dislike anything that feels inauthentic. If marketing has become a bad word, it’s because our marketing can often be painful to consume.

There has been a lot of talk about empathy in marketing circles these days, but where is empathy for the people who have to endure our marketing? Our goal is to engage, and we need to get creative to connect with our audiences in real human ways.

The tonality of the experiences we deliver, in our content, and in our events and webinars needs to shift. Even if you are in a “serious” industry like financial services or life sciences, it doesn’t mean that your digital experiences can’t be more authentically human.

Even stockbrokers and scientists are people. We need to find the personalities, stories and digital formats that will enable us to engage our audiences in compelling ways.

6. Better engagement delivers actionable data.

Creating better digital marketing isn’t just for our audiences, it’s for us.

The more a prospect is engaged with an experience, answering polls, asking questions, making comments, downloading content, clicking on CTAs, etc., the more we learn about them.

These insights are invaluable for our salespeople, who don’t need leads, they need to find ways to build relationships.

When you open up your preferred streaming service, there inevitably will be some programs you like and some you don’t. Some you might even hate. The same is true for marketing, there are great experiences and bad experiences.

If the selling is happening in the marketing, then we need to deliver experiences that our audiences love and will want to come back for more.

So, stop worrying about fatigue and start focusing on delight. Great experiences create engaged audiences, and that engagement will deliver the insights and data we need to convert those prospects into customers.

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