Two of us at Copernicus (Sarah and I) are working on a project, funded through Ryerson University, on smartphone usage. One of the key findings we’ve uncovered so far is that people tend to adopt new communication channels (e.g., text) when they purchase new handsets. This new handset/life change correlation is a symbolic ritual that leads to new ways of communicating.
When do they purchase new handsets? When their lives change in some way. Here’s an example.
We spoke to one young professional who was telling us when he started using BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). He noticed that he started using it more when he got his new BlackBerry handset, but it was also around the time he got engaged to his fiancée (who also had just gotten a BlackBerry). So he wasn’t sure if it was because he got the new BlackBerry or because he got engaged.
This type of life event was a recurrent theme. Participants got new handsets when they went away to university, when they started a new job, when they got a promotion, when they moved house. Or they purchased them for their children when they reached a certain age.
This type of ritualistic consumption is common. We have talked about this before in our analysis of autumn jean buying. People buy certain items to equip themselves for the new season, but also to symbolically mark the shift from one state to the next. There are practical reasons why one would purchase a new handset when one is moving house, for example, but there is also a deeply symbolic transformation taking place.
Participants are hiving off the past by giving up their old handsets. They are preparing for the future (at university, at the new job, with the new partner) when they are upgrading to a new, “futuristic” piece of technology. Just like new jeans are symbolic of a new school year, new handsets are symbolic of a new way to relate to new people or things in your life.
New handsets are not just new phones; they are new ways to communicate. Our participants did not intend to re-invent how they talked/texted/BBM’d but they did intend to change their lives in some way. Texting for the first time seems natural when you’re embracing another life change. Using BBM for the first time makes sense if your new fiance already uses it. Answering email on the bus for the first time is not weird if everyone at the new office does it.
I have argued in the past that financial services providers should only ever look to life changes as triggers for new products. It’s clear that new products go hand in hand with new life events. In this case, new products and new life events correlate with new technology adoption.
Technology designers should consider what events are the triggers, and incorporate these symbolically into their mobile platforms. Advertisers should understand that getting consumers accustomed to new mobile content means understanding their new life situations. Employers should understand that new hires and the newly promoted are adjusting to new ways of communicating, usually because they are given new phones without much discussion. And parents should realize that symbolic ages for their children (e.g., age 16) will often mean new ways of communicating. Just teaching your son or daughter to drive is the start of it — you may also have to learn how to BBM.