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Can I speak to a human, please? The human experience as a premium

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Montri Nipitvittaya)

As the world becomes more connected, we’re starting to see a new kind of phenomenon emerge, one where consumers are indulging by logging off. This goes beyond a simple digital detox though – it’s the arrival of a new kind of luxury. But where has this come from?

Globally, a concern has been growing around how ingrained technology is within our daily lives. In 2013, a quarter of global internet users agreed with the statement “technology makes life more complicated.” By 2019, this had jumped to one-third.

These worries have increased in response to technology’s rapid spread into nearly every aspect of our lives. With the average global internet user reporting that they spend 6 hours and 49 minutes online every day, compared with 5 hours and 36 minutes in 2012, connectivity has become an unavoidable way of life.

Nearly all of our basic human experiences have become mediated, to some extent, by technology: communication, transit, entertainment, work, hobbies, to name a few.

In this landscape of a tech-mediated world, how easy is it to opt out? Can we readily choose to have human-first rather than technology-first experiences? Consumers are at a crossroads, torn between a desire for technology’s conveniences and a concern about its influence in our lives. As a result, they’re turning to something more familiar: the human touch.

High earners are at the vanguard of this trend. This pattern underpins the emerging trends of premiumisation – that an air of “luxury” has emerged around human-driven, in contrast to technology-driven, experiences. But how did it start and, more importantly, where is it going?

Technology for the masses

In 1984, Apple’s first Mac computer cost $2,500 - the equivalent of more than $6,000 in today’s currency. Fast-forward to 2019, and a basic Chromebook can be purchased from most online retailers for less than $200. Consumers are essentially now paying one-twentieth of the price for a much more advanced piece of hardware. A few key stats demonstrate the true extent of this reach. Around the world, 96 per cent of internet users now own a smartphone device, and 70 per cent own a laptop or PC.

Mobile phones and laptops used to be a premium, reserved for the affluent and high-powered groups who could afford them. But now technology has become democratised in a way that has reversed this exact sense of exclusivity – even among the lowest income groups in developed countries, ownership of a laptop is at nearly 80 per cent.

Technology is the great equaliser, but if we all have access, then there is nothing exclusive about it.

Are you there, Siri? It’s me, Margaret

As technology inches closer to being human-like, we’ve seen it replace various types of jobs and services once performed by human workers. The next evolution, however, is likely to be in providing social interaction and companionship. At this point, nothing embodies how technology can replace human interactions quite like voice assistants. As advancements in AI have improved the recognition and responsiveness of voice assistants, uptake of this technology has been explosive. In 2017, 34 per cent of global internet users reported having used a voice command tool – by 2019, this had increased to 43 per cent. 

With improved technology and, subsequently, more frequent usage, the effects of this on our perceptions of AI vs. human-based interactions is striking. Research suggests that consumers are about as likely to trust product recommendations from voice assistants as they are to trust salespeople.

A bespoke study we conducted in the U.S. reinforces some of these findings – nearly 4 out of 10 internet users report that they prefer to use automated services rather than speak to a human customer service representative. Looking at this by income level reveals a striking disparity in how wealth is connected to our comfort with technology. Just over 2 in 5 of low-income earners in the U.S. agree, compared with around 1 in 3 of middle and high-income earners.

Opting out

In developed markets, we’re seeing this concept of a “premiumisation” of the human touch come through most readily, as evident by how long people of various income levels spend on their screens. Across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan, the pattern is evident. Higher income means reduced screen time.

This pattern is evident in self-reported behaviours around “disconnecting” as well. Our research in the U.S. indicates that those in the highest income bracket are much more likely to have done things like remove social media apps from their phones, remove email from their phones, and reduce the amount of TV they watch.

Getting personal

As human interaction increasingly becomes a premium commodity, this has significant implications for both the supply and demand side of global commerce.

In terms of supply, experts predict that high-touch, ultra humanised jobs and services will become extremely valuable as automation phases out many other forms of labour. Projections by the U.S. Department of Labour suggest that the fastest-growing jobs are actually the most heavily service-oriented ones – like home health aides and physical therapists. Additionally, research from the Brookings Institute suggests that some of the areas of employment least likely to be replaced by machines are those that require non-routine responsibilities, social and emotional intelligence, human creativity, and very high technical expertise.

In terms of demand, the premiumisation of human contact is completely redefining what we consider to be “luxury.” According to Milton Pedraza, the chief executive of the Luxury Institute, the future of the industry is in ultra-humanised services and experiences:

“The positive behaviours and emotions human engagement elicits — think the joy of a massage. Now education, health care stores, everyone, is starting to look at how to make experiences human. The human is very important right now.”

It’s a trend that’s emerged even in influencer marketing. Some Instagram influencers have started to capitalise on the platform’s new “close friends” feature, which limits content shared to only a select number of followers, charging upwards of $6 a month for their followers to be members of the “close friends” list. It’s a glimpse into an interesting future where human proximity becomes a new layer of social media marketing.

Preparing for 2020

There are some important takeaways for this trend. Emphasizing the human element in marketing and communications – even if they’re delivered through technology – is one way of adapting. Strategies that use technology as a gateway to real-world experiences will be another.

Technology will continue to change our lives and the world around us, there’s no denying that, but in 2020 the trend toward unplugging and opting out is on the agenda. For many, it might just be the biggest luxury there is.

Virna Sekuj, Strategic Insights Manager, GlobalWebIndex

Virna Sekuj is Strategic Insights Manager at GlobalWebIndex.