By Going Unplugged for 24 Hours, College Students Teach Marketers Valuable Lessons

by: Mark Johnson, President & CEO, Loyalty 360

200 University of Maryland students from a variety of majors were given what seemed to be a fairly simple challenge:  Abstain from social media for 24 hours.

Simple?  Not for them.

Abstaining from social meant no iPhone.. no text messaging ….no laptops …. no netbooks…. No tweeting …. no e-mail ….. and no Facebook.    This return to simplicity was like taking these student fishes out of their interconnected waters.

The study—“24 Hours: Unplugged”—was conducted by the university’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda in February/March, 2010.  Researchers found that going without their social media connection to the world is a huge struggle for college students.  “We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were ‘incredibly addicted’ to media,” said Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor and director of the center,  said in the university’s news report on the study.

The students blogged about their trials and tribulations of being unplugged for a day (yes, one day!)—- even though most failed to make through an entire 24-hour span without giving in to the lure of social media.  Posts such as “I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening” or “I felt like a person on a deserted island….  I noticed physically, that I began to fidget, as if I was addicted to my iPod and other media devices, and maybe I am” were the norm.

The study found that these students cared about what was going on among their friends, families, communities and the world at large.  Yet,  most of all they cared about being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information—- no matter where they get that information.   Information, they discovered, was a precious commodity – one that they used to define themselves in comparison to their peers. One student said he realized that he suddenly had “less information” than “everyone else,” regardless of whether that information involved “news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy.”

 According to the study results, students also made it clear that socializing and the flow of information were inextricably intertwined.   When the earthquake in Chile struck, most students didn’t learn about it from newspapers or the evening news. They found out about it first through contacts on social networks sites, and that information propelled them to visit mainstream news sites. “People who do not use media as frequently as our society does are probably missing out on important news and social interaction,” the student wrote.

For marketers, the implication of these findings is straight-forward:  Social media is the most effective way to reach this key demographic.  A while this is not a revelation, what’s eye-opening is the students’ need for connectivity and the constant access to information.  Delivering information—- versus marketing messages—-  is the key to engaging these students.


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