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Customer Experience Public Relations (PR) Marketing

What happens when your favorite app gets bad? ‘Disconnection distress’ is on the rise


By Desi Kozareva, CX Strategist

July 8, 2024 | 7 min read

Brands hold the keys to consumers’ beloved songs, series, and devices. Why are some so intent on making it more difficult to access the goods, wonders Desi Kozareva, a CX strategist at Cheil UK.

A ethernet cable cut

Remember when owning music, movies, and games meant having them in your hands? Today, digital access is king, but this convenience comes with a price: ‘disconnection distress.’ Brands control our digital lifelines, and as a result, consumers face new challenges and anxieties.

Disconnection distress describes that unsettling feeling when our tech-driven world suddenly grinds to a halt, leaving us feeling a bit stranded. It happens when brands pull the plug on support for our favorite online games or when they shrug off the responsibility of fixing our old faithful phones.

And it’s on the rise.

Ubisoft no longer supports online services for 10 older games. Similarly, Sony removed 1,200 purchasable titles from its library without refunding customers.

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Smartphones, in particular, have been a major contributor to this feeling of disconnection, as they hold the keys to consumers’ favorite digital experiences. While the industry has seen issues with slow updates and enforced obsolescence, some companies are stepping up to address these concerns. For instance, some are extending software and security updates for up to five and seven years on many of their latest devices, offering consumers greater longevity and reliability.

Brands need to find ways to enhance user experience as trust becomes crucial. However, many brands are still making decisions by focusing on squeezing revenue from customers instead of supporting customer well-being or developing solutions that deliver meaningful value to them.

Automotive brands have been guilty of introducing subscriptions for features and functionalities already available in cars. For example, Mercedes wanted to introduce a fee for faster acceleration in the US, while BMW had plans to charge for heated seats and steering wheels. Netflix, among other streaming providers, has hiked prices multiple times and introduced ads.

As consumers own more digital products that require continuous upkeep - be it of servers or software, this will continue to be an increasingly concerning trend. Disconnection distress will soon be a prevalent feeling for many.

Younger consumers are deeply affected

Younger consumers are particularly exposed to this feeling, as they have been born into a connected world.

As digital natives, Gen Z consumers are more open to owning digital products than other generations. For example, in 2023, 33% of UK Gen Z consumers bought a video game from digital platforms such as Steam, 30% used a gaming subscription service, and 25% purchased in-game items using micro-transactions.

What happens when brands change the T&Cs of those subscriptions or turn off the servers that allow consumers to play those games?

This dependency on brands has led some Gen Z consumers to look for alternatives. For example, some are adopting old phones, fondly calling them “dumb phones.” While this might seem like a temporary trend–a nostalgic shout-back to the early 00s–it indicates a shift in consumer behavior. Many consumers are trying to reduce their reliance on digital services and devices.

Some institutions are taking more extreme steps. To help improve student well-being, a school in London is running an 11-hour school day pilot during which phone use will be banned. Students are not forced to attend school for the whole day, but those who do are provided with meals throughout the day and given offline time to spend on homework and other activities.

But brands depend on consumers too

Such extreme conditions are unlikely to work for young adults, and often this is not what consumers want either. They enjoy subscribing to these services and buying digital products such as games because they bring them joy and often allow them to connect with others with the same interests.

One recent example showed that consumers do have the power to respond. Sony recently forced consumers to create a PlayStation account to access their much-loved Helldivers 2 video game – one they had previously enjoyed playing via Steam. This was a decision Sony was later forced to revoke following a significant backlash and stream of negative reviews. Additionally, the online PlayStation account was not available in many countries, subsequently locking out a significant number of existing players.

Consumer action on this scale is impractical for all of the changes streaming providers make to their T&Cs. However, it’s clear that a new kind of relationship is needed where consumers are given more rights over the digital products they own than they currently have.

The Right to Repair law is one example of legislation trying to give consumers back some control over their devices. Under this law, manufacturers in the UK and the EU are legally required to make spare parts available for the products they produce.

Digital products and services would benefit from something similar. But the power is also in the hands of brands, who should consider how they can deliver greater value to their customers – whether by prolonging the time they can enjoy their favorite games in exchange for a fee or in another way.

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Pulling the plug on these is only going to cause backlash and lead to much disappointment and distress, none of which are things any brand would want to be associated with.

It is unlikely that we will return to CDs any time soon, if at all. But this is an opportunity to redefine this dependent relationship and find the sweet spot that will deliver value to both stakeholders and consumers alike.

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