Instagram’s new checkout facility means we can now enjoy the convenience of online shopping without ever leaving the Insta-ecosystem. But the Facebook-owned channel is not the only brand keen to keep consumers on its platform for as long as humanly possible. So what’s behind the trend, and are consumers fully aware of the business motivations involved?

The attention economy
Time is money (as Benjamin Franklin once wrote). But what’s really lucrative for modern digital businesses is the magic combination of time and attention, directed their way on a massive scale. Companies court our attention using a more-ish blend of advertising and content, and they use it to gather audience insight, sell ad space and ultimately, gain revenue.

The ‘free’ services digital platforms provide, the ever-changing content, the handy apps… it’s all about claiming a share of a user’s awareness, both in terms of what they pay attention to moment-to-moment and what memories and associations they hold in their minds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just the way the system works.

Maxing out the attention resource
For years now, companies have been vying for attention by trying to provide the most compelling messages, the most usable experiences and the most shareable content out there. And there’s nothing wrong with that, provided the system is working.

The trouble is, we’re now hitting a point where the limiting factor is not the quality, volume or reach these platforms deliver, but the amount of attention actually available to be had. Human beings can only absorb so much information, and we have a limited number hours to spend consuming media. To get a share of that increasingly scarce resource, companies need to come up with new methods of holding our attention and monopolising our time.

The power of having to do nothing
With attention in short supply, enter the on-platform checkout (and other similar innovations). Rather than just using interest and benefit to attract and keep attention, they’re maximising the audience they already have by bringing in another factor – convenience and inertia. Humans are pre-programmed by evolution to seek ease and minimise effort.

As a user, if you’re already on a certain platform that can serve your needs, why would you leave? The effort of navigating from app to browser, following links, making choices and performing new logins can all be eliminated if the platform in question brings everything instantly to your fingertips. (It’s a bit like Deliveroo, but with websites.)

How much of this is happening exactly?
As you might expect, the platform-broadening tactic is already being put to use by some of the biggest players in tech. Here are some other examples of user-retaining convenience in action.

  • Google
    Rand Fishkin recently published some SEO guidance on searcher intent for website that throws the on-platform monopoly trend into sharp relief. According to Rand, there’s a ranking benefit for sites that answer a user’s query in the snippet. I.e. what they’re looking for appears within the Google results, so the user gets what they need without having to click through. These website owners are actually being motivated to keep users on the Google platform at the expense of traffic to their own websites.
  • Pinterest
    The internet’s most aspirational noticeboard has been blurring the lines between platform and browser for years now. “Read it” links from on-app Pinterest Pins are opened within the app itself, rather than the user’s browser, although at a glance you won’t necessarily notice you’re still in Pinterest-land when consuming the content. These in-app browser ‘tunnels’ can go on almost indefinitely, since every link you click as part of that browsing journey will be opened in the same Pinterest environment.
  • Facebook
    Facebook has long been providing a ‘convenient’ browser to its app users as a way to open links. But there’s also a feature that creates a browser-like experience inside a Facebook ad. Instant Experience (formerly known as Facebook Canvas) supports image carousels, videos, form filling and navigable photo galleries, all within a single ad. Advertisers can also choose to link two Instant Experiences together, so visitors can pass from one miniature ad-world to another. We’re talking Inception-like levels of meta here.

Handy, or underhanded?
From an end-user perspective, is all of this a good thing? As with most aspects of digital progress, there are pros and cons. There’s definitely an upside to being able to complete a purchase on Instagram, for example, rather than having to navigate to the brand’s website. Getting a helpful answer without leaving the search results page is also a big plus. But what about when things are so seamless we don’t actually notice what’s happening, or know what platform we’re on? When decisions are being made for us – never a good sign – and we don’t have control over our own online footprint, alarms begin to ring. People may find the experience of entering an in-app parallel universe disorienting, especially when they belatedly realise the ‘browser’ they’ve ended up in doesn’t have the features, security protocols or personal pre-sets (such as ad blockers) that they’re used to.

Ultimately, we need to remember that the platforms we use each day are businesses, not public services. They operate with their own interests at heart, and will always have an agenda to channel our data, behaviour and attention where they want it to be. They’re not omnipotent though, and to quote another aphorism (Francis Bacon this time) – knowledge is power. By being aware of the blurring lines between app and browser, ad and video, and knowing the strategies that lie behind convenient features like in-app check-out, we can make informed decisions that serve our own needs, and hopefully achieve both convenience and control – the best of both worlds.   

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