Stop The Interruptions! Marketing In The Age Of The Always-On Consumer

The growth of the Internet of Things is bringing marketers unprecedented opportunities, says columnist Kevin Lindsay. But he warns it also increases the likelihood of getting it wrong.


Let me set the scene: It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night. I’m home, my wife’s home, my kids are home. Finally, we can start to wind down from a long day and enjoy some quality time together around the dinner table. Are you with me? We sit, plates are passed, first bites are taken, and…


The phone rings. Who could possibly be calling right now, interrupting dinner? I pop up — It must be important if someone’s calling right now.

It’s not a relative in peril. It’s not a homework question from a classmate. It’s not a work emergency. It’s a telemarketer with a “quick” political survey, a deal on a newspaper subscription, a timeshare offer, or any one of a million different promotions.

I hang up, irritated at being interrupted, and spend at least the next 60 seconds complaining. And forget it if they call again — either that night or in the days that follow — I’m furious.

Here’s the funny thing though; that deal might have been spot-on relevant in terms of price and product. Maybe I wanted a newspaper subscription or to share my feelings on the presidential race. But now that telemarketer will never know — and I’ll never connect the dots if I was, in fact, looking to connect them — because the context was a total miss (the timing couldn’t have been worse!).

The Age Of Interruption

But it’s not just the telemarketers who have to consider this 360-degree view of consumer relevance. I’ve had this notion of interruption-driven marketing in my head since Brent Hieggelke, the Chief Mobile Evangelist for Urban Airship, planted the seed at Adobe Summit this past March.

He called this an age of interruption and encouraged audience members to identify the right level of “interruption” within their own models, given the heightened — perhaps hyper — level of awareness and receptivity to which consumers are rapidly becoming accustomed.

Is it an alert from your wearable when you hit 10,000 steps? Text messages from your Dropcam every time your dog rolls over? Is it that call or text at dinnertime? What defines interruption today, versus clear communication through marketing channels, versus simply noise?

Hieggelke piqued my interest, and what he spoke about has stuck in my head since. We don’t like to think of it this way, but we marketers all are, in fact, interrupters. We’re striving to get the attention of a very distracted consumer; we’re trying to jump into the fray and get our message heard over the noise.

Striking A Balance

Sometimes being heard requires campaign strategies that attempt to jolt our audience to shift, to consider and take a moment out of their lives to listen to what we have to say. This interruption isn’t innately a bad thing as long as we strike and maintain the right balance.

So where is it? Where’s the line between being relevant and being annoying or creepy? Is it being too frequent with communication and outreach? Does it depend on something more temporal, such as the time of day you’re pushing your message?

Perhaps you can reach that delicate balance with something location-based, very timely and very contextually relevant. From a personalization perspective, this isn’t all that new. What’s new is the volume of interactions we’re talking about — and the devices through which they take place. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge; both a chance to create delightful customer experiences and a risk of delivering real turn-offs!

So why talk about interruption now? What makes this point in time unique? I’d argue that it’s the Internet of Things (IoT) and the fact that everything is or could be “smart.”


This brings up some rather obvious questions: Just because an item such as a piece of apparel can be connected to the Internet, should it be? Is this connected device really smart as a result? Today marketers are rigorously evaluating wearables and IoT for their marketing potential, and as they do so, they must realize that the lines between spot-on relevance and aggressive interruption can often be razor-thin.

As we navigate this hyper-connected, hyper-relevant, always-on landscape, we must ask ourselves these three key questions:

  1. Is what I’m offering/doing/saying/sharing relevant?
  2. Are the message and the overall experience contextual?
  3. Is the journey enjoyable — or at least not unenjoyable?

What about you and your recent consumer engagements? Can you give the questions above resounding yeses? If so, then congratulations; you’re rocking it!

However, if you answer “no” — or, worse, you answer “no” to multiple questions — then, well… you’re probably an interrupter. But that ends today. Here’s a rundown on the boxes you need to check to ensure you’re on the ball, and not on everyone’s nerves.

Everything’s Smart And Getting Smarter

When you take a step back and think about this notion of interruption, it’s clear that we’re really in a pivotal moment in time, from both a marketer’s and a general consumer’s perspectives. And the risks are real!

If we don’t actually come up with some sort of meaningful relevance strategy, we run the sky-high risk of marketing taking a step back. That’s never good.

We have even more opportunities to engage with our consumers every minute of every day, be it on smartphones, smartwatches, smart appliances, and other interactive experiencesor in increasingly more intimate, personal ways such as via health monitors, wellness apps, and going forward, a range of quickly emerging smart medical devices.

The marketer’s goal should always be to harness the power of IoT for everyone’s benefit, but these experiences could just as easily go the other way if you don’t strike an optimal balance. That’s why optimization is going to become more important than ever, and real personalization won’t just be a nice-to-have but a must-have.

How can you and your organization separate yourselves? How can you embrace the IoT and the opportunities it represents, while taking advantage of the right channels to ensure your customer is hearing from you in appropriate, relevant, contextual ways?

How can you not be that annoying telemarketer who interrupts Lindsay family dinnertime? Because that approach doesn’t work — it’s out of touch, it’s purely interruption, and above all, it’s not a positive brand experience. Pull out these three essential check points: relevance, context and enjoyment.


Remember The Vacuum Salesperson? Be Him… Sort Of

Some recent dinner interruptions — and the fact that our vacuum broke last week — made me think about the door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salespeople who used to canvass the neighborhoods. They’d knock on your door, smile and convince Mr. or Mrs. Homeowner to let them in for a quick demo.

They’d then proceed to dump dirt and dust on the carpet, and like magic, suck it all up in seconds with their state-of-the-art vacuum. Sure, it was a little in-your-face, and I’d argue that it probably passed from relevant to creepy in more than one instance.

However, from a marketing perspective, this experience had a lot going for it. There’s definitely relevance, context, a strong call-to-action, and beyond that, they got the homeowner’s attention, didn’t they? That salesman was creating an actual brand experience like we all strive to do today — and he was succeeding.

Beyond that, the vacuum salespeople were probably affable, friendly people who you really didn’t mind having in your living room for a few minutes — or they wouldn’t last very long. I’d bet they had a pretty high conversion rate once they got through the front door.

How Much Is Too Much?

Like I said above, persistent telephone solicitation rarely represents anything but annoying interruption. The vacuum guy could be the same, for sure, but if a homeowner welcomed him in, then they were acknowledging that the timing was right (or at least OK).

But imagine if he knocked again after being turned away? How annoying — creepy even — would that be? Definitely not contextual, relevant or enjoyable.

While this example may seem extreme, the digital equivalent happens all the time. It’s the multi-part push alerts. The constant beacon messaging that lacks relevance. The ill-timed email after a cart is abandoned. The upsell minutes after the sell.

Alone, these tactics can be spot-on relevant, beneficial and highly effective. But once they cross into the “overkill” zone, these methods can do much more harm than good. Timing plays a major role in the contextual relevance of marketing moments, and going too far can position you as that chronic, annoying, telemarketer-level interrupter.

Determining the optimal balance for your business and your customers is critical. Constantly barging into their digital lives is the same as calling and calling and calling and calling during dinner — and, understandably, that’s never going to help your brand transition from the “interrupter” to the “relevance deliverer” realm.

Think About The Push/Pull Of It All

Speaking of alerts, there are countless examples of push/pull (aka outbound/inbound), powerful forces at play in our digital-marketing universe today. The vacuum-cleaner salesperson, the telemarketer, and today’s myriad notifications, alerts, popups, emails, and other outbound promotional initiatives — those are all, at the end of the day, push strategies.

You, me, the salesperson, the telemarketer, we’re just trying to get our product, service, or message in front — or in the hands, on the wrists, or in the inboxes– of target consumers through any means necessary.

We want to create awareness, drive engagement and foster conversion, and to do that, we’re pounding the pavement — sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively — to create proactive, ideally relevant brand experiences.

But what about pull strategies? And really, is it “push” without a “pull?” There’s probably very little pull strategy — getting consumers to come to you and your brand — in a telemarketing-centric campaign.

Yes, I’m sure the timeshare seller, the newspaper subscription offerer and the politician have websites and a variety of extensions around them, but they’re really in the push business.

Finding The Balance


For digital marketers, is there a balance here, too? Can we be too passive with too much pull or too aggressive with too much push? Testing is vital here.

Just as the email marketer cares a lot about email frequency, the mobile marketer should test notification frequency. Is the push notification I receive as soon as I’m within a retailer’s geo-fence effective, if the relevance condition isn’t yet met?

You want to avoid being the annoying interrupter, but also make sure you aren’t exhausting your efforts and the attention of those customers who would naturally gravitate toward your brand without any marketing whatsoever.

Someone’s buying cheap timeshares and searching for them online. If you’re pursuing those people, Mr. Telemarketer, then you’re wasting your resources on someone who’s perfectly content with a pull strategy in this case. By aggressively pushing, you’re potentially alienating them by doing double duty, and of, course, interrupting their dinner.

There are no concrete answers to all of these questions, just like no two businesses and strategies are alike. Like I said earlier, testing is critical to find what works for your business and product. Testing will help you determine the ideal push/pull balance and also when, where and how consumers want to hear from you.

Before you even start the testing, however, consider relevance and the contextual nature of what you’re rolling out.

  • Relevance? Make sure to dive into the data via those connected devices to inform meaningful experiences across those unique platforms.
  • Context? Think about when and how a consumer wouldn’t want to hear from you — then avoid that time and venue! A diet reminder during dinner might seem relevant but there’s a good chance it will fall on deaf — or even angry — ears. It’s a simple example, but you get my drift.
  • Enjoyable? Are you making the recipient’s life better or easier? Or at the very least, are you offering something good, fun or positive?

Remember, if you can’t say “yes” to these questions, don’t panic. You’ll get there.

And you don’t have to be a “fun” brand or product to achieve the trifecta here. For example, buying a vacuum isn’t #1 on my can’t-wait-to-do list, but if I’m having a reasonably good experience digging into some great brands and models, I’d go so far as to classify that as “enjoyable” in this case. Being enjoyable is very important!

Chances are that you’ve had a contextually relevant brand experience ruined because it wasn’t enjoyable: the bad waiter at the restaurant you otherwise loved, the rude clerk at your favorite store, being squished in the middle seat on the way to your dream vacation. These experiences can sour even the most spot-on relevant moments — and those happen in the digital realm, too.


We are in an always-on environment, and IoT is only going to send that notion soaring into the stratosphere. Infinite opportunities exist for both brands and consumers when it comes to IoT and creating incredible relevance, context, and fun at the right moment on the right platform at the right time.

But this moment in time also presents marketers with the tools to create even more unnecessary chatter and unwelcome interruptions in our audiences’ already fragmented, loud and sometimes chaotic physical and digital lives. It’s essential to strike a balance between interrupting and creating relevant, push-driven brand experiences through testing and iterative development processes.

Without those tactics, you’re trying to sell me a timeshare during dinner. And a word of advice: I’ll never, ever say yes.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

(Some images used under license from


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