February 3, 2015
Illustration by John Hersey, courtesy of WNYC

Illustration by John Hersey, courtesy of WNYC

I fiddle with my phone everywhere: waiting for the subway, on the subway, on the street, on the escalator and in bed. I need help, and I’m the first to admit it.

So I was pretty pleased to find WNYC’s new Bored and Brilliant campaign. The premise is pretty simple: We’re all addicted to our phones. We can’t stop looking at our phones, particularly when we’re bored. And constantly looking at our phones when we’re bored could be incredibly bad for our potential creative output, according to recent research.

In January, WNYC’s technology podcast New Tech City launched Bored and Brilliant, a new online and podcast campaign that’s asking people to both monitor their smartphone habits and consciously try to change them over the course of a week through a series of emailed challenges designed to spark creativity and inspire spacing out.

“We are just shoving screens in front of ourselves – at the gym, on airplanes, everywhere,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host of New Tech City, who came up with the idea for Bored and Brilliant after realizing she was constantly checking her own smartphone.

“It had been about seven years since I really got bored, which coincided with the time that I got a smartphone,” she said. “And I began to think ‘Are there consequences to not being bored? Are there consequences to not spacing out?’”

Zomorodi began to talk to neuroscientists, who told her that yes, there were potential consequences to never letting her mind wander.

“They said that when you’re bored, that’s when you do your most creative thinking and your problem solving,” she said. “And to me, if we’re always in the moment, then we’re not taking the time to make meaning and to come up with crazy ideas. And I thought, ‘What if we learn about this collectively?’”

To track how people use their phones, New Tech City has teamed up with two apps — Moment for iPhone users and BreakFree for Android users – which monitor how and when people use their phone throughout the day. Zomorodi and her team have also created a newsletter, which guides people through the daily challenges and details everyone’s progress. More than 15,000 people have signed up so far.

The newsletter portion of the project is what really caught my eye — because it is really, really smart. As NPR’s Social Sandbox recently put it, “They’re getting new subscribers for their newsletter and engaging those subscribers with an email welcome that’s specific to their point of entry to the newsletter. All while giving their audience something to do together as a community, something that will [then] feed back into the podcast.”

The feedback loop — from newsletter to podcast and then back again to the newsletter — makes the audience a key part of the campaign. Over the next week, audience members will drive New Tech City’s conversations, both on-air and online. This ends up making them feel more invested in the success of both the project and the show. It’s pretty brilliant.

“We started out with asking them what they hope to get from this project,” Zomorodi said. “One woman talked about how aware her kids are of the hold the phone has on her. Another person said, ‘Sometimes it feels like the attention I give to my phone prevents me from experiencing the world around me.’”

As the project proceeds, participants will be asked to report back after trying to keep their phones off or vowing to delete a time-wasting app, Zomorodi said. The results of their collective experiment will then be broadcast on the New Tech City podcast during the week of Feb. 11.

The project is also aware, she said, of the irony of using a phone app for a project that’s about limiting phone usage. So much so that their FAQ includes an entry for it, noting “We’re not suggesting anyone get rid of their phones. We don’t want to get rid of our phones. We want to learn to live with them in a healthy way. So what better tool than the phone itself?”

Building a community with the audience

Bored and Brilliant is the latest is a series of data-tracking projects launched by WNYC in recent months. In the spring of 2013, the station and Radiolab asked people up and down the East Coast to track when they saw cicadas emerge from the ground. Over 4,000 people participated in that project, said Jim Schachter, WNYC’s VP of News.

“We harnessed people to do something that was more or less silly,” said Schachter. “But having seen what was possible, we talked about what we could do that would actually give people information they could run with.”

The Cicada Project inspired their next project, Clock Your Sleep, which ran in early 2014. That project involved 5,000 New Yorkers tracking their daily sleep habits through an iPhone app for two months.

“If you assiduously maintained your sleep diary, then you got a chart that showed you how you were doing vs. how all of the other participants were doing,” said Schachter. “It became something that nagged you or nudged you to continue.”

Clock Your Sleep also pushed out a newsletter filled with tips on building good sleep habits and encouraging participants to continue monitoring their sleep habits. In the project’s second month, WNYC split participants into teams, encouraging them to try different interventions to improve their sleep habits: One group, for instance, tried turning off their electrical devices. Another tried to eliminate certain vices — like drinking — after a certain period of time in the evening.

“Each team had a Facebook group,” said Schachter. “To me, as a measure of effectiveness of this, when the project ended, we said we were going to stop supporting the things that we built for the project, including the Facebook groups. And one of the groups asked to continue on their own. People are still continuing to check in with one another on the process of improving their sleep.”

One of the most effective Clock Your Sleep emails had an open rate of above 70 percent, Schachter said. The campaign averaged an open rate of 47 percent overall.

“By enlisting 5,000 people in Clock Your Sleep, we got 5,000 additional emails which we use judiciously,” he said. “And in that regard, we have a new touchstone to interact with people….And the email served a very specific purpose and people asked for it. From a business perspective, it can only breed loyalty and appreciation for WNYC.”

And from an engagement perspective, these experiments help grow a community around a podcast and involve audiences in the reporting process – which makes them invested in the outcome. They’re also really cheap to create and help create positive habits, which people then also associate with WNYC.

I suspect Bored and Brilliant will generate loyalty and enthusiasm, as well as great material for broadcast. I’ve already told several friends about it. Not only does everyone get the premise immediately, the only question they’ve had is “Where can I sign up?”

Editor’s note: This is Melody Kramer’s first column for Poynter. Read more about her work and another new columnist here.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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