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October 29, 2003
Information Not So Overloaded

The folks who churned out all those books and articles about information overload must have thought they were pretty funny. But they knew the public would bite: we are, after all, a society that loses sleep over the possibility of developing chronic anxiety syndrome. So we dutifully added volumes like Data Smog and The Attention Economy to our reading piles: those purgatories where unread documents linger until they're stale enough to be guiltlessly discarded. And thanks to the relentless coverage that generally surrounds these things, we learned what we had to fear. Desensitization to the world around us. Paralysis in decision-making. The loss of customers? attention as our marketing messages folded into the great undifferentiated batter of noise.

As a professional brand builder-someone who is zealously protective of my clients' spotlight-I have been particularly sensitive to this perceived threat. We are continuously beckoned by 18,000 magazines titles, 20 million Web sites and 200 TV channels (Forrester Research). Yes, global usage of raw-data storage capacity is expanding at more than 30% a year, a number that makes third-world inflation rates look good by comparison (University of California, Berkeley). Yes, the software industry still can?t produce filters that reliably protect us from spam and other text-based irritants. Yes, there is such a thing as information overload. Yet, strangely enough, you and I are not information-overloaded. We're simply not wired to be.

I started to figure this out a few months ago, while watching my 8-year-old daughter research a report for school. She was using the Internet...public enemy number one among overload scaremongers. When her search on the name Ella Fitzgerald turned up 297,000 links I murmured sympathetically, but she remained completely unfazed. After checking two or three sites, she determined she had enough information to suit her needs and logged off. The fact that a smorgasbord of data-rich dishes remained untasted bothered her not one whit.

It struck me, then, that information anxiety might be a learned response. The concept of data overload is nowhere present in the first-grade curriculum, and my daughter had no idea she was supposed to feel overwhelmed. Consequently, she didn't. For marketers, it seemed to me, the possibility that human beings aren?t genetically predisposed to short out in response to informational assaults on our neural circuitry would be hugely encouraging. Both personally and professionally, I wanted to know more.

My search for a biological imperative soon led me to Paul Marsden and his sea squirts. A senior researcher at the University of Sussex, Marsden specializes in evolutionary psychology: the study of adaptations made by the brains of our hunter-gather ancestors that still affect the behavior of our surfer-scanner selves. Marsden's research, of late, has focused on the brain?s ability to navigate ever-more-complex informational landscapes without expiring in a "combinatorial explosion." That's how he describes what would happen if we actually attempted to process all the information with which we are continuously presented. Fortunately, Marsden explains, our brains operate with their own best interests at heart.

Consider, says Marsden, the humble sea squirt. Sea squirts are rubbery looking critters that live in water and-by virtue of having spinal chords-are closer to humans on the evolutionary ladder than we might care to admit. Unlike you and me, however, the sea squirt faces only one great challenge in life-to find a home under some rock. Mission accomplished, it proceeds to eat its own brain.

The efficiency of this act is impressive. The settled quirt has no more problems to solve, no information to process, and consequently no need for a brain, the operation of which consumes valuable energy. Human brains, Marsden explains, work on a less radical, but similarly exclusionary principle. It may seem as though our minds try to nab every passing bit of data. But in fact we are instinctively selective, shutting out virtually everything that isn't novel, doesn't address our needs, evokes no emotion, or forms no meaningful connections.

That's what the sea squirt teaches decision-makers. For marketers, there's a different lesson.

If you want to reach a bunch of brains frantically trying to process everything that floats through their environment, it makes sense to yell. If you want to reach a bunch of brains whose evolutionary filters have caused them to shut out all but a few categories of information, it makes sense to couch your message in one of those categories. Everyone whose job it is to communicate with customers should jot down Marsden's quartet—novelty, needs, connections, emotion-on a Post-It note and stick it to his computer. And if they want their message to endure-as all serious brand-builders do-they should put emotion at the top.

Needs change. Novelty fades. Connections differ from person to person. Emotions are universal and undiminished by experience and time.

Several years ago, a client asked my company to create an ad that would rivet audience attention during what may be the world's loudest, most competitive media bazaar: the Superbowl. Making things more difficult, the client was part of what was then among the world?s loudest and most competitive industries: the dot-coms. The client was on-line job board, Monster.com. The ad we created featured a montage of children describing their aspirations. "I want to be a brown nose, a yes man, a yes woman. I want to claw my way up to middle management. I want to be forced into early retirement."

The message touched audiences in several ways. It was wistful. It was ironic. It spoke to the possibility of possibilities lost, to the dwindling of dreams. Yet it also kept alive a hope for the future. And that commercial...which TV Guide named one of the 10 most popular and memorable of all time?catapulted Monster.com overnight from number six in the market to number one and created one of the few enduring, profitable dot-com brands.

Monster.com's business model was pretty much like that of its competitors. A representation—however articulate—of the rational reasons to engage its services would probably not have penetrated the audience's mental filters. Encased in the attention-piercing bullet of emotion, however, the message made it through. Evolution has made us finicky about we deem important. It cannot diminish out capacity to feel.

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Possibilities. That's the religion that dyed-in-the-wool brand optimist Ted Nelson preaches as Mullen's Managing Partner, Director of Brand Planning. He's spent the past Eight years helping Mullen become a leader in identifying the emotional turf that can define a brand's future. Mullen's winning streak of Effie award-winning successes like Lending Tree, Nextel and Monster.com prove that Ted's preaching has its believers. So take it away, Ted.

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