Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Prescriptions for relieving that tension-causing information overload

We live in an over-communicated society.

Every day, we’re bombarded with more information, taxing the ability of our brains to absorb it all. How do we deal with it? By ignoring new information entirely, or filtering out new information that doesn’t somehow resonate with what we already know.

Those thoughts were laid out nearly three decades ago in the classic 1981 marketing book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. They were onto something.

When Ries and Trout published their book, they noted that 96 percent of American homes could receive more than four TV stations. One-third could receive 10 or more!

Meanwhile, the growing power of computers had yielded a compact disk capable of storing more than 600 kilobytes of information – enough to hold the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, a home that receives only 40 TV channels is probably inhabited by either a Luddite or someone on a severely fixed budget. Computer users talk not in kilobytes, but in gigabytes or even terabytes: one billion times greater than a kilobyte.

And, of course, we’ve also got e-mail, iPods and a little thing called the Internet.

The problem of information overload, foreseen by Ries and Trout more than a generation ago, is being discussed with greater urgency among today’s marketers. Steve Rubel, who blogs about marketing and technology, has discussed it at length on his influential blog, Micro Persuasion. Rubel calls it the “attention crash.”

Yet Rubel, it seems to me, is playing at the margins. His prescriptions for dealing with information overload lean toward ideas like managing your in-box more efficiently, setting up feeds and using down time in the car to listen to audio books.

All useful things to do, but they don’t address the issue of getting a message across to people who are on the receiving end of thousands of messages a day.

The fact that you’re reading this is just one small example. Not too many years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to read my thoughts, unless they appeared in one of the traditional print media. Now, MinnPost and thousands of other websites and blogs bring you news and opinion about the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

Extend that to national or international news and analysis, and you have a choice of millions of places to get your information.

So, how can someone with a message get it noticed in this oversaturated media environment? Here are a few thoughts:

The cream will rise to the top. Interesting, useful information has a way of finding people. A truly innovative product or service, or a fascinating story, will always be noticed.

Think like Willie Sutton. The legendary crook was asked why he robbed banks. “That’s where the money is,” Willie said with a shrug. In today’s world, almost every topic you can think of has a ready-made community formed around it. If you’re selling bikes, don’t just try to pull people to your website; go to the enthusiast sites where they’re already hanging out. Spread the word in places where people are predisposed to be interested in your message.

Keep it simple. This is straight out of “Positioning.” When people are bombarded with too much information, they pull back. They shut down. Thus, the best approach in an over-communicated society is an oversimplified message.

Ries and Trout didn’t have all the answers. Writing in an era in which mass marketing was still king, they didn’t foresee the importance of word-of-mouth information passed along through blogs, Facebook and email. And they had disdain for brand extensions, which they saw as diluting the power of the original brand.

Still, their core conclusions ring true today. Reaching the oversaturated consumer mind requires a simple, strong message that resonates with what the consumer already knows.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply