Information Overload: 5 causes and 12 cures

information overloadI like to snack on cereal. And I buy a different brand every week.

However this personal indulgence comes at a price. When I enter the cereal isle, I’m faced with a wall of boxes vying for my attention, starbursts popping off every box, coupon dispensers flashing red, sales signs waving above my head, red and yellow price tags lining every shelf, a sea of promotional decals spattering the floor.

It’s information overload at its most intense.

I’m sure I don’t have to explain information overload. You experience it every day when you open three pounds of mail, flip through 1,000 TV channels, or dive into that teetering pile rising from your “in box.”

There’s just too much information to process these days. And what I feel in the cereal aisle is what your customers and prospects feel every day. What are the results? When people are feeling overwhelmed, they react in the only way they can:

The Causes of Information Overload

You can’t do anything about the general information overload in our culture, but you can control overload in the context of your marketing messages. First, let’s look at what can create information overload in your communications.

Lack of clarity. When a person does not understand something, information is nothing more than random data. Even short messages can overwhelm people if the meaning is not clear.

In advertising, this is often caused by too many writers working on a single project — a sure way to muddle a message. It is also caused by regurgitating facts without understanding them, by not having a tangible purpose for writing, and by striving to impress rather than communicate.

Semantic distortions. The word “semantic” refers to the meaning of words — not just the dictionary meaning but the total meaning as interpreted by a reader or listener. This can vary widely depending on education, experiences, and beliefs.

You must always ask questions about the perceived meaning of your messages: Do your words say what you intend them to say? Is your headline too clever? Do you get lost in a narrative? Is your tone too upscale? Do you spend too much time on the problem and not enough time on the solution? Do your illustrations match the product?

Poor retention. Generally, direct marketing is more concerned with immediate decisions than image-building or branding. However, it’s beneficial for people to remember favorable facts about your business.

Do you make the impression you want to make? Do your prospects hear you? Understand you? Even loyal customers or donors seldom remember much about you. You must continually educate them.

Poor planning. Have you thought this through? Is this the best time for your pitch? Is this the best offer? Are you using the best lists? Do you have the best placement? Are you appealing to the best markets? Even the very best copy cannot overcome faulty planning.

Distrust. People are by nature suspicious. Evolutionary biologists have even said that one of the primary functions of the human brain is to be a “cheater detector.”

You might bend over backwards to be honest, but do people believe you? Are you open and generous with information about your organization? Do you offer a fair guarantee? Do you carefully describe your product or service or programs? Are there drawbacks you should point out? In marketing, you are often guilty until proven innocent.

The Cures for Information Overload

So, what can you do to avoid overload? Allow me to address the causes with some cures and give you a few extra ideas as well.

Make clarity your #1 objective. You can’t persuade someone to act if that person doesn’t understand your point. Simplify your message. Make it easy to read or understand. Say what you mean to say. Good ad messages should be like a clean pane of glass in a storefront — you don’t notice the glass, but you can clearly see what you want on the other side.

Link information with familiar ideas. If there’s any chance for misunderstanding, use a simple analogy to something your prospect is already familiar and comfortable with. For example, if you say your software utility program is like a doctor checking your computer for viruses and other software “illnesses,” it’s easy to understand what the program does.

Inject emotional content. Ideas are easier to understand and remember when they are linked with emotional content or intense feelings.

If you’re raising funds to change the American tax system, don’t just explain economic theory and reel off dry statistics. Talk about how the IRS takes money from our wallets, how the government makes us work two hours every day to support a bloated government, or how frustrating it is to fill out all those confusing forms every April. People process emotional ideas more easily than intellectual ones.

Avoid making counterproductive associations. Clever analogies, puns, and word play might make you look bright, but they will sabotage clear communication. This goes for gratuitous graphics, effects, and images that are used because they are trendy.

One ad I have in my “bad ad” file shows a clown giving work to a guy sitting at a desk. The headline makes a pun about the boss being a clown. You have no idea this ad is about office equipment until you read the tiny body copy.

Avoid interfering messages. Don’t dump too many messages on your reader at once. Start with a simple, big idea. Then build and reinforce, adding information paragraph by paragraph, always talking about that one big idea.

Use unique or unusual messages. Messages that stand out are noticed and remembered. You should always try to do something just a little different — different from the competition or different from the norm — in every message. If the product itself is unique, let that come out and don’t camouflage it in an unnecessarily creative approach.

Present product benefits at the beginning and the end of your message. People tend to remember what comes first and what comes last. Things in the middle are usually forgotten. If you have a list of benefits or features, put the best up front, but have a few good ones for the end, too. And in any communication, reiterate the primary benefits when you’re wrapping up your pitch.

Create meaningful messages. Empty hype is soon forgotten. Copy based on prospect needs is remembered and acted upon. If you find yourself struggling for words when writing copy, you’re probably lacking meaningful content. Dig a little deeper and find tangible things to say.

Present clear benefits of using your product. A list of cliché benefits won’t rouse many people to action. “Low prices. Quality service.” That says nothing. Give clear, tangible benefits that are meaningful and valued by your prospect.

Decide what you want to say before you say it. Don’t just write hoping that something sensible will reveal itself. Plan and outline. Think about the point you want to make. Determine the tone or emotional feel. Know where you’re headed before you start.

Increase the reward for reading and involvement. People always ask, “What’s in it for me?” Give people useful information. Make it interesting, though not necessarily entertaining. Your message is probably unsolicited, so give people a good reason to read, listen, or watch.

Prove your trustworthiness in tangible ways. Make your intention clear. People not only ask, “What’s in it for me?” They also ask, “What’s in it for you?” Tell them. Also, speak the same language as your prospect. Flatter but don’t lecture. Speak to your prospect’s needs. Show you care. Give a fair price. Educate, inform, and uplift. Give something away to prove yourself.

Now, if you’ve had an “overload” day, it’s quite possible that all these ideas and bullet points are sounding like just so much noise. So, let me try one more time.

Imagine I am your customer. As I shop your “cereal aisle,” I want to feel like I can choose, but I really want you to give me just one clear choice. I want to know what I’m getting. I want to feel like it’s a bargain. I want the whole process to be easy and fun. I want what’s inside to look the same as the picture on the box.

And I’d appreciate it if you would toss in a prize.

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6 Responses to “Information Overload: 5 causes and 12 cures”

  1. Storytelling Social Media Marketing PR Technology & Business Curated Stories Apr. 20, 2010 on April 20th, 2010 4:47 pm

    [...] Information Overload: 5 causes and 12 cures Published: April 20, 2010 Source: Direct Creative Blog I like to snack on cereal. And I buy a different brand every week. However this personal indulgence comes at a price. When I enter the cereal isle, I’m faced with a wall of boxes vying for my attention, starb… [...]

  2. Chris Scott on April 21st, 2010 8:42 pm

    I was just looking at all the blogs I subscribe to in my RSS reader and thinking about information overload. In the blog-about-blogging niche alone there are hundreds of 1000+ subscriber count blogs. I find myself wanting to read each and every single one of them because I want to be aware of my competition but it is simply too time consuming!

    I understand your tips are for avoiding information overload while presenting information (not receiving) but I think I have the greatest difficulty being on the receiving end. There’s probably no cure for that.

  3. Dean Rieck on April 21st, 2010 8:51 pm

    There’s a cure. Just unsubscribe from 950 of those blogs.

  4. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on April 27th, 2010 3:21 pm

    I like to go by the kids’ rule that you have to put your toy away before you get out the next one.

    A lot of the noise comes from people that are trying to multi-task too much and end up getting nothing done.

    Sometimes you just have to put blinders on and go for it with laser-sharp focus. It’s really easy to drown yourself in information and pass it off as producttivity, but in reality it’s just over-indulgence.

    Everything has a cost. I like to ask the queston “is the thing that I’m doing right now adding any money to my bottom line?” If the answer is yes, then keep at it, if no, then you are entertaining yourself or just wasting time.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  5. James Clark on April 28th, 2010 4:18 pm

    To explain by way of example, I remember having the problem some years ago. What I did to deal with it was stop running my business from my inbox.

    Everyday I would check my email at least 50 times a day. I don’t know why, because I wasn’t making any money.

    Sometimes you go through life looking for that shiny new email that will give you the secret to success. Well it ain’t coming. Instead, I started doing things that would put money in the bank.

    Some internet marketer started a rumor that you have to answer every email like it’s an emergency. Actually, you don’t. I check my email a few times during the day and keep on working.

    I have a little time watch and I set it to work in blocks of forty-minutes at a time. When it goes off I take a break and walk the dog or hit golf balls. Sometimes just take care of some outside business.

    Feel that I can work longer hours with lots of breaks in between.

    But, some days you still suffer from too much information. God dang it, when that happens just treat yourself to a pitcher of Martinis.

  6. Dean Rieck on April 28th, 2010 5:09 pm

    I like the martini idea. Cheers.

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