The Curse of Information Overload and How to Avoid It
by Dean Rieck
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."
I experience information overload in the cereal isle at the grocery store.
I'm young at heart, so all those bright boxes put a smile on my face. But there's a moment, a dreadful, oppressive moment, when I stand there in the cereal aisle and feel very old. It hits me every time I start down that long row, scanning the colorful box covers stacked six shelves high and running a good 40 feet along one side.
It's the moment when my brain starts to throb because of the overwhelming selection before me dozens of brands 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 ...
... information overload at its most intense.
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:
- They skip over or set aside difficult information for another time; or
- They filter out difficult messages and look for ones that are easier; or
- They try to deal with the information, but make mistakes that prevent them from responding in the way you want; or worst of all
- They ignore your message completely.
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 the 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 give a fair guarantee? Do you carefully describe your products, services, 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 on. 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.
Copyright © 1998 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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