When I was growing up, we had a set of encyclopedias in our house. I often looked at these encyclopedias as a child, and thought that if I read all of them, I’d know almost everything (Of course, I never did read all of them). The access I had to information was bounded by what was printed, and available in local bookstores and libraries. The limit to the amount of information I could access was tangible. That world has irreversibly changed.
Thanks to the web, our access to information is increasing exponentially, and is not going to stop. A single query into a search engine produces millions of results. People are adding information to Wikipedia faster than we can read it: 1000 unique articles are added every day, on top of all the edits and additions to existing articles. We’re creating 2000 tweets per second, 48 hours of YouTube uploads per minute. In 2002, we recorded and replicated 23 exabytes of information. We now record and transfer that much information every 7 days.
This increase in the information we can access has two important side effects:
1. The capacity for information processing and memory is not increasing at anywhere close to the same rate. In fact, it’s barely increasing at all. Our capacity for processing information and remembering it, has formed over tens of thousands of years of evolution. In this sea of information, people often complain of “information overload” and although the amount of information we can now access is unprecedented, the feeling that we’re drowning in information is not new. In fact, it was first felt and described after the invention of the printing press. The word “deluge”, which means a sense of drowning, was a common metaphor for information in the 1600s.
2. This increase in information will have a profound impact on the world of marketing and advertising. Over the past 50 years, the predominant model in advertising has been to attract people’s attention – mostly by interruption, sometimes by surprising people with a juxtaposition of different aspects of society, creating new memes. Marketers and advertisers built systems that interrupted people from what they are currently focused on, to get them to focus on something else. We have long lived in a world where our TV shows are interrupted, our magazine articles are interrupted, our car journey is interrupted. If billboards were invented today, we wouldn’t know what they are because they would be banned by the road safety authority. The exponential increase in information we can access, combined with the fact that our brain has limited processing capability, means that a strategy based on interruption is now a race to the bottom. More advertisers, delivering more information, in an already overwhelming sea of information, competing for the same volume of attention. This ends badly for everybody.
While it’s important to understand the increase in information and the static nature of our brain’s processing capabilities, the critical thing to understand is how these relate to what is holding people’s attention. We’re watching less TV, and spending more time online. We’re spending less time online consuming content from broadcasters and businesses, and more time communicating with other people – most often with our friends. Advertisers are competing for people’s attention by going head to head with those peoples’ friends. It’s easy to see who wins here – we care a lot more about our friends and family than about what brands have to say, no matter how interesting or relevant the message. It’s annoying but acceptable to interrupt a TV episode of Friends, it’s not acceptable to interrupt a conversation amongst real-life friends.
In this eco-system, interruption is never a good experience. Imagine being at a party, talking to friends, and being interrupted by someone you didn’t know well, who immediately tried to change the topic of conversation to something that revolves around themselves. We have words to describe those kinds of people, and they’re not pretty.
Marketing and advertising is about to experience a paradigm shift. In 5 (maybe 10) years, we won’t see much advertising built on interruption because our information overloaded world will have rendered it ineffective and inefficient. All advertising will be context sensitive, personalized, and relevant. The distribution channels for this advertising are the technologies being invented now.
This post is the first in a series describing five huge shifts happening now.