On a typical day, I toggle between multiple browsers with over a dozen tabs open, all with a smartphone by my side. It’s a torrent of information, but information overload never sets in; I’m totally comfortable navigating through it all.
It turns out that plenty of Americans are in the same boat. According to the Pew Research Center, the large majority of Americans don’t feel that too much information is an issue for them. Pew found that among those surveyed, 20 percent felt overloaded by information, down from 27 percent a decade ago. Meanwhile, 77 percent liked having so much information. In fact, two-thirds reported that more information helps them simplify their lives.
In a nutshell, Americans like having information—and lots of it—at their fingertips. This seemingly rebuts the idea that the digital revolution has created information overload chaos. It also adds nuance to the idea that marketers must battle endlessly against overloaded consumers to get their messages heard. In fact, most Americans are pretty comfortable in dealing with the information bombardment: according to Pew, 81 percent of adults reported feeling confident in their ability to “use the internet and other communications devices to keep up with information demands in [their lives].”
Still, the comfort with managing information isn’t universal. Pew also found that Americans with access to less technology are more likely to feel overloaded by information, perhaps because technology can feel overwhelming to those with less access to it.
Marketers themselves are quite familiar with the sensation of data overload, too. Marketing technology has gifted marketers a wealth of data and information, as well as multiple ways to sort, filter, and analyze that data. But there’s a fine line between being managing information and feeling overwhelmed by it. The differentiating factor? Great content.
Experts have long worried about the effects of the digital age. For some, digital information has corroded productivity, increased distractions, and undermined the ability to make and keep social connections. Creativity, focus, and even happiness are other victims of the digitally distracted age, they say. (Optimists, on the other hand, might point to technology as improving productivity and opening pathways toward new connections and creative thinking.)
The idea of too much information isn’t so new, either: fear of has been around since the 1970s, when Alvin Toffler coined the phrase, as Psych Central notes. Decades later, people began using the term to describe the feeling of going online.
Neurologically speaking, “information overload” is better described as “cognitive overload.” The brain can process vast amounts of information; it just depends on how the information presented. Think about the difference between a walk in the park versus a walk in Times Square. Both actions require the brain to process large amounts of complex data, but the intensity in Times Square can overstimulate the brain. This cognitive overload, in turn, can increase anxiety and stress.
Additionally, too much information can spur decision fatigue, when our decision-making powers become overwhelmed by the prospect of so many choices. Trying to discern the trustworthiness of content can also be a daunting task. The fake news boom and social media content silos (courtesy of social media algorithms) make it even tougher for users to figure out which information is trustworthy in order to make a decision.
Content plays a role in all of this. Our brains crave information, and as the Pew study found, Americans tend to like having a lot of information available to them. But I’d wager there’s a subtext here: Americans like having a lot of quality information readily available. A smorgasbord of subpar content doesn’t help them navigate their daily lives; it makes it worse. This is where a great content strategy comes into play.
Every day we consume 74 gigabytes of data—the equivalent of 9 DVDs. As we’ve discussed, most people feel comfortable navigating all the information thrown at them. But a slice of the public still feels overloaded. How can your content strategy reflect this multifaceted reality?
One thought is to segment your audience with an eye on overload tolerance. The Pew study found that different subsets of people react to information in different ways. The more “access pathways” people have—meaning home broadband, smartphones, and tablet computers—the less likely they are to feel overloaded. Those who have all three access pathways have the easiest time managing information. Those who have one or none of these assets have a much more difficult time finding information and are more likely to feel overloaded.
There’s a couple of content marketing takeaways here. First, people who own a lot of gadgets are more willing to wade through a lot of content and information. In fact, they appreciate the amount of content accessible to them. Second, people with fewer digital devices also have a need for content. Information can feel more overwhelming for this group, so here content can help streamline or filter complex topics.
Furthermore, the Pew study found that the more information heavy the task, the more burden people feel to keep track of all the information required. Almost half of Americans say that institutions like schools, banks, or government agencies expect them to do too much information gathering.
For content marketers in complex industries, this probably isn’t news. Still, the numbers provide a reminder that although our brains eagerly digest new information, we can only handle much. Remembering the nuances of every company or organization we interact with is a daunting task. When a consumer has a question about a topic key to a certain company or organization, is her answer readily available? Content, again, can play a critical role into making the most requested information available to people when they need it.
Info overload may not be as dire as experts have thought, especially as more people discover ways to harness technology and information to their advantage. Although the study didn’t address information quality, I wonder whether that’s what people had in mind when they responded that they like having lots of information around them. People want information, yes. But they also want it to be quality content that assists, engages, enlightens, entertains, or maybe even makes navigating other complicated content easier. Information is awesome, but great content that puts it into context and presents it in a digestible way is the key to avoiding overload.