Information Rich or Attention Poor?

Mar 29 2011

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.  Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”  - Herbert Simon

Do you need more information?

How much can information can the world use?  It can certainly create a great deal of information according to a study by Martin Hilbert at the University of Southern California, but the ability to create and even store more and more information is not the same as the ability to understand, synthesise and communicate the information.  I believe this is one of the most important issues we face today, both as content producers and as content consumers with increasing competition for our limited attention.  

And it’s a challenge that market research is not facing up to.   Our role should be to simplify and connect the information to clear answers to business questions.  Unfortunately, we seem to be heading in the other direction, chasing more and more data, using more and more complex models in an attempt to make sense of the data, and failing miserably to communicate clear messages (with a few notable exceptions).  For the record, this is what clients tell me, and not just based on my own jaded opinion!

Data, data everywhere

Martin Hilbert and his colleagues estimate the annual growth of general purpose computing capacity at 58%, telecommunication capacity at 28% and globally stored information at 23%.  Back in 2007 (feels a long time ago) we were already able to store 275 Exabytes of compressed information in these devices, which is already equivalent to 80 times the information in the famous Library of Alexander per person.  It must have more than doubled by 2011!  You can watch Martin Hilbert talk about the project here.

In 2002, digital data was still in its infancy, but overtook non-digital data storage for the first time, and by 2007 represented 94% of all information according to the same study.  As a point of comparison, in 1986 (only 25 years ago), pocket calculators accounted for more than 40% of the world’s data processing ‘power’.  You can see a graphical representation of the data explosion below.

From Washington Post, 12 February 2011 based on data from University of Southern California

Feeling thirsty?

For marketers, this means that releasing new ideas into the world is like adding a drop of water to a full bath tub (probably one which is leaking onto the bathroom floor too!).  How to get your drop noticed, when the bath already contains water in every colour of the rainbow?

And market researchers need CLEAR thinking!  We need to be CLEAR about the objectives of our research, the information which will be relevant (and that which is irrelevant) and focus our attention on those approaches, observations, interactions and (lastly) questions which add value, certainty and meaning to our analysis of the client’s situation and what is already known (based on a CLEAR analysis of the situation and a transparent set of hypotheses against which we will interpret the findings).

And, most importantly, we need to have a CLEAR approach to our interpretation of all the data at our disposal, including existing research and secondary data.  We first need to Collect all the information we have together, and then Lay it out in front of us so we can Establish the key insights (and fundamental drivers of the answer), before we Arrange all our data around these key insights and then Reduce the data to a CLEAR and coherent story for the client.

It’s all too easy to get drowned in the information overload, without a CLEAR focus on the important questions and the way to structure our response.  This is the one skill market research needs now more than ever.  Instead of developing more complex approaches and longer checklists of information, we need to CLEAR our minds and focus on what’s important.

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