Meet Marketing’s Worst Enemy

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on January 11
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In a recent list of the 10 Trends That Will Transform Digital Marketing in 2017, at least half of them implicitly addressed some need to cut through the information overload that continues to undermine audience attention spans. Marketers have long discussed the importance of communicating the heroic stories that inform the value of a brand.  Now marketing has found itself locked in its own heroic struggle against what many consider the defining threat of our time: The “Age of Distraction.”

What is the Age of Distraction? Even those unfamiliar with the phrase “age of distraction” will likely recognize its fundamental premise: Simply put, the “age of distraction” refers to the idea that we live in a world in which advances in information technologies have led to progressive, widespread declines in human attention. 

Know the Enemy! As in any battle, victory depends on the ability to know your enemy.  Discussions of distraction have themselves resulted in an overload of information.  Google “Age of Distraction,” and you’ll find all manner of commentary.  And for good reason: Distraction is a big problem. To better understand the Age of Distraction, here’s a brief—but by no means exhaustive—primer on what some of the experts have to say about the Age of Distraction and its key threats:

  1. The Age of Distraction and the Rise of Inbound Marketing

Whether explicitly or implicitly, concerns over the age of distraction have served as the rallying cry behind the rise of inbound marketing strategies.  According to proponents of inbound marketing, traditional “outbound” strategies—i.e., advertising--intrusively pushes messages on audiences, drowning them in a shower of messages that merely short-circuit our ability to absorb more information.  Inbound strategies, on the other hand, employ targeted content to “pull” in audiences intrinsically motivate to seek information that meets their needs.

  1. Distraction Stems from Our Deeper Need for Choice

In his book The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction” author Matthew Crawford argues that we are drawn to distractions because they provide a sense of choice.  For instance, while sitting in an obligatory office meeting, taking the time to look at our phones provides us with the sense that we have some control amidst otherwise obligatory tasks.  The appeal of the distraction—in this case, the phone—lies in the fact that we have chosen to use the phone. The experience of choice in turn appeals to deeply held cultural beliefs in individual choice and freedom. 

The Lesson for Marketing: Kill negative distractions by developing content that empowers audiences with choices. 

  1. When Combating Distraction, Beware of Offering Too Much Choice

It’s an old bit of teaching wisdom: Give students choices regarding assignments, and you enhance their motivation.  Offer too many choices, however, and you risk creating overwhelming confusion. In a similar vein, media critic Douglas Rushkoff argues that the digital world offers an overwhelming range of choices, leading to what he calls a “multitasking brain" that is "actually incapable of storage or sustained argument.”  Rushkoff argues that all this cognitive overload leads to a kind of temporal disorientation. Instead of gaining pleasure from focusing on one activity, “we hop from choice to choice with no present at all.”  In turn “we lose the ability to imagine opportunities and excitement arising from pursuing whatever we are currently doing, as we compulsively anticipate the next decision point.”  

The Lesson for Marketing: Develop content that empowers audiences with choices, but does not overwhelm with options.  I remember once, at a deli in NYC, trying to read a menu that looked more like a newspaper.  I put it down and just asked for the chicken-and-matzo-ball soup.

  1. Distraction Imprisons Us in a Constant Present:

Rushkoff and media scholars such as Katherine Hayles and Bernard Stieglar have discussed the implications of distraction on our experience of time and its consequent impact on human thought. They argue that much of the content presented through digital interfaces—from video games to social media—is creating a form of “distracted present” in which human capacities for imagination, long-term thinking and careful reflection are being broken down. Rather than developing “deep” modes of attention, based around temporally extended activities such as reading, these digital media create a ‘hyper’ attention, where increasing levels of stimulation are required to keep viewers interested in a single subject or topic. As a result, we do not focus adequate attention to reflecting on the past, nor do we commit adequate focus on the future.  Instead of a “big picture” view of our lives seated within an extended past and prison, distractions imprison us within the narrow horizon of a constant “now.”

This “constant present”—or “presentness”—should not be confused with a positive meditative state akin to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.” “Flow” suggests a more positive notion of “being in the moment,” a meditative self-awareness that encourages self-reflection.  In contrast to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow,” the perpetual present of digital media does not lead to reflective, Zen-like self-understanding.  While engrossed in mindlessly distracting forms of digital media, we are not approaching some Zen state of an infinite moment, completely at one with our surroundings, connected to others, and aware of ourselves on any fundamental level. Rather, when overloaded with information, we tend to exist in a distracted present, where forces on the periphery are magnified and those immediately before us are ignored. Our availability to experience ‘flow’ or to seize the propitious moment is minimized as our choices per second are multiplied by a dance partner who doesn’t see or feel us. 

The Lesson for Marketing: Develop content that engages audiences' capacity for imaginative thinking.  Don’t just inform; rather, inspire readers to think by developing content that poses big questions with open-ended answers.   

  1. The Impact of Distraction on Quality Social Interaction:

Beyond individual negative effects, distraction has long-term consequences for the quality of social relations.  Writers like Sherry Turkle and Bernard Stiegler have argued that when you “destroy… attention” you also “destroy the ability to concentrate on the object of attention”—in other words, you destroy the ability to listen to others.   The ability to listen is the thread that binds the “construction of society itself, as civil space is founded on cultural knowledge, including social graces, expertise and critical thinking (i.e. contemplation).”

In other words, when we lose our capacity to pay attention, we do not simply diminish the quality of our internal lives; rather, we lose the capacity to listen to, reflect on, and learn from the ideas, needs and concerns of others. This capacity to attend to others constitutes the very fabric of social life. 

The Lesson for Marketing: Instead of simply posting content, develop online forums that host and encourage the creation of communities dedicated to sharing ideas. 

 It’s Not About Tuning Out

The latter critics are not inherently anti-technology. In fact, I know a couple of them.  They love technology. But they also want us to consider how the increasing power of media demands we think critically about the broader implications of its use. 

 There’s no question that digital media can lead to distraction. Yet, by employing new media in more meaningful ways, digital marketers can actively open up and create new capacities for attention, thoughtful and emotional connection—capacities that can be mined in order to realize new, more valuable forms of social life. Ultimately, that’s what the best brands do.

The big-picture story of marketing’s battle against distraction represents marketing's core vocation--it's calling.  Let’s make sure that call is heard.

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Topics: Content, inbound, B2B Content, STrategy

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