Culling me softly: information overload and the upshot for brands

A recent study conducted in the UK proclaimed the average 22 year old on Facebook has approximately 1,000 friends, ten times that of someone in their 30s, and something like 50 times that of their parents.An amazing number don’t you think? As a typical (late) thirty-something, with 120-odd ‘friends’, it’s hard for me to imagine what’s involved in managing such a diverse network of contacts. To my aged and cynical mind, it just sounds like a lot of work. And a very high ‘chaff-to-wheat’ ratio. 

And, as it turns, out I wouldn’t be wrong. It requires effort. Another UK study noted that 50 percent of these 20ish year olds were checking Facebook as soon as they woke up every day, 28 percent before they even got out of bed. And more telling still, in a recent study we conducted looking at New Zealanders’ attitudes and comfort with technology, this same group of young people—those attempting to process the most information, and those most reliant on digital interpersonal connections—were the loneliest and most overwhelmed of all age groups in today’s world.

What became evident in our wide-reaching New Zealand study is that technology hasn’t made life easier or more fulfilling at a fundamental level. It has instead, for those most involved, made life more isolating and difficult.

Go back 15 years and only 14 percent of Kiwis were online. Only 21 percent even had a mobile phone. Social media didn’t exist and neither did Google. So this is the first population group to grow up fully immersed in the digital world, and their response to what this world provides them is significant in what it suggests about where things will go next. What people yearned for in our study was a slowing in the information flow. They didn’t want to go back to ‘the old ways’, but they did seek change. They talked about a new ‘ideal’ model of interaction with the online world, where information was selectively adopted, filtered and consolidated to the individual’s specifications. 

The upshot of this? It suggests, quite strongly, that people will actively seek to reduce and focus their involvement levels with the online world in the near future. It suggests, in a commercial application, that our new digital communication channels we are investing in are likely to start being filtered heavily for usefulness and “life contribution”.

Nowhere can this trend be more clearly seen than in the global rise of the aggregator website. In the space of three years from 2006-2009, aggregator sites in the UK took 50 percent of all car insurance purchases from direct brands; the world’s most popular news sites aggregate many other brands’ content rather than create their own; and even in the still freshly-minted daily deals market, there are now a huge amount of sites in New Zealand combining all the individual providers into a single reference source.

There exists within this trend, and the wider sense of human disillusionment behind it, a real risk for businesses in the digital space. While behaviour shifts have thus far opened up a wonderfully direct way of communicating with people, they show signs of turning in a very severe way for brand owners. People have experimented with having 1,000 friends, with opening a dialogue directly with businesses, but they show signs of tiring from this effort. We need to be aware of the strong chances of a swing in behaviour in the opposite direction. A swing towards ‘middle-men’ creating greater distance between our consumers and our brands than existed even in the pre-digital age.

The truth is, if we want to remain connected, we have to start asking ‘what’s in it for them’, rather than just ‘how can we leverage this connection for us’. Digital connections that enhance life are the only ones likely to survive. The rest? Welcome to The Age of the Cull.

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agency. This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec edition of NZ Marketing. 

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