The digital deluge: adapting to distraction

Distraction is always a buzz or chime away, and with attention more valuable than ever, the harm of giving in may outweigh the benefits of instant access.

Increased stress, diminished focus, wasted time, lost productivity: how can digital marketing practices help us cope with information overload to avoid burnout, and adapt to continue to build meaningful knowledge and connections?

Information-rich, attention-poor

The internet and social media have transformed consumers into publishers who now produce vast amounts of content, or “knowledge”. However, according to Peter Nicholson, the mass of content available, the limited time we have to consume it, and the accompanying shift from expert to amateur authority, have increased the value of attention, devalued information, and reduced depth.

Depth demands attention at the cost of time
  • We consume more media, but we consume it in smaller bites.
  • We prefer the up to date over the out of date.
  • At the same time, this glut of content threatens to consume us.
Storage v access

When we can access most any information we want in a moment, we may no longer need to store deep knowledge in our brains. We will, however, want better ways to access and analyze it—and to know when we might want to access it in the first place.

Clearly, this is already happening. It is explicit in the “discovery learning” model of education, and studies show some people are becoming better at acquiring knowledge from “shallow” content.

Seduced by distraction

While fast access to limitless information has clear benefits—“knowledge is power”—Erin Anderssen writes that constant distraction leads to “digital overload” and puts our health, work, and relationships at risk. Every chime we respond to steals our focus, taking time from something else, often something deeply important.

‘Continuous partial attention’

We call these distractions “multi-tasking”, but instead of improving our work, they cost us time and attention, and force us to forgo depth.

We give in without a thought to intention. Without intention, we waste valuable time, lose connection to ourselves, feel overwhelmed. Never fully focused on the task at hand, our productivity declines; delays and errors inevitably follow.

Time management or attention management?

To adapt to this deluge of digital, we must respond with intention, attention: focus.

  • Ask self: “what do I want or need to be doing at this moment?”
  • Tell self: “stop letting the screen lead me around”.

In my life

The advance of access and the corresponding decline of depth are clear from my experience as an internet user, starting in the mid-1990s. My content consumption has increased exponentially, and the length of time I devote to individual bits of information has decreased.

The value I place on content has plummeted.

I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper. I seldom pay for movies, books, music, TV. The content I want is available when I want it—and free.

My job, too, involves quickly digesting and converting immense amounts of information, but also switching from task to task repeatedly, often leaving me frazzled.

Efficiency is essential.

Like countless others, I seek ways to improve my workflow and tweak my time. I ruthlessly restrict my media diet, occasionally eliminating Facebook and other social networks.

How will we face the digital deluge? What can marketers do?

The dam has broken, and we’re not likely to stop the flow of information now. So individuals, businesses, marketers must adapt to survive and thrive in the information economy.

Information density is increasing

Since attention is at a premium, content must be valuable (rich in knowledge, useful and easy to digest) and easy to find. Content creators are learning to pack the biggest punch into every bit of content, to most effectively and efficiently make use of the consumer’s attention.

For marketers, every message, every touch, counts. And if you promise, you must deliver.

Niches have power

General knowledge may be cheap, but specialized knowledge can have immense value when it can reach the right people. However, niche publishers can only effectively reach their audiences with digital marketing—quality content, SEO, SEM, etc.

Targeted marketing increases the value of all types of information

People want information, but they want to control the content they receive. Permission-based content delivery, combined with technology that determines what is relevant to our interests, helps us manage the load.

As consumers adapt to the new paradigm and improve their efficiency, they will increasingly demand quality targeted information and reject the irrelevant.

Digital can improve consumer experience

Done well, content marketing separates signal from noise by anticipating consumers’ needs, getting the right information to the right people, reducing distraction.

Final thought

It’s possible that in a culture of abundant information and scarce attention, only digital marketing can provide the reach and control that are so coveted.

I foresee, however, a digital divide between people who understand the tools available to manage the abundance of information, and those that don’t.

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