Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

The Relevance Filter

In America, we normally assume that more options will make us happier. We want it the way we want it, customized without compromise. However, anyone who has flipped through 200 television channels or tried to find just the right pair of jeans can attest, freedom of choice can be overwhelming.

Information overload
Before Gutenberg’s printing press, information was scarce. Europeans depended on priests to know what was inside of books. Today, with the rapid rise of an internet-fueled “author class,” a new revolution plays out. Content is so abundant that it has become nearly worthless, but the cost of investing our limited time and attention is high.

Amid this abundance, not all information is valued equally. With finely-tuned senses, a dog can distinguish the sound of his master’s car approaching amid competing noises. Migrating birds recognize their nesting grounds from high above. And as a method for coping with a multitude of options, we each have our own filters to distinguish what is important enough to offer our full attention and grant our precious time.

For those of us hoping to communicate effectively, the question is: How do we make it through the filters?

Consistency is not enough
For years “consistency” was considered the gold standard in branding. The path to success was paved with one clear and compelling message, repeated often, everywhere.

But today the landscape has changed. While consistency is not a bad thing, it’s no longer the most important thing. People are far more diverse and distracted and, because they expect the customization of everything from credit cards to coffee, less likely to share common experience. In this environment, delivering a single consistent message becomes both less possible and less desirable. To make a lasting impression you’ve got to hit them where it’s relevant.

Unless your market niche is incredibly narrow – like Amish beet farmers or cross-dressing mermaids – following a few basic rules will ensure your communications become more relevant.

1. Know your audience.
Even audiences that seem homogenous at first glance reveal important nuances on closer inspection. Take colleges and universities. Students are students, right? Only if you expect transfers or working adults to have the same preferences and behaviors as a seventeen-year-old overachiever. Modify your message and tactics based on who you’re trying to reach.

2. Stop broadcasting.
It’s a mindset as much as a media strategy. Most non-profits don’t have the budgets to consider a market-saturating ad blitz, but even though is a giant retailer, through the wonders of their immense database, they interact with each customer as an individual. Think engagement instead of immersion (or inundation).

3. Keep it simple.
Consider the context. Everyone you’re trying to reach is bombarded with thousands, if not millions, of messages daily. If you can’t decide what’s important enough to feature, don’t expect your audience to do it for you. The Flip, a tiny video recorder with minimal, intuitive features, virtually eliminates the need for an owner’s manual. One year after its invention, it had captured 13 percent of the camcorder market. Doing or saying one thing very well is a powerful advantage.

4. Exceed expectations.
These days, getting good customer service is so rare, invariably we tell others about it. The same thing happens if we encounter a product that delights. Your most effective message is the one delivered by somebody else – by word-of-mouth or referral. In fact, our multitude of choices is an illusion because few truly different services or products exist. Be extraordinary and give people something worth talking about.

Making your communications more relevant is the key to gaining your audience’s trust. People construct information filters because they want to trust their decisions will be good ones. They don’t want to waste their time or regret giving you their attention. By regularly delivering relevant content, you will build a reputation as a trustworthy communicator and a solid investment.


Design Your Customers’ Decisions – John Sviokla

The Brand Gap – Marty Neumeier

The Paradox of Choice – Barry Schwartz

Changes in Media Over the Past 550 YearsDavid Sasaki

One thought on “The Relevance Filter

  1. Pingback: The Decision « think + do

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