Posted by Cynthia Sycip

How are we to cope with information overload and decide what to purchase?

Never before have we been bombarded by so many products. The internet seems to be a collection of shopping malls where one can find anything from the best toothpaste to the latest cure (to just about anything). Human beings are a curious lot; we are intrigued by products, no matter how implausible, silly or exaggerated their claims are. How do we cope with all this information and decide what to purchase?

Historically, big manufacturers gave out promos, coupons and came out with the most attractive sites – well – because they could afford to. Take the simple case of trying to buy a laundry detergent. Despite brand loyalty, most consumers must still choose between the citrus/antibacterial, the vanilla with (cloth) softener or the classic “effective” brand mom loves. Today, things have changed. Given the amount of information available on the internet, a new concept called “signaling” had emerged.

Signaling is a marketing tactic whereby a company (that can afford to squander money on advertising), comes up with marketing that is neither informative nor particularly calling, to mass market their brand.  The idea is if a company can “signal” then surely they’re credible and their product is of quality –at least that’s what our human snap judgements lead us to believe.  In actuality, many low-quality companies are using this tactic to appear credible relative to their higher-quality competitors.

Many have interpreted signaling as “burning money” or “throwing money down the drain.”  Yet it builds brand awareness, so is it really money wasted?

Studies like this one claim to protect consumers, but signaling raises major concerns regarding quality control. Other studies cite information overload (on health products or supplements, for instance) as a case in point for FDA intervention.

While most consumers today know what they’re shopping for and are finicky with comparison (like reading reviews, comparing prices, etc.), not all online shops are conducive to comparison shopping. Most socially responsible sites make it a point to ask verified buyers to review a product. However, in the case of online stores like eBay, there’s feedback requested (to rate the seller) but no feedback for the product itself.

Reviews these days seem to trump what traditional advertisers/quality control experts have to say. Let’s take the rather extreme case of The Doctor Who Cures Cancer, which legitimately sells on Amazon. More than 35 stellar reviews plus 5000+ reviews on his Hubpages blog can hardly be considered an overload.

Information overload or not, people seem to have mastered how to pick out the information they want, choosing from there to act on it –or not. This goes for everything from laundry detergent to noodles – it’s called personal choice. When we need something we search for what we deem as “important” information. Most consumers know how to sort out what they read on the internet and make an intelligent choice; even alongside marketing tactics like signaling.

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  • Robert Barcia

    Yes!  I agree with your position that most of us have an elevated sense (and strategy) for effectively employing personal choice.  So what in the world is my excuse!  🙂

    As a marketer – one who specializes in choice dynamics and social trigger integration – I’m rarely surprised when I my unconscious mind selects goods or services based on carefully crafted “signals”.  Just knowing it’s out there is part of the equation.  
    Marketing is as much about understanding what triggers people to buy NOW as it is about how to evolve when the audience learns to no longer be fooled.  Today’s signals and warning signs may be the very tool a marketer uses in the future to shape your decision.In effect, today’s signals have a shelf life.  (always keep them fresh!)I have found that my fellow marketers use the two elements of buying to override our “good sense”:  1) a human need for automation / action rules2) our sensitivity to environment or situational context  For example:  A fast food joint was once about a list of options.  Once strategists learned that the layout and structure of a single menu had been decoded (aka:  consumers were secretly being directed to the ideal item through placement, color choices, and “options”) they switched to a much slicker model found in a popular burrito joint: (three different choices, three different stations, offered in an assembly line).  Loosely termed, this is the “cumulative choice effect”.By having three servers ask you about one single choice, the experience feels personal and intimate – and aligns with the signal for “reliable ” by satisfying some abstract rule of buying in your mind.  (AUTOMATION)  However, we tend to forget the related choices before and after which cumulatively contribute to the actual purchase.  Then comes ENVIRONMENTAL CONTEXT: you are a moving part of an assembly line – designed to keep you moving: “select and go”. The process is designed to lower your guard then propel you through an automated brainless food fest.

    The simple knowledge that marketing strategies evolve as we get smart to them is critical as a consumer.  And relearning the new rules of shopping – and the signals that matter most –  must be a constant effort.

    Thank you for your consumer advocacy  —and again, great post.  I’m adding it to my list of favorites.  

    Robert BarciaStrategic Communications ConsultantTwitter: @robbarcia

    • Robert, love it! Thanks for your thoughtful input; I totally agree!