Information Overload

Article Featured Image

For the rest of the December 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here.

Relaxation is a whole lot more intense than it used to be. I realized this one recent lazy Sunday afternoon: Before assuming my position on the couch, I gathered the television remote control, my smartphone, a print magazine, and my laptop. Apparently this form of multitasking isn’t all that uncommon. According to Nielsen Consumer Insight, watching TV while surfing the Web is a growing trend; one of the research firm’s 2009 reports indicated that more than half of Americans (57 percent) who have Internet access at home will go online and watch television simultaneously at least once a month. 

As consumers deal with an increasing amount of information—and as they embrace more mechanisms to engage with that information—there comes a need to search out what’s important, or filter out some of the noise. Through this tidal wave of information, how can businesses manage to connect?

Companies, too, have been scrambling to provide rich, multichannel, highly personalized experiences for customers and prospects—but just as consumers are learning to filter their personal information needs, they’re also blocking out marketing messages they find irrelevant. Some say that means companies must try harder to make a lasting impression. Others say it’s all about location and joining conversations where your customers want to talk. Regardless, the bigger point remains: Control continues to shift to customers. They’re not interested in marketing messages from a megaphone. They trust each other more than they trust you or your company. And they’re more than willing to filter you out completely. 


Rail Europe, an online European train-travel booking portal, realized something a year back. Finding customers seats on European trains wasn’t cutting it, evident in the company’s declining revenues. Consumers wanted more. They were looking for not just transactions, but context around their travel. So Rail Europe overhauled its Web site and added blogs, photos, maps, and other user-friendly, engaging pieces of content to hold Web site visitors’ attentions for longer. 

“Today you get bypassed with the customer because they Google everything,” says Frederick Buhr, Rail Europe’s vice president of e-business. “Although we enjoy being positioned by all the search engines, we knew that we needed to catch customers much earlier in their planning cycle.” Catching customers earlier meant adding educational content to the Web site and transforming the company from a booking engine to an all-encompassing travel site. (See “Analytics Are Just the Ticket,” October 2009, for a closer look at Rail Europe.)

It seems to be a double-edged sword. Consumers are asking for content, but at the same time, they’re overloaded by it. According to Edelman Digital, each month the average person visits 111 Web domains and 2,554 Web pages. But that doesn’t mean each person’s paying attention to every message. Steve Rubel, Edelman Digital’s director of insights, said at a recent Mediabistro Circus presentation that it takes about three to five repeat efforts for a message to resonate in a consumer’s mind. 

Consumers may be increasingly skilled these days at finding the information they want at the moment they want it, but they’ve also become increasingly apt at tuning out what they don’t want to hear. (See “How Much Marketing Is Too Much?,” October 2008, for more on that.) “We’re now saying, ‘Enough is enough. I can’t consume all of the sources of information that I want to consume…. I have to set personal limits,’” Rubel said at the event.


Still doubt Twitter’s value? O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly doesn’t. As the author and Web 2.0 evangelist—named one of CRM’s 2009 Influential Leaders (see September 2009)—told the recent 140 Character Conference in New York about his participation in the microblogging site, “I’m trying to define an audience that cares about the same things that I do. We have to take the time and effort to weave a community of people with common interests.” 

“If you’re careful [about] who you follow, they can read the Web for you and direct you to the news you should read,” Patrick LaForge, director of the copy desks at The New York Times, said at the same event. LaForge went on to say that if you find the right tweets, you can piece together events taking place half a world away. The same can be said about making purchases. Skilled consumers can find the best deals, differentiate among competitive products, and get advice about what to buy all without ever seeing the corporate page of that product’s manufacturer. Thanks to social networks, blogs, discussion forums, and peer reviews on sites such as Newegg and Amazon.com, the only activity that might occur on a company’s own e-commerce site is the purchase itself. 

And even that might change, according to Gartner analyst Michael Maoz. At his firm’s CRM Summit, Maoz referred to the “customer-specific Web” and said that third-party sites and even individual consumers could start pulling in procurement to their own destinations. “If this goes on, everything with the customer-centric Web will be challenged,” Maoz said. 

“Control over the corporate Web site is shifting to the customers,” wrote Altimeter Group Partner Jeremiah Owyang in a September blogpost about Google Sidewiki, a new feature that allows Web surfers to contribute unrestricted comments alongside any Web page. “Customers trust each other more than [they trust] you—now they can assert their voices ‘on’ your Web page,” he wrote. 


Although we might be years away from reorienting order procurement and transactions, consumers are already becoming proactive in filtering out stuff they don’t like and bringing in things they deem valuable. 

Take social network giant Facebook, for example. In its infancy, Facebook was about finding and connecting with friends through messages and wall postings. The site has since expanded, driving users to share more information about themselves (in response to the status question “What’s on your mind?”) while empowering them with at least a sense of control over that information (the ability to “hide” people, applications, or ads they don’t want to see). Privacy parameters have also expanded—promising members more control of their networks—and yet Facebook has opened the doors to business participation through its fan pages and advertising model. 

Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of CRM consultancy Beagle Research, said at the CRM Evolution conference in New York: “One of the things that separates us now—whether it’s peer-to-peer or corporate-to-customer relationships—is that, with this technology, nobody has to be in a relationship that they don’t want to be in.” In other words, relationships are becoming increasingly opt-in. Pombriant said that he thinks relationships will boil down to thought leadership, where people (that is, customers) will listen—and make purchases—if they value the business and its representatives. “We won’t buy anything from anyone we don’t respect,” he said. 

Or customers won’t buy anything from anyone who inconveniences them. The movement toward multichannel continues to gather steam. But now it’s about more than giving customers options for getting in touch—it’s about going where they go. IntraLinks, a provider of on-demand enterprise workspace solutions, no longer tries to push information to customers and partners. It’s about knowing how the customer wants to receive the information. “We give the control to our clients,” says Alison Shurell, the company’s vice president of life sciences product marketing. 

Even in an industry where traditional marketing meant visiting with physicians in-office and pitching products in a meeting atmosphere, the game is changing. A marketer can cobrowse with doctors, sending them online presentations, basically catering to their busy schedules so they have time to focus on what matters most—their patients.


“There’s been a big change in the last 10 years,” says Heidi Tucker, the vice president of business development at Hoover’s, a company-information provider. “In the earlier part of this decade, a lot of companies were extremely successful without having to apply much rigor,” she says. “It was a ‘product frenzy.’ When the economy started to turn south, all of that changed.” Tucker recommends that salespeople make their marks by knowing more about those they are selling to. “It’s not that hard as a salesperson to differentiate using business insight because very few salespeople do it,” she says. 

But if salespeople keep adding data sources, including social media analysis, to learn more about customers, will they, too, become overloaded with content? Yes, says Simon Bradstock, the chief operating officer with Dow Jones Business and Relationship Intelligence. “A big part of where we’re going is a consumption experience rather a search experience.” In other words, there’s a shift from reporting to dashboards and letting users customize the experience. (See this month’s cover story, “No Substitute for Experience,” page 22, and The Tipping Point, page 12, for more about the rise in customer experience, and.)

Drilling down and customizing user interfaces has been the hot software trend for the past few years. Some vendors, such as Act! by Sage, have taken usability a step further, identifying through keystroke modeling what features and functions are most frequented by end-users. The latest release of Act!, for example, cut down on the number of tabs a user sees, taking the “less is more” approach. (See “How Many Clicks Does It Take?,” page 16, for a look at usability studies and the risk of information overload at the user-experience level.)


Social media is growing at such a rapid pace, it’s a wonder that companies can pretend to keep up. Twitter, for instance, grew nearly 1,400 percent year-over-year from February 2008 to February 2009, according to Nielsen Online. A whopping 50 million new users joined Facebook between April and August 2009. At the CRM Evolution conference, Brent Leary, founder and partner of CRM Essentials, noted that every other medium has taken decades to achieve that level of adoption: 38 years for radio, for example, and 13 years for television. And yet it took just nine months for Facebook to gather its first 100 million users and for iPhone owners to download 1 billion applications. 

Today’s rates of social participation contribute to the fire hose of information people are blasted with daily. The question now is how businesses can harness that data—how they can finely tune channels so as to keep a close ear to customers who matter, and let the background noises fade out. 


“There are now so many more channels for content,” says Dave Armon, the vice chair of social media monitoring company dna13. (The company was named one of Gartner’s “Cool Vendors” in 2009—see page 32 for a list of several others.) “Nowadays, it’s so nanotargeted—you don’t just have the Cooking Channel, you have the Low-Sodium Kosher Food Channel.” Plus, Armon adds that the definitions of “media” and “influencer” are changing by the hour, making it all that more difficult for companies to tap into consumer sentiment. 

Armon takes the position that where the customer is seeing a value in presence is where you, as a company, need to be. But given the breadth of social media, doing that alone is hardly possible. Listening platforms can help pinpoint what issues should be on a company’s radar and what mentions are merely meaningless chatter. However, a good amount of human intervention is still required. First, companies must determine the parameters and filters for scouring social media. Second, technology has yet to master the art of engagement. Humans have to get involved. 

However, just because a brand is active in a social network doesn’t mean that it’s valuable to consumers. “One of the issues we have in social CRM is a rush to elaborate,” Pombriant said. “A rush to get into Facebook, to get into Twitter, into blogging—before we necessarily have anything to say.” That’s something technology can’t fix. 

Social data is another concern. CRM vendors are embracing the notion of social data—be it mentions of the company via Twitter, blog comments, or posts on support forums—and recognize the value of this information. However, the unstructured nature isn’t all that compatible with traditional data warehouses and corporate infrastructures. (See “The New Customer Record,” Connect, page 14.) Not to mention the fact that online social network identities don’t match up nicely with customer records. 

The technology has evolved to an extent and the market has certainly proliferated for social media monitoring, yet we’re still in the early days. Forrester Research Principal Analyst Suresh Vittal wrote in the 2009 Listening Platforms Wave that “[t]oday’s platforms don’t go far enough or deep enough to establish these integrations and facilitate multichannel communications.” In other words, the technology is blossoming, but is, in no way, there yet. 


The CRM landscape is changing. There’s a rush to suck in social data, but there’s confusion of just how it will fit. Vendors are plugging in and integrating more social sources than before, and they’re designing interfaces to show only the information users want—dashboards and customizable screens instead of text-heavy reports and kitchen-sink menus. 

Customers, meanwhile, are subscribing to more channels than before, yet tuning out sources they once relied on. They’re filtering social networks, emails, and content, only taking what’s valuable to them. What does all this mean for the future? Dna13’s Armon suggests one analogy: “It’s like holding onto a bowl of Jell-O,” he says. 

A 2009 Interbrand report ranking the Top 100 Global Brands suggests that connecting with consumers who have shortened attention spans means brands must create more-memorable, multisensory experiences to fully engage. The report states, “Consumers have made the full transition from the days of the 1950s, when people were happy to passively enjoy information as it was pushed out to them via radio or television. People today have a proactive, interactive, ‘go find out’ mentality. They seek out information on brands, products, and services from multiple—and often third-party—sources, and explore and challenge this information to create their own informed opinions.” 

At Gartner’s CRM Summit in September, two presenters—Jeff Westover and Andrew Joiner, executives at customer interaction solutions provider Autonomy—made an interesting parallel, comparing today’s customers to sleeping children. The pair showed a video in which youngsters slept through smoke alarms in the middle of the night without stirring. Nothing seemed to increase the technology’s effectiveness—until one company found a way to embed in the alarm the voice of the kids’ mother telling them to wake up. 

“People are now attuned to not listening,” Westover said. Even worse? “Businesses don’t listen,” he added. In this day of information explosion, it’s a company’s job to find the right channel—and to remove ineffective guesswork to make better decisions in waking those sleepy consumers. 

Next time you think your customers aren’t listening, consider the distractions they’re facing—and create experiences with that in mind. They just might, if you’re lucky, put down the remote control—and the smartphone, and the laptop—and pay attention.  

SIDEBAR: CRM’s Coolest Cats

Each year, Gartner anoints a handful of up-and-comers in the CRM world as its Cool Vendors. Here are the ones in sales, marketing, customer service, and social software that made the cut in 2009. For more, visit us online at http://sn.im/dec09-issue.


  • Cloud9 Analytics sales analytics and pipeline management;
  • Digby mobile e-commerce;
  • Makana Solutions incentive compensation management; and
  • Silent Edge sales force performance management.


  • Conenza community support services; 
  • Galaxyadvisors trendhunting via social network analysis;  
  • GroupSwim collaboration and communities; and
  • Yammer enterprise microblogging platform.


  • dna13 real-time reputation management;
  • MuseWorx cloud-computing marketing automation;
  • Pontis integrated marketing-delivery platform; and
  • Visible Measures online-video performance management.


  • Helpstream unified customer support system;
  • NexJ Systems feature-rich advisor desktop for financial services;
  • Reimage cloud-based PC diagnostics and service; and
  • Vi-Clone Web-site virtual assistant.

SIDEBAR: Gartner’s Top 10 for 2010

Every year, Gartner spotlights 10 strategic technologies and trends—those that the firm says have “the potential for significant impact on the enterprise in the next three years.” 

David Cearley, a Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst, said in a statement that companies “should factor the top 10 technologies into their strategic planning process by asking key questions and making deliberate decisions about them during the next two years.” 

As with last year’s list, several items have an infrastructural bent: virtualization (listed twice this year, under “client computing” and “virtualization for availability”), storage (“reshaping the data center” and “flash memory”), and security (“activity monitoring”). But half of the trends have particular implications for CRM—and four of them, in slightly altered form, are holdovers from last year’s list. (The notable newcomer? Mobile communications, replacing last year’s entry for unified communications.) 

We’ve included edited excerpts of the CRM-relevant trends here, and the full text of Gartner’s announcement can be found on our Web site: http://sn.im/dec09-issue.

Cloud Computing (was also on last year’s list). A computing model in which providers deliver a variety of technology-enabled capabilities to consumers. Cloud-based services can be exploited in several ways to develop an application or a solution. Using cloud resources does not eliminate the costs of technology solutions, but does rearrange some and reduce others. By consuming cloud services, enterprises will increasingly act as cloud providers and deliver application, information, or business process services to customers and business partners.

Advanced Analytics (“business intelligence” was on last year’s list). Analytical tools and models can maximize the effectiveness of business processes and decisions by examining alternative outcomes and scenarios—before, during, and after process implementation and execution. Gartner suggests that this trend can be viewed as a third step in supporting operational business decisions: The first step—fixed rules and prepared policies—gave way to the second—decisions powered by the right information delivered at the right time via CRM or applications such as enterprise resource planning. The new step provides simulation, prediction, optimization, and other analytics to empower even more decision flexibility at the time and place of every business process action. The new step looks into the future, predicting what can or will happen.

IT for Green (also on last year’s list, but as “Green IT”). Regulations are multiplying and have the potential to seriously constrain companies in building data centers. The effect of power grids, carbon emissions from increased use, and other environmental impacts are under scrutiny. Organizations should consider regulations and have alternative plans for data center and capacity growth. Shifting to products and approaches that are more efficient can allow for more equipment to fit within an energy footprint, or to fit into a previously filled center. (Efficiency can also allow for the same work to be accomplished by less equipment overall, and can enable a new approach to customer-facing operations. CRM’s April 2010 issue will address the application and impact of environmental strategy on various aspects of the CRM industry.)

Social Computing (called “social software and social networking” last year). Workers don’t want to work within multiple environments—one for their own work products (whether personal or group) and another for accessing “external” information. Enterprises must not only use social software and social media in the enterprise, but also participate in and integrate with externally facing enterprise-sponsored and public communities. Do not ignore the role of the social profile to bring communities together. (See CRM’s June 2009 special issue on social media for more on this subject.)

Mobile Communications. By year-end 2010, 1.2 billion people will carry mobile-commerce–capable handsets, enabling the convergence of mobility and the Web. Thousands of mobile applications already exist—100,000 alone on the App Store for Apple’s iPhone—though they may require additional flexibility to operate on both full PC and miniature systems. Compatibility between operating systems and processor architecture will create a huge increase in mobile application availability.

Contact Assistant Editor Lauren McKay at lmckay@destinationCRM.com.

You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top.
To contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com
Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit 

CRM Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues

Related Articles

Information Wants to Be Disrupted

Information Industry Summit '10: Panelists share their secrets to shaking up the information industry.