The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

Anyone who has studied basic marketing or psychology would have come across Maslow’s (in)famous Hierarchy of Needs “Brand Gap“.

Whilst somewhat controversial and lacking in academic rigour, it has provided a useful starting framework for marketers to understand consumer motivations.

But with the theory now over 60 years old, it doesn’t take into account the massive impact of the Internet on everyday life. It’s time to update this old chestnut for the 21st century. As no one else seems to have claimed this particular version, I’d like to cheekily introduce you to Eric’s Hierarchy of Digital Distractions.

The theory itself is quite simple – there are six levels of distractions, with the lower levels taking precedence. As soon as a need arises from the lower levels, it immediately distracts you from whatever else you’ve been doing.

And unless your advertising can cut through all of them, it’s simply going to fail because your audience is not ready to listen. Like Maslow’s Theory, there is more conjecture than science, so make of it what you will…

Level 1: Information

Amongst many other roles, a primary function of the Internet is to be the world’s largest library. For most people, their first introduction was to dive into the wealth of data available, and even net veterans spend much of their time on Wikipedia, reading new sites, trawling through forums, etc. Have a burning question to ask? Google is the first point of contact.

Level 2: Connection

Once the thirst for knowledge is quenched (which in an average day for an average person may just take a few minutes), it’s time to catch up on the latest gossip. For most people, social networking or email sites will be where they spend the most time online. In fact, if there are no pressing information needs, many people increasingly go straight to this level first.

Level 3: Entertainment

Now that you know what your friends are up to, the next need is to alleviate boredom. This can be as simple as looking for LOLcats, raiding YouTube, or playing online games. Or spending inordinate amounts of time on sites like Reddit, Digg, World of Warcraft, or FarmVille.

Level 4: Transactions

After exhausting your regular entertainment sites (plus whatever new links your social network has sent you), it’s time to do some shopping, pay bills, or manage your bank accounts online. Even if there is nothing specific to buy, or if the budget is a bit stretched this week… there’s plenty of sites and shiny new things to lust over…

Level 5: Creation and Productivity

Having cleared through most of the other levels of distractions, you can now focus on the process of creation – be it doing work, or creating content for others to enjoy. People stay at this level until interrupted with a requirement from levels 1-4.

Level 6: Clicking on Advertising

Sitting at the very top of our revised pyramid is the need to click on ad banner units. With average click-through rates now below 0.1 percent in most markets, this has got to be an online activity with one of the worst spend-to-interaction ratios available. And it’s no surprise, as the first five levels means your advertising is pretty much up against the entire Internet, and all the creativity and distractions that brings.

So what does this say about the advertising we have to do?

Quite simply, it needs to stop behaving like advertising.

This is not about creating deception, but adjusting what we define as deliverables. It’s not about websites or banners (everyone says that… yet here we are, where 80 percent of the work most agencies deliver are websites and banners), but executing appropriate communication at the appropriate points.

For example, have you got information needs covered by having an official representative to respond to questions on forums where your customers are asking for details?

Have you truly connected with your customers through social media, and have the right response and escalation mechanisms to appropriately deal with customer queries – regardless of whether it comes through your call centre, Twitter profile, or Facebook campaign page?

Does the advertising you do entertain your audience, so they want more (think Old Spice)… or do you bore them with what you think is important, rather than what they want to hear (so they look for distractions elsewhere)?

Do you have the user experience from first point of customer contact mapped and optimised, so the transactional process is smooth, and you’re easy to deal with?

If you haven’t done any of the above, and have jumped straight to level 6 as your starting point, don’t be surprised if your audience isn’t following and spend their time on the other plentiful distractions available (… hey, is that a new LOLcat picture? Cool!).