Drowning in Information Overload? Maybe You're Not Asking the Right Questions

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Conquer Social Media Information Overload by Asking the Right Questions by Christopher J. Frank and Paul Magnone, authors of “Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information.”

Despite the rapid growth of social media platforms and corresponding deluge of information that is shared online, we are only in the beginning stage of information overload. The fire hose of information and data will not stop, therefore you must learn to manage the influx to reap tangible benefits for yourself and your company.

For all the headlines and warnings, you might think everyone is over-sharing online, yet we have not even reached the fat part of the bell curve. According to a June 2011 Pew Research Center survey, only 13 percent of adults online use Twitter, which means 77 percent are not engaged with today’s cornerstone of social engagement. People are perhaps overreacting to the activities of early adopters who are really the experimenters. The perception of this small group of pioneers clouds the consensus view of what personal information really exists online.

Drinking from the Firehose
Drinking from the Firehose

The fundamental emotion is fear.

Are you risking your privacy by participating in the social media scene? Well, do you have an electronic toll reader in your car? Do you have a cell phone? If so, your activities can be tracked to the minute by longitude and latitude, but you trust the agency that runs the toll system and you presumably trust your mobile phone carrier and phone maker.

Can you also trust the blogosphere and myriad social communities?

The fundamental trust in service providers must dovetail with self awareness around your own communication activities. As consumers become savvier and privacy tools mature, individuals will share more relevant information, but with a narrower audience. Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford University states the number of trusted relationships humans can maintain are five best friends, 15 good friends and 50 close friends and family. This profile is reflected in products like Glympse, which offers a mobile service that allows GPS-enabled mobile phone users to share their location for a pre-set period with anyone they choose. Or consider Path, a site focused on sharing your information with up to 50 people, creating a more personal environment for sharing. This can also be seen with Google+ Circles, Foursquare and Facebook Groups.

Where does all this lead? What we can say with certainty is that the volume and velocity of information will continue to surge. The intensity of sharing will rise if consumers derive value. On a personal level, you will learn to selectively link and “friend,” and become more discerning about who you “like.” From a commercial perspective, the old adage is true that people buy from who they like. According to a 2009-2010 CMB Consumer Pulse Study, 67 percent of Twitter users are more likely to buy from a company after becoming a fan/follower, so this really has a tangible bottom line for your marketing plans, customer segmentation and go-to market strategy.

The challenge is to embrace the social wave. Can you create the “fly-wheel” effect to answer critical questions faster, and find unexpected solutions to create market demand and new growth? Do you have the judgment and discipline to use online information to improve the clarity and focus of your communication with colleagues? How do you find the truly essential nuggets of information buried in the social media flow and use them with confidence to enhance your business and experiences?

This information is essential to making intelligent decisions. Rather than overwhelm us, we can harness social media to enhance our online experience and grow our companies. Let’s ask the right questions to provide a big-picture perspective that will derive value from social media.

Christopher J. Frank is vice president of business-to-business and communications research at American Express, and Paul Magnone is vice president of business development at Openet. They are co-authors of“Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information”(Portfolio/Penguin, September 2011).

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