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Digital Overload: Taking Connection Too Far?

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I always believed that a brand needed a certain single-mindedness, a certain essence or DNA. But single-mindedness almost seems like a dirty word nowadays. To quote Bill Bernbach, "If you stand for something, some people are for you and some are against you. But if you stand for nothing, no one's for you and no one's against you." As cynical as this may sound, I wonder whether the digital revolution has encouraged a kind of schizophrenia that would have Bernbach spinning in his grave.

Nowadays, buzzwords include "consumer-generated content," "interactive" and "consumer-centric." Pluralism is king. Information is king. Digital is king. Sure, the consumer deserves to be at the top of the heap, but are we ceding the creation of a brand to them a little too much?

Our language has also changed to pay homage to the digital god.  "Advertising" has turned into "communications," "not enough time" into "not enough bandwidth," "message" into "information." And the 4A's wants to be known by its acronym rather than use "advertising" in its description.

Sure, I'm getting older and more resistant to change, but I still think it's valid to ask whether we're getting a little carried away with the digital revolution and all it espouses.

Let's look at some numbers. A recent Nielsen report indicates that Americans watched television an average 158.25 hours per month at home in the first quarter of 2010, two hours more than reported in the same 2009 period. That's the equivalent of nearly four 40-hour workweeks, about the same amount that people work every month. It's also more than five hours of daily viewing, which is an hour more per day than they viewed a decade ago, according to Media Post Communications.

The Nielsen report also indicates that time spent on the Internet declined from 29.16 hours to 25.26 hours per month since a similar report in 2009. That's a surprising 13 percent decrease.

This raises some questions. Are we losing sight of some core principles when we rush to employ digital channels? When we aim for consumer-generated content, are we really shaping consumer opinion and behavior or are we just reflecting it? Is our desire for different conversations in cyberspace overtaking the need to project a single coherent and consistent brand image? Is it really just about information or does influencing behavior require a little more? And should we really be telling everybody everything they want to know about us -- warts and all?

A spokesman from a major digital agency recently suggested, "Clients are gravitating to digital marketing because they can provide consumers with more information." But can we give consumers too much information?

A 2008 study by the University of Iowa sheds light on the information paradox. It found that people who have only a little information about a product are happier with that product than people who have more information.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Too much information is difficult to process, so we reject that brand because it's too complicated. And it carries with it the risk of conveying information that puts a brand at a competitive disadvantage.

My training taught me that communications could work on a number of levels: by creating involvement; saliency; or persuasion. Each communications medium has its pros and cons. No one medium was dominant -- there was a certain egalitarianism -- but the prevailing notion among many seems to be that digital communications should be center stage.

Sorry, but I just can't drink the Kool-Aid. Digital is not always the best medium for establishing involvement, saliency or persuasion.

When I first became an account planner in 1990, direct marketing was all the rage. Nowadays, direct marketing appears to have reverted to a niche position. Will digital communications follow the same trend? I often secretly hope so, if only because it seems to assume a dominance that isn't deserved. Digital is but one communications medium -- as important and as unimportant as any other communications medium. Its importance ultimately depends on what we're trying to say and to whom we're trying to say it to. And how much it costs.

As much as the consumption of digital media has increased, are we getting a little carried away with its importance? In my mind, it can't convey the emotion or stature of a well-crafted TV ad, the visual impact of a print ad, the concreteness of a direct-mailing piece or the credibility of a well-placed PR story.

Digital communications are here to stay. As another communications medium, I welcome its presence. But let's make sure we don't overestimate its importance.

Mark Thompson is a freelance account planner. He can be reached at mgthom@hotmail.com.