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T.M.I.: The opportunity for brands in the too-much-information age

Vox Media’s SVP of Content, Armando Turco shares research from Vox Creative’s Explainer Studio and the topics we expect to spark the most curiosity in 2020

I make my living making content for brands, but I’ll be the first to tell you there’s too much of it. Or rather, there’s too much of the wrong kind.

More on that soon.

As we entered this next decade that’s bound to be filled with more surprising news, conflict, fast-moving trends, transformative technology, and an ever-growing body of content, we at Vox Media set out to explore the state of the information landscape. We sought to identify the topics that will spark the most curiosity in 2020.

How can we understand what people will want to understand?

We turned to real people – 1500 of them – to ask what will excite them, what will confuse them, and, consequently, what really needs to be explained? The study was led by a team within Vox Media called The Explainer Studio. We’re a group of researchers and creators who, inspired by Vox’s explanatory journalism, help marketers explain why their companies do what they do, and what it means for the world.

On the surface, we accomplished what we set out to achieve - a ranking of topics that will inform what our clients should be talking about, and the kind of content we should be creating for audiences across our networks. There were some obvious findings. People are more interested in Health & Wellness than ever before (yawn). But there were also some surprises. For instance, 5G topped the list as the one topic Vox users are most curious about more than Climate Change, Artificial Intelligence, Data Privacy or Self-Driving Cars . And while stories about Gender Equality and Plant-Based Foods dominated the headlines in 2019 and years prior, people are nearly twice as interested in issues of The Mind: how it works, and how to maintain its health.

But while it’s helpful to know that people are more interested in Sports Technology (31%) than Mobile Innovation (18%), the most interesting findings from the research had more to do with how people want to process these topics, and their relationship with digital information in general.

Information Glut is Causing Confusion and Distrust

Technology has given rise to a glut of information that is leaving people feeling overwhelmed and disoriented. Nearly half (43%) of digital Americans surveyed in our study feel so bombarded by information, they find it hard to care about any of it. Nearly half of people are confused about how issues in the news are going to impact them. This is as true of political news regarding topics like tariffs and global trade as it is of technology news that directly influences consumer culture. Nearly half of respondents believe that current events and breaking news occur at such a fast pace it’s hard to understand the big picture about what’s happening.

This news about the news is not new. As the volume and pace of content increased over the past decade, it became harder and harder for publishers and brands to break through. As a result, many publishers and platforms long ago began to prioritize volume of content and clicks above the quality of that content.

This is not just a problem for publishers and platforms.

As much talk as there has been about our collective media diets, and how the average person consumes an indigestible 12 hours of that media per day, and the explosion of entertainment content, or the questionable truthiness of news content (all phenomena that were validated by our research) there has been very little talk about the role that brands have played in perpetuating this cycle, and the role marketers as content-makers should play in helping to balance those diets.

With talk of issues related to trust and misinformation in media, we often focus first on the shortcomings of platforms like Facebook, or on the so-called “fake news” epidemic. As brands behave more and more like editors, and with most “marketing” content living on the platforms that perpetuate this confusion, marketers can no longer turn a blind eye to what seems like someone else’s problem.

According to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, most people agree that trust in a brand is becoming a much more important factor in their purchase decisions. When asked why it’s becoming more important, more people cited “the spread of fake news and misinformation on the internet” than any other factor.

The net takeaway of this all: when people feel (at best) overwhelmed by or (at worst) distrusting of the information available to them, they don’t discriminate between news, ads, platforms, or brands.Everything gets conflated, and the results affect any company creating or distributing content at scale.

As it becomes easier for people to evade mediocre advertising, and it becomes harder for brands to rely on 3rd-party data to cut through all of this information clutter, it’s time brands focus on creating more valuable content.

Content that is honest and nutritious and actually leaves people feeling more knowledgeable, more savvy, and less anxious.

Where do we go from here?

I’ll start by telling you where we don’t go. We don’t continue to put content in the world simply because we can, or because we’re ticking a box on a brief. In thousands of media RFPs I see a year, I am shocked by how many still treat content like it’s a “gift-with-purchase.”

The same is true of many ads. During this year’s Super Bowl, a day when even the most cynical ad creative still glues themself to the screen, eagerly awaiting whatever spots haven’t already been “leaked” online, I found myself asking “how many of those spots will make us better? Smarter? Less fearful? More in sync with brands and with each other?”

So, where do we go from here?

Ask the right questions of your partners.

Answer the right questions for your audiences.

Our research proved that the best gift you can give to your audience is the gift of understanding. After our respondents ranked their favorite topics in order of interest, we asked them what questions they most wanted answered about those topics. The overwhelming response? What does it mean for us, and for the future?

TOP QUESTIONS, RANKED

  • What is it? - 23%
  • How does it work? - 34%
  • What’s in it for me? - 43%
  • What’s in it for society? - 47%
  • What does it mean for the future? - 48%

This response touches on an ongoing discussion we have with many of our advertising partners who come to The Explainer Studio for help explaining their products, their purpose, or any complex topic that’s of interest to their consumers and employees. All too often our clients want to explain things that don’t need explaining or that, frankly, the average person doesn’t care about. The strategy often comes down to one point of tension:does the brand gain more by explaining parts of itself, or by explaining things that are innately curious to all humans as humans?

The best strategy is still to make the universal personal, and make the personal universal.

Save for a few exceptions like 5G, people are generally much more interested in the impact of a particular brand, product, technology or “thing” than they are in the thing itself.

That’s why, when working with 3M, we chose not to explain their sound-dampening tape, but to focus on the mysterious benefits and virtues of silence as a phenomena, writ-large. We explained its impact on mental and physical health, and we explored silence as a cultural cue for luxury.

The most successful stories of The Explainer Studio come when clients take the extra bit of time to reframe their branded content to not just tell a story or deliver a message, but to provide a service. The a-ha moments that result from truly understanding the new and the next is a social currency that the savviest brands will be well rewarded for providing.

This is why The Explainer Studio exists. We want to do for advertising what Vox has done for journalism. To combat the anxiety and uncertainty that results from over-consumption of low-calorie content with the thrill and confidence of knowing “WTF” or “What’s Up With That?”

Learn more about the Explainer Studio here and reach out to armando.turco@voxmedia.com to say “hi” and learn more great insights from our research and how we can work together.

Methodology

A survey was commissioned to ~1,500 consumers from November to December 2019. Our partner, The Circus, is an insight and data storytelling consultancy that specializes in original trend research, thought leadership, and strategic brand positioning rooted in a human-data centric approach.


Armando Turco is the SVP of Content at Vox Media, the leading modern media company. He oversees strategy, creative excellence and execution of the company’s brand partnerships. His teams, including Vox Creative and The Explainer Studio, harness the power of Vox Media’s insights, technology, distribution and editorial expertise to develop integrated marketing programs for nearly one hundred brands per year including Google, Dell, Ford, Samsung, and The Melinda Gates Foundation. Vox Creative was recently awarded the “Best Content Studio” and “Best Branded Content Program” awards by Digiday.