By Scott Gillum

Remember that test?

The one where you just froze?  

It was in high school or college…probably a standardized test. The one you just looked at and immediately knew you were in trouble.

A three sentence word problem with statistics. The tension was palpable and you read it, again and again.

Nothing. No recall whatsoever. Your mind was blank as if you’d overloaded every synapse available.

Well, in fact, you had. It’s called cognitive overload and there is a chance your marketing may be causing this same effect.

Cognitive Load builds upon the widely accepted model of human information processing, first published by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968. It describes the process as having three main parts:

1) sensory memory

2) working memory

3) long-term memory

Sensory memory (ears and eyes), along with long-term memory, have an unlimited capacity to take in and store information. Unfortunately, working memory (how we interpret, deconstruct, and process words and images) doesn’t.  

Educational psychologist John Sweller advanced this thinking with his Cognitive Load Theory. This pivotal research revealed how the mind processes information (dual channel – verbal and visual) and the best methods for communicating complex concepts.

For marketers, the key insight is that the mind has limited cognitive processing capacity, both visually and contextually.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno applied Cognitive Load Theory to multimedia learning using three assumptions about how the mind works:

  1. Dual channel – humans possess separate information processing channels for verbal and visual material.
  2. Limited capacity – there is only a limited amount of processing capacity available in the verbal and visual channels
  3. Active processing – learning requires substantial cognitive processing in the verbal and visual channels.

Mayer and Moreno then tested their assumptions against the three main parts of memory mentioned above; sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory. Here’s what they discovered:

The mind does several things when overloaded, and none of them are good for marketers.

The first thing the overloaded mind does is to bail, quickly determining whether it’s worth the effort to turn on active processing.

Next, if the mind decides to give it a go, it then looks for the easy route — association. The mind taps into long-term memory and says, “This looks like a lot of work; have I heard or seen this before? If so, then this must be the same thing.”

Lastly, the mind fully engages, but in doing so uses so much processing capacity that there is nothing left over to move the elements of the engagement into long term memory.

The impact for marketers is one or more of the following:

1) your message is ignored,

2) it’s non-differentiate (because sounds or looks like something the audience has already seen or read),

3) the message is received but audiences are not motivated to take action,

4) the message is received, and then it’s completely forgotten,

You just ran the table of wasted effort, thanks to cognitive overload.

Now, let’s apply these lessons to our marketing efforts and identify both danger zones and potential solutions.

  • Content – Like to use internal speak, long or complex words, tech-jargon and/or acronyms?

Good luck. You’re playing around with what’s called “split-attention effect”, overloading one channel with too much information. It can lead to your message being misinterpreting or missed altogether.  

There’s a simple fix: Use a tool like a Gunning Fog index to test your content for readability, break the content up into smaller pieces, balance visual and contextual elements. A picture is really worth 1000 words, at least to the mind.  

  • Video – Using subtitles in your videos? Using text to explain what the taking head is saying? Laying text onto a visual?.

You’re overtaxing the visual channel. Remove the text and add it to the voice-over. Creating 10 minute or longer explainer videos? Cut them into a series of 5 two-minute videos if you want the audience to recall the information.

  • Digital and direct mail – Like to give the audience lots of options, or crowd a page with offers (like the ad below), and multiple messages?  Mistake.

More is not better.

More is overwhelming and you’re headed to cognitive overload-town.

A couple of tools can help fix this issue.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is a brain imaging method that assesses the intensity of engagement and whether audiences exhibit positive or negative emotional responses to a stimulus.

If that’s too complicated, here’s an easy one, Eye tracking tests measure the gaze and movement of the eyes. This information can help understand how an audience’s attention is being captured or diverted by particular experiences or stimuli.

Here are a couple of good studies to help get you up to speed in this area; A Bias for Action and Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. I highly recommend the later study for UX designers.

Dont think I don’t get the irony that this post itself may have given you cognitive overload!

I could have used some more visuals and the language could be simplified.

But, however ironically, I think this makes my point.

Avoiding cognitive overload in your marketing messages is not easy, but now you at least know what you’re doing to your audience.

Now it’s time to let you process this. And hope, there will be enough processing capacity left over to take action.

We only send the important stuff to your inbox…so you’ll never feel overloaded when you join our email list.

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