Reputation at the speed of light

July 21, 2014

Reputation at the speed of light

Nick Carr’s article in The New York Times did a number on me. He wrote about how information overload and social media frenzy makes us unable to concentrate, remember, focus and understand. I thought it was only me who was having trouble reading to the end of an article and remembering what I had just read because I’m multi-tasking and multi-thinking like crazy. Carr says he has the same malady as me. He cites a study conducted by the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand where these symptoms appear to be common. The researchers, Val Hooper and Channa Herath, conclude: “The findings indicated that there were definite differences between people’s online and offline reading behaviours. In general, online reading has had a negative impact on people’s cognition. Concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates were all much lower while reading online than offline.” The authors were so intrigued by Carr’s article in 2008, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” that they did some exploratory work. For a while there, I thought I was just growing stupider. But apparently Nick Carr and others have the same case of Internet brain-eating virus that I have. 

A quick synopsis of the research: People reading offline usually read from beginning to end while those reading online tend to skim, skip words, cross-reference, jump around to different links, read in chunks, speed-read, and multi-task. As for offline reading, people read every word, read more slowly, annotate as they go along, and generally retain more of what they read. Online reading is more often happening for work and gathering information while offline reading is more for pleasure at the end of the day or early morning.

Why did this article hit me so hard? This made me think about the extreme difficulties facing many of the companies we work with who are trying to build reputation or protect reputation or repair reputation when their customers and prospects are only one inch deep on their web site. They may be on the company home page or reading an article about best smartphones while simultaneously checking the news, answering email, sending a text, or downloading a document. If you have only 60 seconds at the most to say who you are, what you stand for and why your product is the best or you are a great place to work, how do you do that in skim-able fashion? We are entering an era of reputation at the speed of light. What types of cues, symbols and signs can a company provide that leaves a memorable thumbprint? Are long-form treatises just too much? Maybe Vine and Instagram have it right? Short and sweet but disposable? Or should we be resorting to six-word-stories or hiaku? The findings tell us that not much is going to be remembered if it is absorbed online so the challenge of this new Internet era is getting through to people in a memorable, emotional, story-telling way that sticks. 

This article made me think I have some hard thinking to do on shaping reputation in this nano second, evaporable world. After all, who has time to think online or read offline? I think at the core, companies are going to have to focus focus focus on one message that they want the world to know and figure out how to get that embedded into people’s consciousness. They are going to have to apply all the energy and muscle they have to make this one message synonymous with them. It reminds me of how well BP was able to hammer home Beyond Petroleum and solar energy. Not the best example I know but one that is emblematic of what I am thinking. IBM’s smarter planet is another. What is the one signature idea or product that solves a common problem and says it all. Like a song in your head that repeats and repeats.

I do have to share one line from Carr’s article that made me really really laugh today. He said, “Sometimes when people ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to say that I write emails.” Ditto.



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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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