Information Hygiene: How Not to Contribute to a Culture of Clutter


By Ivan Bojanic, Senior Manager, Strategy & Implementation, Amy Perifanos, Vice President, Strategy & Implementation, and Stephen Crewdson, Senior Insights Lead

In a recent interview, author and pandemic expert Max Brooks pointed out the importance of applying hygiene practices—not to hands, or faces, or surfaces—but to information in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to be careful what we listen to, what we take in—just as if it were a virus. And we have to be careful also what we put back out, as if we were spreading the virus.”

Most businesses today aren’t on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus pandemic or sharing up-to-the-minute information that helps people stay informed and safe. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of information hygiene doesn’t apply to them. A well-thought-out approach to information hygiene today can play an important role in shaping perceptions and establishing loyalty that lasts beyond our current crisis. Here’s how.

What is information hygiene?

The concept of information hygiene isn’t new. It emerged in the late ‘90s, when the writer Linda Stone coined the concept of “continuous partial attention” to describe the state in which the human mind is constantly scanning for information in an effort not to miss anything. In small doses, it can make us more productive, but in larger doses it overstimulates and exhausts us.

In normal times, continuous partial attention is an internal issue for businesses, which they counter by practicing organizational information hygiene that cuts information noise for employees. But in this moment, cutting down on distraction by practicing good information hygiene is an external issue for businesses as well.

Businesses that practice good information hygiene are purposeful about what they put into the world, careful to do the right things and reach out in the right ways. Put simply, they deeply understand their customers as humans and know that meeting people where they are means making lives easier. They know that if their output isn’t helping customers overcome this crisis, it’s simply adding to their information fatigue. And before launching a new initiative, email outreach, or ad campaign, these organizations are asking themselves: “Is this the right move for right now?”

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Why does it matter to businesses?

Well before this pandemic, we’ve written about the collective loss of trust people feel from “damaged or broken institutions like government, financial and social institutions, education systems, and companies that don’t treat people right.” The upshot of this, we’ve noted, is an observed increase in feelings of anxiety and isolation, especially among younger people. Our current crisis is pushing that trend into overdrive.

This is where businesses can play a key role today. A major trend that’s been fueled by ebbing trust in traditional institutions has been affinity towards “purpose-led” brands that act on stated beliefs, and enjoy stronger relationships with customers as a result. In fact, in a recent survey we conducted, the top things people say they want from businesses today are transparency and social responsibility. Also, there are two main factors in purchasing decisions they say are more important today than pre-crisis—simplifying life and reducing anxiety.

Three steps to practicing information hygiene

A business that wants to practice good information hygiene, and establish itself as a positive, purpose-led social actor, should keep three intuitive goals in mind:

1. Choose what not to say.

Practicing information hygiene doesn’t just mean thinking carefully about what to say—it’s just as important to choose what not to say. You may even find it’s your duty.

People are overwhelmed with information, so let your actions do the talking. Think of the many companies that are waiving fees, offering free deliveries, and discounting services—and the positive impact these measures are having on their customers who are struggling to adjust to the new normal.

2. Be real.

A recent (and brilliant) piece of coronavirus humor is this Twitter poem: “First Lines of Emails I’ve Received While Quarantining.” As the title suggests, it lampoons companies that, in this global crisis, send us insincere clichés (“How are you inspiring greatness today?”) and off-key reassurance (“Mother’s Day looks a little different this year”).

People are savvy, and it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see which companies get it, and which ones don’t. So, don’t be tone-deaf. Be empathetic, even if what you offer seems unrelated to what’s happening today.

3. Offer hope.

Another critical thing we heard in the recent Gongos survey was that people are less worried about themselves (34%) than what’s around them; things like family and friends (46%), the country as a whole (52%), and the wider economy (60%).

In other words, people don’t want things for themselves so much as they want reassurance that we’ll all get through this together. So don’t ask what your customers can do for your business, but ask yourself what they need from you—and look to offer it.

We’re all part of this

There’s no precedent to help guide us through what’s happening. The most important thing we can remember is that we’re all a part of these events, and that how we act and communicate can have a real impact on real lives. Practicing good information hygiene is a way for businesses to reduce the stress on people who are currently pushed to their limits and can illustrate the difference between those who really get it and those who don’t.

The beauty of information hygiene is, it’s not even that hard—don’t contaminate good intentions with bad execution, show empathy, and give people a reason to hope. They’ll notice, and they’ll remember you for it when things finally get back to “normal.”

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