Thursday, February 17, 2011

Scale and the Limits to One-to-One Communication

The underlying problem with advertising is that businesses want more attention than consumers are willing to give. Direct communication between the business and the consumer is not necessarily a solution. A quick look at the scale of the problem will tell you that just getting the messages through is not necessarily enough. Consumers do not have the capacity to receive all the messages that businesses would want to deliver.

In the United States, new business establishments form at the rate of 1 million per year, or one every 30 seconds. If each new business sent just one message to each consumer — just to let people know that they exist — any consumer willing to receive these messages would get messages all day long, faster than they could read them.

The increasing importance of one-to-one commerce means that businesses cannot even expect to maintain an ongoing dialog with their actual historical customers. If a consumer purchases products from just 1,000 sources over the course of a year, regular updates from each of those businesses would add up to a minimum of one message per hour — more than enough to be an intrusion on a person’s life and work.

This issue is often framed in terms of the limits of e-mail, but it is not really about the e-mail medium specifically. No matter what mechanism is used to deliver the messages, there are more messages than a person is capable of taking in. People have no choice but to tune out most of the commercial messages they receive, regardless of the way the messages are delivered. And businesses cannot take for granted the ability to send messages, even to their active customers.