You can’t beat the competition without first understanding it

The other week I participated in a high-level task force meeting about how to increase the number of Americans who meet current physical activity guidelines.

Communications and messaging was a big focus of the meeting. How do we make the best case? What message will resonate with people? Who is the best messenger?

We spent a lot of time talking about our message, crafting, refining, polishing, making sure it’s evidence-based. But we don’t consume messages in isolation. Messages compete for our time and attention, whatever the medium. With the 24 hours news cycle, growing social media platforms, and non-stop Internet access for the 90+ percent of Americans who own a smartphone, this competition is more fierce than ever.

Yet, we often overlook the competition. We are too focused on honing our own message and never consider how it will survive within the crowded information market.

This is known as competition neglect, or when competing products, services, or messages don’t factor into our decision of how successful we forecast something will be in the market. The result is overconfidence. In the case of communications, we are overconfident in our message’s chances to grab the consumer’s attention amidst all the other noise in the information market.

Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman’s description of competition neglect in Thinking, Fast and Slow, overconfidence then leads to excess entry. More competitors (i.e. messages) enter the information market because of the low cost of entry. Anyone can create a Twitter account, start a blog for free, or become any kind of supplier of information into the market. The number of competitors surpasses the point at which the market can profitably sustain them, and the average outcome is therefore a loss.

In other words, an individual consumes massive amounts of information and messages throughout the day, from a variety of media. The volume of messages an individual consumes surpasses their cognitive capacity to do anything meaningful with them. Cognitive load increases as we endlessly consume messages/information, diminishing our ability to decipher between them. The average outcome is a loss. We don’t act on the well-intentioned message.

Individual messages are important. A great tagline, slogan, or ad can drive huge shifts in thinking or behavior. But this only happens when consumers pick your message over all the other competing messages. If you don’t understand your competition, you can’t devise a way to beat them.

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