Escape from message hell

Reminders for your reminders... What messages are getting through to you and your contacts?

Lessons learned from entrepreneur by Nir Eyal
November 7, 2012
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We are caught in an endless cycle of messaging hell and the pattern is always the same. First, a new communication system is born — take email or Facebook, for example. Ease-of-use helps the system gain wide acceptance and reach a critical mass of users.  Then things turn ugly.

Some crafty entrepreneur figures out how to exploit the system and starts building a business around it. He reaches millions of people and through his success prompts countless others to emulate his methods. Inevitably, the messaging channel is before long deluged with crap, clogging the pipes of what was once an efficient mode of communication — again, whether email, Facebook or something else.

Notification noise

The latest messaging onslaught is hitting the notification systems on our smartphones. Those little red badges hovering over our app icons and the urgent graphics along the top of our screens incessantly remind us of some task that needs doing. They crowd out real priorities with trivial distractions.  Notification spam has many up in arms, but the flood continues unabated. 

This is a story repeated ever since telemarketers started ruining dinnertimes across the land. Their scourge continued until the federal Do Not Call Registry effectively put them and their pestering ways out of business.

To date, platforms have been responsible for policing spammers on Facebook, Twitter, Android, and Apple’s iOS. But keeping exploiters out is only half the challenge. The real problem is keeping the channels open, unclogged, and useful as they grow.

Exhibit A: 

Exhibit B – A Google search for “I hate email” returns 586 million results, more than twice the results for “the Beatles.” Very scientific, I know, but you get the point.

The irony is that the more efficient a communication channel, the more overcrowded it soon becomes. No one seems to like email and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of startups have tried to fix it. Yet no one has. Email is just too easy, and the easier something is to do, the more people do it. The result is that valuable content contend for attention with the likes of emails from faux Nigerian heiresses and cheap pharmaceuticals.

What works?

There’s a hierarchy message types in terms of our propensity to respond.   If you’re a new company trying to get noticed it’s useful to know it. 

First, we respond to messages from ourselves – for instance, a calendar reminder set the day before is likely to catch our attention.  A self-addressed, emailed “to do” list is also rarely ignored.

Technology that can time-shift the delivery of information to when the user needs it most has massive potential.  For instance, next time I’m clothes shopping, remind me of my body measurements.  Or when I’m about to meet a friend for lunch, remind me which of us bought last time so I can know whether or not to pick up the tab.

What Robert Scoble calls “contextual computing” and Om Malik calls “predictive computing” will have the power to cut through the clutter as long as the messaging feels as though it was sent from the user to himself.

Next on the hierarchy are messages from close contacts. The need for social cohesion is a key motivator of our everyday lives, and we act upon authentic prompts from people most important to us. Indeed, the current messaging morass is largely due to our felt obligation to respond to everything sent to us from people we know, even if the reply is merely the banal but obligatory “thanx” or “ttyl.”

Rise an fall of the machines

Finally, at the hierarchy bottom are messages from machines. A call-to-action from a pre-filled auto-responder has the little chance to get our attention because people learn to sniff out and avoid inauthenticity.

Marketing messages using various persuasion techniques come and go in a constant game of cat and mouse. Users learn quickly what’s real and what’s fake.  They become less and less well disposed to a brand the more often they associate a company with an intrusive and unwanted message. Pasting a friend’s name or face on a message may be effective for a while, but when users figure out what’s going on, they move on. Eventually, messages are deleted without being opened, lists get unsubscribed, and apps uninstalled.

Cluttered communication channels, whether they’re junk mail stuffed in real-world post office boxes or their digital equivalents, contribute to our collective frustration.  Companies must find ways to send notifications that get through to their audiences or not to send them at all. 

Companies may now have the opportunity to provide authentic messaging.   By shifting the delivery of the message to the most appropriate time and place, where it is most likely to be acted upon, new technologies will offer solutions to the cycle of messaging hell.

Editor’s Note: Nir Eyal writes about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at He is the author of the forthcoming book “Hooked: How to Drive Engagement by Creating User Habits”. Follow him