Breaking Through Information Polarization In An Online World
by Clay Dethloff

  • Information Polarization

    What is Information Polarization…I think of it as basically giving precedence or importance to information or things that you like, things you are associated with, or things that closely match your own values or desires; and sometimes ignoring or discounting those things you don’t.

    Information Polarization is particularly prevalent, and I think best exemplified, in the political arena these days as people will often choose a particular television network for the majority of their political (and, often, all news) coverage based on their own political or social leanings.

    It would seem, however, that we have embraced this idea of Information Polarization for a long time, especially in the political arena. During World War II, the US was actively involved in trying to raise war bonds. Following these efforts, Dorwin Cartwright, a renowned psychologist, sought to understand what had happened in the efforts to raise war bonds; this resulted in a paper titled "Some Principles of Mass Persuasion: Selected Findings of Research on the Sale of United States War Bonds." It is an excellent article, and one of the findings of the research stated: “The categories employed by a person in characterizing stimulus situations tend to protect him from unwanted changes in his cognitive structure.” Adding to this, he went on to say, “Illustrative of this principle are the tendencies of people to read newspapers whose editorial policy tends to agree with their own and to listen predominantly to political candidates who belong to their own party.” Basically, whether we think about our political views, the products we use, or other aspects of our life, we are less likely to stray far from those things we know, we like, or we are familiar with.

Information Polarization is not all bad; with all of the information and stimuli now jockeying for our attention, consumers have to find ways to make sense of it all. In fact, consumers frequently use this framework to help them quickly “bucket” information into something that can be more easily digestible by the human mind.

But what happens when Information Polarization is taken out of the consumers’ hands…Because of advancements in technology, communications, and the advent of online commerce, an automated version of Information Polarization is expanding into all aspects of society, and companies must continue to understand and develop ways to overcome this issue in order to get their products and services into the hands of new and potential customers. One of the realities for business these days is that much of the information and news consumers want and receive comes from online resources. Often these resources are less “self-filtered” information and more likely to have been filtered for us—attempting to “help” consumers and online users get those things they are most interested in (or at least have shown an interest in) and, importantly, keeping them engaged in the websites they are visiting.

Remarketing and targeted advertising is a constant part of the online user experience these days. How many times in a day do you “Google” something, click on something you are interested in, or share or like something on social media…and then see the results for days or weeks afterward, even news aggregation sites help us see the news these sites think we would like. The other day I was looking for a mattress online. I went to the website of a retailer in the morning. By that afternoon, I felt every website I visited for any reason had an ad for a mattress attached to it. A few of the ads I even clicked on to see the offer. As I mentioned earlier, this idea of information polarization can help us make decisions easier—it helps us to “weed out” things we may not be interested in. But, as in the case of my mattress search, my past online experiences are now helping to control my future experiences; and online algorithms are often deciding for me the products, stimuli, communications, news, etc., I am seeing…if I liked it once, I’ll like it again.

A problem for businesses now becomes how to get their products and services in front of potential consumers when it can fill a need, but may not be an exact fit. SEO companies and Google tend to recommend tight keywords and phrases, oftentimes resulting in less clicks or visits; the idea being that those clicks you do get are a better fit with your offerings. The tighter the key words, the more important it becomes for companies to have the right key words, and even the right combination of key words. Companies are increasingly spending more time and money to find the right key words to be included on internet searches, seen on Instagram ads, have more YouTube views, etc. Oftentimes these efforts consist of throwing as many things on the wall as possible and seeing what sticks. But what if the “sticky” words the consumer is using, aren’t ones our company used at all?

Going back to my mattress search, and the reason I had searched for a mattress…I had some temporary guests coming to spend a few days. By “Googling,” I certainly found all I needed to on mattresses; but consider all of the potential opportunities missed by other companies or organizations—cots, blow-up mattresses, hotels, homestays such as AirBnB, etc.—would have all been able to meet my needs.

How can a company cast a wider net in the world of online searches and get their “story” in front of others? Companies are going to have to try ever harder to connect with their potential customers and truly understand the reasons “why” they need and use products and services. You have to identify not only what attributes of products or services customers seek, you need to understand the benefits that these products and services deliver. How are products meeting consumers’ needs and fitting into their lives? How can they meet their needs? What motivates and drives your potential customers?

Information Polarization, especially in the online world, can be a “help” in many ways to consumers; however, because “key words are king,” it may in fact be a major barrier to getting new products, services, or ideas in front of a business’s potential customers, voters, etc.

One potential way to help address the issue of information polarization is to use primary research with both users and potential users of your product or service to help you find ways to tell your story and, importantly, get your story in front of more people. Primary research can be used in one or both of two primary ways in this pursuit; first, by truly understanding consumer motivations, needs, and desires to identify all of the “key words,” phrases, and ways consumers search for information in order to help them connect with your product and service in an environment where online searches are a normal part of the routine. And second, by presenting to the consumer those potential key words and phrases developed internally and understanding if they make sense in terms of a search…if they are, in fact, the way someone could come across your product or service.

Information polarization is here to stay—internet searches, likes, and clicks will often determine what products and services consumers will be shown in the future. The more focused and disciplined a company’s efforts are to find the right words and phrases, the more opportunity companies have to be seen as something that consumers will like, associate with, or closely match their own values or desires.

About the Author

Clay Dethloff ( is Senior Vice President, Director of Qualitative Research at Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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