By Sorcha Lanigan

When searching for information, we rarely read things carefully from top to bottom. Instead, we hunt for the information based on skim-reading and our intuition of where the information is likely to be found.

Anthropologists and behavioural scientists have likened our information gathering behaviour to the way that animals forage for food. In this blog we outline the key implications of 'information foraging’ for firms designing customer communications.

Foraging for information

Animals searching for food must make decisions over where to hunt for their food (or prey), and how to go about the foraging process. The animal’s decisions are affected by the weather conditions, the risk of running into dangerous predators, or the risk of getting cut-off from the herd.

The animal will decide if the ‘prey’ they are pursuing will provide them with more energy than they have spent hunting it. This can be modelled as a ‘cost benefit assessment'. This is where the expected benefits of foraging in a certain location are compared to the expected costs of that behaviour. 

On a similar note, consumers trawl through information based on their intuition about the signals they pick up on. For example, in an online context, these signals include the labelling of the hyperlink and the context in which the link appears. Ultimately, these signals form the ‘information scent’.*

In the same way that animals use scent to find their food, a person searching for information responds to the information scent they they detect.

Unlike animals, the predators that consumers face may include websites wanting to capture and track our personal data. The weather conditions that a consumer faces may foresee patchy WiFi with a chance of low battery. The risk of getting cut from the herd may manifest in the form of the pop-up message: ‘this website would like to redirect you to a new URL’.  

Five ways to communicate effectively with information foragers

We have five suggestions for communicating effectively with information foragers.

1. Give off strong information scents

Use clear signposting and common-sense structure to guide customers to the right area of information to meet their information needs.

2. Keep it simple

The importance of clarity and simplicity cannot be understated. Users are more likely to click on links and select webpages where the language is easily understood. Too much jargon, unclear wording, or a cluttered, low-quality design can cause a user to waver and tread elsewhere to obtain their information.

3. Don’t be a data predator

The context around the desired information is significant to a user. Does the webpage have advertisements, pop up images, spam? Is the user directed to a fishy sounding domain after clicking on a hyperlink? In the same way a deer might be spooked when it hears a rustling in the bushes, shifty context around information can be a warning to a user to search elsewhere.

4. Beware clickbait

Bait may be effective on animals, but clickbait online erodes trust. Consumers may avoid your brand in future if you make too many sensational promises, or use too much contradictory small print. 

5. Avoid choice overload

When information foraging we can find ourselves facing ‘choice overload’ – too many search results, too many hyperlinks, with too little time. Choice overload can lead to inertia and should be avoided.


So, how can brands harness our highly evolved information foraging capabilities?

There’s no need to camouflage to blend in with the rest of the competition. Follow our five tips, and stand out from the crowd.

*Source: P. Pirolli, S. Card. 1999. ‘Information foraging’, Psychological Review 106, pp. 643-675.