Relevance; abstract, highly subjective... absolutely essential

We’re pre-programmed to filter out the noise. And that’s a god job, because there’s an awful lot of it. There always has been. The sum total of information being collected by all of our senses at any given waking moment is thought to be as much as 11 million bits per second. And yet a human brain engaged in “intelligent” and “conscious” activities is believed to be able to process only 50 bits per second (1). So up to 0.00000455% of the sensory data our senses are providing is being filtered out.

Little wonder then that one of the biggest challenges for your content and your message is making it through a selection mechanism that’s… shall we say…more than a bit picky. Statistically speaking, I think we can define it as closed, or indeed off. Neuroscience calls it sensory gating by the way.

It’s a provocative reminder that getting our marketing messages heard and noticed though all the noise and clutter is a tall order.

We are much more receptive to things that are relevant. This is an abstract concept; it isn’t inherent or in any way an objective quality. Our perception of whether something is relevant is the outcome of other qualities that interact to produce a subjective judgement. If we reduce them to an equation it might look like this:

Let’s look at these one by one.


Does the information trigger anything in the memory or provoke a cognitive response? Does it make any kind of impact? One of the first criteria information is scored with has a lot to do with familiarity and recognisability. Do we know what it is? Have we come across it before? Does it awaken any existing memories or thoughts and feelings that we have processed before? The greater the positive cognitive effects achieved by processing an input, the greater the relevance of the input to the individual at that time (2).

However, it’s not that simple. As ever, our lazy human brains are pre-programmed to avoid effort. The greater the processing effort expended, the lower the relevance of the input to the individual. (2) So, only the information that chimes loudly, without help, will be considered relevant.


If the information being received is a message or a communication from another, then its relevance is affected by the perceived authenticity of that source or author. The recipient needs to be able to relate to the author, or – to dig a little deeper – to believe that the author can relate to them. We are quick to dismiss people who we don’t feel have much understanding of our own particular life experiences, values and beliefs. Unfortunately, we are woefully quick to discriminate instinctively against out-groups. There’s a lot of talk about tribes at the moment in the world of marketing. So, to use the analogy, a source outside of your ‘tribe’ just doesn’t have that same authenticity. No unequivocal badge of authenticity? Not relevant.


There are useful parallels between the physical world around us, which we have evolved to analyse, understand with selective filtering of the information it provides us, and the more abstract and conceptual world of business and marketing communications. Seeing a branch falling from a tree over there, is unlikely to hold your attention for long and even less likely to make much of a memory. Seeing a branch fall from directly above you (assuming you’re lucky enough to be looking up) will get your full attention and hopefully create a very strong memory. The physical distances (both along and up) involved in these two examples obviously make all the difference.

Thinking about marketing messages, distance plays both a physical and a more conceptual role in the recipient’s judgement of relevance. The subject matter and the originator may simply be physically located too far away. Consider a more metaphorical idea of distance also. Your information may be about the perfect solution to someone’s problem but where are they in the procurement and decision-making process? Are you introducing yourself or closing the deal? You may be miles apart, standing right next to each other.

So then, to be deemed relevant, an input, piece of information or message must pass all three of these tests:

  1. Make a big impact cognitively or emotionally or trigger strong memory… without requiring much effort.

  2. Be originated by a source, person or organisation that we can relate to and believe can relate to us.

  3. Be in the right time and place.


(2) Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, The Handbook of Pragmatics, 2004

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