Was James Joyce a copywriter ahead of his time?

Everything is becoming more complicated.

It’s a given that consumers are spending less time on more tasks, giving everything less attention, and generally skipping around loads of subjects at any one time on Twitter, Facebook, TV, email, text and a thousand other digital touchpoints.

Now, the challenge of the digital marketer to gain entry into the consciousness of the time-and-touchpoint-squeezed consumer is greater than ever.

So it struck me as interesting when I read a quote in an essay by Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, that ‘consciousness is not unlike Twitter – millions of mundane messages bouncing around, all shouting over one another, with only a few rising as trending topics’.

The same metaphor can be used for advertising campaigns. It’s not unlike a lottery ball machine: messages at different touchpoints, hoping to be picked, excitedly bouncing around and ricocheting off each other until, fortuitously, one is released and merits some attention.

Interestingly, streams of consciousness have been used in the ad industry for decades. Remember how mindmaps and word association charts are used in brainstorms to try and arrive at an unexpected yet relevant idea?

Now, more and more, the campaigns themselves are taking on the complexity and random associations of mindmap charts. In documented form, they almost read like a stream of consciousness in themselves: ‘tweet suggests response and gives search term for URL which provides secret code for email and Facebook group’.

It’s quick, immediate, spontaneous but yet all somehow connected. It just depends on how the audience interprets it and connects it all together.

So where will it all lead?

My expectation is that as the media landscape continues to fragment, campaigns will continue to evolve and become even more complicated, to be dipped in or out of at any time. Especially as intelligent use of data helps drive more insightful and personalised narratives.

Engagement research, too, will recognise that audiences hooking in and out at multiple touchpoints can be more powerful than dwell times spent in a single session. After all, there’s no way an audience could be expected to follow the narrative of a really complex campaign in a traditional linear fashion.

I’ll illustrate the point here using one of the most well-known of stream of consciousness works, Ulysses by James Joyce: 265,000 words in length, and made up from a lexicon of 30,030 words, and divided into eighteen episodes. Read in linear form, the associative leaps in syntax and punctuation make the prose extremely difficult to follow, and it quickly becomes unwieldy. That’s why many people advise reading it in bite-sized chunks.

Digital campaigns of the future, laid out in chart form, will be of similar labyrinthine complexity, and will require similar bursts of engagement to make sense.

When we developed campaigns for the launch of Xbox video game Batman: Arkham City and also Splinter Cell: Conviction for Ubisoft, this is the principle we used. We structured the narrative to unfold across dozens of touchpoints in earned media, but made it accessible enough for users to pick up the flow whenever they wanted. They could engage with the narrative on their own terms, becoming as immersed in the activity as they wished. (In many ways, the more complex the comms planning the simpler the individual touchpoints can be.)

But how complex can it all become?

Well, it’s believed that the human brain has up to 70,000 thoughts each day on average. So my guess is we’re only just scratching the surface.

James Joyce would be an excited man.