Foraging for Social Facts: How humans forage for information like animals forage for food

Last week I spent some time chatting with marketing students at a university networking event. Watching the students slowly consume advice from marketing professionals was a lot like watching cattle graze in a pasture; when one student found a tasty source of information, others would follow and cluster around the source.

This observation reminded me of some great research on how human beings forage for facts. Consuming information online may seem 'socially revolutionary,' but the underlying human motivations are far more 'evolutionary.' In fact, according to research, we forage for digital information in much the same way that animals forage for food.

How People Forage for Social Facts

In 1999, the psychologist Peter Pirolli published a study that looked at the human motivations behind information consumption. The study titled 'Information Foraging,' established a theory that "modern-day information foraging mechanisms may [parallel] food foraging mechanisms that evolved in our ancestors." In summary, the research provided three key findings on how we consume information:

Human beings hunt for information patches. Just like animals seek out an ideal patch of food, humans seek out ideal patches of information. For example, we use Facebook, LinkedIn or Google, because they help us to aggregate information into a valuable patch.

Human beings follow information scents. Just like animals use scent to find ideal patches of food, humans use social clues to find ideal patches of information. For example, we use Tweets, Likes or Links, because they help to signal the potential value of information.

Human beings are on an information diet. Just like animals are driven to find the maximum amount of food with the minimal output of energy, humans are motivated to find information whilst conserving time. For example, we prefer concise information sources that provide quick facts and data.

Planting your Information Patch

So how can you use this research to help ensure that people cluster and consume your content? Well in the same way my recent networking experience created an information patch for students, you need to plant  an information patch for consumers. To help you get started, here are three things worth considering:

1. Plant your information in a patch. Good information grows together, so you need to plant your information in online groups and communities that share your content interest.

2. Create information scent. Valuable content has a social scent, by highlighting brand affiliations, social credentials and content links, you can build information credibility.

3. Provide information on a diet. Informavores are fast-fact-eaters, so provide content summaries, data points and information implications to keep them grazing.