Tragedy of the Communications Commons

This is a simple story about how two departments of one firm can accidentally end up working against the firm's customers, and against the firm's own interest.

Our story will use outbound email as an example, but the same story can be applied to many areas – for example, internal management communications, or banner ads online.

We'll use a systems diagram to visualize the situation.

1) On the right side of the diagram, we assert that customers have a flexible but finite amount of attention they are willing to devote to their inbox. As their attention capacity increases, the results from any one email they receive also increases.

This is shown as the "S" at the end of the arrow – "S" means that as one variable changes the other one changes in the same direction. Increasing customer attention increases the results from any one email.

2) As the Customer Service department increases their outbound email, their results increase – and as their results increase it encourages them to email more.

This reinforcing feedback loop (R1), creates a virtuous (or sometimes, a vicious) cycle.

3) Similarly for the Marketing department, as they increase their campaign emails, their results also increase, which encourages their efforts. This is another reinforcing feedback loop (R2).

These reinforcing loops, R1 and R2, generally produce increasing returns for each of the offices individually, within limits.

4) As both departments increase their email, the total outbound email obviously increases. However, due to the customer's finite attention limit – and after some amount of time delay – increasing the total outbound email decreases the results from any one email.

These additional reinforcing loops (R3 and R4) produce decreasing returns for each department. This is shown by the "O" at the end of the arrows. Increasing the total emails eventually decreases the results from any one email.

5) As the results from individual emails decrease, it decreases the results for each department. These balancing feedback loops, B5 and B6, combine with the reinforcing loops (R1 and R2) to produce oscillating results for each of the offices.

If each department responds by sending more email, it will amplify the systemic effects significantly.

When you're planning email campaigns, make sure you consider the customer attention demands of increasing email activity, as well as the systemic effects of known or unknown activity by other departments.

Of course, customers receive email – and more generally, demands on their attention – from more than one company or department.

You can imagine how layering multiple systems like this will result in making customer attention a precious resource you want to focus and conserve.