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Ritson on content: clutter means you’re now a proper, grown-up marketing tool

Social & Digital

Ritson on content: clutter means you’re now a proper, grown-up marketing tool


A broader awareness of marketing fundamentals would help content marketers understand the nature of clutter and the fallacy that it can somehow be avoided, writes Mark  Ritson.

This article originally appeared in The Content Issue, our August/September issue of Marketing.


Content issue theme badgeWe’ll never know who actually invented advertising. We’d have to go back through time, back before the creation of Facebook ads, TV commercials and even radio soap opera advertising. We’d probably end up in a pre-Roman civilisation watching an inventive soul carving a message into a piece of stone about wine or horses or some other ancient attraction.

Alas that first advertiser’s name is lost to history. But I can accurately predict what happened next. About two days after our intrepid first advertiser pinned her tablet to the wall, a slightly less inventive citizen followed suit with his own carved message placed immediately next to the original ad.

The age of advertising had begun and, almost immediately after it, the problem of clutter. Clutter is the common term we use to describe the over-application of advertising messages to a particular medium. This over-application ultimately leads to lower effectiveness and can, in some cases, result in the medium itself becoming undermined.

Over time as the medium became more and more cluttered, the advertising messages became increasingly extrovert and annoying to stand out. Where once there were five billboards, there are now four moving video walls and a 3D maxi-screen. The marketing solution to clutter is to create more clutter and thereby make the clutter worse.

A great example of the growth and ultimate impact of clutter is the direct marketing industry. When Lester Wunderman invented direct marketing, pretty much single-handedly, in the post-WWII US, he had a clear vision of its potential advantages. Compared to mass marketing techniques like advertising, the new direct marketing industry would be aimed specifically at a particular consumer. It would use knowledge of his or her interests and hobbies to make the communication relevant and useful and, as a result, direct marketing messages would be welcomed by its target consumers.

Jump forward half a century and, of course, Wunderman’s vision has turned to piss. Rather than welcoming it, we abhor direct mail and telemarketing with a passion. So endemic is our hatred we call it ‘junk mail’ and actual bills and letters have to exclaim ‘REAL LETTER, DO NOT THROW OUT’ to avoid being binned with all the marketing missives we receive and immediately trash without opening.

Instead of targeted, useful mailings, we are all bombarded with offers for entirely irrelevant products and services because, provided 1% of the target group are interested, pissing off the other 99% of the audience still delivers very strong ROI for direct mail.

That may make direct marketing profitable, but it certainly does not sound anything like the vision offered by Wunderman in 1949. What began as a targeted, revolutionary marketing tool has been ruined by clutter.

And now we have the latest manifestation of marketing communications, and its own struggle with the threat of clutter. Content marketing is barely out of its tactical starting blocks and already many exponents are complaining about the increasing amount of content being created and the corresponding decline in audience impact. Every minute of the day a million pieces of content are shared on Facebook, 500,000 tweets are posted on Twitter and 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.

“You’ve probably noticed that it’s becoming rather difficult to make your content stand out from the digital noise,” author Ekaterina Walter recently observed.

“If you’re wondering what on earth is happening, here is your answer: people can only consume so much content at any given time. And there’s simply too much out there these days.”

The problem for content marketers is twofold. They have managed to convince themselves that they are not in the business of actually selling anything. but rather that they are specialists in the generation of content. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the general solution to the current clutter problem if you ask content marketers is… more content done in a better way.

This is very much like the argument that having had very bad plastic surgery transform your face into a doll-like representation of permanent surprise, your best bet is to find a different surgeon to have another a go at it. The answer to clutter is not more clutter done in a different way.

Be more targeted. Be more daring. Create content with more passion. Create content with more objectivity. Be less product-centric. Be more product-centric. There seems to be an unending and entirely contradictory corpus on what content marketers need to do to get their content to be seen and read. And none of it makes any sense.

Most content marketers reject the ‘traditional marketing approach’ as old hat and beneath them. That’s a shame because a broader awareness of the discipline of marketing would help content marketers understand the nature of clutter and the fallacy that it can be somehow avoided.

The hard, historical truth of all forms of marketing communication – from stone tablets in antiquity to the latest Instagram post about brand purpose – is that clutter is simply a signal that you have arrived.

Curse the clutter. Avoid the clutter. Write inane articles about how to avoid the clutter. But always remember that clutter means you are now a proper, grown-up marketing tool.


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Mark Ritson

Professor Mark Ritson is an internationally renowned marketing consultant and teaches marketing and brand management on MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, the University of Minnesota, Singapore Management University and Melbourne Business School. Tweet him at @markritson.

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