To cut through the clutter, get to the point

The recent insurance company commercial that began with its ending may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it offered a valuable lesson about today’s marketing communications efforts.

That lesson is that it’s critical to present your most important message immediately and clearly, because you’ll rarely have the viewer or reader’s complete attention for the entire piece. You need to identify the message that matters most and make sure it’s memorable.

Okay, that isn’t entirely new. Smart marketers have known for decades that there’s value in identifying and driving home the most important point or benefit. It goes all the way back to the pre-“Mad Men” days, when legendary adman Rosser Reeves would identify what he called the unique selling proposition (or USP) for every client. What makes M&M candies unique? If your answer was that they melt in your mouth and not in your hands, you can thank Reeves for pounding that idea into your brain (along with many others that are still effective today).

The difference crops up in the way today’s viewers and readers consume media. Back when Reeves was plying his trade, the world moved at a more leisurely pace and media choices were very limited. People were accustomed to reading longer print ads or brochures, or to sitting through one- and two-minute television commercials. That allowed marketers to take their time and romance their target audiences.

Today’s reader or viewer is overwhelmed with an astounding number of media choices and channels, and absolutely pummeled with thousands of marketing messages every day. In fact, we’re exposed to so many messages that we notice fewer of them. As you visit your normal set of first-thing-in-the-morning websites, slow down and count the number of banner ads, pop-ups, sponsored links, and other messages you see. I promise that you’ll be amazed by the total.

The same thing has happened in movies and television. In the early 1980s, shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill Street Blues” were considered groundbreaking largely because of their intensity. But if you watch an episode of either show today, you’ll probably find it slow and plodding. That’s because the competition sped up in terms of energy and intensity. Directors cut from shot to shot more quickly, dialogue tends to be delivered in shorter bursts — even the background music throbs instead of soothes. The faster they feed it to us, the faster we want it.

So what does this mean for marketers? A generation ago, you may have had time to introduce your company or product by talking about the big picture, and then gradually working your way into what you had to offer.

For example, many companies still promote what they’re doing today by talking about the past. When you arrive at their websites, you have to wade through a paragraph or two that tells you about what used to be important. You may not even make it as far as what’s relevant to you before you click to someone else’s site.

Am I saying that pride in a corporate history is unimportant or useless? Not at all. It’s just important to the wrong people. It may mean a lot to the company’s founders, the executive team, or longtime employees who still remember the good old days. But it usually means nothing to the prospective customer who is comparing your business and what it offers to other companies. If your competitors provide relevant information right away, they’re going to capture those customers’ attention — along with their business.

Think of the opening paragraph on your website, in your brochure, or in your ad as your most valuable piece of real estate. What is the one thing you want a prospective customer to know about you? That’s what you need to put in that real estate. If you provide significantly better service than everyone else in your market, lead with that. If your product offers value that nobody else can touch, say that before you get into anything else.

Still want to share your company’s history or similar information? That’s fine, especially when it helps you create legitimacy among your target audience. Just put it somewhere where people who are interested can find it easily, such as in a link from the “About Us” page of your website.

Reserve what viewers and readers see first for what’s most important and most relevant to them. Avoid the temptation to use that first impression to deliver what you or the management team finds most interesting, unless you’re also the target audience.