The 21st Century: A Cluttered Digital World

The 21st Century: A Cluttered Digital World

By: Ali Okailey
Marketing Specialist

Hoarding is a human tendency with the potential to expand our collective knowledge, yet the term is attached with an overwhelmingly negative stigma. The ‘typical hoarder’, of course, is locked in a constant state of dependency on their belongings, always protective of what they have and desperate to accumulate more. Despite this, our thirst to ‘hoard’ the non-physical – namely, knowledge and data – has been a massive boon for society.

When it comes to the digital world, hoarding treads a fine line between the two. In the positive sense, an abundance of online options means we have more products, more services, and more choice than ever before – whether it’s booking a holiday or choosing an insurance provider.

On the other hand, such a wealth of options has created clutter. And clutter is a sure-fire way to confuse consumers who place a large amount of – and perhaps naïve – faith in their online searches. A dilution of quality is unstoppable at this point, but there are solutions that can help quality providers stand out in a sea of hoarded offerings.

Where it all began

The practice of hoarding began in earnest during the First Agricultural Revolution – a time when human society was transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle into one centred around farming. These farmers would hoard various seasonal crops in anticipation of using them in the weeks, months and – in rare cases, or in times of serious drought – years ahead.

Somewhat ironically, rather than providing the farmers and their families with adequate food – and a livelihood – for a longer period, these mass stores of hoarded goods attracted unsavoury types and malicious raids from neighbouring villages. Such attacks heightened the chances of death and the spread of disease, and meant the farmers had less free time with their families than before their hoarding, as they needed to work tirelessly to salvage enough food to compensate for their plundered stock.

This is a cautionary tale, but one not taken to heart by companies in the digital world. Seeing the advent of the internet as a thriving and economically lavish marketplace, they flocked to it, spending mass portions of their marketing and advertising budgets on an as-yet-untapped resource.

And while initially rewarding for businesses that got in at the ground floor, today it must be met with increased caution. In a crowded market, start-ups and small businesses risk their livelihood if they pour money into promoting themselves without conducting adequate market research. With so many competing theories about what will and won’t work, it’s easy for industry newcomers to invest in the wrong strategies. So whether they are paying writers to publish more content, buying up exorbitant digital ad space – internet advertising will hit $8.69 billion by the end of 2018, making up 54% of the ad market – or paying strategy agencies to deliver monthly forecasts, there is information overload that must be parsed in order to sort the wheat from the chaff.

But with the proper due diligence, businesses can teach themselves how to function, and even thrive, in a digital market built by hoarders.

Is there such a thing as too much information?

When companies realised the internet was an arena in which they could advertise themselves for free, it substantially lowered the barrier to entry. Whereas before the online craze, these same organisations had to budget for advertising expenses – newspaper ads, TV spots, etc – now they were able to offer their products and services and even interact with existing and potential customers without spending a cent.

Blogs are perhaps the easiest platform to create and maintain. Why? Because any business or individual can self-publish whatever they want on their own website. There’s no set calendar for producing content, and neither is there a time limit on what topics will become successful. So a business could publish an evergreen article about their industry, and then several years down the track it gains traction – for whatever reason – and ends up earning them new clients with no advertising spend.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. In fact, most experts will tell you there are already too many blogs out there. That may be the case, but when you get blogging right, it can actually be a mechanism for continued success.

Good content will always win out

This overwhelming amount of information isn’t restricted to blogs. Social media posts, white papers, long-form articles – there is an oversupply of written content, but only a few key channels through which most internet users find it.

Consider that the vast majority of consumers only find what they’re looking for through the standard discovery funnels. Top of the pile is Google, where over 3.5 billion search queries are answered every day. Next are popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Then email lists, where users have subscribed to e-newsletters and updates that are relevant to their interests.

While this sounds like a lot of content, it pales in comparison to the amount of information online that cannot be found through these popular channels. In this way, it creates a winner-takes-all scenario – one in which most of the web traffic only goes to the most prominent content. In a perfect world this content would always be the best as well, but that’s not always the case.

The good news is that this information is free – for the most part. Of course the major media corporations have taken to barring their content behind paywalls, but that solution will only last so long. Smaller outlets are delivering equally if not more compelling content on the same topics, and the typical user will flock to free content over a site where they are forced to pay a monthly subscription.

It is true that as the amount of information online increases, a percentage of it will be ‘bad clutter’, or sub-par content. But there will also be relevant, timely and insightful information. And over time, that high-quality content will be more accessible.

Knowledge is free, but quality must be sought out

While the above is true – with free content becoming much more abundant over time – there is still a place for paid content, and businesses shouldn’t shy away from monetising their information. If the knowledge is useful and relevant – particularly to niche industries – there will always be a market of willing buyers.

Take Netflix, for example. Media consumers had long been crying out for an ad-free solution to high-quality media; at the same time, the Hollywood elite were fighting a losing battle against online piracy. Netflix filled the gap, and today online streaming is one of the hottest and most competitive markets.

It’s easy to assume that just because there are no ads, monetisation can’t work. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The rise of the ‘influencer’ means people are willing to pay for good content so long as it’s (a) provided by an authoritative industry figure or source, and (b) insightful enough to warrant the cost.

Similarly, many businesses are investigating the native advertising method. While still technically ‘advertising’, companies promote their products or services through sponsored posts. They serve to inform the reader while also carrying them through the sales funnel with a ‘soft’ advertising approach. One advocate for native advertising is “experiential storytelling platform” Apester, which in 2016 alone earned over a billion content shares from major media publications like The Huffington Post and The Telegraph.

The bottom line? For consumers, it’s that high-quality information is out there – if they know where to look. For businesses, it’s that there are alternatives – and hugely rewarding ones – to the standard ad-based model in order to monetise their information.

Changing economies

Such a massive transformation from the standard revenue models has seen new and exciting economies and partnerships emerge. For native advertising, traditional media corporations are working side by side with youthful, tech-driven start-ups. In the influencer market, there’s a new generation of experts who are earning a living solely from the information they provide to their online audience.

It’s this very human element of ‘advertising’ that is perhaps most surprising, particularly to the corporate giants of yesteryear who have spent years investing in programmatic ads and interruptive marketing – like pop-ups and banner ads – in order to sell their product or service.

Instead, the most successful businesses will be those that embrace these new revenue models and use them in a way that is ethical rather than intrusive. The modern consumer is savvy and quick to turn against any business that it sees as invading their online experience. It’s one reason why big newspapers have, for the most part, failed to fully adapt to the online world.

Big media is crumbling – can new media fill the gaps?

Old media’s stranglehold on distribution meant they could charge whatever they wanted for ads. But perhaps their biggest mistake was refusing to change their methods in the online arena. They wanted everything to stay the same – just delivering their information through a different (paid) platform. However, in a world where almost everything is free, that approach was never going to be sustainable, let alone profitable.

In this way, new media had – and still has – a leg-up on their old-media competitors. Forced to be lean with costs and aggressive with the content they deliver, the result was a culture of innovation. They needed to innovate in order to find new ways to not only survive against the media monoliths, but thrive.

Some adapted better than others – Buzzfeed, Vice and Gizmodo are some of the most popular media outlets among the younger generations. And in fairness to traditional outlets, publishers like News Corp did their due diligence and spent their advertising dollars wisely to turn resources like into the go-to news hub for everyday Australians.

As with all things related to online information, there must remain a constant vigilance. In an industry as fast-paced as online media, opinions can change in an instant. AOL, Yahoo!, MySpace, GeoCities, Digg, Netscape – all titans of industry at one time, and all-but-forgotten today. The rise of clutter is a clear problem, but perhaps a bigger threat is the issue of apathy.

The best way to slice through the clutter? Aesthetics

Not all businesses have aspirations to become market leaders online. Instead, they want to use the internet to deliver their products and services to their customer base, while also positioning themselves as thought leaders.

So for these typical organisations, how they can cut through the information clutter? What can they do – besides pouring their entire marketing budget into advertising – to reach their ideal audience? The answer will change every few years, but right now it’s all about visuals.

The wisest companies have already recognised the power of aesthetics. People are time-strapped and want to consume relevant information as quickly as possible. While a decade ago they may have been content to read a white paper from start to finish in their lunch hour, today they want to find that same information condensed into a two-minute video or a visually enticing infographic.

With social platforms like Facebook and Reddit also giving preference to these aesthetically pleasing forms of content, it feeds back into the winner-takes-all situation. That is, more people are likely to share easily consumable content like short videos, data visualisations and infographics.

More shares means more views, and that can quickly turn into viral content. How the company decides to leverage that popularity for new business is what truly makes the best information stand out from the clutter.

So long as there are hoarders, there will always be clutter. But that doesn’t mean businesses have to drown in the information overflow. By arming themselves with modern techniques and conducting industry-specific due diligence, businesses can navigate the swell of information and climb to the top of the pile.

Meta description: Humans are prone to hoarding, and that tendency has spilled into the digital world. Is there too much online clutter? And what can businesses do about it?