Blog post

Wasted Words – Why Marketing Content Longer than 3 to 5 Items Does Not Work

By Hank Barnes | April 15, 2014 | 4 Comments


I’ve long been a believer in simplifying your story and finding the 2 or 3 things that matter most, emphasizing those and leaving the rest for more interactive discussions (e.g. when responding to questions from your prospect).   When I bring this up, most people generally agree that it is a good thing, but I still regularly see things like:

  • Feature Listings with dozens of features that are either uncategorized or grouped into 6 or more categories
  • “Company Differentiation” powerpoint charts with 7 to 10 items listed
  • Benefits pages with bullet after bullet of benefits—often too many to even count

All that extra stuff may be just wasted words—and there is research to prove it. Last week I was reading a blog post on the Business 2 Community site titled “How to Sell Complexity Beyond the Customer’s Capacity to Understand“.  It is a great post and it mentioned a research study that showed that (quoting from the article) “our limited short-term working memory that’s capable of remembering only 3-4 items of new information at a time.”


That stat came from a research study by Nelson Cowen title “The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working memory Capacity Limited, and Why?”  Cowen basically was able to prove that the central memory systems for adults can only handle a few chunks of new information.

So what happens if we throw a lot more at them?  Well, they either only remember 3 or 4 of them or, even worse, the information overload causes them to forget most, if not all of it.

So, there is scientific proof that too much detail will do more harm than good.

Are there exceptions to this?  I have not found research to indicate that, but I believe that once you have someone’s attention and they have allocated space in the brain for you, then you can build on that with more detail.

This is another case for the idea of Progressive Engagement, something I blogged about in early 2013.  At the time, I was recommending the approach due to short attention spans and the opportunity for distractions.  But, with this additional information, you need to take the approach regardless—it reflects the way people remember.

What is progressive engagement?  I think of it as telling people a little bit of information (now refined to be a maximum of 3 to 5 related things).   Make it compelling.  When they ask you to “tell them more”, you engage with additional detail.

This continues as long as the engagement interest is there.  If it wanes, back off and revisit where you were.  Rebuild interest and then continue.

Let’s face it, most technology products today are so robust and complex that it is impossible to narrow things down to only 3 to 5 things.  But you have to.   Find ways to group things into a higher level story—-add the details as your drill down, progressively providing more and more information.  While not easy, this is not impossible.

But it requires a great positioning foundation to have clarity of what matters most and why.  It also request flexibility—adapting your story based on the feedback and interests of the buyer.

So, what do you do now?  Review all of your existing materials.  Anywhere you see long lists, find ways to group and simplify.   If you list 8 or 10 benefits or differentiators, get rid of at least half of them.

Shoot to focus on no more than 3 things, but if you need to add 1 or 2 more, don’t agonize over that.  But don’t fall into the “just one more thing” trap and watch those focus items return to the long lists of the past.


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  • As Hank points out, it is critical to identify how the product or solution is different. This is not a list of feature and functions created internally and blessed with internal feedback. Typically, an organization creates a list Use Case Product Differentiation – Unique Holistic Comparative with internal resources — but to be impactful, it HAS to be validated by customers, prospects, analysts and influencers. In short, perception is reality. Internal thinking on the subject does not really matter if the external audience does not understand or value the message. Research has shown that approximately 15% of differentiation offered by B2B companies is actually recognized by customers to actually be true differentiation. There are usually three types of differentiation:

    Comparative – several competitors have addressed a challenge with different approaches and the merits of each approach can be debated.
    Holistic – an organization’s partner ecosystem provides the differentiation by building out a complete solution.
    Unique – the thing or things that one’s organization does that no other organization does. These have to be relevant, meaningful, impactful, as well as easily communicated by the sales team and understood by a customer.

    Depending on the specific situation, there may be a combination of these three types of differentiation used to communicate your product or solutions uniqueness. However, there has to be some unique differentiation for an organization to thrive long-term and enjoy sustained growth. The key is going to be for an organization to rally around the unique differentiation and build relevant assets for the sales and marketing teams to penetrate the market.

    Prospects must be targeted that “fit the profile”—i.e. those that will have a high propensity to purchase based as they value that unique differentiation. Plays should then be built for sales and marketing to execute in order to lead customers down a path of innovative thinking. Then, the value discussion can be based on differentiation and that will set your organization up to be the obvious choice.

  • Chandrashekar says:

    Hanks keep it simple reminds one of the proverb: Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember. Even with showing: you show people 10 different things, it still leads them to remembering just a few, then why not do some research and show them just those few. They will never forget them.Storifying the few is the best way to help one remember, recall and recite for more to remember the same.

  • The conundrum in your opening paragraph is very interesting and something that I come across fairly regularly while providing GTM solutions for IT companies. In my experience, there are several deep-rooted reasons for this typical behavior by tech vendors: (1) Belief that more is merrier (2) Feeling that if they put in 10 points, the prospect will read at least 3 of them (3) Fear of not putting their best foot forward by retaining only 3 points and leaving out 7 points out of a total of 10 points (4) Risk of alienating key team members whose points are skipped in this process. Marketers responsible for development of content might be clued in to consumer behavior. They might be open to learning from psychological studies and prune down content size. However, the same can’t be said of sales and C-Suite members who are respectively the internal customers and budget approvers for content. Therefore, this is a hard nut to crack. We try to resolve this conundrum by creating Marketable Items that individually restrict the content size but collectively convey the whole enchilada.