For the past couple of years content marketing has become a hot topic. So hot, in fact, that it’s one of the most talked about aspects of digital marketing (even though content marketing is older than your grandpa). This heightened popularity has led to many brands and marketers to take a stab at what they believed to be content marketing, but was in actuality nothing more than a factory churn of mostly meaningless words. Now, the industry is seeing a backlash because so much content has been released to the world only to die a long and quiet death in the dark corners of the unvisited internet.
That backlash is discussed in a piece written by Mark Schafer of BusinessesGrow.com titled Content Shock: Why Content Marketing is Not a Sustainable Strategy. In the article, Schafer says that more and more content is being pushed out by brands, and because of this we’ve reached a tipping point. Consumers, he posits, can’t possibly consume more content than they currently are, and therefore in order to be successful marketers need to stop investing in so much content. Shafer has morphed his original theory over the years, but I’ll only address the original article here.
Some things in the article I agree with. For example, Shaefer views content marketing investment as a way of “paying people to view your content” which makes a valid point. However, this article has been on my mind in the weeks following my time on the podcast Below The Fold, and I’ve mulled over some parts of his theory that I feel are flawed.
While it may feel like people are at their content consumption limit, they’re not, and history is backing me up.
When the very first advertisements flew on blimps across the sky, people said that the barrage of content couldn’t increase. When billboards went up, and then the internet opened up a whole new market, they said there was nowhere else to go. But, humanity has been wrong every time haven’t we? Today, it might feel as if we’ve reached a point of content shock where our content consumption can’t possibly go up. It’s felt that way for a century, and it will continue to feel that way. That does not mean that it’s true, however.
This cry has been a common theme for media analysts throughout the decades as well. After the spread of the printing press, some thought there were too many books and that they were simply becoming a distraction.
At the height of cable TV, the overconsumption of broadcast video and information overload became popular tropes in the media. With some articles suggesting that 40-50 channels was simply too much to watch and that viewers were suffering from “channelization.”
The fact is, we adapt. We learn how to consume more information as more becomes available. However, a big part of how we consume that information has to do with the way it’s presented. For example, audio and video allow us to consume information more efficiently than text. Imagine for a second how new technologies like 360 video, virtual reality, and augmented reality might be able to change the way we intake information in this age. The possibilities are endless, and as long as the content possibilities are endless, so are the possibilities for content marketing. My prediction: we are still a long way from content shock.
The main reason that this idea of information overload resonates so well with us is because the illusion of too much information is actually a symptom of lack of focus. New media are pushing out old media in the game for our attention, and because we hold onto old-world ideas about people who read books as being superior to people who watch TV, we desperately want to fight the battle on behalf of the old-media.
To a degree, almost all of marketing is content marketing.
Everything we create is content. It’s not limited to online articles, images, or videos. All of our marketing efforts touch some form of content. Radio ads, billboards, infographics, interactives--these are all content. Anything we create in order to relay information and incite action is content. There’s no way around it.
So, if you’re intent on marketing sticking around, you’re also a fan of continuing the creation of content. The solution is not to stop investing so much in content, instead it’s a strategy pivot. The solution that I see to this problem is to create better content. I’ll touch on this more later on.
The volume of content is growing, but don’t neglect decay, new users, and new platforms.
There are stats often brought up in these debates about how quickly the internet is growing, which state that there are 571 new websites and 68,000 blog posts created every minute. Those are pretty deceptive numbers though. Yes, the internet is growing, but those numbers include the kinds of sites that nobody sees. They include machine generated pages, archives, private pages, and the kinds of sites that call the seedy underbelly of the internet, “home.” Those less visible sites actually make up a pretty big portion of the internet.
So, using those statistics alone fails to acknowledge that information on the internet decays pretty quickly. Domains are registered but sites are never built. Blogs are started and abandoned like so many new year's resolutions. Content that was once thought to be great is replaced in the internet hive-mind by new content that’s better and more relevant. Content has a shelf life, which is great news for us marketers. It means that at any moment, if you position your content right, you can be king of the content hill. It just requires the ability to tell a good story and give your audience what they need, at the moment they need it.
It’s also important to remember that more and more people are hopping online each day. This is especially important if your strategy involves younger or international demographics, because your online audience is likely growing exponentially.
Finally, don’t forget about new platforms. While it’s more difficult to get noticed on Reddit now, that wasn’t the case a few years ago. Just like Digg before it, Reddit matured and became saturated. But Reddit will one day be old news as well, and there will be another platform on the rise.
You don’t always need more money to win, your competition probably isn’t that great at content marketing either.
Schafer’s article operates under the assumption that the amount of content is increasing at the same rate that the quality of that content is increasing, which just isn’t true. New platforms with big audiences open up on a regular basis, and not all content produced is quality.
As I addressed earlier, the amount of content produced is increasing, but not nearly at the same rate that some would have you believe. What’s even more important to understand is that content quality might not actually be increasing at all. In fact, on some platforms like Quora, many users believe quality is decreasing.
If you define “quality” as production value, how expensive (in dollars) something took to produce, or how much time something took to make, then perhaps “quality” is going up. But, in practice, quality has very little to do with things like resources spent or production value and has everything to do with storytelling and serving audience needs. One need only to reference past winners of the Doritos Crash The Super Bowl contest, Dollar Shave Club, or Paranormal Activity (which had a budget of $15,000 and ended up grossing $193 million) to see that you can create some pretty compelling content with far fewer resources and win.
People are searching hard for great content and often, they just can’t find it. Despite the fact that they’re literally surrounded by productions with famous celebrities, giant budgets, and oodles of production help, they invoke the words of the great Bruce Springsteen, “57 channels and nothin’ on.” In some markets, the audience is in a proverbial content desert, looking for their oasis and only able to find expensive, but unsatisfying rocks. So, a far cry from content shock, what people are actually yearning for is content they can actually use and enjoy.
You've got this
If your content doesn’t do well, it’s probably not because of an overload of content on the subject. It might be that the way you’ve presented your content isn’t meeting your users’ needs. There’s a steady stream of new platforms, new viewers, and new tactics. There’s also so many methods and tactics to get to know your audience and their needs more intimately. If you know your audience intimately, can tell a good story, and understand the inner workings of your targeted platform, it’s possible to create consistent, successful content with minimal investment. If you approach content in this way, your content has the power to make an impact-- even in this day of so-called content shock.