In capitalism, few things are stable and agreed upon. Among them is the fragile relationship between supply and demand, and of course the goal is to increase the demand, to produce more, to sell more, and to eventually make more profit. It seems as if the same logic has been applied to content marketing: if you produce more content, you will generate more traffic and thereby increase your leads and sales. Or will you?
During the last couple of years, content marketing has been so effective, so successful and so high on everybody’s agenda that almost nobody seemed to question its longevity as a mechanism to benefit your SEO. However, as we tend to produce more and more content and hope to attract greater numbers of readers, we should ask ourselves: is there an increasing demand for (more) content in the first place? Or in other words: if content is king and we are all busy producing it, who is going to read our blog posts, articles and interviews?
By starting off with my notes on a seminal article on the future of content marketing, I will highlight the different scenarios content marketers have to expect from the next couple of years, and how to proactively prevent your business falling prey to the so-called “content shock”.
Content Shock much?
In early 2014, Mark Schaefer published a much-discussed article: “Content Shock: why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy”. In this post, he postulates the idea that the “intersection of finite content consumption and rising content availability will create a tremor: [which he calls] The Content Shock.”
The formula behind this is quite simple: the 24 hours in a day during which your audience could theoretically consume the content you provide will not increase. Your content however, does. This leaves us with a mismatch, or, as Schaefer rather dramatically calls it, a “content shock”. To put it differently: there is too much content for too few hours a day.
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Needless to say, the reactions to Schaefer’s post were quite extensive. Within the over 400 response blog posts, online marketers begged to differ, offered tips against content shock and generally discussed the possible outcome of this scenario. But maybe we should take a step back and contemplate on the actual consequences of content shock as Schaefer envisions it.
The myths, misconceptions and truths about content shock
If we are to believe that the beautiful world of content marketing is steering towards the edge of a cliff, what are the possible consequences for content marketers? According to Schaefer, three main changes will occur.
First, he predicts the triumph of big businesses over smaller content creators which will lead to the disappearance of low budget (not to be confused with low-quality) content.
Secondly, by overwhelming the market with content, big companies will create content shock for their smaller competitors and thereby prevent them from entering the market. (or at least make it hard for them to survive). Schaefer calls this the “shock and awe” method.
And thirdly – and in my opinion the most acute point for everybody in content marketing – content marketers will be forced to “pay” their readers more. This means they will have to spend more hours working on blog posts and articles to create good, nay “great” content, so that readers will flock to their sites. In a worst case scenario, content marketers will end up paying more than what they gain from their efforts (in creating leads and sales), which will make the cost-benefit ratio flip.
Who are the victims of content shock? Who are the winners?
Granted, all of Schaefer’s points seem to make sense. If you have a Google Alert set up to monitor what is happening in content marketing, you will probably receive about thirty e-mails a day, informing you of new articles published on the subject. At least that is the case with me. There can be no doubt about the fact, that the (content) market is close to being saturated.
Additionally, if we look at Schaefer’s second point and the example he brings on the disappearance of many low-budget, locally produced YouTube videos over the last couple of years, he does have a point in that companies with the biggest funds seem to eventually dominate (media) markets. A similar process applies to content marketing. Numerous big business blogs such as Hubspot or Moz.blog gradually seem to overtake the field of content marketing by providing well-written, well-researched and helpful content en masse.
So, let’s assume we take Schaefer’s prediction of a content shock (or an “information overload” as Joe Pulizzi prefers to call it) as gospel; who is going to be affected by it and who is going to be spared? To address this issue, Schaefer followed up his controversial blog post from January 2014 with “10 Strategies to Battle Content Shock”, in which he not only offered helpful counter-initiatives to fight content shock, but also put his concept into proportion by introducing two important points which might help content marketers sleep at night.
a) First, your business might not (yet) be affected by content shock due to several factors: the size of your niche, existing competitors, and the reputation of your brand/website. If, for example, your niche is very small and you are the dominating contributor to it, or if your website is already established and recognized as a producer of high-quality and trustable content, content shock might not be a problem for you.
b) Secondly, content shock could be something positive for you. If you are an early bird and your very own business ignites the content shock for your competitors, then it can be, obviously, an asset to your business.
How can we protect ourselves from “content shock”?
Despite Schaefer’s relativization, for those of us who feel content shock is on our doorsteps waiting to drag us down, it is crucial to note that we do not stand helpless before it. In fact, there are several ways to be prepared.
1. As I’ve already mentioned, businesses can flood the market with high-quality content to scare off competitors. In practice, this “shock and awe” strategy would mean that you would have to offer all the answers to possible questions your readers might come up with and be the number one site that Google refers to. By making it extra hard for your competitors to get their content read, you will increase your own visibility and actually flourish in the midst of content shock.
2. Another important point, Schaefer mentions is that we (bloggers, content marketers, companies, etc.) need to be more human if we want to survive. “Publish or Perish” might have been replaced by “Personalize or Perish”. In our increasingly impersonal society, human contact is a highly valuable currency. As cold and technical as the Internet may be, we can use it (in fact we are using it) to maintain and/or form personal relationships.
By deploying the different channels the web offers (blogs, videos, skype, forums, social media, etc.), we build up solid networks of business associates, Internet-colleagues, customers and audiences who complement our real-life relationships. It is crucial, however, that you do not simply create a “personal” blog profile, mentioning your favourite books and travel locations, but that you genuinely present yourself as a human being.
Being “human” on the internet includes:
- Personal and instant replies to blog comments and emails
- Semi-personal Twitter posts among your professional material
- Reasonable insight in your business, employees, mission statement, etc.
- Organization of online get-togethers, contests, etc.
What’s implied is that you will survive content shock due to the fact that people know you, trust you, and value your work (AKA your content). In other words, it is not really about content, but rather about interaction. Or as James Young puts it: “It’s discussions around topics, first planted by content and then continued by social media, that form relationships between brands and consumers.”
3. Finally, how would you react if I were to tell you that you can protect yourself against content shock with the help of “fun”? According to Schaefer (once more), fun is where it’s at in the years to come. What Sigmund Freud called the “pleasure principle” is nothing else than an intrinsic desire of the human psyche to experience pleasure, and, you might argue, fun. No doubt, content marketers should increasingly consider making use of this approach.
If your articles are entertaining, funny or unusual, people will probably read them because as humans, we are psychologically wired to seek pleasure above (almost) anything else. For instance, PennyStocks.lab’s Warren Buffett calculator (an app to compare your own annual income against that of one of the wealthiest men in the world) is clearly appealing to humans’ desire to have fun, while itself belonging to a mostly sober field: finances. The website received some substantial coverage and most of all generated a lot of traffic. So in the end, the unusual deployment of “fun content” paid off for PennyStocks.
But is fun the solve-all solution? Probably not. While for some businesses, it might be true that “fun” content is more likely to generate traffic (see for instance a site such as buzzfeed), there are other branches that do not take kindly to non-serious and too frivolous topics. So in the end, you want to make sure that your content marketing is not too far off your branch’s vernacular.
As these three points have proven, there are several ways to behave and adapt in order to prevent content shock from taking full effect. You can also go back to Mark Schaefer’s original post and try some of his other counter-measures. While not everything might work for your business, you might still find some inspirational suggestions among his tips.
So, what kind of content will get its food in the door?
If we know how to battle content shock (by being social, entertaining or simply by being the best content producer), the next step would be to ask ourselves what kind of content will most likely survive the information overload.
Personally, I find myself reading three types of content: helpful evergreen content (if I have a question about software, a technical device, a SEO strategy), up-to-date content (such as coverage of Google’s recent removal of author photos), and content that appeals to me professionally and/or personally.
The last category is probably the most opaque of all three, yet I believe that content marketers can attract a great number of readers if they make an effort to come up with something new, and add a twist to their tried-and-trusted posts. I recently screened many articles that offered an interesting/unorthodox change to traditional SEO and content marketing. They did so, by discussing (for example) the effects of posting a controversial blog post, or finding helpful cues for marketing agencies in the HBO series Game of Thrones. Articles such as these generate a lot of traffic, precisely because they are a bit off topic and provoke readers’ curiosity.
In light of content shock, it is crucial to note that there are still new audiences you should try reaching out to. Everybody who is working inside your field but has not heard of you yet is a potential new reader. If you haven’t attracted his or her attention so far, chances are that the topics you write about are not very appealing to this person. You can change this by stepping out of your comfort zone and address an issue, current event, or question you have not talked about yet.
You do not have to change the entire outline of your blog. Once you have the attention of a new reader, they will browse your blog and probably find something else that is also worth reading. Just like link bait, unusual content can present an opportunity to attract people that have previously not been aware of you.
As a side note, be careful not to overdo it on the off-topic or unorthodox content. Eventually, you want people to read your posts because you write about things they are interested in (and care about), not things they find amusing for a short while. The Game of Thrones article is actually a good example of how to combine both entertaining and informative content into a single text.
Key takeaways to fight content shock:
- Use content shock for your own ends by saturating the market with your content (provided you possess the time, expertise and man power)
- Be human, interact, form online relationships, show your readers more than your professional expertise
- Provide occasional fun content if it fits your niche
- Don’t overdo it with the controversial content: you want to lure people in with a catchy headline, not scare them away with too many shocking blog posts
- Either be the first or be the best (up-to-date coverage and/or high-quality evergreen content are your best friends)
Post-content shock dystopia or business as usual?
No matter, whether content shock is something you anticipate, experience at the moment, look forward to, or dismiss as nothing more than fear mongering, the post-content shock dystopia will most likely remain a nightmare in our heads. Joe Pulizzi, for instance, composed an elaborate response to Schaefer’s article in January, explaining why, in his opinion, there will be no content shock. Or at least not in the way Schaefer predicts it.
On the one hand, it hardly comes as a surprise that Joe Pulizzi negates the existence of an oncoming information overload since the founder of the Content Marketing Institute describes himself as a “content marketing evangelist”. On the other hand, however, most of Pulizzi’s arguments do make sense. Predictions of a content shock are as old as information has been available to humans, in fact reaching back to Seneca the Elder who warned against the distraction of books in the first century AD. Moreover, research shows that consumers actually feel empowered by the variety of choice, and most of all: not every piece of content aims to appeal to everybody, which is why niche-content is still highly sought after.
Additionally, users (and the devices they depend on) are getting better and better at filtering content to find exactly what they are looking for. Last but not least, the time and therefore the invested money to produce excellent content might have risen, yet the ways with which to distribute our content are as low-cost as never before.
“The key is that you and I are talking. The content is merely an excuse to spend time getting to know each other.” – Justin Locke
In the end, content marketing will most likely change in terms of its priorities: from great content to great interactions. Really putting the “interact” in the “Internet”. Online marketers can argue about content shock all they want. Eventually, it does not matter if it’s going to happen or not, but instead how we are going to deal with the changes online marketing will inevitably present us with.