Many in the online marketing and PR arena are abuzz about Mark Shaefer’s recent post on a concept he terms “content shock.” Its implications have the potential to impact the rookie content creator to the Fortune 50 CMO. After publication, his post was followed up quickly by Chris Penn, who added that content shock will force marketers to rely more on paid and earned media channels. Chris later published another article discussing the nuances of the content shock concept and the role of content quality.


What is content shock?

Content shock introduces basic economics into content marketing. There are a finite number of people in the world, and they can consume only so much content. And the content developed by marketers shows no signs of slowing down.

According to Mashable, 347 WordPress blog posts are published, 48 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded and 571 websites are launched every minute of every day. Those numbers continue to grow year over year.

According to this shock principle, this content deluge will force marketers who wish to succeed to create only the highest-quality content. For this to happen, the tangible and intangible costs of content creation will continue to rise over time and begin to create barriers to entry for some businesses in their respective industries.

Mark suggests that when content shock happens, it will have this impact:

  • Deep pockets win
  • The entry barriers become impossibly high
  • The cost-benefit will flip

It’s certainly plausible that content shock is a real phenomenon that marketers will encounter soon for many industries. This marketer definitely thinks it’s already here or will be here before long — with no question. However, its implications are nuanced and debatable.

Content distribution and promotion

Chris was right to evoke the power of both paid and earned media to add some color and hope to the implications. These channels are crucial for brands to reach the audiences their content is intended for. He explains that content shock will force marketers and PR professionals to converge the three media channels — owned, earned and paid.

The article “Content is King, but Distribution is Queen and She Wears the Pants” explains why only 36 percent of marketers in 2013 felt their content was effective and why content quality versus quantity is the wrong debate for becoming effective. Those marketers that felt their content was ineffective were likely relying exclusively on owned media and had no distribution or promotion strategy.

For help with developing your content distribution and promotion strategy download this newly published Content Distribution and Promotion Cheat Sheet.

The rising cost of producing content

Both Chris and Mark believe that the pressure from content shock will incrementally increase the tangible and intangible costs of creating and promoting content over time. Chris writes, “Mark makes the point that deep pockets will win the content marketing battle, to the extent that it can be won, and he’s correct.”

Chris also explains how the increasing number of media options has empowered consumers with the choice of not tolerating mediocre content. He uses the proliferation of cable television—moving from three stations to hundreds— to analogize the content development cost impact of content shock. Over time, consumers will congregate only around media of the highest quality (cost).

Content or audience problem?

Based on the aforementioned articles from both Chris and Mark, I feel comfortable writing that they believe this is fundamentally a content problem and that the solution to content shock is to create the highest-quality content and use earned and paid media channels to help distribute it. This is why marketers will need to have deep pockets.

On the surface, this seems reasonable as long as you believe that this is a content problem. I believe this is not a content problem, but an audience problem at its core. This fundamentally changes how marketers and PR professionals should view content shock.

Content is King, but Distribution is Queen and She Wears the Pants from Chad Pollitt

Every day, great content goes unconsumed on the Internet, and that has nothing to do with the quality (cost) of the content. Have you seen the content that goes viral on Facebook? The term “quality” is the last word you would think of to describe it. There are many industry-specific media outlets, websites and blogs out there with huge audiences that publish flimsy content.

Instead, it has to do with a brand’s or author’s exclusive reliance on owned media, lack of an audience and lack of a distribution strategy. Marcus Sheridan developed a concept he calls the Content Saturation Index (CSI). He explains that many industries are reaching or have reached their peak CSI.

At that point, it doesn’t matter how good a brand’s content is or how much they spend on it because the intended audience is already committed to consuming content on other websites. Where cost comes into play here is if a brand decides to use paid media for content distribution on the websites its intended audience is already committed to.

Relationships don’t cost a thang

One of the best ways authors can get their content in front of the right audience is to build real relationships with the media outlets their intended audience consumes — earning media. These relationships can result in many different kinds of content distribution opportunities:

– News Coverage
– Editorial Coverage
– Guest Blogging
– Syndication

Joe Chernov, outgoing content marketer of the year, writes about how to use content to earn these opportunities in his article on “hacked media.” Tangible costs associated with earning media occur only if a PR agency is hired. However, good content creators build relationships with their industry peers, editors, influencers and community managers and are afforded many earned media opportunities for free.

In these cases, content quality only needs to meet the standards of the media outlets pursued. As previously mentioned, most industries have plenty of media outlets with large audiences consuming flimsy content. They built up their audiences because they got into the game early when their industry’s CSI was low.

Entertainment vs. problem solving

People go to the web for only two reasons: to solve a problem or to be entertained. Chris’s view that, during content shock, consumers will only congregate around media of the highest quality (cost) works if the purpose of the content is entertainment. However, businesses are in the business of solving problems. Branded content doesn’t have to contain entertainment value, but the vast majority of it better be problem-solving. (Jay Baer discusses the implications of inherently useful (problem-solving) content in his New York Times best-selling book Youtility.)

This begs the question: What defines “quality” content? Well, if the purpose of the content is to solve a problem, then the highest-quality content is the content that solves a problem best, quickest and on-demand. Does that cost more to produce? Typically not.

It makes more sense to believe the audiences that brands want to get in front of will congregate around the media that does the best job at solving their problems and piquing their interests. That’s why the sites that built up their audiences with flimsy content early in the CSI game were able to keep them. Those sites have a track record of solving problems quickly, albeit with thin content.

The sites with large existing audiences create the signals that Google and the other search engines use to deem content worthy enough to serve up on the search engine results pages. This further insulates problem-solving, thin-content-producing websites with large audiences from user attrition over time.

Too many choices

Chris’s television channels analogy is compelling. However, television is 99 percent for entertainment purposes and not for solving problems. Even though there are hundreds of channels to choose from with cable, the Internet has a seemingly infinite number of media channels. Too many choices can make people fall back to what they already know and are comfortable with. This means that people will likely stay relatively loyal to many of the sites they consume today.

Ever go to a restaurant with a huge selection of meals on a 30-page menu? Are you likely to peruse everything to decide what you want? Not likely, because there are too many choices. Many diners would simply ask the server if they had a specific dish or not — a dish that person was already familiar with.

The fallout

The implications of content shock are very nuanced. Mark and Chris did an excellent job and displayed the utmost thought leadership in their articles. Overall, I agree with over 90 percent of what they wrote. It’s only the implications I don’t agree with completely.

If the above is correct, then the deepest pockets won’t necessarily be the only winners, and barriers to entry will exist only for brands that rely exclusively on owned media. Large and small brands alike that create problem-solving content and build real relationships with the popular websites in their respective industries will more than just survive content shock; they’ll flourish. And it won’t be because they had to spend more to create higher-quality content.