Six Arguments Against Content Shock


content shock dylan

Today, I am going to address some of the primary responses to my recent post on Content Shock. In case you missed it, the main premise of my post was this:

The amount of available content is exploding, our human capacity to absorb content is limited, which at some point creates an “economic” pressure on the system that will require adaptation and shifts from current marketing strategies. As this crunch intensifies and the cost to enter and compete in this field increases, content marketing as we know it may not be an economically viable option for some businesses.

This seems pretty straight-forward to me … it’s not rocket science and I’m certainly not the first writer to point out the economics of content saturation and consumer resistance to it.

dentsu 1For example, five years ago, one of the largest ad agencies in the world, Dentsu, published a book called The Dentsu Way which pointed to research showing how overwhelmed consumers were creating a “shell” around themselves to keep from being bombarded by content.

Adding more content makes it more difficult for all content to get through the consumer’s tightening system of filters. Content in some form will always be part of a marketing strategy. Content marketing is not dead or dying as some have suggested.

But as rational business professionals, we need to deal with “what is” not “what we wish for.” So my style is to put the issues on the table and look at what we need to do about it in a rational manner. The post elicited more than 350 comments, dozens of phone calls and emails, and at least 500 related blog posts, videos, and podcasts so far. The vast majority of the sentiment has been, “yes, I get it” and even most dissenters haven’t denied the basic economic scenario I presented.

To all who have contributed to the dialogue, I thank you so very much for the gift of time and intellectual rigor you brought to the discussion!

Addressing dissent

Although every single commenter and blogger deserves an individual response from me, I have a business to run and a family to love so I thought I would do my best to address the major themes of dissent I have gleaned from the blogosphere at one time, in one place. Please accept this as my best effort to respond to your wonderful input and comments. There are six main themes among the dissenting posts:

  1. Great content will always rise to the top
  2. It does not cost any more to create great content so the economic assumptions are wrong
  3. The impact of Content Shock does not matter if you have properly identified a niche market
  4. As long as people have a need or question, they will find and consume your helpful content no matter how much of it is in the marketplace
  5. “Deep pockets” do not matter in the content marketing space, which provides equal access to all
  6. Technology will help us overcome the consumption side of content shock 

Now, let’s examine the primary dissenting views:

1) Great content will always rise to the top

The dissenters argue that the economic pressures I described don’t matter because “Great content always rises to the top.” If you are working hard in the marketing trenches you have surely discovered by now that great content does not assure success. Content that rises to the top and is discovered through search is a result of a complex cocktail that includes:

  • Optimization for search
  • Author authority
  • Site authority
  • Social signals
  • Distribution channels (paid and otherwise)
  • Promotion (paid and otherwise)
  • Brand recognition
  • Keyword competition
  • Audience size
  • Personal search history
  • Geographic relevance

… and yes, content quality. Today, “amazing content” is simply the price of admission to get into the game. You have to execute on many fronts to cut through the world’s information density and be discovered.

One blog reader summed this up nicely: “The people who claim great content always rises to the top are already in a dominant market position. For those of us starting out, trying to scratch out a presence, it seems that no amount of work gets us noticed.”

Lots of wonderful content will never see the light of day because the site owners don’t have the budget, resources, or ability to work on these other success factors consistently. The increased economic pressures caused by overwhelming information density will exacerbate this challenge for some businesses.

2. It does not cost any more to create great content so the economic assumptions are wrong.

Some argued that if you are already creating content, it doesn’t require any additional investment to create great content that would withstand the economics of Content Shock. For argument’s sake, let’s say you are offering your customers a free lunch to get them into your store. You have even hired a person who is dedicated to cooking up delicious soup for your customers every day. Your customers love this. In fact they can’t get enough. Life is good.

But then your competitor wakes up and realizes the advantage of offering free food to attract customers and hires an entire team of chefs who begins preparing gourmet steaks, salads and desserts — all for free.

Suddenly, you find that your customer visits dramatically drop. Most customers have abandoned your modest buffet for the competitor’s gourmet offering. You turn to your talented soup maker and say, “Look what is happening! We no longer need you to produce soup. We need steaks and epic gourmet food! Starting tomorrow, please start making epic food.”

Can your soup maker compete with a team of chefs, or are you going to have to bring in more talent? And if you meet the competitor’s standard, what will happen if the competitor ups the game once again and begins offering free dinner too?

In this little example, we see that “being epic” in a competitive environment comes with a cost. As the content arms race heats up in that market, it will neither be free nor sustainable for all businesses.

By the way, this does not mean the soup maker is finished. He can find new markets for his soup, He can look for new ways to deliver his soup. He can re-package his soup so people can consume it in new places. But this we know — whatever the strategy, the status quo is not possible or he will just lose customers. If you are facing a possibility of content saturation in your market, you need to be thinking of ways to change the game.

3. The impact of Content Shock does not matter if you have properly identified a niche market

The idea of Content Shock is a macro trend that is not equally applied to every business and every industry. There are lots of other factors that will determine when, or if, a market begins to reach content saturation. This is why I carefully chose my words that Content Shock would impact “some businesses.”

If you are in a true niche where you have a monopoly due to high entry costs, protected intellectual property, or some other unbeatable advantage, congratulations. You don’t have to worry about Content Shock. In fact, you probably don’t have to worry about content marketing at all. If you are in a market where your competitor is asleep at the wheel and is not working on a content strategy, congratulations once again. Make hay while the sun shines. And oh yes … there are still a lot of businesses still asleep at the wheel!

So I agree, dominating a true niche is the ideal business situation and a legitimate antidote to Content Shock.

4. As long as people have a need or question, they will find and consume your helpful content no matter how much of it is in the marketplace

This is only true if you are the victor in the content marketing war. Here’s what I mean. In a response to Marcus Sheridan’s well-written post about Content Shock, I used his famous swimming pool success story as an example of the limitations to content marketing in a competitive environment.

In the market for pool installation in Northern Virginia, Sheridan’s competitors are already firmly in Content Shock. They may want to be as helpful as Marcus and answer every customer question through blog posts and videos but it’s too late — the market is already saturated with thousands of pieces of Sheridan’s wonderful content. The competitor’s content marketing strategy would not be sustainable — they will need to hunt for something else to do.

I’m not saying content could not play some role for these businesses, especially if they innovate into new forms, new platforms, etc. By definition, answering questions and being helpful with content is not technically a strategy because there are no significant entry barriers for competitors.

Theoretically, anybody with equal resources can copy you. UNLESS — You flood the market with so much quality content (like Marcus did) that it is not economically feasible for your competitors to be discovered. Ironically, the only true competitive advantage you can create through a content marketing strategy is the result of ramping up your output to the point of content saturation and CREATING Content Shock for your competitors. For successful content marketers like Marcus,

Content Shock is not the problem, it is the solution.

 5. “Deep pockets” don’t matter in the content marketing space, which provides equal access to all.

I argued that in a highly competitive market, companies with the biggest war chest and the most resources can eventually overwhelm smaller competitors. Dissenters argue that great content is not limited to big companies and in fact content marketing can even favor the nimble little guy.

Of course there are always exceptions in business and everyone can point to their favorite “David” beating a Goliath. But the economics of content marketing are straightforward: Create lots of great content that can be discovered by customers and potential customers. If you can saturate your market, all the better.

Those with more money generally are in the best position to create more and better content, as well as pay to have it promoted and distributed. Will they always win? No. All things be equal, will they usually kill off the smaller guys? Yes. History bears this out.

Any company, of any size, can carve a successful niche in the digital space — that’s one of the things I love about the social web! But I think as a general statement, and all things being equal, the company with the most resources will eventually dominate.

It’s this simple. If you wanted to be in the best position to win, would you choose to have more resources than your competitors or less?

I actually have a lot of ideas about how smaller competitors can outmaneuver the big guys but it is unrelated to budget. For example, I think a primary strategy would be for a small company to focus on emotional engagement that leads to loyalty instead of content volume and lead generation. In this case, a small company would usually have an advantage over a large company … but more on that in another blog post!

6. Technology will help us overcome the consumption side of content shock

Dissenters argue that people have been crying out that “the sky is falling” on information overload for years. They say that not only is there no problem, new technology will help us filter content better and enable even more consumption of content. I would like you to consider this chart.

Content consumption trends

Can you see two important trends here?

1) Indeed, every technological innovation creates a commensurate increase in content consumption — radio, TV, Internet.

2) The available hours of our day are filling with content. In fact, accounting for eight hours of sleep, in America, 18 of our possible 24 hours a day are already filled!

I do agree that technology will continue to push consumption upward, most notably wearable technology and augmented reality. But we are already consuming content an average of 10 hours a day (in America). What is the upper practical limit? 12 hours? 15?

I don’t know that answer. One of the points I made in the original post is that we have been lulled into a false sense of security because throughout our entire lives, the amount of content we consume has always gone up. So more, more, more content has not been too much of a problem because demand was increasing too.

I’m not sure I can get my head around an argument that contends that content consumption will continue to rise unabated. There is a limit. It’s true that improved content “filters” would help us focus on better and more relevant content.

But better filters will not create more hours in the day and, in fact, will hasten the decline for marginal content producers. So the “filter argument” actually reinforces the idea that the status quo is not sustainable for some businesses and the costs will go up for those who need to keep making it through ever-tightening filters.

A conclusion

If you have made it this far and actually read the entire post, thank you and congratulations … I’m sure you are in an elite minority!

I wanted to conclude with a quote from Facebook executive Richard Sim who stated in December why the reach on his platform (how much content gets viewed) for many brands is declining year by year: “On a given day, when the average person visits their News Feed, there are an average of 1,500 possible stories we can show. As a result, competition for each News Feed story is increasing. Pages will likely see changes in distribution resulting in a decline in organic reach.”

That is Content Shock.

How do we win in that environment? That is THE question for marketing professionals moving forward. This is not necessarily a time to be depressed or gloomy. This cycle of supply and demand has ruled every natural, human, and economic system from the beginning of time. It is what it is. Every business only thrives in the long-term by facing change head-on and adapting, adopting and innovating. I can’t wait to see what happens next. How about you?

Disclosures The Japanese company I mentioned, Dentsu, was a client of mine in 2013. The link to the book is an affiliate link. The blogger I mentioned by name, Marcus Sheridan, is a personal friend. The information in the graph was culled from a variety of places but some main sources include Global Web Index,, Carat, and Ross Dawson. Top illustration courtesy of Fan SIgn Generator.

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