Content shock re-visited, the content marketing myths and realities

content marketing myths

By Mark Schaefer

For the past few years I’ve been a contributor to The Harvard Business Review. I submit my very best article once a quarter or so, an editor reviews it, she suggests some minor modifications, and then it would be published.

Last week, I received a note from my editor that stabbed me in the heart:

Mark, this is an excellent article. A few years ago it certainly would be published. But today, I get so many more submissions that this one doesn’t make the cut. I’m afraid I can’t run this post because the competition is simply much greater now.

Some of this increased competition is coming from big company executives who compose articles crafted by a support team of writers and PR agencies. They realize that producing content is a great way to increase awareness for their agendas and brands. Perhaps they’ve read my book The Content Code, which articulates this very strategy.

I was incredibly disappointed my article didn’t make the cut. It was the most-researched post I had ever delivered to the publication and it took many hours of work.

I’m not giving up, at least for now. But to continue to compete in this crowded content channel, I’ll have to spend even more time to develop even better articles. Or maybe I’ll have to pay for a support team to help me with the research and writing if I want to keep up. In any event, the cost of producing this content is going to go up, up, up.

Maybe I’ll be able to compete, maybe not. If the personal and financial cost of producing articles for the HBR continues to rise and I keep getting rejected, I’ll have to drop out of the competition eventually. It won’t be a sustainable strategy for a little guy like me and the people with deep pockets will prevail.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. Content Shock is certainly here to stay.

Content Shock in large and small ways

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since I wrote the original article on this theme, projecting that for some businesses, content marketing would not be a long-term sustainable strategy … for the very reasons we can observe in this little case study.

In any human, natural, or economic system, when there’s too much supply and fixed demand, something has to give. In this case, the supply is content, the demand is consumption. When it gets to the point where it costs too much to compete, you’ve got to find something else to do.

Certainly this is no longer a theory. It’s happening everywhere before our eyes.

In 2011, if you did a great job with your content, audience, and engagement, the average brand could expect 26 percent organic reach on content posted on Facebook. Today that number is below 1 percent. Why? There’s simply too much stuff. Facebook explains that an average person could be exposed to more than 1,500 stories a day on the platform. That’s far too much content so they cut, cut, cut until it is a manageable news stream. Content Shock.

In terms of company content, Facebook is largely pay-to-play today (although there are many exceptions). The cost to compete is naturally going up due to the high amount of content on the channel.

Many reputable voices in our field have weighed in and said “yes, content shock is here” including BuzzSumo, Buffer, TopRank, Rand Fishkin of Moz, Christopher S. Penn of Shift Communications and many more.

Track Maven has reported on this extensively. In a recent post they noted that the output of content per brand increased 35% per channel in one year, but content engagement decreased by 17% in the same timeframe. Engagement dropped across all major social networks, and plummeted most on Pinterest.  They concluded that “For marketing teams, combating this will require more resources and more creativity.”

Analyst and entrepreneur Steve Rayson commented: “Whilst in earlier years it was possible that if you produced good content it would get found and shared, almost by virtue of its quality, this is no longer the case. There is now so much content that even producing great content is not enough. The bar is way higher. Popular sites with great content are also being affected by Content Shock.”

Allaying the fears of shock

In one of my college classes recently I talked about the classic view of content and “inbound” marketing. Theoretically, the most amazing, helpful, and useful content attracts high-potential customer leads that can be funneled into a nurturing program. Then in the last two hours of the class I talk about what’s really happening in the marketing world and how many current trends are killing this traditional inbound model.

One student literally had a panicked look on his face. “Oh great,” he said, “we want to create content and now you tell us it may not work as well any more. What do we do?”

Certainly this nothing to panic about. All of this is quite predictable. Social media marketing, mobile, content … it all works really well. And when something works really well, money is going to be poured into those channels until they burst.

Today, money is being plowed into content marketing at record levels even when companies know it isn’t working because they’re afraid not to.

These cycles of supply and demand are the way the world has always worked. And when it starts to work against you, it’s time to adjust. That’s business, folks.

The other thing to know is that Content Shock is not happening evenly everywhere. There are still lots of open holes out there. I’m currently working with a client in the healthcare field. Their competitors are asleep — hardly any digital presence at all. I think there’s a huge opportunity to create content strategically and aggressively. Essentially, the goal is to create Content Shock for your competitors. Content Shock IS the content marketing strategy.

There is no controversy

Many people referred to my original article as controversial. I didn’t see it that way then, and I don’t see it that way now.

My thinking on this topic was rational, based on simple economics — supply and demand. Economic models aren’t controversial. They’re math. They just are. Economics only becomes controversial when it runs against the prevailing wisdom that more content is the answer, that the best content will always rise to the top, that the key to business profitability is the arc of your story. I suppose that if you buy into those fantasies … well .. then yes, the common sense of Content Shock is controversial.

There is no controversy and there is no problem, quite frankly. Business evolves. The content marketing ideas that worked three years ago may not work now. That should be no surprise to any one, given the rapid rate of change in our business.

The challenge in all of this is to think critically and be aware of the changes in your business. Don’t keep doing something because that’s what you did last year. Consider new strategies focused not just on content but on content ignition — the economic value of content that is not seen and shared is zero. Consider the dramatic changes in content forms, distribution, and evolving roles of the social media platforms.

Content marketing is not just about creating a great blog post or video. It is a war for attention. Keep fighting.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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