The Myth of ‘Content Shock’

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Content Marketing

Buffer has lost half of their social referral traffic in the past year. They’re not alone. The Top 30 publishers, over the past 6-months, have seen their traffic from Facebook decline by over 30%. The average piece of content shared to social media receives 8 or fewer shares and doesn’t earn a single domain link (the latter being important for Search Engine Optimization).

Some are saying that these trends are the fulfillment of a prediction by Mark Schaefer, who foretold that eventually there would be so much content available that online users would experience ‘Content Shock’, with so many content sources to choose from that it would become increasingly difficult for any one piece of content or one source of content to get widely noticed.

While Mister Schaefer was certainly onto something, the truth I believe is actually much simpler:

No, you are not losing referral traffic to your website because of ‘Content Shock’. There is no such thing. Nor is it down to algorithm changes beyond your control. You’re losing traffic because your content is “shockingly” uninteresting, uninspired, unoriginal, and unnecessary.

You are not losing traffic because of 'Content Shock'.Click To Tweet

This is a controversial statement, but before we discuss the issue further, let’s step back and start at the beginning: what is ‘Content Shock’, and why do so many people think it’s finally ‘happening’?

Content Shock is the flip-side of Content Marketing: with millions upon millions of websites, apps, and bloggers churning out content, any particular piece of content has less chance of getting attention, engagement, social shares, and high Search ranking.

This ‘problem’ is supposed to have become worse as a more-or-less direct result of algorithm changes by Google and Facebook, including Search penalties like Panda and Penguin, reduced reach for overly ‘promotional’ Facebook Posts, and an increased visibility for updates from your Facebook ‘Friends’.

The old strategies aren’t working as well anymore, and it didn’t take long for someone to realize that there is only one thing no social network, no search engine, no audience can punish or fail to reward: high quality content.  As a result, Content Marketing has succeeded Link Building, Keyword Stuffing, Social Commerce, and other now-less-safe-and-effective techniques of Search and Social marketing as the marketing buzzword du joure.

Remember, though: none of those previous tactics were inherently bad. The problem was the abuse of these strategies: buying links, building out lots of low quality links, stuffing in keywords like a Thanksgiving Turkey, using your Facebook Page as a Craigslist clone, etc…

Likewise, creating content isn’t a bad thing by any means. The problem isn’t the content itself, or even the total amount of content available, but rather the glut of very low, to at best mediocre, quality content being churned with increased frequency. As Robert Wilensky observed, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” He may not have been referring to ‘Content Shock’, but he might as well have been. More content marketing has increased the amount of content available online, but has done far less to raise its quality.

What should have been a market devoted only to producing content of the highest quality, has instead become a ‘long form content assembly line’, putting together and churning out enough words to please clients and The Almighty Algorithms, while devoid of any real sense of craftsmanship.

Some of this is a result of the incentives of the market itself: millions of companies and business owners are looking to invest in content marketing but often don’t know how to recognize a good deal from a waste of money. This is true, in fact, of internet marketing in general: clients rarely know what they need, or how to recognize it if they found it. This means a lot money is available requiring often little to no expertise or vetting on the part of the marketers and marketing firms to obtain.

Another factor is more basic: there are only just so many true content authorities, those who are able to consistently craft the sort of content and content strategies that invite engagement, shares, and high ranking, and which rise to the top like the cream of the crop even in an overcrowded content field. There are far more people whose content creation and marketing skills are mediocre at best than there are true craftsmen of the trade. This was always the case, there are just more amateurs in the field now.

Yet, the demand for great content isn’t subsiding, it’s growing. Like thirsty men staring at an ocean, the flood of low quality content has only increased the appetite of the masses for excellent content. For excellent content, there truly is no such creature as Content Shock, and in fact if anything, this type of content often benefits by contrast with low quality competition.

How, then, do we distinguish the sort of high quality content that search engines, social networks, and (most importantly) their users reward, from the growing industry of Cookie Cutter content strategies, as well as those ‘Content Creators’ whose estimate of their own abilities exceeds their actual level of talent, expertise, and commitment?

While there are no ‘Hard and Fast’ differences, there are a few signatures that tend to distinguish excellent content and content creators from the rest of the herd.

Excellent content shares five important hallmarks:

Excellent content shares five important hallmarks.Click To Tweet

1) Shows Deep Topical Authority

Excellent content demonstrates significant authority on the topic. The best way to know if a piece of content displays authority is, of course, to be an authority; it isn’t hard for a Family Lawyer to know if a blog piece about Family Law is hot air from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but the plumber, the auto repairman, the insurance agent pursuing a content marketing strategy should be equally diligent in vetting the authority of any content before approving it.

If you lack this authority yourself, don’t hesitate to seek the opinions of trusted authorities in the industry, and to do your own research. When in doubt, ask questions: a real authority will be able to give you clear and comprehensible answers.

At the same time, Content Creators themselves should commit to being authoritative in any and all of the topics they cover, whether they’re creating for clients or for themselves and their own followers. If you don’t understand Pediatric Medicine well enough to discuss it competently with an expert in the subject, for example, then don’t offer your services as a Content Marketer for Pediatric Medicine, or create that Pediatric Medicine Blog you’ve been thinking about, until you do.

The world of blogging and content marketing, unfortunately, is ripe with Instant Experts and Cookie Cutter content and content strategies. Every blogger with an opinion and a cause thinks they’re an authority, while template content and ‘content for content’s sake’ proliferate. Avoid these like the plague they are.

Rule of Thumb: Ask yourself, “Would an expert or authority in this topic respect this piece of content, even if they disagreed with it?”

2) Offers Real Value

Excellent content offers the reader/viewer/follower/etc… something of real value. This could be as intangible as teaching them something new, or offering them a new way of looking at things, or as practical as good advice for making purchases, investments, and other financial decisions, but the key is that they walk away feeling you’ve offered something of value, without demanding anything in return. (The key word here is ‘demand’: content can encourage people to subscribe/buy/invest in your company or whatever your marketing goals may be, but should never feel too ‘pushy’ about it).

I believe a negative example will best illustrate this principle: I recently encountered a piece of content, a blog post, from a storage warehouse company. This post none-too-subtly encouraged the reader to save all of the toys that belonged to their kids growing up, instead of throwing them away when the child gets older, just in case any of them become valuable Collector’s Items. Its purpose, which was to sell you storage space (of course), couldn’t have been more obvious had they drawn a big red arrow from the content to the Rent Storage Space Now! button.

At the same time, it offered the reader no real value, anymore than had it been a Cartoon Devil whispering bittersweet temptations in their ears. It also violated the first rule above: instead of demonstrating authority in the relevant topic of storage space, it disingenuously offered itself up instead as expert advice for preserving valuable Collector’s Items, and in the process it failed to demonstrate authority in either topic. It was content for content’s sake.

Rule of Thumb: Ask yourself, “What is this content giving the audience in exchange for the time they spent consuming it?”

3) Expresses Something Unique

Excellent content always expresses something unique. Pay no attention to the cynics who say “It’s all been said and done before…”, because a true content authority will always find ways to innovate on the topic. One of the biggest problems with the modern content glut, and which also affects ‘Early Movers’ whose content is now in decline in the face of the competition, is that much of it reads like a student’s hastily thrown-together book report: trying to change words or ideas around that have already been used elsewhere just enough to avoid charges of plagiarism.

I guarantee that today alone, hundreds of new blog posts will be written about ‘How To Get More Engagement on Twitter’, for example, and in general if you read only one or two of these, you will have learned everything to be found in the remaining hundreds… and tomorrow, when hundreds more are published, you will already know what they’re going to say. No matter how well you say the same thing countless others have said, it won’t make your content unique.

No matter how well you say the same thing as others, it won't make your content unique. Click To Tweet

Weep not for those who ‘got there first’ and are now seeing their traffic decline, either, because their ‘Early Mover Advantage’ only compensated for an equal lack on their part of anything unique to say. If it was so easy for newcomers to copy them later on, so that content consumers couldn’t arrive at a clear preference, then what they were offering probably wasn’t very unique to begin with.

4) Has A Unique and Distinctive Style

Excellent content has a unique and distinctive style to it, almost a ‘signature flavor’ so to speak. This is as true for Personal Authorities like Bloggers, as it is for Professional and Businesses Authorities, and even ‘Brand Voices’.

Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan (R.I.P.), for example, have both written works about Physics, but each one has a unique style not easily confused for the other or for any other authorities in their field. Someone sufficiently familiar with either person’s works would likely recognize a quote from either one that they’ve never even heard before, just from the style. Similarly, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola both sell colas and use content marketing to do this, but even at a casual glance most of their marketing materials can be distinguished, one-from-the-other.

A unique and distinctive style, in fact, is the last great qualitative barrier separating real people who design and create content and develop content marketing strategies, from clever content bots. Style is the ultimate Turing Test.

Style is the ultimate Turing Test.Click To Tweet

Of course, having a unique and distinctive style is only an advantage if that style is appealing, rather than off-putting (except, perhaps, in a niche like talk radio, where being off-putting can actually be beneficial), so keep that in mind.

Rule of Thumb: Ask yourself, “Is the style of this content unique and distinctive to me/us/our business/our brand/etc…? Would people familiar with our style recognize it even when they encounter new content from us, or if they encounter our content ‘Out of Context’?”

5) Is Authentic

Excellent content is highly authentic. By authentic, I don’t mean the marketing buzzword, which has lost all meaning, I mean the same thing as David Kutcher of Confluent Forms, who defines an authentic interaction as, “An interaction based on knowing the other person’s goals in doing/saying what they’re doing/saying, and accepting them at face value.”

To return to the example of the storage rental business and their blog post mentioned under #2, the biggest problem with that type of approach to content is that it feels inauthentic, because it is. If the point of your content is to sell something, then it should loudly and proudly proclaim it so, regardless that this may make Facebook, Google, or casual web browsers more likely to ignore, demote, and avoid it. Perhaps the most embarrassing trend in content marketing is the trend towards businesses pretending they’re not trying to sell you something with their content, when they clearly are.

A lot of content fails for this reason: its goal is clearly to achieve sales, subscribers, and other types of ‘conversion’ goals, yet it pretends to be “pure content” meant only to entertain, educate, or otherwise enrich its readers. Imagine if, halfway into the first act of a Shakespeare play, The Bard suddenly turned his work into a sales pitch for Crazy’s Ralph’s Discount Chariot Emporium, or asked the reader to subscribe to his newsletter, and you’ll see how absurd this approach is. People are not fooled as much as you may think they are by this tactic. In fact, you may only be fooling yourself.

Rule of Thumb: Ask yourself, “Are my goals in publishing and distributing this content clear both to me and to the audiences who may consume it?”

No, Everyone is NOT a Publisher Now!

No, Everyone is NOT a Publisher Now!Click To Tweet

If all of this sounds pretty complicated, it’s because it is complicated, or at least it isn’t exactly easy, as some marketers would make it out to be. Even major publishers like Popular Mechanics, which exercise careful control over the quality of the content they publish, still manage to produce a large volume of low quality, unoriginal, and uninspired content.

If even major publishers can’t consistently produce compelling, shareable, linkable content that goes viral on social media and ranks high in Search while pleasing their audiences, what chance does a business for whom publishing isn’t a core product have? And if publishers who maintain high standards of quality and authority are still losing traffic on average, how many Bloggers or other Personal Content Authorities can honestly deliver something better and get better results?

Very little, is the unfortunate but accurate answer to that question, and is the one answer far too few Content Marketers will honestly give. The most dangerous cliché of Content Marketing has it that “Everyone is a publisher now.” The idea is that, in order to attract traffic to your site or app, every site or app must now also be a consistent publisher of high quality content.

One of the classic examples of this would be Red Bull, a brand formerly known only for energy drinks but now known as a lifestyle brand, which now includes the creation, publishing, and distribution of high quality content, e.g. the Red Bulletin magazine. While Red Bull is certainly proof that a company not known for excellent content can become one, they’re also an anomaly.

Most businesses simply don’t have the time, resources, know-how, or even inclination to become a truly successful publisher of consistent, high quality content that is worthy of being shared, ranked, and consumed, irrespective of its effect on their core products and services.

For small businesses especially, the notion of building out a competitive content publishing and/or distribution platform just to drive more traffic into their conversion funnel is absurdly extravagant, like expecting a roadside greasy spoon diner to hire a gourmet chef and serve filet mignon.

Mister Schaefer predicted this rising gap between highly successful content publishers and everyone else, in fact, when he said that the barrier to entry (i.e. the associated costs and requirements) of a successful content marketing strategy would eventually bar most businesses entry to it, favoring those with deep pockets instead.  While not all content will require deep pockets to promote, a strategy built heavily on a foundation of content marketing will be harder to afford and achieve success with.

None of which is to say that content shouldn’t play a part in the conversion process for your business… it should!… but expecting such content to go viral or rank #1 on Google is (generally speaking) like expecting a Victoria’s Secret catalog to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list. Certainly that catalog helps drive sales, it might even be described as quality content by a certain standard, but it doesn’t make their company a publishing house by any means. Odds are, for most businesses, even this level of content quality will be unattainable.

So what is content marketing good for, if it likely won’t lead to social virality or high search ranking (though it probably won’t hurt)? The answer comes down to the very purpose of marketing in the first place: to help you achieve goals for your business, blog, or other endeavors. Therefore the best content, putting it frankly, is content that achieves these goals.  Even the most excellent content, however, cannot achieve goals that are at odds with each other. For most businesses, the goal of content will simply be to increase sales, not to become a new media company like Red Bull, and trying to do the latter will not help them to achieve the former.

While sales-oriented content and copy may not often be considered excellent content from a standpoint of Search Engine and Social Media Marketing, its success shouldn’t always be measured in those terms, either. Success in Content Marketing, as in every other venture, can only be defined in terms of your specific goals (which you must define in advance), and the effectiveness (or not) of any strategies pursued in the furtherance of these goals. In other words, and at the risk of oversimplification: your marketing strategy only works when it actually works.

There is no magic in sharing content, in itself, that will achieve this.

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.

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