Are enterprises audiences in content shock?

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed February 24, 2014
Is 'content shock' real for enterprise audiences? If so, then what are the implications?

'Content shock' is a nice eyeball-grabber - wish I had thought of it. But credit goes to blogger Mark Schaefer, whose January 6 blog post, Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy caused content marketing krishnas to blow their collective fuse.

More than 75 blog posts, videos and podcasts erupted, resulting in Schaefer issuing a six point rebuttal to his critics on January 27. I don't know if 'content shock' constitutes a meme or if it has elevated to glorified hashtag status. But I do know there are lessons here for enterprises and those marketing - err, I mean communicating - to enterprise audiences.

Disclosure: To avoid content shock of my own, I didn't read the 75 or so blog responses. I did listen to Mitch Joel's content shock podcast, where he moderated an instructive debate with Schaefer and Shel Holtz, one of Schaefer's most vocal critics.

Whenever I wade into the content marketing mainstream, I find ideas that are useful to enterprise audiences, and a load of schlock that is not. The questions remain:

  1. Is 'content shock' real for enterprise audiences?
  2. If so, what are the implications for content creators, producers and/or marketers?

The argument for content shock

Schaefer definition of content shock lays it out: "Content Shock is the emerging marketing epoch defined when exponentially increasing volumes of content intersects our limited human capacity to consume it."

He goes further, arguing that attention is subject to the laws of supply and demand like any other economic resource. Ergo: the economy of content is unsustainable; eventually we will have to pay our readers to engage with us.

Schaefer's definition of 'pay' is a liberal one that factors in the production costs of content from a labor standpoint on the part of the author, meaning that he has always been 'paying' for readers, but the cost of their attention is rising dramatically:

I know that you are under a barrage of distractions from increasingly amazing content. For me to simply maintain the “mindshare” I have with you today on this blog, I am going to have to create significantly better content, which of course will take significantly more time. I will have to 'pay' you at much higher rates just to keep the same number of readers in 2014 that I had in 2013.

From that launching point, Schaefer draws several stark conclusions:

  1. Deep pockets win (even in niche markets)
  2. The entry barriers become impossibly high (bootstrappers beware)
  3. The cost-benefits of content flip

The last point slams his argument home: 'The economics created by Content Shock will eventually drive force many content marketers to adjust their priorities and tactics.'

Schaefer makes a final point worth bookmarking: the pace of content shock will vary by niche and industry. He doesn't, however, thrown in the towel on content marketing. But he leaves us on a cliffhanger of sorts, promising to share further innovations in the months to follow.

How Schaefer answered his critics

Three weeks later, in Six Arguments Against Content Shock, Schaefer unloaded on his critics by refuting their arguments point by point:

1. Great content will always rise to the top.
Schaefer: not true, the reality is far more problematic, favoring those with a dominant market presence to push their content wares.
2.It does not cost any more to create great content so the economic assumptions are wrong.
Schaefer: not true. You have to spend to keep up with the caliber of content and amount of competitors.
3. The impact of Content Shock does not matter if you have properly identified a niche market.
Schaefer: wrong - most niches are already content-saturated.
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.
Schaefer: Depends on the market. If you have already cornered a market due to saturating it with great, search-dominant content, you are using 'content shock' to your advantage and creating barrier to entry for others.
5. “Deep pockets” do not matter in the content marketing space, which provides equal access to all.
Schaefer: Reality check - big fish tend to eat smaller ones.
6. Technology will help us overcome the consumption side of content shock
Schaefer: New tech and mobile consumption options improve our ability to consume on the go, but eventually there are limits to what we can consume. We must eat and sleep. (In case it wasn't obvious, I used my own wording to define Schaefer's positions).

To cap off his rebuttal piece, Schaefer also pulls in a quote from Facebook executive Richard Sim, who explains why Business Pages are having trouble breaking through the (revamped) Facebook newsfeed algorithm:

'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.

Is content shock relevant to the enterprise?

In a word, yes:

  • Competing for attention  forces a rethink of content strategy.
  • Most enterprise niches have reached content saturation, meaning that putting out so-so content in your industry and/or specialization is not going to work.
  • Content, or more broadly, social objects, is still a crucial way of engaging prospects and expanding community. But it needs a rethink.

Great content is not enough

By imploring enterprises to rise above mediocrity and create truly great content, I may have overstepped. If I implied that great content is enough, then Schaefer's content shock argument serves as a corrective.

As an enterprise news curator, I can verify that great enterprise content is frequently lost in social noise. Why? Schaefer breaks down the factors influencing content exposure, which include: 'optimization for search, author authority, site authority, social signals, distribution channels (paid and otherwise), promotion (paid and otherwise), brand recognition, keyword competition, audience size, and geographic relevance.'

For better or worse, we must add Olympic events, breaking news and updates on Justin Bieber's whereabouts to that list. Not to mention blog post titles, and monster trade shows that hijack social streams. Oh, and crummy winter storms that close airports. Attention can be fluky indeed.

How should enterprise content producers respond?

Content shock is more of a warning than an absolute state. To minimize the economic risks of content overload, I recommend:

  • Frame content around an industry expertise that builds over time.
  • Don't allow great content to slip through - repurpose it, package it into e-books, webinars, presentations.
  • Focus on turning your web site into an opt-in distribution platform that gives all your content a head start.
  • Don't let your format go stale: provide readers with multiple consumption options on any devices they might prefer, including visually-heavy presentations.
  • Experiment with multi-media.
  • Make it easy for your enterprise communities to create and share their own content - adopt open moderation policies that encourage frank conversations, thereby sustaining content pieces via comment debates and follow-on posts.
  • Don't give into viral sensationalism, but do experiment with narrative-driven formats. Tell stories, crack jokes, take a position, entertain. Loosen it up.
  • For attention, one outstanding post usually outweighs several decent ones. For most shops, quality over quantity is the way to proceed.
  • Compile unique data no one else has, and share it as openly as your business model allows.
  • Approach content not as a metric until itself, but as a way of building an industry network where your authority is respected and valued.
  • Matter deeply to the readers you care about. Don't sweat the trending topics on Yahoo.

With the right tactics, the downside of content overload can be minimized. But the questions Schaefer raises do require a reckoning. As Dennis Howlett wrote to me, 'The question comes - where's the balance between cost and impact? I don't think we know.'

That's a fair point. Each enterprise and each content producer must weigh the tradeoffs and figure it out.

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