Is the enterprise still in content shock? A content marketing debate with a new twist

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 5, 2017
Are enterprises still in content shock? New data suggests that content saturation levels are a real problem. I revisit a classic debate, and explain why my advice to enterprises has shifted since 2014.

It seems like just yesterday that I asked, Are enterprises in content shock? But that was way back in 2014, back when diginomica still waved the noisy rattler of a media startup. Today, the debate on content shock - or overload - has ratcheted up again.

For enterprise marketers, the question of content overload is urgent. As CMOs put their content under an ROI microscope, they are sensibly asking: How much content should we be producing? And do readers really give a hoot amidst the noise?

My own views have changed dramatically since 2014. You can point the finger at two factors: attention deficits and the subscription audience imperative. But first, let's frame the debate.

Content shock puts content marketing under pressure

Credit for the "content shock" mantra goes to Mark Schaefer, whose January 2014 blog post, Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy, caused content marketing krishnas to blow a collective fuse. After sparking a whopping 75+ blogs, videos and podcast responses, Schaefer issued a six point rebuttal to his critics.

Schaefer defined content shock as follows:

Content Shock is the emerging marketing epoch defined when exponentially increasing volumes of content intersects our limited human capacity to consume it.

Schaefer argued that attention is subject to the laws of supply and demand like any other economic resource. Therefore, the economy of content is unsustainable; eventually we will have to pay readers to engage with us. By "pay," Schaefer means we'll have to spend more resources just to sustain existing attention levels - everything from paid placement to upping our content production spend.

Schaefer drew several stark conclusions:

  • Deep pockets win (even in niche markets)
  • The entry barriers have become dauntingly high (bootstrappers beware)
  • The cost-versus-benefits of content have become a serious question

Since Schaefer isn't enterprise-focused, I applied his critique to an enterprise audience. I was particularly interested in Schaefer's six point rebuttal; you can see my 2014 rundown here. Today, it's his sixth rebuttal that stands out. Content marketing advocates told Schaefer that:

Technology will help us overcome the consumption challenges of content shock.

Schaefer conceded on this one, but only to a point. Yes, new tech/mobile consumption options improve our ability to consume on the go (e.g. Alexa Flash Briefings), but eventually there are limits to what we can consume. We must eat and sleep. [In 2014, Schafer estimated we spend 11 hours a day consuming content, which some now estimate at 12 hours a day].

New data - content saturation affects social shares

So what have we learned? A guest post on Schaefer's blog, New Research Answers: Is Content Marketing Sustainable? mulls fresh data. Steve Rayson, Director, BuzzSumo, issues a sober take:

As Mark predicted, lowering the barrier of content creation to near-zero has contributed to an exponential rise in content production, making it more difficult than ever to gain attention and engagement.

To back it up, Rayson used BuzzSumo data on social shares and content volume across a bunch of industries/topics:

In essence, as the volume of content published increases, there is a fall in average engagement in terms of social sharing.

No surprise: bloated topics like content marketing and influencer marketing are seeing less social shares per piece as the topic becomes "saturated." BuzzSumo found similar patterns across all social networks, with some variations. Analyzing the Influencer Marketing topic, Rayson writes:

This decline in average engagement may be due to a number of reasons. For example, the volume of content may simply have saturated the market. Alternatively as more and more people jump on the bandwagon of influencer marketing the quality of the content may have declined, making people less likely to share articles. It’s probably a combination of factors. However, this chart is essentially exactly what Mark predicted would happen in a world of Content Shock.

Rayson found similar dynamics in tech-hype-overload topics like machine learning. For crypto-currency players, there is good news. Even with higher content volumes, the topic is early enough in the saturation cycle to support strong social sharing. Rayson concludes:

If you only start creating content after the topic has become popular or after content saturation, it will be increasingly hard to gain attention and engagement. In fact, it might not work at all.

How should enterprises respond to content saturation?

Rayson offers advice to companies based on this data. Here's my enterprisey response to a couple of them:

Quality plus promotion beats quantity

If you are entering a saturated content market you need to look at creating radically different and exceptional content. Less is more when it comes to content production.

MyPOV: Yes, though I believe this applies to all markets, saturated or not:

  1. Invest in quality content centered around themes.
  2. Wrap that content around events, webinars, slideshares, blog posts, videos and podcasts, multi-purposing content that is conceived by subject matter experts. Try to be exceptional and entertaining each time out, though sometimes informative and accessible gets the job done.
  3. Complete the content investment NOT by cranking out more pieces but by investing time/resources into social media and email distribution for each, as well as the possibility of paid campaigns and promotion through content partners.

Go where the experts are for your niche

In a saturated market you need to discover specific niches or networks where content is still gaining traction. We can see many examples where average shares are declining overall but rising on a specific network such as LinkedIn for content that is business focused.

MyPOV: Go where the conversations and experts are. For most enterprises, that's LinkedIn over Facebook, with obvious exceptions like retail and fashion. But there may be logic in creating a new niche, or serving an existing one better than anyone else. Often a vertical twist carries the day. There are thousands of webinars on content marketing. But how many are there on content marketing for connected manufacturers?

Attention disruption - another big content problem

But this advice isn't complete. Another risk has emerged. Attention been disrupted by distraction. In other words, it's not enough to gain attention anymore - you might quickly lose it again. My theory, supported mostly by anecdotal evidence:

  • People are much more likely to get interrupted in the midst of consumption, and forget to come back.
  • Consumers are less likely to initiate actions such as checking your home page in their browser. Yes, they might hop on mega-sites like Facebook, but consumers are increasingly notification-driven. If you're not in their notification stream, they might not see you until later. And if their notifications suck them in, they won't see you at all.
  • It's harder to develop a sustained conversation; we're too distracted. Detailed blog comments are an endangered species for most; some publishers have shut off blog commenting entirely. Just because someone shares your content socially doesn't mean they've read it - or truly engaged with your ideas. Most are casual, drive-by shares - a brute force metric marketers get way too excited about.

In a recent post, IBM's Vijay Vijayasankar described a change in his book reading habits:

This year I also noticed one more thing making reading harder for me. I started reading Satya Nadella’s auto biography and its not really a long read. I should have finished it in one day. Instead it took a week or so. The reason – every time I settle down to read, I want to put a song on my phone, check email, see the cricket score, play 2048 on my phone or something. It was ridiculously bad – and it took me a week to realize I can’t read a full book if my phone is anywhere close to me.

Vijayasankar solved this problem by quarantining his phone. But how many have the discipline to banish their phones?

Bank of England Economist Dan Nixon doubles down on the attention span problem in Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention? Nixon takes the issue well beyond the narrow concerns of content producers, asking if mobile distractions have become a serious impediment to corporate productivity. Citing research that we are distracted 50 percent of the time, Nixon asks:

Smartphone apps and newsfeeds are designed to constantly grab our attention. Could this be weighing down on productivity?

My take - audiences of subscribers are the best antidote

Content used to be about winning attention through search, social, or promotion. Now it's about keeping that attention, or converting that attention into an "action" before the visitor is distracted into another destination.

The best antidote to saturation/interruption is building an audience of subscribers. Those subscribers should take many forms, from opt-in email to iTunes to YouTube to social channels. And - if you can pull it off - app subscribers that welcome your notifications.

Content subscriptions were always important; now it's the deciding factor in your content marketing success - or not. By "subscribers," I'm not talking about the 1,000 unlucky souls your booth team scanned at the last trade show. I mean those who are rabid, or at least enthusiastic, about your content - and welcome your notifications. By opting in, they are saying, "I value your content enough for you to interrupt me."

And yes, it goes without saying that search still factors. It's still a crucial way to earn visitors who (hopefully) become subscribers (see Tom Foremski's Study: No Shortcuts From SEO — Old Web Dominates Google Search).

I've talked with Robert Rose about building audiences of subscribers. How you build up that subscriber base without bombarding people with constant/tedious sign-ups for bland newsletters is the next obstacle.

Focusing on subscription audiences is a smart corrective for marketers who are too narrowly focused on just reaching buyers - without reaching the network of folks around them, some of whom may never buy, but who impact buying decisions nonetheless.

And don't get me started on the benefits of (wisely) using subscriber data. No cure-alls here - but there's more to beating content shock than looking under rocks for under-served niches.

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