By Joe Pulizzi published January 21, 2014

Content Shock: Worrisome Trend or Content Marketing Myth?

upset woman with laptopContent shock. If you follow the content marketing space, it’s a term you have likely come across recently as a result of Mark Schaefer’s blog post, Content Shock: Why Content Marketing is Not a Sustainable Strategy. While there has been much written in response (Robert Rose and I even discussed it in a recent podcast), there was one rebuttal that blew me away because it was so well thought-out and well-stated: Six Reasons There Will Be No Content Shock. 

I asked the author, Shel Holtz, if we could republish his post on CMI, as I think it’s exactly the kind of conversation we need to have to move the industry forward. Shel, you have my sincere appreciation of your thoughtful commentary on this topic. — Joe Pulizzi


The information overload soothsayers are at it again. This time, the warning comes from Mark Schaefer, the sharp-minded, forward-thinking executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. In a recent blog post that has gotten a lot of attention (206 comments, 263 Facebook shares, 509 tweets, 127 LinkedIn shares, and 323 plus-ones), Schaefer warns that we are about to be hit with “Content Shock,” which he defines as “The emerging marketing epoch defined when exponentially increasing volumes of content intersect our human capacity to consume it.”

The point, Schaefer says (and illustrates with a chart), is that content marketing is not a sustainable approach for most organizations. “Every human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume,” he writes:

“I believe as marketers, we have been lulled into a false sense of security thinking that this consumption trend will continue to rise without end. That is simply not possible. The Content Shock is coming and I believe we are beginning to enter the danger zone now.”

This isn’t an original concept. Edelman’s Chief Content Officer, Steve Rubel, called it “Attention Crash” in a column he wrote for AdAge more than six years ago.

There will be no Content Shock, which (let’s face it) is a new label for information overload. Here’s why:

Despite centuries of prediction, it hasn’t happened yet

If you think the notion of information overload was a product of the 20th century, think again. There are biblical references to information overload, and in the first century AD, Seneca the Elder worried that “the abundance of books is distraction.”

The invention of the printing press signaled a new technology that further heightened fears that too much content would surge into the hands of the common person, who was ill-equipped to deal with it. Some feared public education would fill children’s heads with more information than they could absorb, causing them more harm than good.

In fact, virtually every technological advance has brought with it accompanying fears of overload. According to Schaefer, this time it’s for real: “Recently, the introduction of mobile devices has untethered us from desks and even our homes, increasing the average amount of daily content consumption by Americans by two hours a day!”

No doubt, the next leap forward will include even more concerns that finally information overload has become a reality.

Research confirms it’s not an issue

In 2012, I wrote a post about a study from Northwestern University that found “very few Americans feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens.” Rather than overwhelming people, the amount of information available, “seems to make most people feel empowered and enthusiastic. People are able to get their news and information from a diverse set of sources and they seem to like having those options,” according to study author Eszter Hargittai, Associate Professor of Communication Studies.

Study participants who did feel overwhelmed tended to be those with low levels of online skills — those unable to navigate search engine results or filter through social media updates.

We are mainly consumers of niche content

A glance at a typical magazine stand — and I mean the print variety — demonstrates both the perception and the myth of information overload. From a distance, a magazine stand looks like an overwhelming glut of content. How could anybody be expected to read all that?

full rack of magazines

A closer look, however, reveals titles that only some people would want to read. If you have (or want) a ferret for a pet, you may well be interested in Modern Ferret. (At one point, there were two ferret-focused magazines; Ferret Magazine went online only in 2008.)

modern ferret magazine cover

Not interested in sports? You won’t read the many sports publications occupying an entire section of the rack. Don’t care about homemaking? Redbook, McCalls, and Good Housekeeping will never make their way to your coffee table.

Yet to read Schaefer’s prediction, you would think that everybody producing content is trying to reach everybody. While there is some popular content that appeals to the masses, most of what we read online is what appeals to us personally based on the work we do, our hobbies, and our interests.

So, while the overall volume of content will undoubtedly continue to explode, the amount of content about, say, solder flux and its various applications will remain manageable, regardless of how many manufacturers and others join companies like Indium, which has introduced reams of content into the marketplace.

Who reads posts with titles like “RDSON and Solder Volume Resistivity“? Not me, but I’m not a B2B buyer looking for this kind of information. Research from multiple sources confirms that B2B buyers start their journey with online research and already have accumulated a lot of information — including information about your company — by the time they visit your site or make contact with you.

The filters are improving

At a talk, lecturer and author Clay Shirky famously noted that the problem with finding the information you wanted wasn’t that there was too much information: “It’s filter failure,” he said.

The filters are getting better and better, though. While Schaefer worries that being untethered by mobile devices may be the straw that broke the content camel’s back, tools like Flipboard actually make it easier to find good material. Flipboard has also introduced magazines, which allows individuals to curate niche content. Want to know about social visual communication? Subscribe to my “Social, Visual” magazine.

Curation by the crowd takes a number of forms. Among those I use are Storify and Prismatic, which let me spend less time looking through more content, so I can devote the lion’s share of my attention to those items most aligned with my interests.

Simple social sharing via Facebook and Twitter is another form of curation. If I pay attention mostly to people who regularly share worthwhile content, and ignore those who share items that don’t satisfy me, the time I have available for content consumption will be well spent.

Which brings us to Schaefer’s report that people are spending two additional hours consuming content. This reminds me of fears voiced loudly by sociologists, psychologists, and other experts in the early days of the web, when people were rushing home from work to surf. (Remember surfing the web?) These experts predicted a society of people who spent their spare time bathed in the glow of their monitors, no longer capable of social interaction.

Of course, nobody rushes home to surf the web any more. That brief interlude was all about learning to navigate a hyperlinked environment, which was like nothing we had every experienced before. Once we figured it out, the web became more of a utility.

Today, with mobile devices and the introduction of filtering and curating tools, we’re figuring it out once again. But we’re clever creatures, we humans, and figure it out we will.

Great content rises to the top

One of Schaefer’s worries is that only those with vast sums of money to spend will win the content marketing wars, making the barriers to entry “impossibly high.” Yet I see no evidence that good content — even if it’s published just on a simple WordPress blog, a newer channel like Medium, or even LinkedIn or Google+ — won’t bubble to the surface.

A few years ago I got into a debate with author Lee Goldberg, who insisted that print-on-demand (POD) was just a synonym for the vanity press. At some point in our give-and-take, Goldberg insisted that if your book wasn’t picked up by a publisher, then it just wasn’t good enough.

My friend Terry Fallis couldn’t get a publisher for his book, The Best Laid Plans. He couldn’t even find an agent. So he read the book into a recorder and posted chapters as episodes of a podcast, then sold hard copies he produced via a POD publisher. The book went on to earn Terry the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. It was picked up by a publisher, as was a sequel and a new book. Currently, Canadians are watching a serialized dramatization of The Best Laid Plans on television.

There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts and millions of books. Yet Terry’s book rose from obscurity because it was quality content.

So it will be with other quality content. It only takes a few people raving to others for material content to spread.

That means (as SHIFT’s Christopher S. Penn has so aptly pointed out) that the simple act of publishing content won’t cut it.

It never has.

You’ll need to earn readership, which you can do through a solid PR plan to obtain “the endorsement of people, sites, brands, and properties who already have large audiences.” You can leverage existing fans and ambassadors. You can bring your own employees into the process, as companies like Sprint and PepsiCo do, asking them to share company content they think their own social networks would find interesting, informative, or entertaining.

We’re not done innovating

New channels for content will undoubtedly emerge. Native advertising — the insertion of paid content within the stream of a publisher’s original articles — is barely two years old. Companies are generating content using emergent tools like Vine and SnapChat, attracting large audiences.

As new channels and new tools and apps make their debuts, companies large and small will find ways to exploit them as vehicles for content people will want to read or view.

The economic model

To be fair, Schaefer is not only talking about information overload. He writes about the point at which it is no longer economically viable for a company to invest in content marketing. If he values his time at $100 an hour (a figure he chose for argument’s sake) and spent five hours per week creating content, he was essentially “paying” his readers — valued in time — to consume that content. If there’s so much content that the money he’s investing in content creation isn’t paying off, then he experiences Content Shock.

Commenters to Schaefer’s post took issue with this calculus, though. Brian Clark wrote, “If content (something people want) is doomed, then advertising (something people allegedly don’t want) should already be dead.” Robert Rose added notes that the cost to produce content hasn’t risen, only the cost to reach people with it. However, he also wrote, “It’s also much less expensive due to the ease by which we can now publish to publicly available channels.”

Ultimately, the equation is the same as it always has been: Quality content will win, regardless of how deep the pockets of the company producing it. That quality content will spread more quickly given the application of savvy social marketing techniques.

But the capacity for consuming content will continue unabated regardless of the amount of content available. For most people — as evidenced by the Northwestern study — it’s as simple as this: I can stand all the quality content you can throw at me, as long as it’s about the stuff I’m interested in.

Editor’s Note: The CMI team also sends a big Thank You to Mark Schaefer for inspiring great conversations like this about the practice of content marketing.

For more guidance on managing content marketing without overwhelming your audience, read “Epic Content Marketing,” by Joe Pulizzi.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Mark W. Schaefer

    Joe, I’m not sure if you saw my response to Shel’s post but I only think it is fair that you present the whole picture. In fact, I agree with most of what Shel says, because he is arguing this from the CONSUMER perspective. To a consumer, there are advantages to a flood of content and choices. But from the a business perspective, the implications of increased competition for attention are logical and undeniable. Here is my response to Shel:

    • Filip Galetic

      Exactly, although I think the debate is more relevant than ever, I feel that this arguments in this article don’t really address the crux of the matter that you wanted to convey. No matter how much the content is tailored, people still have only 24 hours a day to spend on activities, and content is competing not just with content about the same niche, neither with just the content about OTHER niches (as people typically have more than one interest), but also social activities, work, sport, hobbies and a multitude of other ways people spend their time. Even if people are happy with all the content about their interest you throw at them and don’t feel bogged down by the ever increasing amount of it thrown at them – and I would love to find out more about the study that purportedly shows this, as I believe that statement is part of a wider context and we don’t know anything about the study’s methodology – there is a certain point after which they can’t possibly consume more content than they are humanly capable of. And if each and every company, brand etc. jumps on the content marketing bandwagon – and let’s face it, as a fellow content marketer, I can say this is sort of the goal here, if only theoretical – there will simply – and quite quickly I sense – appear content fatigue.

      • Shel Holtz

        Filip, you’ll find my post about the study — including a link to it — here:

        The fear that people will have too much content to consume goes back literally thousands of years. Aristotle worried about it. It has recurred with the invention of the printing press, with the introduction of public schools, with the proliferation of newspapers, with the mass production of books, and with the introduction of the web. It’ll recur again in four or five years with the introduction of yet something else.

        No, not all content will be read, but that was true 100 years ago. On the other hand, if you produce what I want or need, and use innovative ways to help me find it, I’ll find it (or it will be shared with me). Increasing volumes of content will not stop that.

        Add to that the introduction of new channels (several organizations have already added the likes of Jelly and Betterific to their content marketing schemes), and you have the ability to generate information for people who have adopted these new tools.

        Incidentally, I developed a six-part interactive course on critical thinking for a client. It’s definitely something I apply to these situations. Critical thinking tells me that “We’ve NOW hit the point where there is diminishing return on content because of the volume of it” doesn’t stand up against overwhelming contrary evidence.

        • Brian Clark

          “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

          • Guest

            Thanks for the reply, Shel. I agree with you: content, if we use the term in its broader meaning, and its volume is not an issue at all. I’m all for the creation and storing of content that has inherent value and is passed on from generation to generation. The problem is when you link the content to economic values and that’s what the first blog post tried to say, using a somewhat bombastic (but effective) name Content Shock) for the phenomenon it tries to describe: if every company starts getting content out there, the success is almost exclusively reserved for the players with limitless budgets. In other words, not even “remarkable content” will be enough because money will play a big role in who gets their content consumed in the first place. E.g. Facebook has almost made it its mission to destroy its reputation as an effective marketing platform but the biggest global brands, who already have their own account managers sitting in Facebook offices anyway and get special attention. For the rest of us, it’s hard to justify a $150k budget for a Facebook ad campaign just to move a needle (mind you, this is just an example, of course a good strategy wouldn’t depend solely on Facebook, now more than ever).

          • Shel Holtz

            Guest, I don’t agree. First of all, Facebook isn’t the only venue for good content. Redi-Wipp (the dessert topping) did a great job on Betterific with a smaller audience but one that was more interested in offering genuine suggestions for both marketing and product improvements. As for Facebook, Upworthy didn’t have deep pockets when it launched, yet generated a ton of traffic on Facebook by taking a scientific approach to headline writing. The example I used in my initial post, Indium Corporation, quadrupled sales by simply producing blog posts that addressed issues and questions customers had. I could go on and on and on with techniques for getting attention for content that don’t require deep pockets, and examples from hundreds of organizations that succeeded without spending much money.

            As for Facebook, if companies enlist their engaged employees as ambassadors to share relevant content with friends and family, it’ll get amplified at no cost at all. There’s always a new technology, a new channel, or a new method that organizations can employ to get their messages where they want them to go.

            (By the way, did you read the piece — I can’t remember where I saw it — that said you can overcome Facebook’s algorithm and get your posts into News Feeds by simply adding more than one image to a post? There is always a way.)

          • Joe Pulizzi

            As @Robert_Rose says…”great content, uh, always finds a way”

          • Filip Galetic

            Sorry for the confusion, the guest was me, but I erroneously posted as a reply to the wrong person, then deleted the post and posted correctly, but the original post got stuck somehow. Oh joy.

            I have to say those are some good examples (even though I find Upworthy’s headlines irksomely formulaic). Also thanks for the tips on Facebook. A part of me wants to believe that this proves that content marketing done with same standards of quality can work for anyone, but another part of me wonders if these examples are outliers. In any case, it’s healthy to have a small dose of skepticism in any profession, and I believe, if anything, this whole discussion proves that content marketers are (becoming) mature enough to question some widely-accepted notions.

        • Shel Holtz

          Content volume ultimately isn’t a scaling issue. 50 years ago, when there were three networks, two local affiliates and one UHF station on my black-and-white TV in Los Angeles, there were too many commercials for everybody to see them all. Should Mad Men-era advertisers have given up on the idea of television as an advertising medium?

          In the Library at Alexandria, there was more than anybody could read. Should civilization have halted the production of content as a result?

          There has ALWAYS been more content than there is time to consume all of it. Always will be. It’s not an issue.

          • Filip Galetic

            Thank you for the reply, Shel. I agree with you: content, if we use the term in its broader meaning, and its volume is not an issue at all. I’m all for the creation and storing of content that has inherent value and is passed on from generation to generation. The problem is when you link the content to economic values and that’s what the first blog post tried to say, using a somewhat bombastic (but effective) name Content Shock) for the phenomenon it tries to describe: if every company starts getting content out there, the success is almost exclusively reserved for the players with limitless budgets. In other words, not even “remarkable content” will be enough because money will play a big role in who gets their content consumed in the first place. E.g. Facebook has almost made it its mission to destroy its reputation as an effective marketing platform but the biggest global brands, who already have their own account managers sitting in Facebook offices anyway and get special attention. For the rest of us, it’s hard to justify a $150k budget for a Facebook ad campaign just to move a needle (mind you, this is just an example, of course a good strategy wouldn’t depend solely on Facebook, now more than ever).

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Mark…yes, I would encourage everyone to read your response here as well. ( I think this kind of conversation is good for the entire content marketing community to think about. For the most part (as we have discussed), you and I are saying the same things…I just look at it more the way @JayBaer does –

      “When competition increases for ANYTHING (customers, attention, pizza sales, bird seed, real estate) smart players adapt and survive, and less-astute players continue to embrace the status quo and slowly dig their own graves.” (link to article here

      Overall, this sad fact remains – most marketers lack any kind of coherent content marketing strategy. There is a direct correlation between a strategy and content marketing effectiveness. My goal is to get more brand marketers to adopt some form of strategy. I truly hope this dialogue has helped them realize that.

      Thanks again Mark! See you in Sydney soon my friend.

    • RhondaHurwitz

      Lot’s of smart marketers are playing ostrich. The math is very simple.

      If there is a raffle with 100 tickets sold, you chances to “win” are 1/100. If
      1000 tickets are sold, it’s 1/1000.

      Time to consume even filtered content is finite. Number of eyeballs haven’t grown.

      For the content creator side, it gets harder to break thru with any specific piece of content, no matter how good your strategy or quality — the simple odds of getting seen go down, unless you happen to occupy a niche where the amount of content is not growing.

      It may not an issue in AGGREGATE — content is still useful — and
      consumers still value it … but for individual content producers, there has to be fallout from the volume of content that is vying for attention.

  • BewareoftheDoug

    The content was coming regardless of whether someone decided to christen it ‘content marketing.’ I think the far more interesting issue is the one raised by Godin the other day regarding menus. The real risk is what Godin pointed to the other day – namely, that we’ll dump the Internet menu and simply eat what Google, et al, tell us to eat (in part because we are overloaded by options and information). Precisely why merchandisers rearrange their shelves – we zero in on the same stuff over and over and become blind to the rest.

  • Phil Smith

    If I had owned website / blog URL called back when video cassettes were first introduced and someone commented that VHS was much superior I guess I would have written a post similar to the above. Although there is little doubt about the value of content, it (like so many other marketing techniques over the years) has become over hyped, over used and badly implemented. There is, in my humble opinion, a issue with overload and the challenge for everyone is sorting what is useful from the rest in the shortest possible time period. Personally, what I like to read is a reasoned debate but that is harder and harder to find in the printed (offline) world and almost impossible online.

  • Grannelle

    Well written article, and a solid argument. Content marketing is a logical evolutionary development, and while currently in it’s infancy, will be around for some time to come. Fears of “content shock” seem tantamount to worries of the sky falling, whether from a consumer or business perspective.

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Very well done Shel. I have had many “hallway conversations” at various conferences on this very subject. I tried to explain the point of view you have laid out so well here. Not only had content been generated for ages, but times keep changing. There are always new angles, new topics, different POVs, etc. The best will rise to the top. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

  • Carlos Abler

    Agreed. The “Content Shock” concept is abstract, contextually-absent marketing discourse opinion #503,345,234,005. More fatiguing than volumes of content, is volumes of “non-tent”. Volumes of de-contextualized, reductionistic, case-free concepts with a theory and an opinion bolted onto them that spin a lot of discussion but are only productive by accident. For example Shel’s article is an example of a correlative good outcome of the discussion, thanks Shel. But it’s unfortunate that it had to be written. One could write a book about all the flaws in that article. However, rather than focusing on de-bunking analytically hide-bound articles like Schaefer’s, the time would be better spent helping our customers achieve their needs and goals. Which is (ideally) the purpose of our content and our products and services that we market. And with that, I’m off do do just that.

  • Sarah O’Keefe

    Interesting article.

    I think that the argument might be better from the point of view of the content creator:

    The increasing amount of available information means that it is going to be more and more difficult for MY content to reach its intended audience. There will be increasing competition for my potential readers’ attention. This could be a disaster if my company relies on content marketing and fails to provide content that is awesome enough to deserve attention.

  • jaybaer

    Thanks for the plug Joe. Here’s how I see it. Yes, people will have to change the way they do content. But that’s not necessarily a “thing” worthy of a label, it’s just business. But it appears as though “Content Shock” is going to sell a ton of books (at least to professional marketers) so rock on!

  • Rebekah Paul

    I saw an article yesterday about how Denny’s is rocking it online in social media by acting like a teenager. I groaned. Why the hell do we care if our local Denny’s is interacting with people on social media to begin with? Who are these people interacting with a restaurant in this manner? Why do each and every friggin brand out there think they have to jump on the “voice” bandwagon with social media and content marketing? It’s just getting rediculous and the emphasis on it, while valuable for some brands, is inappropriate and downright silly for others.

  • Maddy M.

    I totally think that content shock it real. With a good marketing automation platform (such as SimplyCast) you can automate your marketing so the right people are seeing the right stuff at the right time.

  • Dave Link

    Love that you relate the concept of ‘content shock’ to the more commonly heard phrase of information overload. While it’s true that we can only consume so much content on an individual level, the increased ability to filter and search through the mountains of information to find our niche passions is something often overlooked. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • heidicohen


    Thank you for elevating this conversation to CMI.

    Also I’d like to give shout outs to Shel Holtz, Jay Baer, Christopher Penn, and Barry Feldman (who comically called it Content Shlock) for their contributions to this discussion.

    One of the major elements that Mark Schaffer and the others overlook is the fact that not all content is incremental. Done well content marketing transforms otherwise bland information into useful content. Think company communications, instructions, etc.

    BTW–I’d like to point out that no one has mentioned that Mark Schaffer mislabeled the axis on his chart. Time is always the x-axis. As a result, his graph is misrepresented.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen

  • Scott Frangos

    Great discussion all. Three words: positioning, niches, competition. When you consider those three, the “Content Shock” proposition becomes moot. It seems like the original notion of “Content Shock” — that there is a growing amount of Content which will reach the “too much” point soon — is based on the premise that consumers will feel a need to try to consume all content. They won’t. They will look for the top positioned leaders in the niche areas of interest, then periodically scan for competition with a fresh new angle.

    Mark Schaefer, at the epicenter of our shocking discussion, made a reply to Shel Holtz’s thoughtful reply above, in which he gave an analogy about a chicken restaurant losing ground to “brands with deep pockets who could out-gun and out-last” him. That’s competition in a niche, and the same rules apply in content marketing… right? Quick — name three providers of Content Marketing articles. In any niche, the average consumer can name the top three positions, then a few also rans. I don’t need to read 47 blogs on Content Marketing — I only need to determine the top three, read those, then consider a newcomer with fresh insight, or a “deep specialist” on say, Analytics, when needed. You know… I never did find time to read all the special periodicals in my college library, or even on the Barnes and Noble Magazine rack way back “in the day”, even though I wanted to. But I did sample and find the ones that served my needs (Opportunity: Digests). And yes, Mr. Schaefer, some content provides will go out of business — it’s an old story having to do with competition.

  • carmenhill

    Fantastic post. Thanks to Shel Holtz for writing it and to CMI/Joe Pulizzi for sharing it here. What’s amazing to me is how “Content Shock” almost instantly took hold as a new term for the old phenomenon of information overload! It’s not the first post written on the subject, but few others have had such an impact. So thanks to Mark Schaefer for that.

  • Adelita ashmi

    Absolutely, fantastic.

    Content Shock is king that’s well known..:)

  • Allen Graves

    I think this is just more of a reason to establish your name/brand as a thought leader in your industry as quickly as you can. As the amount of online content grows, it will undoubtedly be the bigger names/brands that will meet the least resistance. Hard work right now will definitely pay off as time goes by.

    This makes me wonder…what is going to happen to all this data? Will it be online literally forever? Will there eventually be some sort of mass Internet purge or perhaps a second parallel “archived” Internet?

  • Mark W. Schaefer

    There has been so much debate on this subject that I could not possibly respond to all posts and comments. So I wrapped up everything in one post which addresses all the major themes, including the ones posited here. To see a 360 degree view of the issues, I hope readers will look into explanation as well: