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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