The Fundamental Error in the Theory of Content Shock

under Content Strategy.

tidal waveI've argued against the cult of content in the past.

The most successful sites on the web have always been the Googles, the Facebooks, and the Amazons, never the Mashabless, HuffPos, or BuzzFeeds.

Content has never been "king," and it never will be, because content is not the core of most business models.

But today, I want to address the opposite side of the spectrum: the theory of "content shock."

The idea behind content shock was first proposed, or more likely popularized, by Mark Schaefer in January this year. His article was, in many ways, a much needed wake up call for those who preach content marketing above all else. To this day, I maintain that the most powerful force on the internet is the power of interactivity, built on the solid tripod of utilities, communities, and games.

But as much as I like the spirit of the article, there is a fundamental flaw in the logic of the theory, and I've reached a point where I feel like I need to address it.

Here it is.

A Faulty Conclusion

The fundamental idea of content shock is this:

"Content Shock: The emerging marketing epoch defined when exponentially increasing volumes of content intersect our limited human capacity to consume it."

In other words, if the amount of content continues to grow, and we only have so many hours in the day, the average visibility of each individual piece of content must decrease. There's nothing wrong with this statement. It's logically consistent. It's true, and it's happening as we speak, every day. But Mark jumps to conclusions that don't follow from this premise:

"1) Deep pockets win"

"2) The entry barriers become impossibly high"

"3) The cost-benefits flip"

Allow me to draw an analogy that clarifies why these conclusions don't follow at all from the basic premise.

"If the number of products on the market continues to grow, and we only have so much income, then the average amount of money spent on each type of product (in today's dollars) must drop." Okay, we're good so far. This is why old types of products get cheaper over time and/or gradually fade out of the marketplace.

Here's where things start to fall apart. None of these conclusions follow, and reality proves it everyday:

"1. Deep pockets win" Not true. Big businesses collapse under their own weight all the time, and new businesses emerge to replace them. "The average life expectancy of a multinational corporation-Fortune 500 or its equivalent-is between 40 and 50 years."

"2. The entry barriers become impossibly high" Wait, where did this come from? New businesses are started every day, and many of them are even bootstrapped without loans or venture capitalists to back them up.

"3. The cost-benefits flip" The idea that it actually stops being profitable to start a business is so bizarre on the face of it that it hardly deserves explanation. Nothing about our limited incomes and the increasing number of products on the market has ever challenged the basic profitability of business.

Where Things Went Wrong

It's easy to see that the arguments are wrong in the context of a growing number of products and a fixed income, but it's not so obvious in the content shock model.

The basic premise of the model is true. The average number of people who see the average piece of content has to go down if the amount of content keeps increasing, while the amount of time people spend consuming content approaches its fundamental limits. There's no way around that.

But this is misleading. The kinds of content that people choose to consume can and do change. Just as old products cost less and less, or fade out of the marketplace, old content gets viewed less and less. The same can be true for entire businesses, and even entire mediums.

Let's take another look at the conclusions listed above.

"Deep pockets win"

The fact that the average visibility of a piece of content has to go down does not, in any way, imply that the piece of content with the most dollars poured into it will be the most successful. Mark, of course, knows this, and addressed it in a followup post.

Mark's softer argument is that the company with the biggest budget will tend to beat the little guy, and that they certainly will, all things being equal. Of course, in the real world, nothing else is ever equal.

The problem with Mark's argument is that content marketing is, principally, about sharing ideas. And here's the problem. Big budgets don't create big ideas. In fact, they often hinder them. The science of incentives and creativity is actually very complicated. Dan Pink is often cited for pointing to scientific experiments where incentives actually hurt creativity. Dan is biased, and there are some studies suggesting that incentives can improve creativity if used correctly. At this point, it's not a good idea to make a judgement call here.

The real issue is that even if a carefully used incentive scheme can promote creativity, it doesn't really give deep pockets much of an advantage. When a lone wolf comes up with a big idea, no amount of money will change who came up with the idea first. (They could buy the idea, of course, but that's a different story.)

Big business is notorious for playing it safe. They are much more likely to invest their money in tested ideas than in innovative ones. The big business can create the flashier, bigger budget version of an existing idea, but by playing this strategy they will always be a step behind the innovator. There is a reason why the average Fortune 500 company has a lifespan of 40 or 50 years. Unless there is a fundamental shift in the way that businesses approach innovation, we can always expect the small innovator to find a place in the market by trying something new.

"The entry barriers become impossibly high"

Claiming that big companies can prevent small content marketers from getting into the game is like claiming that a tech startup will fail because Walmart is too big.

The principle error here is that content is all the same stuff. It isn't. There are as many different kinds of content as there are products on the market. When somebody has a new idea, the existing ideas don't hold it back.

Mark points out that big businesses can flood niches in the search engines and edge smaller competitors out. This is true. The number of existing high traffic search queries to target with beatable competition is finite, and shrinking. This is the reality of search engine optimization.

I have pointed out many times that content marketing does not equal search engine optimization. An idea that millions of people search for isn't the same as a new idea that could potentially change millions of people's lives. That is what content marketing is about. The idea of competition is meaningless to the innovator. The innovator has no competition. Their ideas are new. There are no barriers to entry. They are the first ones there.

"The cost-benefits flip"

There's not much to say here that I haven't already addressed. People can and do change where they get their information. People will abandon the big-budget version of something rehashed for the rough-cut version of something fresh and new. You do not need to spend more money than a multinational corporation in order to create something that they've never thought of. Finite time doesn't prevent small content marketers from building an audience any more than finite income prevents Five Guys Burgers and Fries from becoming a national chain despite the existence of McDonald's. This is not how the economy works.

The Fact is, it Still Needed to be Said

Despite all of my counterpoints, I'll acknowledge this: what Mark said needed to be said.

If your approach to content marketing is to produce as much as possible and to merely eat up the scraps of what's left in the Google Analytics Keyword Tool, content shock is a very real thing. If your approach is to take existing ideas and make them shinier, content shock is a very real thing.

The power of content marketing (hell, business in general) lies in new ideas. If that's where your focus is, content shock is a nuisance at worst.

Image credit: audi_insperation