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The Long Road to Content Shock

by Frank Strong

TopRank's Content Marketing Maturity Model

TopRank’s Content Marketing Maturity Model

Have we reached the limits of content marketing?  Is the birth of a trend just now starting to hit the mainstream destined to crash?

Mark Schaefer calls it “content shock,” which comes with an eloquent explanation that boils down to this:

This intersection of finite content consumption and rising content availability will create a tremor I call The Content Shock. In a situation where content supply is exponentially exploding while content demand is flat, we would predict that individuals, companies, and brands would have to “pay” consumers more and more just to get them to see the same amount of content.

His words stirred the crowds – to the tune of a couple thousand social shares and several hundred comments. It spawned several ideas manifested in the form of blog posts from bloggers like Chad Pollitt who wrote, Content Shock: Why Earned Media (Not Quality Content) Will Save Content Marketing.

The path forward?  Paid media.

In many ways I think Mark is right.  For example, as Facebook has ended what is perhaps the greatest free trial program in the world, the future of social media marketing appears as a path paved in payment.

Nuances that Economics can decipher

More than a decade ago, I enjoyed what was perhaps the best burger I had in a long while. It was big. It was greasy.  It dripped. You couldn’t eat it in a button down shirt without a follow-on trip to the drycleaners.

The restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall in a far less affluent region of Arlington, Virginia.  It was a sight to see – that so many people would stand in a long line and endure the chaos of a kitchen and counter staff in overdrive merely for a burger.

The competition was stiff.  Tom Brady might have missed Julian Edelman last Sunday, but he surely could hit the Wendy’s down the street from this location. Burger King and McDonalds were not much farther away. Yet the business grew dramatically and opened up several more stores. That burger joint is Five Guys and it has more than 1,000 locations today with 1,500 more under development.

The market for burgers is seemingly saturated, yet somehow Five Guys has managed to grow a thriving and rapidly growing business.

content marketing

For all the noise, “content marketing” — noted by the straight blue line at the bottom of this graph — is still but a distant blip on the radar among conventional marketing functions in Google search trends.

Content marketing saturation

Mark’s blog post came up for discussion with Joe Pulizzi and the gang at The Friday Hangout in a show titled after Joe’s book Epic Content Marketing. Joe’s analysis was that the market isn’t even close to content saturation – brands are just starting to get the hang of content marketing.

When we put this thinking into a framework, like TopRank’s content marketing maturity model, it becomes evident. In a separate show with the same crew, Lee Odden points out many brands are still in a “production” phase, where more is better.  It’s barely begun.

To borrow from Gartner’s Hype Cycle, the trough of content marketing disillusionment, is more likely to only exist among a small circle of thinkers who live and breathe content on a daily basis. When and if we reach a point of saturation, demand for content, like burgers will shift.  It will become more nuanced, the way that iTunes, as Chris Anderson points out in Free, has enabled independent music artists to gain a share of market at the expense of the big music companies.

Big brands may steal attention from entertainment formats. Small brands may steal attention from big brands with that passion to change the world and content without a registration landing page.  Buzzfeed will continue to publish mind-numbing nonsense, perhaps take a whack from Google over native ads, and still wind up with 10,000 social shares and a ton of traffic. As the aforementioned Chad Pollitt wrote:

Have you seen the content that goes viral on Facebook? The term “quality” is the last word you would think of to describe it. There are many industry-specific media outlets, websites and blogs out there with huge audiences that publish flimsy content.

The era of mass media is clearly over, which I think validates much of Mark’s point.  The New York Times isn’t a sole source of information anymore – those economics are quite clear – to the gain of many independent bloggers and to the dismay of many professional journalists.

I don’t think we can reasonably forecast how trends in content will shift – but we know that they will and the question becomes – how much attention do brands need to sell a product?  Is two minutes of time that used to belong to The New York Times enough? Then, how do we get it?  Can we make a better burger?

I’m confident we have a ways to go before we reach saturation levels: we’ve still got a long road to content shock.

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  • Content marketers are going to have to develop more refined content niches for the industry to survive. Even looking at the field now, there’s a lot of noise – lots of “me too” content. Too many sites simply parrot what larger, more established content marketing sites already cover. 
    Using Social Media Today as an example: how often do you see the same headline (more or less) repeated by different professionals over the course of a week? They’re all generic look-alike articles.

    Eventually, we’ll all be forced into niches. Might as well get there before everybody else does.

  • Blake Hall There’s definitely something to be said for niches. It leads to a successful long tail, which might mean less, but more qualified traffic.

  • You had me until the last line Frank. Just as I don;t think you can apply my idea evenly across every industry, you can’t apply a notion that this is a long way off to every industry either. For some companies it is happening today, for some companies it may be years. Otherwise, solid post. Thanks for continuing the discussion.

  • markwschaefer  You make yet another fair point, Mark.  For example, my last gig focused on the marketing sector and the competition was (and still is) quite extensive. There is a lot of noise, which makes those posts that are truly insightful especially valuable.  In my current role, in the legal world, the opportunity remains wide open.  There isn’t anyone doing it exceptional well in my opinion and a lot of the conversations center on issues the marketing industry debated 3-5 years ago.  For me it’s been an amazing case of déjà vu.  In any case, I think your post has triggered a healthy discussion.  As always you give me a lot to think about.  Thanks for stopping by.

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