Content Overload

George Gunn, Content Strategist at The Leith Agency, explores what happens when we reach peak content.

Fifty-five years ago today, the BBC unveiled their grandiose new Television Centre. Sir Gerald Beadle, the BBC’s then Director of Television, proudly referred to it as the “Hollywood” of the small screen.

The multi-million pound West London complex, designed by renowned architect Graham Dawbarn CBE and built over six years, enjoyed virtually zero competition when it came to vying for viewers’ attention. ITV was in its infancy, whilst Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and, yes kids, the Internet were all generations away. With no serious competitors to worry about, Auntie Beeb regularly commanded the attention of tens of millions at a time.

This vast BBC ‘TV factory’ produced a mere 1,500 hours of television a year, i.e. just over 4 hours per day; a sum that now seems laughably quaint. Today, a handful of lone teenagers and 20-somethings in their bedrooms consistently produce higher volumes of video content — in a fraction of the time and for free. The most successful of these YouTube stars each enjoy hundreds of millions of views from tens of millions of subscribers. And, due to product placements and enabling advertising on their channels, they’re all impossibly minted.

Brighton-based Swede PewDiePie, whose videos consist of him literally just playing video games and commentating as he plays, has an estimated yearly income of up to $8.5 million (and this is after YouTube, i.e. Google, i.e. our new, digital, data-harvesting god/evil genius take their 45% cut). Yes: $8.5 million per annum for playing video games. He’s also undeniably very handsome too. Utter bastard.

No wonder he’s smiling.

While PewDiePie and a handful of other online sensations have huge and loyal audiences like the BBC of olde, the recent democratisation of content production, a by-product of the digital revolution, has allowed virtually everyone to unleash their creativity and broadcast it to the world. Electronica soothsayer Moby had the following to say about it in the excellent 2011 documentary “PressPausePlay”:

“In the olden days, of 30, 40, 50 years ago, people didn't make things. People would go to photography exhibits, people would go buy records, and there were professional artists. And now everybody’s a photographer, everybody’s a film maker, everybody’s a writer, everybody’s a musician.”

And they’re all putting their creations online.

Andrew Keen, self-proclaimed “controversial commentator on the digital revolution”, regards this state of affairs as an ‘unfortunate reality’. We've entered a grey age of culture, he says, which has inevitably resulted in a vast digital ocean of, at best, mediocrity. The lack of quality control means we now have to wade through zettabytes (there’s a word for you) of beige, needless and inane gumpf online in order to find good content.

Moby: artist. Everyone else: also artist.

“But wait a minute, George!” I hear you cry. “Surely this democratisation of content production and art is a good thing? Now it’s not just for the wealthy and connected. It’s grassroots, man. Anyone can have a go!”

That is true, and I wholeheartedly agree. However, consider this: if YouTube didn't exist we wouldn't have Justin Bieber.

Back to the point though, The Internet in Real-Time highlights the gazillions of pieces of content and data that are constantly being produced. Over a million Facebook posts were shared in the time it took me to write this sentence, for instance. Unfortunately, we can’t all command as much attention as PewDiePie (lucky, handsome bastard), the BBC circa 1960 or our almighty, data-hungry deity Google. So how is it possible to cut through this noise?

The answer is by having your content shared on a large scale. Commonly known as ‘going viral’.

Going viral. I want to talk about this phrase. A phrase that was once associated with disease, suffering and death has, somewhere along the line, become a highly desirable thing. Twenty years ago, proudly announcing “I've made my cats go viral” would result in a visit from the RSPCA and possible criminal charges. Saying it now brings social kudos and £250 from You've Been Framed!. I propose an industry-wide ban on its usage.

As a Strategist who works in digital, I'm often asked if I can help to make campaigns ‘do an ice bucket challenge’. At the risk of tendering my own P45 — well no, I can’t. Having analysed dozens of v***l campaigns, attended conferences and webinars and read numerous white papers, studies and blogs on the subject, I can quite confidently reveal that there is no magic formula that guarantees large-scale shareability.

Yes, I've found lots of interesting insights along the way. For instance, positive emotions such as awe, laughter and joy are the most popular emotions when it comes to sharing an article. Men, smirking away behind their keyboards, share content that makes them look funny. Women, who “demonstrate more overall emotional complexity” (Fractl’s words, not mine) when confronted with a v***l image, prefer to share ‘useful’ content. There’s a self-involved element: the things people share help them to make a strong statement about who they are. Etcetera.

Young people want to look funny when social sharing. Old folks like to tell a story and look good.

These are undeniably useful insights that can influence how a campaign takes shape. Plus, tools like Unruly’s ShareRank allow us to algorithmically improve the shareability of existing content. Ultimately, though, ours is an ideas game. All ideas require at least some creativity, and the greatest ideas tend to demand a lot of it. True creativity can’t simply be boiled down to a pseudo-scientific formula and reverse-engineered from a cheat sheet.

And even if there were such a magic formula, surely every advertiser would use it and we’d soon find ourselves in a paradoxical situation in which every piece of content produced was irresistibly shareable but simultaneously hidden in the noise. In this hypothetical scenario, only an über- v***l, divinely-produced campaign could possibly rise above. But, come to think of it, Google do make pretty good content.