We’ve all heard the cries and lamentations echoing through the online world. There’s too much content! Content mills are killing the writing profession! It’s impossible to find decent articles, blogs, etc anymore!
Sometimes these dire pronouncements seem accurate, or at least prophetic. There is a lot of content out there, and most of it is arguably low-quality.
Whether you’re tired of reading the same contrived, regurgitated blog posts via promising Pinterest links or you’ve simply grown weary of headlines promising one thing and delivering another, looking for something worth consuming can feel like a true needle-in-the-haystack proposition these days.
So, what’s the story? How did we get here, and where is the online content world going?
A Brief Word On Content Itself. You Know, That ”Stuff” Everyone Talks About.
This piece would be useless without a note on what people actually mean when they’re talking about “content.” It’s a very catchall term, and so it is often left to float unanchored in thought-pieces and marketing advice columns.
There are some helpful discussions about the term out there, such as this from Lee Oden (a well-known SEO and content marketing expert). As he points out, “content is many things to many different people.”
Kim Moutsos of the Content Marketing Institute summed it up this way:
“Information is data in context, and content is contextual data created for people.”
Kind of wordy, right? What she’s saying, essentially, is that content is information — data in a useful context; as in, already packaged and ready to communicate — shared in a way that appeals to those absorbing the information.
These eager sponges might be reading, watching, listening, or astral-projecting, but the point is that they are using what we call content to acquire information in one way or another.
This narrows things down…marginally. Content must be a vehicle for genuine communication — that’s what the transfer of information is, in essence.
- As a content creator, the idea is to bring info to people in an engaging, valuable, and skilled way.
- As a content consumer, the goal is to find information that can be taken in easily and pleasurably.
This is still too broad a definition, but what matters to you is the genuine part. There has to be more to information than advertising or “puff.” It needs substance.
For now, just remember this:
Every time you read a post about a topic of interest, listen to a podcast about your hobby or industry, watch a youtube channel run by an expert in their field, or look over an infographic explaining a concept you’d like to be educated on…you are consuming content.
Why is content a problem, then?
Well, it isn’t — at least not by itself. The problem is how the definition has been seized and abused in the past few years, and how that abuse impacts everybody’s ability to get their own content consumed.
The Issue With Content Marketing — A.K.A. “Those Darn Capitalists Are At It Again!”
Those of us who inhabit the marketing industry are an enthusiastic group, especially when it comes to big ideas and “the next strategy for ROI.”
That’s return on investment, for the uninitiated.
As someone who makes a living by crafting content for the benefit of others, I would definitely count myself as one of these eager beavers who’s always on the hunt for high-quality wood to sell.
And if content is the transfer of information, marketing is the use of that information to promote, sell, or share something with potential consumers.
For all the negative things associated with marketing — think sketchy used-car sales pitches — there’s nothing inherently problematic with it. If you’re reading this as a business owner or brand-voice, you likely agree.
After all, people want things. They want services. They want to find those things and services, and they want to do so in a way that helps them make a good choice about where they spend their money, time, and energy.
Marketing is simply the vehicle by which the providers of things and services reach you, the person who is likely to be interested in said offering.
Simple, right? And yet…
There’s something missing. People don’t merely want to buy things or services. They want to fix something. They want to improve something.
Or, sometimes, they just want to learn more about a particular topic so they can make a good choice when it does come time to purchase goods or services.
To make a long, untraceable story brief, someone got the basic gist of this…and stopped there.
People, often well-meaning entrepreneurs or brand strategists, thought that if they could just produce enough content that seemed to meet these wants and needs, they’d “win” the content game and see huge ROI.
So, the doors burst open, allowing in techniques that run the gamut from “advertorials” (articles that presumably convey valuable info, but which are also intended to promote something) to “influencer” partnerships.
Suddenly bloggers, youtube gurus, social media aficionados, and everyone else (and their uncle, too) were in the game. And the general philosophy was that the more content you produce as a marketing entity, the more buyers you will reach, resulting in more sales. A lot more.
For a while, the results seemed to support this. Plenty of people made a TON of money off of content marketing. More and more companies wanted to get in on the “game,” and that means they wanted to pump out tons and tons of content and let it loose into the digital world.
If you throw enough darts, you’re bound to see a few hit the mark, right?
It Turns Out Content Isn’t A “Game,” And Neither Is Creating It: A.K.A. An Age-Old Lesson In Quantity vs. Quality.
If only marketing enthusiasts’ eagerness had matched our ability to slow down and ponder the long-term implications of volume-based strategies.
People don’t live in a vacuum — who knew? And if they are bombarded with thinly-veiled, poorly made, cheap content, it turns out they’ll quickly adapt and let that content’s message roll right off their backs without giving it a second glance. People are very good at turning anything they consider low-value into background noise.
That’s exactly what they started to do (en masse) with most brands’ content.
In their typical fury for maximizing profit for the absolute smallest investment, many companies did exactly what they always tend to do. They cut corners. They were looking for content, all right, but that’s all they were looking for.
Their parameters weren’t defined beyond the absolute basics (perceived value-to-return ratios), which left a ton of room for the bare-minimum of quality when it came to what they were publishing.
Since anyone can publish on the web, anyone could now get paid to produce content for the Cheapy McCheapsters of the business world.
Hey, I’m not judging — we all want to get the most for the least, and it’s important to save as much as possible when you’re running a business. But, as generally happens in our world, this attitude needs to be regulated.
In the early 2000s, it wasn’t, which resulted in far too many unqualified “content creators” entering the scene at once, which drove down rates and made it even easier for companies to get cheap content on a near-constant basis.
Of course, some enterprising individuals saw the glittering opportunity and took advantage of the situation, creating these fun little things we refer to as content mills.
These web-based entities attracted vast quantities of creators (often without requiring any proof of qualifications) who created vast quantities of content for a pittance. The content mills picked up a tidy profit simply by virtue of how much content they were throwing out onto the web, and they didn’t spare a thought about the inevitable problems this could cause long-term.
It was the classic tale of a headlong gold rush, soon followed by a devastating plunge toward collapse.
We could talk about how this fed into the creation of the gig economy, which has many positives along with many negatives, or how the initial content marketing trend was influenced by a lot of changing web practices that no one could have predicted — but that’s beyond the scope of this piece.
The point is, the Great Content Flood happened and we all got swept away. Noah was a no-show, so we figured out how to make rafts out of driftwood and hope they’d float.
As a result, most people became very good at ignoring the majority of online content, and they quickly learned to do so automatically — i.e. without having to think about it.
Since most content thrust in front of them was bought and paid for by interests that were completely irrelevant to what they were looking for, the content itself was irrelevant, too. It all became background noise.
Unfortunately, most of the genuinely high-quality content creators got lost in the cacophony and lost out on a lot of money and lost most of their opportunities for career growth. Brands lost out on the ability to really reach their ideal audience and build a lasting foundation for their businesses.
Basically, it sucked for everyone.
But Fear Not, And Don’t Forget The Mother Niche: There’s Always Room For GOOD Content.
This may sound like a bunch of doom-and-gloom, but there’s a reason I’m speaking of the Great Content Flood in the past-tense.
Things have begun to change, and many of the content mills and unqualified creators have naturally been weeded-out of the market. There are still many, many low-quality content sources, but they’re easier to spot now, and for the most part site algorithms have adapted to “hide” bad content in favor of the things viewers actually want to consume.
This brings us back to my very first point about what, precisely, content is. Or rather, in my optimistic view, what it can be when done right.
People look for information because they want to be informed about something. It’s not exactly rocket science. If the information — read: content — that finds them contains what they really want to know, they’re not only going to consume it, they’ll actually be quite happy to have found the content source that provides that information for them.
If you are a brand of any kind, you want to be that source. You want to be that source consistently, qualitatively, and uniquely.
In fact, you want to be more than that, which is where you get into the realm of great content as opposed to good content. Great content doesn’t just provide information that people are looking for, it also gives them valuable information they didn’t even realize they needed.
Great content makes us think, it makes us feel, and it brings depth to our consumer experience in a way that matters to us.
In our new post-flood age, you have the chance to reach people. Not mere consumers, but people. People who want what you provide, yes, but also people who will resonate with the deeper values, perspectives, and voices that form the foundation of your brand.
In today’s world, only brands with a soul will survive.
If I have learned anything over the past five years as a content strategist and writer, it’s that people are craving something so much deeper than products and services. They want to know that the companies they are interacting with are real, and they want to know who forms that reality behind the ads and the sales copy.
They want to hear, feel, and know your business as a person, and you can’t afford to keep treating your audience as a monolith labeled “customers.” Content is information made accessible, but now it is also information made connectable.
A good content strategist or creator isn’t simply creating content: they are taking your voice and your brand’s personalities — whether they be formed of employees, a founding mission, or a set of principles — and they are connecting them to the people who will find those personalities truly meaningful.
The content flood is over, thank God, and it has left behind some very fertile soil. Plant your seeds — find the strategist or creator who will make them grow into something worthwhile, something that lasts.
Otherwise, you’ll soon be washed away by the next flood, and your potential will be lost in a sea — and a market — that’s far less forgiving than it once was.