We've all heard the cries and lamentations echoing through the online world. There's too much content! Content mills have killed the writing profession! It's impossible to find decent articles, blogs, etc etc etc anymore!
Sometimes these dire pronouncements seem accurate, or at the very least prophetic. There is a lot of content out there, and most of it is, arguably, low-quality written work with near-to-zero value for readers.
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, it can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack when it comes to seeking anything worthwhile to read.
So, what's the story? How did we get here, and where is the online content world going? Well, my children, let's dive in and find out.
A Brief Word On Content Itself. You Know, That...Stuff Everyone Talks About.
This piece would be rather useless without a note on what, exactly, 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 post 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 such a way as to appeal to those absorbing the information. These eager sponges might be doing this by reading, watching, listening, or astral-projecting, but the point is that they are using what we call content to gain information in one way or another.
This narrows things down marginally. Content must, based on all of this, be a vehicle for 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.
That's the long and short of it, and this is why the definition of content is so broad. What you need to know for the sake of this conversation is that every time you are reading a post about a topic of interest, listening to a podcast about your hobby or industry, watching a youtube channel run by an expert in their field, or looking 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 - not by itself, anyway. Which brings us to our next exploration...
The Issue With Content Marketing - A.K.A. "Those Darn Capitalists Are At It Again!"
Those who inhabit the nebulous marketing industry are an enthusiastic lot, especially when it comes to big ideas and "the next strategy for ROI." That's return on investment, for the uninitiated. As someone who moonlights as the content editor and contributing writer for a multimedia firm, I would definitely count myself as one of these eager beavers who's always on the hunt for high-quality logs 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 and those annoying ads that frequently interrupt your youtube binges - there's nothing inherently problematic with it.
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...
Going with the typically off-kilter beaver metaphor, there are a lot of ways to sell logs. Some ways seem to work better than others, and the methods which prove most effective shift with the times. You don't sell logs the same way during dam-building season as you would during a drought. And if your competitor is suddenly flush with enthusiastic buyers, you're going to want to know how, why, and what they did to make it so.
To make a long, untraceable story brief, someone discovered that a company which provides not only information about a product or service, but also about relevant topics that will generate interest in said company, can see a huge boost in profit. The doors thus burst asunder, allowing in techniques that run the gamut from "advertorials" (articles which 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 (in beaver terms) was that the more content you produce as a marketing entity, the more dam-builders you will reach, resulting in more log sales. A lot more.
For a while, the results seemed to support this. Plenty of people made a LOT 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 on the digital world. If you throw enough darts, you're bound to see a few hit the mark, right? Well, actually...
It Turns Out People Don't Like Being Flooded With Vapid Bullsh**. An Age-Old Lesson In Quantity vs. Quality.
If only marketing enthusiasts' eagerness had matched their ability to slow down and ponder the long term implications of their 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.
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, 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 these Cheapy McCheapsters. As generally happens in our world, this resulted in far too many content creators entering the scene at once, further driving down rates and making 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 generally web-based entities then attracted vast quantities of creators (often without requiring any sort of proof of qualification) who then created even vaster quantities of content for a pittance. The content mill picked up a tidy profit simply by virtue of how much content they were throwing out into the web, and no one really said much about the inevitable problems this could cause.
Ah, the classic capitalist tale of a headlong, high-flying gold rush, soon followed by a devastating plunge toward economic 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 (besides the ones implementing the largely necessary changes, the people who study this kind of thing, anyone who thought hard enough to take a step back and use critical thinking skills...).
That's beyond the scope of this piece, however. The point is, the Great Content Flood happened and we all got swept away. Noah was a no-show, so we just figured out how to make rafts out of driftwood and/or breathe underwater.
People simply became very good at ignoring the majority of content online, and they quickly learned to do so automatically, 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 high-quality content creators got lost in the cacophony and lost out on a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity. Basically, it sucked. A lot.
Thus Came The Reckoning. Or, Alternatively, "The Great Super-Soaker Battle Of The Internet."
Well, here we still are, overloaded with content and trying to figure out what Uncle Richie even does to qualify himself as a "content creator." Many well-educated people have repeatedly rung the death knell for everything from blogs to influencers due to the disastrous flood, citing a phenomenon known simply as saturation.
To understand what saturation means, you need to envision the online world and all of its content as a very well-planned city with lots of neighborhoods, suburbs, and parking garages. These sectors are built within firm boundaries and cannot be changed or expanded. Before the Great Content Flood, our lovely little Content City was reasonably populated, with some areas boasting more people and some having less.
The population was spread out pretty well, the streets were clean, and the busses ran on time. Then came...the flood. Thousands and thousands of people rushed into the city, having heard how great it was from all their friends and enemies, and they didn't ask questions before moving into any available real estate they could find. Having no prior attachment to Content City, they didn't really care about keeping those streets clean or even just preventing rampant dumpster fires in the alleys.
Slowly (or not so slowly) but surely, each sector of the city became overpopulated, crowded, and noisy. People who wanted to live in one neighborhood would just pitch a tent in someone's yard and plant themselves there, and soon the newcomers spread out onto sidewalks, into parks, and even along the riverbanks.
Each sector represents what we call a niche in the content creating world. The theory goes that each niche has a set amount of space for content in it, and when too many people try to enter that niche way too fast, it gets over-full and becomes saturated.
"Blogs about blogging" is one good example of a niche that is allegedly saturated, as are many other blog-related niches. Observers have been saying that blogging itself is saturated for a long time, and that there's no "room" for more blogs in the niche. Certain kinds of click-bait type articles have been saturating a number of niches for some time now, so that's another good example to keep in mind.
The idea is that niches can become soaked. Drenched. Flooded. You get the point, and perhaps you've heard this theory and agreed with it heartily. "The internet is flooded with too much content," you might say, "and I'm tired of it, too! I can't find anything worth looking at anymore!"
I hear you, pal. I really do. The thing is, this saturation theory leaves a lot out of the picture.
Don't Forget The Mother Niche: There's Always Room For GOOD Content.
Look, if you're hosting a house party and your place is bursting at the seams, you're likely to tell Johnny FratBro and his herd that they can't bring all 30 of their no-name friends in without asking you first. It's just rude, and the beer they brought tastes like piss.
But if Lady Gaga, Barrack Obama, and Academy Award Winning Actor Leonardo DiCaprio show up asking if they can come in, you'll throw that door open so wide it'll blow the hinges clean off. If they also have a whole caseload of top tier, $800 per bottle Moet & Chandon champagne, you'll probably throw your own mother out on the street to make room for them.
This is all to say that there is always room for truly engaging, high quality content, no matter the niche. Saturation doesn't apply when the rain is made out of champagne - people will get out a bucket and wait with their mouths open if the clouds are pissing something that has real value to them. Ew. Add that to the list of bad metaphors I've used to explain inane concepts.
Which brings us back to my very first point about what, precisely, content is. Or what it's supposed to be, anyway. People look for information because they want that information. It's not exactly rocket science. If the information that finds them is something they really wanted to know (whether they were directly thinking about it or not), they're not only going to accept it, they'll actually be quite happy to have found the content that provides that info for them.
Going back to the first really weird metaphor, you can try to sell your logs to a bunch of penguins, or even to a group of fellow beavers who already have a lifetime supply of logs, but you won't find much success. And if you try to sell synthetic logs to beavers who only purchase all-natural, 100% organic non GMO logs, you might even piss off a segment of the market.
If, however, you find the subset of beavers who are at that very moment googling "where can I find affordable logs in x color/shape/size" and show them that you happen to have those very same logs, you're in business. And if you can get your name into the log-enthusiast world as an expert, you're likely to drive more customers to your doorstep, increasing your reach even further!
Good content doesn't often correlate with marketing, but they don't have to be antithetical to each other. If people find a piece of content to be personally valuable, the entity responsible for creating it is usually irrelevant to that audience (unless said entity has really pissed a lot of people off and destroyed its reputation).
A lot of things can influence that value, such as the quality of the writing or videography, the amount of information included in the content, the connections to other relevant content included in the piece... The list goes on.
Over time, foundational websites like Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. realized that people were getting really pissed off about the flood of irrelevant, time-wasting content on their screens. So, they adjusted their services and adapted to the consumer's needs (not the cheap business owners' needs, because they weren't the platforms' target audience). It is the content consumers, not the creators, that most of these popular sites are aimed at.
Algorithms became more complex and learned to weed out the poor quality, annoying content that had created cynics of us all. Content creators who were especially tricky about trying to reach people via underhanded and dishonest means were blacklisted and often relegated to content purgatory, never to be seen again.
In the end, they succeeded. These sites - Google being the most notable - have developed algorithms that are able to tell good content from bad, and those who produce quality, relevant work are rewarded by becoming more and more visible to the people who are interested in what they've got to say. Content City's population is becoming more balanced, making sure that everyone who lives there has the opportunity to enjoy their home!
This is the era of my career's haphazard start, and it is an exciting one to occupy as both a content creator as well as someone who consumes a whole heck of a lot of it. Do I ramble on against the sins of the past like some kind of academic swamp-hag? Maybe. I also like to shake my cane at the youngsters and hooligans, warning them not to take shortcuts and expect content creation to be an easy get-rich-quick career. But I digress.
The point is that things changed, and those changes are still happening at high speed right now. What does that mean for the future of content? I'm glad you asked!
In Conclusion... The Perennial Question: Where Do We Go From Here?
There was a time not so long ago when businesses operated by the "law of the jungle" as a matter of course. In a world that largely lacked diversity, was more focused on short-term success rather than a long-term strategy, and which was not well versed in the digital magic that the content universe represents, executives fell back on what they knew.
This resulted in a mindset purely focused on the production of content, without due consideration regarding the value of what was being published. As conversations grow broader, largely thanks to the power of the very content universe we've been talking about, there is more and more room for the voices that urge collaboration, consistency of value, and a long-term professional mindset that is more holistic than it is compartmentalized.
The world is growing, and it is growing bigger as well as more connected. People are seeking information in greater numbers than ever. There is a thirst for stories that hasn't been seen since the invention of ye olde printing press, and it's not just those pipe-smoking artistic types who are up for the job of quenching it (regardless of the kind of pipe we're talking about).
Content creators need to have standards, both for their own work and on the part of the companies which hire them. They need to begin with both ends of the equation in mind, seeing content not as a marketing machine meant to sell, but as a value-based tool meant to forge connections. The relationships that grow from those connections will result in consumers for the companies that place value before volume, and they will be genuine relationships between parties who benefit from one another.
There's still plenty of space for content online. Writers, directors, editors, podcast hosts, and all the rest of us in the creative field haven't lost our voices. There are new opportunities, new niches, and new topics to inform the world about each and every day. The demand for logs hasn't gone away, but perhaps Mr. Eager Beaver is realizing that there's more to his product than, well, production. Start there, and you'll be surprised at who you find occupying your own neighborhood.
I'll leave you with some advice. Don't create content just for the sake of content - give it integrity, give it meaning, and make it worth the time it takes to click on it. If you are on corporate side of things, vet your content strategists and creators carefully. You get what you pay for, after all, and the investment you're making has broader implications than you might think. Plus, I'm pretty sure clickbait articles count against you at the pearly gates when you die. It's just a hunch I've had.
And tell Uncle Richie to get a real job, would ya?
Well, I hope you've enjoyed this information overload and haven't gone into a blog-induced coma. Thanks for sticking it out and not letting my voice fly into the void. I appreciate it. Until next time, everyone!