The Content Paradox
Recently Steve Rayson published a blog post that posited two positions, and sided with the one that many content creators instinctively think of as just plain wrong:
“Content is about quality, not quantity. We should be producing high value, authoritative content regularly, not publishing lots of short posts. Less is more.”
“Winning in digital media now boils down to a simple equation: figure out a way to produce the most content at as low a cost as possible.” (Digiday 2013)
Do you agree with first statement? Me too, until recently. But now I think we could be wrong.
He examined the recent rise of the web presence of the Washington Post and its new direction of posting tons of content all the time, which has been really successful and has made it one of the only real newspapers to match the number of views Buzzfeed. He argued, that maybe this was how we should be doing it (at least some of the time). So is he right?
Subsequently, another content expert, Rondell Smith, wrote a response post saying, basically, he hopes Rayson is wrong and gave a lot of reasons why, and great examples to back up them up. He argues that choosing to pump out content with little or no concern for quality or purpose will lead to “content shock,” and the possible dystopic future where you have a literal googolplex of pages all grasping for our attention. It could make the internet basically unusable, or used only through walled gardens that keep people from exposure to good content outside the walls.
And, more simply: that it won’t work to perform the basic function of marketing (to sell things).
Obsession with the Long Tail
A lot of this boils down to the Long Tail principle, something that early Netflix banked on and has now basically abandoned (and Amazon Prime streaming has picked up and ran with). Look, you most likely know exactly what the long tail is — its the idea that there’s a few really popular things and a lot of not so popular things and when made into a graph that situation looks like this:
So, for content on the web, basically a small amount of content will get a lot of views and shares, but most content will trail down to being viewed and shared by very few people. That said, marketers and others have known for a long time that there’s GOLD IN THAT THAR TAIL! Taken together, most people, at any given time, are looking at content in the long tail. And within the tail lies most niche content: niches that can be nurtured, cultivated, and sold things to.
So some marketers have built a cult to the tail, focusing on “Marketing to the Long Tail,” and giving out the advice to find a niche interest and dominate it. They have turned just a basic fact of how media works into a way of life. Yet, a lot of times it seems to work!
But is that really what you want to do? Sell Geoduck wall clocks on your Geoduck blog (filled, of course, with Evergreen in-jokes), or sell ad-time to Blue Apron on your M.A.N.T.I.S fan podcast? Maybe your interests are really niche and you are also good at marketing, but if you are sane person at all you are going to market based on interests you actually have!
This is the scary thing — the company that compiles lists of hobbies or tv shows or movies or comics or toys or whatever & then has bots (or content farm slaves) write copy for blog posts about them with links to other bot-written blogs and so on for a half dozen clicks till it gets to a product site to buy the Little Shop of Horrors Animated Series lunchbox for only $39.99 at the company’s “wacky kitsch store.” Look, I just imagined it — they’re probably already doing it!
Sturgeons Law & Sturgeons Corollary
You probably also already know what Sturgeons Law is or at least know it but didn’t know it was called that. The law states, basically: “90% of everything is crap.” Which is immediately what I thought of when I read this in Rondell Smith’s article:
The philosophy of doing a lot what we don’t yet do well is ruining content marketing — and the knees, joints and backs of wannabe marathoners.
If you doubt that, please explain why 90% of what’s published online barely rises to the level of crap.
Well it’s crap, not because of some business strategy (which IS dumb, btw), but because everything will always mostly be crap! All those content creators out there who think they’re already doing it well are not doing it well, and will never do it well!
And in fact a chart of that looks kinda like this:
There’s the flaw with one of Smith’s argument that producing less content will produce less crap: there’s still going to be the same percentage of crap.
However, there’s also an implicit corollary to this law, that someone else might of thought of but I also came up with independently, and that is: “10% of everything is overrated.”
In case you doubt this truth, the movie Avatar is in the Top Ten Highest-Grossing Films (Adjusted for Inflation).
Popular content is not always good content, and visa versa.
For example, a lot of people are still talking about blockchains — but a year ago, everybody was talking about blockchains. Not doubt some real turds got 10K likes and hundreds of chin-strokes because the idea was super popular at the time. Nowadays you actually have to make a quality post about blockchains for most people to care about it. (Big shout out to Dave Birch!)
So are we producing too much content? I really don’t think so. No one on the internet ever said “I want less content!” What they say is “I want less crap, not all this clickbait stuff I don’t care about!” Clickbait now meaning “content I don’t like,” rather than a specific, well-delineated type of content.
How do we reduce the crap factor? Trusted gatekeepers can help, but also hinder, our search for good stuff. Also, a depressingly large number of people don’t know how to use a search engine well.
Basically it’s up to content creators to self-police. Online, we live in a completely democratic society. Content floats over to your sphere of interest often because of the number likes and shares and reblogs and replies to it: these are the ways The Internet shows it has merit. This is how we tell other people to look at something. If we’re not getting those votes of approval, we need to look at changing how we create content.
Some brands and channels are more popular because they put out a ton content of a consistent, but not great, level of quality. Some succeed through small amounts of really good stuff.
What we do know is that no one likes brands that pump out a constant stream of crap content. And getting a brand to recognize that that’s what it’s doing can be very hard, especially if they’ve been told you gotta work at it to get good, you gotta stay in the news cycle, more content = more attribution channels and those are good things, etc… basically all the marketing buzztalk that people make money off of to convince people to do which only works if you’re already good at marketing.
So should we putting out more content at shorter lengths? Or less content with more substance? I don’t think there’s one answer! But I do have one parting thought.
All Content is Like Pornography
I know many liars out there saying they have no idea what pornography is like, so I guess I’ll explain it (my metaphor only really works for video porn): You always want new pornography. Whenever you are going to go … use it … you want it fresh. You might have a few favorites you can come back to but for the vast majority of the time you want something you’ve never seen before — a constant need for fresh content/porn.
You also don’t want it very long, or too short. There’s a Goldilocks zone for porn/content and it’s different for the different genres out there. Usually, shorter is better than longer, we’re all busy professionals, right?
And you want it to be “good enough.” There’s very very little porn/content out there that is truly amazing, but that’s not really necessary. It just has to be good enough to serve its function.
So yes, we want a constant stream, with unlimited options, of decently paced, adequately executed porn/content.
If you think about some scenarios devised around the content shock concept, you’ll realize that since it would never work for porn, it won’t work for any other type of content either. Bots using algorithims to splice together 10–30 seconds of what they think is [Your Favorite Kind of Money Shot] and posting hundreds of them a day just won’t work. That’s too much porn that’s too crappy! So why do we assume anyone would accept it for blog posts or news articles or even blockchain thinkpieces?
But the content paradox will live on, as I can assure you that one real live human will consider this pretty good and not over-long, and thus good. However, a host of SEO analysis algorithms will tell me its way too long, with sentences that are too long, and that I don’t use my tagged keywords enough in the article: therefore it is crap.
Who’s right? I don’t know. We’re never going to have perfectly calibrated metrics, and we’re always going to have different opinions on how much is too much, and if its good or if its crap.
(n.b. This article was originally published on my Medium blog)