When Content Marketing Stops Working

Urinal at the Industrial Saloon

Today, in a very crowded Hynes Convention Center bathroom, I got to witness a very valuable economics lesson. The HCC is heaving from the crowds for Hubspot's Inbound Conference, and there are lines everywhere. At one point, after using the restroom, I turned the corner to leave and saw a very long line of guys waiting to use the facilities. When I left, the first guy in line walked in, presumably to take the spot I had just vacated. What the men in line didn't know, however, was that when I left the bathroom there were six or seven stalls/urinals open, which means that there were five or six guys standing in line (squirming), who actually could have gone right in, had they had enough information. I, of course, could have given them that information, but decided not to so I could make a pithy point on my blog--information has value because information is inequitably distributed. Sorry, fellas--I have a blog to tend to.

This is why blogging and content marketing have economic value--because the transmission of knowledge from those who have it to those who don't is an intrinsically valuable transaction. The more inequitable the distribution of knowledge, the more the transmission of that knowledge is worth. This is how most of today's superstar bloggers realized their early success--they knew a thing, not many people were sharing that thing, so there was value in the exchange.

Today, however, it's demonstrably more difficult to get a new blog off the ground than it was back when these top bloggers got started. There is more information extant, so the transmission of that knowledge is not as economically valuable as it used to be. Yesterday, I asked my Facebook friends what they would do if they were starting a brand new blog today in this new environment, and I was gratified to see some of these successful, early bloggers respond to my thread.

I got lots of good advice on picking niches, selecting keywords, establishing quantity and building a distribution network. All good advice, all of which worked for the folks who left it--and will probably work for you, today.

But all of it, eventually, will stop working.

No, not in the sense that tactics always change, and the best bloggers adapt--I get that. But in the sense that blogging itself, eventually, will no longer "work," from an economic perspective.

The Economic Value Of Content

I had a quick conversation with Marcus Sheridan at Inbound yesterday, which reminded me of his great concept--the CSI, or "Content Saturation Index." Marcus wisely notes that the more your niche is saturated with content, the longer it will take you to succeed in that niche.

Now, time being money (and vice versa), the fact that it takes longer to succeed in a niche is not a trivial variable. Content marketing currently "works" because the economic value that you obtain from content marketing generally exceeds the economic value that you contribute to content creation. If that is not the case for you, by the way, the only economically sustainable choice is to cease the activity. Make sense?

When a lot of today's top bloggers got started, they generally operated in niches that, Marcus would say, had lower CSIs. Because they dominated those niches with a quantity of quality, they owned those niches, and became, as Chris Brogan advises, the "go-to" person in those niches.

A lot of the advice I got involved choosing these niches to find topic areas with little competition--a low CSI--to dominate those areas. In a sense, all of this advice is dependent upon this fact: blogging (and content marketing in general) works because information, while ubiquitous, is inequitably distributed and thus economically inefficient.

Information Efficiency

We do not live in a world of perfect information efficiency. As long as not everyone interested in a thing, knows everything about the thing, those that know more about the thing can profit from those who do not. Welcome to the world of equities analysis. But, as in the world of stocks and bonds, information can approach efficiency, which is why no one can truly "time" the market. You can look it up--the smartest way to bet the market over time is simply to bet with the market over time. Hell, the SEC exists to ensure that no entity can systematically profit by knowing information that other investors do not have access to.

When one entity profits from knowing a bit more than the other guy, we think of that as arbitrage. No value was created by the party that profits; instead, they profit from the transaction itself because they know a little (or a lot) more than the other party. This was how new car sales worked for decades--car dealers profited from arbitrage, because they had "perfect" information about how much a car costs, while prospective buyers had imperfect information.

The Internet (as it does) completely disintermediated that information--we all have access to nearly perfect information about what new cars cost. Effectively, dealers can no longer profit on arbitrage--they profit on what buyers think is a fair profit, and by selling extras like pinstriping and extended warranties. There have been so many information efficiency gains in this area that arbitrage is no longer possible.

Content Arbitrage

Now let's consider blogging (and for the sake of this discussion, let's refer to blogging-as-content-marketing, and not for other reasons.) Let's say I want to market my services as a self-help guru. Of course, I have zero qualification to be a self-help guru. I might, in fact, be a leader in the nascent self-destructivity field. But, setting that aside, I'm good at content. I know more about keywords, SEO and social than 90% of other people who might also want to sell self-help services.

Because I know more about the mechanics of content marketing than most of my competitors, I am able to profit from arbitrage--my blog content is more likely to be found and consumed by prospects because I'm good at making my content findable and consumable and maybe even vaguely useful, and not because I'm actually great in my field. Yes, I have to be good in my field to write content that fits these criteria, but I don't have to be the best in my field to be the best content marketer in my field.

Because prospects don't have perfect information about my comparative skills, I can profit--but more importantly, because my competitors don't have perfect (or even sufficient) information about content marketing, I can profit from content arbitrage. My content isn't "better," I'm just better at getting it in front of people.

When I asked my Facebook friends about what they would do to start a new blog today, the tips I got mostly boiled down to content arbitrage--choose a field with low saturation, contribute consistently, guest post to increase distribution, etc. etc. When you know this and practice this in an area where this knowledge is not widely known, their advice will work. Guaranteed. And this advice did work for all of these people back when they started their own blogs, so their advice is true and valuable from that perspective. That is what makes them experts.

But information, over time, approaches efficiency. The experts' tips worked in a time when content arbitrage was possible. And it still is, of course--until it isn't. In any niche that has value, the skills and knowledge of content marketers will increase over time, increasing the "Sheridan CSI," and making the niche more and more crowded with people doing the same things you are. When that happens, following those expert tips will no longer be so effective--in fact, they might even encourage you to continue with a potentially economically unsustainable activity. Some of you are in niches that aren't niches any more, and maybe you intuitively know this to be true.

The Long Road to Zero

As the skills of content marketers in a field increase, and the amount of information in a field proliferates, your ability to stand out through any of the current received wisdom of content marketers will asymptotically approach zero. Will the value of your efforts ever be, theoretically, "zero?" No, but it can get pretty close. When answering customer questions stops being effective, you move to broadening your distribution. When that stops working, you start using video and long form content. When that becomes less effective you move to the next area of disparity between what could be done and what is done, until all of those potholes are satisfactorily filled, at least from the perspective of prospective searchers.

This, by the way, is not at the point of "perfect information efficiency." Maybe it's at the 80% mark. At some point, though, most everybody is behaving in the same way, and the only way to profit from arbitrage is to make smaller and smaller incremental gains with ever-dimishing returns (which is a valid strategy, btw--someone has to be the best, even when the costs become prohibitive).

When a given area reaches this level of saturation, tips that involve how you manipulate your content become less and less effective. And as your ability to win through content manipulation diminishes, so too does the value of arbitrage in that area. And, sadly, at some point, this means that you would be expending more of your time and treasure on content marketing and blogging than those activities are worth.

You might even be at that point now, and don't know it.

When Content Stops Being Worth It

By this point, you might think I'm being a little shrill. I admit, depending on your field, that there may be a significant time horizon ahead of you in which to profit from content marketing and blogging--and I am an almost unemployably long-term thinker. But this also isn't "theory." It's inevitable. You also might disagree with me that the time you spend on content marketing extracts an economic toll, and that you might actually destroy value if you spend more time on it than it's worth, to be reductive.

This, of course, is to argue that time isn't money. I would be happy to disabuse you of this notion over lunch, any day of the week. I will charge you $250 for that lunch. Thus endeth the lesson.

But here is a more salient question to ask yourself, when the content-going gets tough: is my field really saturated? Or do you need to move from trying to profit from arbitrage, which is fleeting, to finding another strategy entirely?

Three Things To Do

When you reach that sticking point where content marketing and blogging cease to be "worth it," or at least seem like they aren't working, I think you have three basic strategies:

1. Exit the activity. This is a viable option. You have finite resources, and if content marketing returns less economic value than other things you could spend your time on (yes, even outbound marketing), then ceasing unprofitable activities and reallocating your resources has to be an option, right? That's basic opportunity cost, and a failure to understand opportunity cost has been the downfall of many a company.

2. Increase your expertise. Again, I don't want to denigrate any of the tips I got from pros about establishing a new blog, and most of them will work for most people, most of the time. I was surprised, however, that no one suggested what I thought was fairly obvious--to set aside content arbitrage and actually become the best in your field (and not the best content marketer in your field.)

When a niche approaches the point at which keywords and cross posts and social sharing etc. etc. aren't working for you, then arbitrage isn't the answer. Maybe the answer is to actually be the best in your field, and unproductive time spent on content marketing might best be put to use building your skills to advance the field into new areas. Besides winning business, you'll open up new keywords. Cue Kool and the Gang and CELEBRATE.

3. Finally, there's this thought--what feels like saturation might not actually be saturation, but the level of competency in your field might be such that you have all hit the ceiling of what people are currently willing to do to win at content marketing. In those cases, as I mentioned before, the way to win is to do what others won't, to make marginal gains where more significant gains are not possible.

In some cases, when you do this, you discover that you actually had more growth opportunities than you ever thought possible, and have actually broken through a "false" barrier simply because you are willing to go to the extra pains that your competitors are not. And it is those extra pains--those extraordinary measures that might just actually make you the best in your field, that I'm going to be talking about in this space over the next few months.

The simple truth is this--Content Marketing isn't going to stop working, not for a good while. But what you are doing--and even what the experts are doing--will in fact become less and less effective over time. But if you are in Content Marketing for the long haul, you are in luck--the field is in its infancy. The possibilities for differentiation and leadership, even when it feels like everyone is writing the same stuff, are legion, and lessons can easily be drawn from other, more mature media and marketing efforts. All you have to do is be willing to make the leap, and take the risk to invest what others won't (in time AND money) and treat your content marketing like it competes with other media, not other content, and the answers easily reveal themselves for the bold.

I'm going to start unraveling all of this next month at Content Marketing World, in a session I'm proud to debut called "What's Wrong With Your Content Creation Strategy (and How to Fix it.)" If you are going to CMW, you have already made a commitment to do a little better than the other guy or gal. I hope you'll come to this session--and watch this space--as we explore what it's really going to take in the coming years to win with content.