I Can’t Wait for Peak Content

PushON | March 1st 2016

Over the past few months, media watchers have seen numerous references to so-called “peak content”. We’ve had plenty of peaks in the past, originally with oil but latterly with cupcake, beard, burger, pulled pork or whatever else some people wish wasn’t popular.

In pop culture, reports of an impending peak are usually nothing more than a way to fill a media outlet’s empty news slot. But its economic counterpart is less frivolous (unless you’re in the beard wax industry), indicating a point where productivity reaches unsustainable levels and can only go one way. And so it is with peak content – if the content writers are to be believed.

Admittedly, most of the pieces I’ve read on the subject of peak content have referred to the traditional media of television and newspapers. Again, it’s a phenomenon we’ve probably already become aware of – commercial broadcast TV shows now seem to be split 50/50 between advertising and programming. And once-mighty newspapers now sell minuscule numbers of paper copies (indeed, the Independent is going paper-free in March) while stuffing their online sites with click-bait, deliberately provocative columnists, churnalism … and the occasional scoop.

It’s probably all our own fault for wanting everything for free, but there’s a serious point about ensuring media outlets are sustainable. Entertainment is a multi-billion industry and a free press is essential for holding governments to account, so we really should be wary of warnings about its viability if we want good entertainment and worthy news.

Over in Marketing

The picture is no rosier in the non-media business world. In fact, we’re only adding to the pile of content every second. We can trace the glut back to the way Google ranks sites, in a model that hasn’t really changed in the past 15 years and which ignited the need for every business, whether it’s cleaning drains or selling prestige cars, to produce a steady stream of content to let the search engines build up a picture of what they do and to accumulate links, nectar-like, from the buzzing superhighway.

A scroll down any social medium today will reveal countless invitations for you to read this person’s blog post, analyse that business’s white paper or watch the other charity’s video alongside invitations to view the fruits of other people’s labour (regardless of whether the sharer has taken the trouble to sit through it). The search landscape has made everybody need to become a publisher overnight.

But whereas in the past those being published would have been through education and mentoring in journalism, film-making, illustration or whatever discipline they were specialising in, the modern “publisher” has not. It’s no mystery why the consequent flood often comprises poorly executed material, rehashed ideas and the obvious fulfilment of content quotas (it’s amusing to see how many articles contain 300 ± 5 words). In short, there’s a lot of material being published that has had the bare minimum of attention paid to it.

Content Fatigue

So this is how we’ve ended up with the deluge. Companies understand that they have to produce something because the alternative – publishing nothing – will see them drop down the rankings, all else being equal.

But they’re forgetting the reason why Google placed so much emphasis on producing content in the first place. It was to give some indication of the popularity, credibility and quality of a web resource, which should in theory be an indication of its relevance to a search query.

The problem is that being the best producer of nuts and bolts, the best restaurant in town, the best dog groomer, doesn’t mean you should also be expected to be the best producer of content around your sector. Only writers, designers, film-makers etc. should be expected to be suitably qualified to produce great showcase content, and only then within their own area of expertise.

Many companies mitigate the lack of internal expertise by hiring freelance writers and designers or going to an agency. This is the right thing to do, but unfortunately the companies often outsource content production wholesale and wash their hands of it, meaning the producers, who are not experts in the fields, are left grubbing together articles from existing materials and adding to the flood.

But all they’re doing is keeping their clients’ heads above water.

What We’re Up Against

If we’re to recognise peak content as a real phenomenon and to appreciate that it is on its way, we’re going to have to do something about it.

First a few truths.

  • Google doesn’t look like changing the way it ranks organically any time soon. Meanwhile there is a constant stream of stories indicating that the search giant is giving more screen space – particularly the lucrative top slots – to paid media.
  • Producing a torrent of uncommitted, low-quality blog posts on your sector is unlikely to have any positive effect on your ranking.
  • The chances of anyone stumbling upon your low-quality posts and then getting anything out of them are vanishingly small – and hopes of inbound links can be measured in fractions of that dim hope.
  • Anyone who has any influence online, and most of your potential customers, are far too busy to read even a tiny proportion of the good stuff that’s spoon-fed to them on social media, so your lowest-common-denominator outpourings aren’t going to make a splash.

I’d say that when the vast majority of output doesn’t get read by the vast majority of target audiences, that’s a pretty good definition of productivity becoming unsustainably pointless – and hardens the peak content case.

Waiting for the Volcano

What’s interesting about peaks is that they don’t necessarily signal the collapse of the commodity, merely a decline. It’s safe to say that shellac 78s, vinyl records, cassettes and CDs have all peaked as they’ve been replaced by each other (and then purely digital content), but there is still a market for at least two of them. And peak oil, when it happens, won’t end the oil industry overnight (it’ll almost certainly happen during working hours).

As custodians of the internet’s content, we (and I mean everyone) must start looking to produce better quality content, just as CDs supposedly produced better sound quality than vinyl.

That’s why companies and their marketers who already produce thoughtful, edgy, creative, meaningful, well researched, labour-intensive content should be praying for a time when those who have been muddying the waters with lower quality stuff finally get market-forced into obsolescence. The arrival of peak content should be a massive opportunity for the conscientious, and it’s not too early to start getting yourself associated with the good stuff right now.

Think about great ideas for marketing your company. Bang heads together. Don’t be satisfied with more of the same 300-word posts. Remember that content isn’t just words, it’s all media, and some will work well for you.

Could the same forces sway traditional media towards quality? While the news channels are chasing the ad bucks with clickbait, am I naive in thinking that people will become desensitised to such shallow dross and be drawn to the old-fashioned in-depth reporting, scoops and political exposés that made newspapers great? That would mean ad revenue at least, even if paywalling news hasn’t quite succeeded in being the saviour of online news. With social shares playing their part, good content that people care about will surely have its day.

For now, we need to hasten the arrival of peak content in marketing by each producing ten blog posts an hour for six months. We can do this.

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