‘Great’ content and the scarcity principle

Just one short year after 2013 was decreed “THE YEAR OF CONTENT MARKETING” (which left those of us who had been doing just that for years scratching our heads) the backlash against content marketing has seemed to hit peak saturation.

soup lineBut the backlash is against what many brands call “content marketing”–the glut of blog posts, videos, and tweets that say nothing and do nothing–and is not against content marketing itself. People clearly still love content. But folks are sick of having their time wasted by crap. And it’s counterproductive because we’re burying the Internet in “stuff” instead of exercising some reserve and publishing (and sharing) what is truly good.

But it’s precisely this anxiety that’s creating Crap Mountain. And Crap Mountain hurts everyone. Consumers are fatigued, the few filters we have are insufficient (Gmail’s filtered inbox is imperfect but a step in the right direction; for all of marketers’ whining, Facebook’s visibility algorithm serves a purpose), and there’s more distrust and disgust for branded content. (I see some parallels to way companies talk about Big Data ™, but that’s for another day.)

Most “content marketing” isn’t any good because it’s much too self-serving (“Tell us your 1000 favorite ways to use our stupid thingamajig!”), it doesn’t say anything insightful, or it’s been done before (x1000), and most critically—doesn’t capture anyone’s imagination or attention. Yet marketers, in the great effort to satisfy the Great Google Machine (and to have a steady stream of link bait for Twitter) continuously produce “stuff” to feed that hungry maw.

This flurry of production is partly to prove to their bosses that they should be gainfully employed. Five blog posts sounds a lot better than one, right? Even if that one blog post is 10x more effective than all the other four combined. In a corporate environment where weekly reports and quarterly targets are based more on impressing the boss’s boss’s boss, productivity is a whole lot easier to explain than efficacy (especially for contributing or indirect channels).

Before setting out to create anything, think: “Why would my audience care about this?”, “Why should they spend more than one second of their time looking at it?”, and “What does sharing this content say about the person who shares it?”. But the second step here is to be honest with yourself (and the people you work with). As marketers we’re taught that we are not good stand-ins for our audience. Generally I agree–and it’s precisely this difficulty with honesty or the ability to properly empathize that is the genesis of “meh” in the first place .

But I’m giving you a pass to do it now: what’s the ratio of the content you see in your inbox, or on Facebook, or on TV that actually interests or excites you to the content that you barely notice? I bet it’s even hard to estimate—like the refrigerator humming in the background, you cease to notice something so mundane and constant.

So what is good content? To answer that, we need to think about what and how we value things. And we most often value what cannot be easily obtained. Something doesn’t even necessarily have to be useful either. Plenty of things are popular just because it’s attention-getting or different and doesn’t serve a functional purpose. A traditional example might be expensive jewelry; a modern example might be something more like this.

The scarcity principle is nothing new; a Rubenesque figure was desirable back when food was hard to come by (now it’s thigh gap), gold jewelry and gemstones used to signal great wealth, and now tiny, computers that only a select few can wear on their (smug) faces signify exclusivity and power.

But the scarcity principle is being applied with a slightly different twist in the last half decade or so. I think there is much more emphasis on the rarity of cultural artifacts–whether that’s the music we listen to, the places we go, or the information we share. In a sense, the less Google-able it is, the more value it has.

This extends to material goods as well. All it takes to get a designer handbag (or a commercial spot during the Superbowl) is a lot of money. *Yawn.* Just look at Etsy, Stitch Fix, and The Grommet. Handmade, hard to find, or expertly curated goods that are probably not available at the mall or on Amazon combined with the ability to customize or order to spec all adds up to signifying that you, YOU!, are a creature like none other.

The same mindset has spurred the surge of unpromoted speakeasies, farmers’ markets that sell long-forgotten vegetal species, and classes on how to ferment all manner of foods. It’s like we’re collecting experiences and knowledge (as well as things) onto little pinboards that signify how interesting and unique we are because we somehow acquired these rare bits and bobs. Note: I fully participate this world view. I get a little charge of excitement by novelty or something well done. I’m a collector and a sharer. 

Let me pause right there. If you’re smelling a hipster rat right about now, you’re right. Though some of the hipster aesthetic should be deservedly mocked (in the humblest of opinions, naturally) that guy wearing the “I listen to bands that don’t even exist” tshirt may be a good personification of our collective reaction to yet another form of boring advertisement masquerading as something interesting.

No wonder people are not just wise to some of the trickier marketing tactics (ahem–remarketing parts of my “private” gchat conversations to me on Facebook), but are conspicuously rejecting much of the marketing aimed (sometimes too) squarely at them.

In an age when our time is one of our most depleted (and finite) resources, marketers need to earn attention and interest of our audiences, not expect or assume it. Though money (and a metric ton of blog posts) can buy saturation, it still can’t buy love. And in an age where there are infinite options, you need love to survive. That’s not just a fluffy statement. With unending choices in the market, even the big guys constantly have to prove their worth.

If your brand appears to be unironically slurping up (and regurgitating) unimaginative mass ideas and tired tactics, you run the risk of being perceived as lazy and undeserving of our time.

So be deserving of our time. Be respectful of it. Think lower volume and higher value. As an organization, spend time creating something great and something different to earn the time and attention of your audience. Give your employees the space to do this. Focus on quality outcomes, not on output. Otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time, including your own.

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