Content Marketing and the challenge of radical filters

content shock

I have seen the future and it is ZIte-like.

Zite is the best utility I have seen so far to actually “learn” what content I enjoy. It customizes an evolving delivery system based on what it is learning about me. The more I use it, the better it gets.

In fact, it is doing such a good job delivering intensely amazing content it has become addictive. I’ve already abandoned many other sources of online news and insight.

But this is not an ad for Zite, which is just one of many innovations we will see to help us navigate through our information-dense world. Today, I wanted to have us think through together the marketing implications of a new wave of radical content filters.


Five years ago when you or I did a search on Google for the best deal on an automobile or a review of a new car model, we would get similar results … probably the same results. But over time, Google has made its search results highly-tailored to your environment. Where are you? Who are you? Who are your friends? This has resulted in an ever-tightening bubble of personalized results. The results you would get today are almost certainly different than what I would get.

Zite is an even more extreme example of this as it actually pushes content to you and only you, constricting the scope of possible content that you see.

Let’s say you are trying to create content about automobiles that will be organically discovered by a high-potential customer like me. To get through this filter, you won’t just have to somehow push it to the top of Google, you may also have to get it through the Zite algorithm … and all the Zite competitors crowding into this increasingly important space.

Will that require different strategies? Perhaps we won’t just be concerned with SEO. We might also need to consider Zite Engine Optimization? : )

Let’s twist this one more time. Zite is owned by the American news network CNN. What are the commercial implications of that? Maybe we won’t be working on backlinks to please Google. Perhaps content marketing of the future will include advertising with parent companies so our content gets preferential treatment in its filters?

Settling into same-dom

This new era of mega-filters will also present a challenge to any organization or brand trying to introduce a new idea or product. Today when I read an online newspaper or news feed, I am also presented with many alternative content choices. This content might be way out of my normal comfort zone but interesting to me nonetheless. I like reading about new things. I mean, how else would I learn about twerking?

But as information density increases in my busy world, I could definitely see a day when I spend almost all my time with my own personalized filter. I would rarely see things outside my comfort zone because keeping me IN my comfort zone is exactly what these filters are trying to do! If Zite figures out I’m politically liberal, it is probably not going to offer an editorial with a conservative viewpoint. That would be a Filter Fail.

Every online organization is collecting data about us and determining what we are going to view and hear based on the stereotype they are creating for us.

While there are obvious benefits to this, the diversity of my content stream is also being strangled by every search and social media platform into same-dom. Interesting implications for how we learn and discover (or not discover) new ideas, no?

Providing fuel, not content

Let’s push this idea of radical filtering to an even higher level.

Siri presents a particularly interesting type of content filter and a plucky problem for marketers. If you ask Siri a question, you might get a verbal answer, not necessarily a list of attributed, optimized content (and ads) to choose from.

I recently had a chance to see where this kind of precise search is heading when I met some people who work with Watson, IBM’s amazing cognitive computing technology. This might be the ultimate filter because it is not just tailoring CONTENT for you, it’s tailoring one precise ANSWER for you, even if is highly complex. It can process billions of bits of content and solve even the most difficult query in a heartbeat.

When I asked a Watson team member about the importance of content to this breakthrough technology, she paused and said, “It’s not just content to us, it’s fuel.”

Isn’t that interesting? What are the implications for content marketing when we’re tasked to provide computer fuel instead of merely blog posts and YouTube videos? Will visual and video content even “count” in that kind of environment?

In less than 18 months, IBM developers reduced the size of the first Watson computer from “a bedroom to the size of three pizza boxes.” And at the same time, they increased the speed by 24X! Is there any doubt that in the foreseeable future we will be carrying this power in our pocket or wearing it on our wrist?

Adjusting content strategies to a cognitive computing environment will be here soon. This will certainly hasten the demise of marginal content producers and up the game for good ones as precision content becomes a highly-prized resource.

Are you thinking about this now?

In my recent Content Shock article defining the problem of becoming the signal in a world that is insanely dense with information noise, I ended with an open-ended question. What next?

Certainly, this new wave of radical filters is a development worth considering. If you are still of the mindset that Google is the only barrier between your content and a buying customer, think again. It’s getting a lot more interesting.

Radical personal filtering. A strangulation of the content stream. Content as fuel. Discuss, won’t you?

Original illustration copyright

Disclosure: IBM is a client.

All posts

  • But what about serendipity? Will radical filters strangle our creativity by limiting our input? Will they make the giant internet chamber even more echo-y?

    Isn’t it useful to read a view we disagree with to sharpen our own thoughts? Or to read a fascinating article completely outside our comfort zone?

  • Totally agree with Henneke – we need to read conflicting views, we need to continue to seek to understand. Radical filters frighten me for our future generations. When our own biases and prejudices are never challenged but instead validated by the content our searches return, we may well begin to destroy our society. The internet should help us to expand our horizons and continue to evolve and grow, not stiffle them (IMO).

  • Steve Woodruff

    Mark – this is all part of the next big shift in enabling technology – from “Search” to “Find” (we search because we need to find – the artificial/evolving technology to minimize search is going to be awesome!) The companies that solve this will be the next iteration of Google.

  • First, Mark, I’m now going to have to update my iOS so I can get Zite. Looks really useful. 🙂

    Second, I do not consider myself an SEO (or ZEO) expert, but I do know enough to worry about the issue Henneke brings up – will the increase in levels of filtering eventually limit accessibility for smaller brands? Will we wind up with a system that only works for the big brands with budget to burn on massive amounts of content, SEO experts, and paid search products?

    I hope not.
    Perhaps I’m being naive (it wouldn’t be the first time), but the longer I’m in this marketing game, the more I believe that the smartest bet is not on any technology or marketing tactic but in simply delighting your customers. Word of Mouth seems to me to be the most powerful and consistent marketing tool out there.

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    Mark, Mark, Mark…. I can always count on your posts pushing me out of whatever I think I know and tossing me into the future. This one may have tossed me further than any of your previous posts. Yipes! Book banning comes to mind. Censorship is not a popular idea, but here we are facing a future of intentional censorship, and some of us welcome it. YIPES!

  • Interesting article (as always) Mark.

    My initial reaction is that this is not filtering, but voluntary censorship. We are only ‘allowed’ to see what ever content an app, program or any other algorithm based bit of software deems correct to show us.
    Surely, as you touch on, in order for us to learn new things we need to be able to browse for content that it’s impossible for any computer to predict we want to see.

    Personally I think there should be more time spent logged out of Google and the like and simply surfing the net to see what crap it throws in our direction, without being able to use it’s in built content censorship, however clever and powerful it may become! 🙂

  • Yes. Just yes. : )

  • Since the filter bubble is the default these days. I think we will have to take extra measures to get new views. Wonder what that would look like?

  • Or will it be Google? They won’t take this lying down : ) Will be interesting to see how all this evolves!

  • In general that is true, but how much business today depends on being discovered? That is where it gets tricky, right?

  • HA! Thanks … I think, I do like thinking these issues through and am glad you enjoyed this post Thanks for letting me know. In terms of intentional censorship, 75% of Americans under the age of 25 point to Facebook as their primary source of news. Think how much Facebook is getting filtered!!

  • It does get tricky.
    Ultimately, a business can’t relay solely on any one marketing approach. I guess I’d just like to see more businesses focus more of their effort and budget on helping inspire and encourage human WOM instead of turning so heavily to technology-based tactics.

    You’ve got my brain churning now. May need to try and dig up some examples …

  • Totally with you on this. With the deluge of content, we want what’s relevant to US. And, we’re getting that in a lot of ways. Google already delivers up personalized search results that give greater weight to sites we’ve visited recently.

    You also see this with music – Pandora, iTunes radio, Spotify – all deliver up customized recommendations based on what we like. Songza offers curated playlists based on mood, location, etc.

    There are so many options that it’s appealing to have technology help deliver content based on our preference.

    The tricky part, as you mentioned, is how marketers will deal with that. I think this means that we have to get a whole lot better at understanding our audiences and their preferences and more narrowly defining our niche.

  • Pingback: Is ZEO the new SEO? | Content Marketing Observa...()

  • go for it!

  • I sense you are right Laura but I’m still thinking this through myself. Today, it is relatively easy because we can focus on one filter (Google) or maybe three at the most. Kind of starts to make my head spin! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Yes. On so many fronts.

    As has been pointed out in the comments, the implications for us as individuals is it will be harder to see beyond our bubbles. That said, a smart system will also learn how big our bubble is, and how much we want to look out beyond it. It will learn that I like random bits of science, architecture, organic gardening, psychology and surprising innovation mixed in with marketing, advertising and related technology. It will know that I read about politics occasionally, and that I read views from both sides of the aisle. And it will very quickly realize that fashion and entertainment news are pretty much meaningless to me.

    But I apply a fashion and entertainment filter pretty effectively today. I don’t click those headlines, I don’t read those articles. The bubble exists even without the radical filter.

    For marketers, the change may not be all that challenging. Today, marketers count on reaching people with content in two different ways:

    Search. While it will evolve, I believe many of the current considerations around it will remain. When I’m looking for a realtor, I may find realtors that have been recommended by my connections first, but I’m going to be able to dig for realtors with specializations almost none of my connections would care about (like rural land, timber values and land use laws in Oregon. True story). When we switch from our newspaper mode, reading what is interesting to us, to looking for something in particular, search or sometime like it will continue to be effective.

    Ambient discovery. From recommendations in social media to the article on the section cover of HuffPo, we find interesting content in a number of ways today. As filters improve, it will become more difficult for marketers to have their content found through ambient discovery. Seriously, how many people really want to discover today’s average marketing content if they aren’t in a ‘search’ mode? Maybe your competitor, to see what you are doing. Almost certainly no one else.

    The perspective Jay Baer, Marcus Sheridan and some others preach is to be the marketer providing useful information and content. Instead of relying purely on amazing, incredible content being discovered, rely on providing the information someone is actively looking for. As marketers, I believe this will be one of the ways that we will deal with newer, more effective filters.

    Another thing that will be increasingly effective: media relations. Somehow over the last few years, PR has been tossed aside by many marketers. With radical filters, PR will be seen in a much better light by marketers.

    Alright, I’ll stop now. Awesome, made me think, thanks for sharing!

  • Hey Mark,
    I commented yesterday but it doesn’t seem to have ‘saved’? Great article as usual. This is not so much ‘filtering’ as it is ‘voluntary censorship’, creativity and learning come from the discovery of new things, not just different things form particular subjects decided by an algorithm.

    Maybe we should unplug from the internet algorithms and go ‘free surfing’ without any ‘help’ from companies that think they know what we want! 🙂

  • OK so if you think of search as a means to find the best match (finding the highest point on a landscape is the archetypal anology).

    There may be local good matches that arent the best overall so if you always go uphill you will reach a local highpoint but not necessarily highpoint globally.

    The problem with Zite or any personalised search is the assumption of persona (a set of preferences) – So 95% of the time I search for energy I am talking about the stuff that comes through a power socket or gas pipe – but 5% of the time I may be looking for energy drinks or energetic dance or an etymological definition.

    This is why can be useful – as it very specifically ignores who you are!

    Any search filter needs to have sophisticated treatment of edge cases or the case when you want to “be someone else”

    Takeaway – if you value serendipity – you need to reject all filters at least some of the time.

  • Eric – The reality is a “personal bubble” has soft boundaries.
    Even things a huge distance from your current experience may be interesting. A search algorithm can guess if you are interested in patagonian cookery – only by derivative extrapoloation (he loves travel and cookery) – it may not be you are looking for something fundamentally novel – in which case home grown turnips may be a better match. Self-tuning search algorithms are useless outside their experience ranges

  • Jonathan Greene ?

    Your post explained it better than mine. Go figure. LOL, nice job.

  • All good points Eric.I guess where I fall off the wagon with the “be helpful” camp is that it still has to be discovered. And to be discovered you have to be amazing. It’s a vicious circle isn’t it? : )

  • Well said James.

  • Evokes some fun images! : )

  • Superb and wise comment sir. I thank you.

  • It is a bit of a vicious circle, but I don’t think it is as bad as you make it sound here. Being discovered in search is about answering the questions people are asking. Yes, there are some questions that everyone is trying to answer, but today, and for quite some time, I believe there will continue to be an opportunity here. When it comes to the filter, someone is actively engaged in searching, and refining their search, in order to find the information they need.

    The best analogy I have at the moment is someone tripping over a gold nugget versus someone with a metal detector carefully combing the area for gold. One is ambient discovery. You have to be in someone’s path and have it be worth the time to stop and look at the nugget they just kicked. On the other hand, the searcher is actively looking, on and off the path. They stop to inspect things that didn’t have any flash, because they are looking for something in particular.

    You don’t have to be amazing to be discovered by someone actively searching.

  • And scary ones :/

  • I thought I would continue the conversation here, rather than on the Content Shock thread.

    One thing is for sure, algorithms (filters) are about to become very big. And the fuel of algorithms is data, which is different from content. In reality – Big Data is sort of the wrong word, Big Algorithms is better. It is also true that conventional news or content providers need to see news and information as a raw material rather than a finished product – which is why it is interesting to see that CNN owns Zite.

    The filter effect (Filter Bubble) is also an interesting / worrying issue (check out Eli Pariser’s book – the Filter Bubble) partly because of the issues that you raise in that someone or something can start to control how the world is presented to you.

    The bit I am not so sure about is what the response from brands (as content / information producers) should be. I think our definition of ‘quality content’ has to change. Quality is not defined by the size of the audience a piece of content can attract, which is how we have been accustomed to understanding things in the reach and frequency world. Successful content may actually have very low levels of reach, but much higher levels of utility (engagement). Conventional high quality content (say Hollywood movies) actually has very low levels of real engagement – but it works because it lots of people are prepared to spend a bit of money to use this content to fill a gap in their life. But brands can never hope to compete with Hollywood – but they can compete in the utility space – which they generally do by providing answers to questions (answers to algorithms perhaps – since an algorithm itself is a form of question).

    Anyway – the one thing I do know is that many brands are wasting huge amounts of money churning out content that almost no-one will ever read – I guess we can both agree with that!

    See also

  • Pingback: Blogger insights this week: The brain science of conversion optimization()

  • Glad to see you hitting on this Mark. Radical filters are indeed a response to content shock. But egad, what a horrible response if it’s the only one.
    I’m among a small, but intense minority occasionally logging out of Google to try to avoid “value-add” filtering on results. To be fair, most people and professions may be more efficient (and therefore better off) if they only see content aligned with their past interests. But for a marketer or anyone else with a vested interest in understanding differing priorities, filters cut effectiveness.
    It reminds me of an ancient quote from a wise and favorite VP at a major consulting firm in the days when the USA Today was an upstart paper (er, that’s “newspaper” for those who no longer associate “news” and “paper): USA Today is a reflection of the people and should be required reading. It didn’t matter if it was useless for serious news. It mattered that was born to reflect the interests of broad U.S. society.
    And knowing what matters to everyone often matters to me.
    Ken Rosen
    Performance Works

  • I’m not sure what the answer is either but the stakes are too big to ignore. If there is a way to get through the filter, somebody will figure it out and turn it into a business!

  • Great anecdote Ken. I really think this post was as important as the Content Shock post. Who can predict what people value as content? There are vast implications for what is coming down the line. OK, that’s at least two recent comments from you. I can now connect them and see a trendline! : )

  • Pingback: Six Ways to Cut to the Core of Your Brand()

  • Pingback: Content Marketing and the challenge of radical ...()

  • Pingback: Content Marketing and the challenge of radical ...()

  • Pingback: Content Marketing and the challenge of radical ...()

  • Pingback: Content Marketing and the challenge of radical ...()

  • Pingback: Six Ways to Cut to the Core of Your Brand()

  • Jens Pacholsky

    Which brings us back to the fact that Zite is owned by CNN!

  • CNN sold this about a year ago.

  • Pingback: Content Marketing and the challenge of radical filters |

  • Adrijus Guscia

    Love the Content Shock and I’m super surprised how marketers are still talking as if Content Marketing is new and amazing thing and they don’t see that the Internet as a whole has been changing. We’re going back to the days of Gate Keepers.

    Question: What do you think about newsletters like BrainPickings or Thrillist or DailyCandy and their future? Zite looks like the future, but so do hand-picked, human curated stuff? Or will we trust algorithms only for this? 🙂

  • Pingback: Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy - Mark Schaefer - Mark Schaefer()

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast that I co-host with Tom Webster.

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details


Send this to a friend