How to create a winning strategy with crappy content

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It’s not often that you see a blog post that makes you think, discuss, and maybe even a little sick to your stomach but that’s what Steve Rayson of BuzzSumo achieved with his controversial post “The Future is More Content.”

Steve has put out some thorough, well-developed thought leadership pieces over the years and this post is among his finest because he brings up an ugly topic we choose to ignore — that swarming the web with content — maybe even crappy content — is a legitimate strategy.

It’s a topic I’ve covered in The Content Code book and in a recent podcast episode — when you get it down to it, the best content marketing strategy is to create “Content Shock” for your competition by finding an unsaturated topical niche and then thoroughly dominating it to the point that you attract most of the Google juice. If you don’t believe me, try competing with Hubspot in the content space.

In a follow-up post, Chad Pollitt of Relevance goes a step further to explain that Google actually encourages quantity over quality. Perhaps their algorithm is hurting their own customers!

Steve Rayson’s article points to several examples where the “quantity” strategy is occurring. He points to the Washington Post strategy of increasing their publishing rate to attract more views. He furthers his argument by noting that cost of content is coming down which will rapidly enable a “quantity” strategy. We’ll soon have computer algorithms creating loads of crappy content for us at very low cost.

In fact, it is already happening. Steve mentioned to me that companies like Automated Insights are offering to produce 1,000 blog posts for $250. Are the posts any good? Maybe they don’t have to be. Steve argues that the future of content marketing is quantity, not quality.

Of course this goes against the conventional wisdom of almost every content marketing guru around these parts, but here’s the truth — Steve has only revealed the dirty little content marketing secret everybody knows but doesn’t want to acknowledge: quantity can beat quality.

At least in some cases …

Quality still matters, mostly

When you have a business model that depends on “eyeballs on ads” then driving page views at any cost may make sense.

But if you are a business (like mine) that is trying to attract loyal customers who stick around and actually do something, then the quality  model is probably the way to go.

Let’s use Steve Rayson’s posts as an example. I never miss his articles because he always delivers in-depth, data-driven content. And he usually writes long posts — but not too often — so I can keep up with them.

If Steve started posting 250 posts a week, the first reader he would lose is me, and that would be a shame because through his content, I have become friends and a collaborator with Steve … which is how content marketing is supposed to work when you are trying to establish thought leadership.

When I get people unsubscribing from my blog (it DOES happen!), the reason most often provided is “too many updates,” and I only publish 3-4 times a week. Even if I pushed that to 6-7 posts a week, I know I would lose a LOT of readers … even though I might get a lot more “views” because the sheer volume is going up.

Viewers versus readers

There is one other very important dynamic here. When people do click through to a corporate site, the average time on a piece of content is 15 seconds. So do you really want views … or readers?

Nevertheless, Steve is mostly correct in his analysis and I think the only ones who protest the truth of what he is writing either skimmed the post or are in denial.

In fact, in the near future most content marketing may be turned over to the machines. I have this image in my head of those swarming bots in the The Matrix Trilogy hunting down unsaturated long-tail niches and then overwhelming the little opening with thousands of pieces of content. Of course this will happen. Rather depressing to think about, isn’t it?

I suppose at the end of the day the only “Neo” hero we have in the content marketing world is either to be the content curator or to be the brand trusted above all others. If we can create content that is un-missable, unmistakable, and un-copy-able we might have a chance … but let’s explore this idea a little more, shall we?

Tom Webster and I dive over the crappy content waterfall in our latest Marketing Companion episode. We punch holes in the quantity versus quality debate as well as revive our plans for CompanionStorm, a listener conference featuring Kanye West (kind of). You’ll have to hear it to believe it!

If you can’t access the edition above, click on this link to listen to Episode 85

Please support our extraordinary sponsors. Our content is free because of their generosity.

Many thanks to our friend Scott Monty for the awesome show intro. Be sure to check out his amazing newsletter The Full Monty and his new podcast available here: fullmontyshow.com,

BuzzSumoBuzzSumo is the world’s best way to discover, analyze and amplify your content. Run over to BuzzSumo today for a 14 day free trial. Beyond data, BuzzSumo offers priceless insights into content discovery, monitoring, influencers and outreach, content research and planning, and competitor research. Find out why so many Marketing Companion fans are now hooked on Buzzsumo. Check out BuzzSumo’s powerful technology to look at the hottest content trends down to the hour!

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Affinio is now offering a FREE eBook co-authored with Mark Schaefer called How to Identify, Understand and Grow Your Ideal Content Audience. Check it out, as well as their new free audience Discovery tool. Affinio is an advanced marketing intelligence platform that leverages the interest graph to understand today’s consumers. Affinio believes that if we can understand individuals at a deeper and richer level, then we can fundamentally change the way people relate to one another. By understanding the interests and cultural DNA of key audience segments, marketers are empowered to take an audience-first approach to making meaningful connections with ideal consumers. Find out how at Affinio.com.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Robin Zebrowski

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  • I agreed with many of Steve’s analysis and conclusions, but I think that the examples and the language in the post are going to lead some people to learn the wrong lessons (e.g., “but now I think we could be wrong” about quality over quantity). His discussion of long-tail search and the ability to address much of it with automated content generation is accurate, but there’s a lot of nuance under the surface that’s not discussed in the piece.

    Let’s take the Washington Post example. Yes, they’ve dramatically increased their output and, yes, it’s sucked up a lot of the long-tail search traffic….but that doesn’t mean that most brands can replicate this. One of the major reasons that the Post has succeeded with this strategy is that they have a tremendous brand, which helps them significantly in the search results. Google’s algorithmic updates have increasingly favored brands over the past few years, so the Post has an advantage that most people aren’t going to be able to replicate.

    It’s also worth noting that the Post has one of the world’s greatest staff of investigative journalists, editors, and columnists. So while they’re creating lots of “snacky” content, it’s paired with some of the best “meat and vegetables” content in the industry. This maintains their trust with both the visitors to their site and the search engines.

    The other thing that the article doesn’t cover is the risk associated with a “high volume, low cost” strategy. There’s a long history of companies taking this approach (Demand Media is one example), only to get their butts handed to them when Google updates their algorithm. Yeah, you might be able to find a set of long-tail terms that can be owned with this strategy, but it’s not one that I’d want to be dependent on for the long-term. I’ll always put my money on Google getting smarter and smarter about what quality content and real advocacy is. I’ll take Google’s army of machine learning experts over someone’s ability to create a thousand blogs posts for $200 any day. 🙂

  • My issue is the people pushing content marketing tend to profit from the activities vs their clients. And this is more niche . WaPo is different from Kraft Mac and Cheese. And for most businesses focus on product will always win over marketing gimmicks. I deal with so many small businesses doing gangbuster sales that do little social or digital marketing because their product sells itself.. And for major brands who do a lot I doubt any adult gets swayed by content for mor B2C brands.

    Content marketing works best to convert leads to sales vs as lead gen because for speed and ROI AdWords will destroy any content marketing efforts tied to SEO. Not even close. In fact content marketing for SEO is like a boat…a big hole to throw money down.

    But since most content published is never seen publish away! I would suggest higher quality content with each piece promoted more often than a ton of content each promoted 1x.

  • Mark

    The robots are coming!

    So, robots are already auto following, liking, and sharing content. Now robots are writing content that will be liked, and shared by robots. So, if robots with artificial intelligence can actually read the content and leave relevant comments, then we can all go back to our physical networking and meet people again (unless virtual reality kills that, too).

  • My knee-jerk reaction to this is to shake my head and say, “Steve is just taking this view to stir the pot and get a conversation started.” Mark, I think you mentioned that on one of my posts last week – write something controversial to boost engagement. So that’s the first thing that went through my head.

    Then I read Steve’s article and he’s simply demonstrating points that fit together in a narrative, but aren’t actual facts. First, he’s using the Washington Post, a media publication, as an example. They’re a media company, they’re #1 priority is readers. That’s how they sell ad space. So they don’t care if someone stays on the site, they just need UVMs to sell ad units. Most businesses wouldn’t count just pageviews to crap content as a good business model. Like @HowieG67:disqus mentioned, WaPo is different from Kraft.

    Steve goes on to use the HubSpot example, which on the surface looks compelling: # articles increased and leads increased. We jump to the conclusion that the increase in articles helped increase leads, but that’s simply correlation, not causation. Causation would be showing how many of those new articles resulted in a lead. Did all of them garner leads? Or did companies that created more content simply have more chances at hitting the right topic since they took enough swings at the plate? If that’s the case, I’d say that more content was a waste of time and instead they need to identify the correct topics that resonate before writing anything.

    This leads to what @paulmay:disqus said, people are going to get the wrong impression from just skimming this article and they’re going to go for quantity over quality and we’re just going to keep up a bad marketing trend. In a simple baseball analogy, It’s basically saying that if you produce enough stuff and take enough swings at the plate, you’ll eventually hit a home run. But if you only hit the ball once every 10 times, you’re just like the rest of content marketers wasting their time on ineffective content. Instead, you should identify the pitches to hit, and let the other bad ones pass you by.

    Also, quality always should remain high if you want to build a good report with your customer. Crap content = crap experience = crap sales.

  • “Short, almost useless pieces of content” seems like a pretty limited strategy.

    Your site needs enough Google love for those 1200 articles to drive traffic.

    And wouldn’t “almost useless” content lead to high bounce rates which would then lead to poor search result position? Am I missing something?

    And how well would “almost useless” convert?

    Something to think about but this looks like a potentially-questionable SEO strategy and has nearly nothing to do with content marketing.

  • Fantastic comment Paul. A legitimate blog post in its own right! And I agree with you that this is a nuanced and and multi-layered discussion not easily covered in a short blog post (or even in Steve’s long one!). Thanks, and I agree. Superb comment.

  • I agree with you in general but think there are many businesses that benefit from content marketing, including mine. So while I believe it is over-hyped primarily by the people who sell into the industry I think it is under-sold by your comment, which is perhaps is largely coming from businesses who would benefit from coupons and yard signs more than thought leadership pieces in B2B : ) Hey, yard signs still work!

    I will be writing soon about new research that shows conclusively that a) most content marketing is a waste of time but b) when it works, it really works. Always nice hearing from you sir!

  • Ha! Yup. That might be nice, actually.

  • Really great post Brandon and I agree with what you say here. I do think I present a balanced view on the post though, because my concern has been EXACTLY what you’re saying — people would skim Steve’s article and make the wrong conclusion. So I went out of my way to say “wait a minute…”

    Of course, they will probably skim this article, too!

    The thing I like about Steve’s article though is that it does present an alternative perspective that we tend to gloss over. Everybody pontificates about quality and that “quality will always rise to the top” ( which is BS). The fact is, we need both quality and quantity, and in some limited cases, maybe just a lot of crap will do if the cost is low enough, which is the value of Steve’s perspective.

    Thanks so much for the extraordinary comment.

  • I agree that it is a limited strategy, but my point is that it IS a strategy that people overlook or ignore. There are companies out there that own certain topical domains, absolutely swarm the space with crappy content, absorb the Google juice, and then sell the leads. Not every piece of content has to be a thought leadership piece to work. Not every space needs that. I know that sounds kind of yucky, but we have to live with Google rules and in their world, the last person to the content table is probably left picking up crumbs.

    PS Who would think that content marketing and SEO are mutually-exclusive? They are inexorably linked. Many SEO people say “content IS SEO” these days.

  • So I will raise this discussion one level. With automated content being generated cheaply. And AI bots supposedly replacing humans on the brand side of social media the next step is obviously the same for users. That what if instead of me being online or on social my own personal not replaces me online and all this content instead of reaching humans reaches other machines . Will be an interesting world Mark.

  • Yup. I can see that. I’ll have my bot call your bot.

  • I agree. What I’m thinking about is how useful is “almost useless”? “Almost useless” isn’t useless. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to change the world with every article.

    And I agree enthusiastically with your post-script. SEO, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing… they’re all overlapping ecosystems.

  • The fact is that many companies have a strategy that features crappy content (or ALMOST crappy content!). Look at the online content of Forbes. It is an amalgam of crap, including blatantly sponsored posts. And yet it has made the transition to online monetization better than most other traditional media outlets. INC is also going the route of link bait your way to success. Many publications are allowing native advertising which is clearly a nod toward crap over quality … And it is a HUGE revenue generator. Overall the economics of the web often favor crap. People won’t normally pay for quality. Good enough is ok.

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