Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

The Tragedy of the Commons and the Death of Content Marketing


By Bill Paarlberg—Content marketing is drowning in a tsunami of its own making. It’s the old tragedy of the commons playing out in new media: too many users exploit a limited resource and the resource becomes worn out. In this case the resource is people’s time and attention, and it’s been overloaded by too much content. (I wrote a similar thing about email here.)

Herbert Simon (1971) said it with remarkable prescience:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention ..”

I’m not the first guy to point this tragedy of the commons dynamic. Read Alan Gleeson, “Why Grazing Cows and Content Marketing Have More in Common Than You’d Think!” who explores the concept as applied to Twitter, LinkedIn, email marketing, and blog content.

Content marketing: paying for people’s attention

Mark Schaefer has said a very similar thing with his “Content Shock” concept:

“This upward trend of content consumption is not sustainable because every human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume.”

He points out that content marketing doesn’t just give away content, it actually pays people to view content, because that content costs money to produce.

Mr. Schaefer is a very thoughtful guy, and he sells a book on how to overcome content shock. Although I haven’t read it, his solution to the problem of too much content appears to be selling content that teaches people how to make more and better content. He’s a meta-content marketer.

Content marketing is choking on the empty fluff it produces

The problem with content marketing is that it only works if people pay attention to it. When there is too much content, people have to ignore it. Remember how marketing gurus used to deride “yelling louder” as a marketing strategy? Well, that’s just what content marketing has become, and people are covering their ears.

Far too many content marketers have mistaken the content for the marketing. They’ve become adept at content churn by creating “new” content from recycled old posts and and the flimsiest of ingredients. As a consequence, content becomes ever more plentiful, but has less actual real content. And the results go far beyond choked inboxes and social media streams. Readers don’t trust content marketing. Far too much of what is demanding our attention turns out to be empty fluff, and so we’ve come to expect that. Most of our response to content is to ignore it.

The sad demise of content marketing in two lines

Here’s a chart from TrackMaven (thanks to that tells the sad story of content marketing in two lines: As quantity goes up, engagement goes down:


We’ll talk more about engagement below.

Hey, some people make it work, don’t they?

Of course, we all know that there are some people and businesses who are very good at content marketing. They produce distinctive content that people recognize as having real value. And they reap the rewards of readers’ attention, respect, and eventual action. I think Mr. Schaefer, mentioned above, is one of them.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be done, but it is not easy to do. As time goes on it’s harder to do and costs more to produce. And it’s got little to do with cranking out a new post every day, and a lot to do with the value of that post. Unfortunately, such valuable content is being swamped by the flood of valueless content, and readers are increasingly distrustful of it all.

Content marketing should be engagement marketing

That’s why engagement is king. It’s common to hear that “content is king,” but it’s really engagement that rules. After all, content without engagement is the king of very little.

So “content marketing” is a misnomer. The whole point of content marketing is to engage the reader. It should be called “engagement marketing.”

Measurement to the rescue(?)

This is where communications measurement and evaluation comes in. To us measurement types, engagement is an obvious improvement over ever-larger output measures (“Three new posts and four videos this week!”) or impressions (“We reached 450 million eyeballs on Facebook!”). Moreover, the many varieties of engagement provide an opportunity to explore the effectiveness of different content for organizations with different purposes. Here’s an article that shows you how to do that with cost-per-engagement metrics.

Measuring engagement is a current hot topic for the measurement industry. And it’s a little more complicated than likes, shares, and time on page. See Jim Macnamara’s article, or the Social Media Measurement Conclave’s recent standards, or Katie Paine’s several articles on the topic, for instance.

But even if content marketers use just the most elementary of engagement metrics, then that will be a good thing. They will begin to assess the real value of their efforts. The empty-content marketers will see the folly of their ways, hopefully, and improve their content. Although, come to think of it, there are still an awful lot of spammers out there sending millions of unopened emails every day. Perhaps such will be the fate of content marketing.

OK, so proper measurement can evaluate engagement and thereby help improve content. But can it save content marketing from the tragedy of the commons? An interesting question. I’d like to think so.

But Mr. Simon’s insight above refers to “information,” which means content regardless if it is empty or of great value. Our attention will still be overloaded, even if content marketing improves its ability to deliver valuable content. (And our world includes plenty of other burgeoning sources of information.) Still, my guess is that the more valuable content is, the more organized it will be, and the easier it will be to search and use efficiently. Our information overload tragedy may continue, but at least measurement can help content become more valuable, organized and accessible.


Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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