How Content Shock Hurts Freelance Writers

by John Soares on February 10, 2014

Content shock definition: web content is rising faster than people have the time to consume it.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Mark Schaefer

On January 6 Mark Schaefer published a provocative post about the declining utility of content marketing, a phenomenon he dubs “content shock.”

The piece has garnered a great deal of scrutiny and attention both from those who agree with Schaefer’s thesis (including me) and from those who disagree or downplay the impact.

I’m not here specifically to rehash the debate in detail. I’ll explain why I believe content shock is happening, and then I’ll address what freelance writers (and other self-employed freelancer types) should do about it.

So What IS Content Shock?

Basically, Schaefer says that the amount of information on the Internet is growing very rapidly. However, the time we have to consume that content is fixed: with our smart phones, computers, tablets, and other devices, we’re already about as tied in to the Web as we can be. Since most of us sleep 7-8 hours, we only have 16-17 hours a day to consume content, assuming we don’t have jobs to do or real people to interact with.

So this means all those Web pages are competing for a finite number of eyeball hours, a number that will only grow slowly.

Content shock: content production increases exponentially, but our time to consume it has nearly reached its limit.

Used with the kind permission of Mark Schaefer

But Won’t There Still Be Some Winners?

Yes, of course. The winners will typically be the content producers that are able to put up large amounts of high-quality content frequently. This requires money. The money can be used directly to pay writers, which large sites with strong revenue streams or venture capital can afford to do. Or, in the case of one-person operations and other small sites, the money is paid indirectly because those people create their own content, and while they’re writing, editing, promoting, and answering comments, they aren’t working on a high-paying freelance writing project or other source of income.

The winners will also most likely be the sites that are already well-established, with lots of subscribers and social media connections and lots of love from Google in the form of high rankings in the search engines.

Example: A Freelance Writing Content Marketing Winner

I’ll bet nearly all of you that are freelance writers are very aware of Carol Tice. Posts from her Make A Living Writing blog show up on page one of nearly every single search I do for anything related to freelance writing. Often she has the top position, with one or more other posts below, still in the top ten.

Carol has done this, as she’s explained in many posts, because she worked her tail off on her blog, plus she did a sh*t-ton of guest posts on other blogs. She combined that with her business savvy and broad writing experience to become the main go-to person for people wanting to be successful freelancers.

Furthermore, she’s capitalized on her blog’s success to sell numerous workshops and to launch a successful membership site, the Freelance Writers Den. (Disclosure: I’m a moderator in the Den and have been a member since its inception. I’ve also written for Carol’s blog and participated in several of her programs for Den members and blog subscribers.)

There are many other freelance writers who sell products to help beginners succeed (see my sidebar), but there are few, if any, who have Carol’s level of success. She will be hard to bump from that number-one spot.

Let’s shift to you, the standard freelance writer looking to make a decent living.

How Content Shock Affects Your  Website

Most freelance writers have websites that, at a minimum, state what kind of writing they do, why they’re qualified to do it, and how to contact them. We hope that quality clients will find us through Google searches and hire us for great projects. (It’s definitely happened to me.)

However, over time it will likely become more difficult to get organic search to your website. Basically, the increased competition for a finite amount of eyeball hours means most sites, especially the smaller ones like yours, will likely see decreased traffic from Google. To stay the same or even improve your traffic stats, you will have to crank out ever-increasing amounts of high-quality content on your site; as discussed above that costs you money, either directly or indirectly.

And over the last year or so, Google has been very focused on authority as an important factor in search results. This, again, favors the big names and the big sites that are well established.

Also remember that Google is also constantly adjusting which factors, and with what weight, determine search rankings. You may be getting substantial traffic now, but a future decision could take most or all of it away. It has happened to many sites, including those that share good information.

Some freelance writers will still rank well, but the vast majority could sink to near oblivion.

How Content Shock Affects Freelancers Who Specialize in Writing for Websites

I know many, many people are in this field. How will you be affected?

The top sites will always need new content, and they’ll usually be willing to pay really good writers decent pay to create it.

I do wonder how this will affect the many content mills out there. As their articles get pushed lower and lower on Google, they may go out of business, or they may offer even tinier compensation rates to their writers.

How Should the Freelance Writer Deal with This Situation?

Old-fashioned marketing.

Don’t wait for potential clients to find your website: go looking for them. Have a list of the top companies you most want to write for, and market yourself diligently to the proper people in those companies.

If you write content for websites, target the big guys, especially those with very large audiences. These are the ones that will have the sustaining power to survive long-term competition and they are also the ones that can pay you well. Plus you’ll frequently get good exposure.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t blog on your website; just be sure you’ve correctly calculated the return on the investment of your time, and that you follow through on networking, social media sharing, and the other important factors you need to do to get readers. I’ve come across many writer blogs with several hundred posts, sometimes 2000 or more, that have very low page rank, very low traffic scores, and little or no social media shares or comments. 

I think most freelance writers will be better off spending their time pitching their services to well-paying markets in good niches. (See my course Find Your Freelance Niches: Make More Money for Less Work for details on identifying the best niches.)

Your Take

Do you agree with the main premise of content shock? Why or why not? How will it affect you? And what are you going to do about it?

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    { 31 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Alicia Rades February 10, 2014 at 7:40 AM

    Twitter: @aliciarades

    I think this concept makes perfect sense. For me, it means fewer people will read my content because they’re already spending time reading content from bigger bloggers. That means that I have to get my content in front of them by writing for these bigger blogs.
    Alicia Rades recently posted…How Two Simple Words Will Change Your Life as a Freelance Writer

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    2 John Soares February 10, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    Alicia, guest blogging (for high-quality sites), can be a good way to get subscribers to your own blog, and the link from the guest site could help your SEO (although Google’s Matt Cutts has recently downplayed that possibility).
    John Soares recently posted…The 8 Top Ways to Legally Lower Your 2013 Freelance Writer Tax Bill

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    3 Jake Poinier February 10, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    Twitter: @drfreelance

    Interesting concept, and it definitely rings true. It’s a topic I address with clients regularly, particularly as a way of setting/managing expectations early on. (As in, “don’t expect to be #1 on search after your first blog post, or even after your 10th.”) Even as a voracious reader, I do a lot more deleting and skimming than thorough consumption.
    Jake Poinier recently posted…Should my freelance writing business be an LLC?

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    4 John Soares February 10, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    Jake, it’s very important for any business with a web presence to have realistic expectations of what that website will actually accomplish. Too many people are overly optimistic, or they put all their eggs in the Google basket.
    John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers

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    5 Cheryl Bryan February 10, 2014 at 10:10 AM

    Twitter: @cherylsdesk

    Wise advice, John. I’ve come to the conclusion that content on my site will not likely be found through Google — but I want it to be a good showcase for my services and writing abilities when I’ve directed a potential client there because of the relationship we’ve developed on LinkedIn or other online networking. I don’t quite understand the word “shock” in this context. Is it akin to information overload?

    Reply

    6 John Soares February 10, 2014 at 10:49 AM

    You are looking at this the right way Cheryl. Content on your site can demonstrate how well you do what you do.

    The “shock” term was likely used my Mark Schaefer to indicate that the decline in traffic many will experience in the future (or are experiencing now) will be largely unexpected and, of course, unwelcome.
    John Soares recently posted…The 8 Top Ways to Legally Lower Your 2013 Freelance Writer Tax Bill

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    7 Cathy Miller February 10, 2014 at 11:07 AM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    Success is a personal definition. There are all kinds of measurements of success. For some of us, it is not the #1 ranking in Google. I may have different reasons for my posting frequency than the next blogger. Not all strategy has the same goal.

    While I agree there is definitely content overload, as long as someone is satisfied with their goals and definition of success, who am I to question it?
    Cathy Miller recently posted…Choosing Your Marketing Communication Channel

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    8 John Soares February 10, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    Cathy, I agree that people blog for different reasons, and number of page views or average time per page or number of sales or number of new clients may not be that important for many, and I respect that.

    Some people blog because it expresses their creativity, or they really enjoy the interaction they have with commenters, or a host of other reasons that don’t have to do with the bottom line.

    I do think it’s important, though, for freelance writers and other self-employed people to be very clear on why they blog and that their blogging is giving them the return they want, monetary or otherwise.
    John Soares recently posted…19 Successful Freelance Writers Share Their Top Goals for 2014

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    9 Cathy Miller February 10, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    Agree totally with that last point, John. I know that I am at such a different place in my life that I often have different goals from my corporate days. Or at least I keep telling myself that. ;-)
    Cathy Miller recently posted…A Simple Marketing Budget Guide Dispels Myths

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    10 TCWriter February 10, 2014 at 3:55 PM

    Twitter: @chandlerwrites

    The concept of Content Shock seems like a pretty dramatic way of describing Google’s long-overdue attempts to reduce the impact of content farms, but I agree with your admonition to avoid passivity when freelancing.

    I believe emerging writers need to identify “dream” clients and pursue them. Just waiting for someone — anyone — to call is a poor prescription for career satisfaction.

    I started my copywriting blog in 2006, and within six months it had won some awards and was on the first page of Google’s search for “Copywriter.” It stayed there for years.

    Prior to that, I’d spent some money on Google ads for terms relating to freelance copywriting.

    I got a little bit of work from both, but not nearly enough to justify the effort. Especially given that most inquiries were from people who wanted response copy written for low-quality or scammy products (not a part of the business I sought or blogged about).

    In other words, you’re 100% right — we should apply the same standards (return on time, return on investment, etc) to our marketing efforts that we do to our clients’ marketing efforts.

    I’m working less than I used to and I don’t need to constantly find new clients, but referrals, cold calls and pitches always produced the best clients.

    Reply

    11 John Soares February 10, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    Tom, we agree about the importance of marketing directly to our “dream clients.”

    And thanks for sharing your experience with getting (or not getting) good clients through your blog. I’ve actually gotten a few good clients who found me through Google, but my niche (writing for college textbook publishers) is a very narrow one, and most of the companies looking for me are legit and have decent budgets.
    John Soares recently posted…19 Successful Freelance Writers Share Their Top Goals for 2014

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    12 TCWriter February 10, 2014 at 9:53 PM

    Twitter: @chandlerwrites

    John;

    Your point about SEO being more effective in niches is well taken. My fear with search-based tactics (including blogging) is that new writers will adopt them not because they’re so damned effective, but because they offer little risk of rejection.

    Cold calls, pitches and similar tactics are effective, but include the risk of rejection, which nobody enjoys.
    TCWriter recently posted…Telling Bigger, Better Stories Online: A Quick Look At “Big Story” Technology

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    13 John Soares February 11, 2014 at 6:38 AM

    Excellent point Tom. Inbound marketing through blogging is safe and easy because we don’t have that direct fear of rejection. But direct contact with potential clients is scary for most writers. Getting rejected is never fun, whether it’s a direct “no” or just silence.
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Google+ Communities for Freelance Writers

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    14 Tom Bentley February 10, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    Twitter: @bentguy1

    Thanks John. I haven’t acted on the “pitch your dream client” angle, though it seems a sound approach that wouldn’t take the effort of a lot of other endeavors, like blogging. I don’t post a lot on my blog (and don’t get a great deal of traffic), but for me it’s often a writing exercise, since I submit many essays and articles for publication, and I treat many blog posts as short essay exercises.

    I have obtained a few projects from clients who have come to my site without prompting, but many more come from referrals and other outreach.
    Tom Bentley recently posted…When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee

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    15 John Soares February 11, 2014 at 6:42 AM

    “…many more come from referrals and outreach.” This is how I get most of my clients.

    Like you, Tom, I also treat my blog posts like writing exercises. They are good writing practice, and they’re fun to write as long as we truly enjoy our subject.

    I am concerned for those writers who post several times a week on their blogs, to the detriment of marketing and working on paying projects.
    John Soares recently posted…Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination With My Kindle Ebook

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    16 Kaloyan Banev February 11, 2014 at 3:13 AM

    Twitter: @webmaisterpro

    Many freelance writers write extremely low quality content, mostly because they can not be experts in all niche. Even extensive research is commit, often end up like copycat content from top websites.
    Kaloyan Banev recently posted…Short Search Engine Optimization List

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    17 Danyelle C. Overbo February 11, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    Twitter: @DanyelleCOverbo

    Great points! This idea has been plaguing me since I first started freelancing. Sometimes I feel like I can’t wrap my head around all the content out there – why bother writing on this topic or that when its already been written about? It’s hard to get around sometimes.

    That being said, I decided to start my Sales Storyteller blog because I thought it would be good content for prospective clients to see as writing examples when/if they came to my site looking for a freelancer. So, there is that.

    However, I know my page rank is zero, and I’d love some direct, implementable advice on fixing that, but there doesn’t seem to be any real fix for it besides just working hard on guest blogging. That is currently my biggest frustration right now. From what you say here, there isn’t much we smaller freelancers can do about it in the long run?
    :(
    Danyelle C. Overbo recently posted…Why Sales Storytelling Matters to You

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    18 Tom Bentley February 11, 2014 at 12:28 PM

    Twitter: @bentguy1

    If you are interested in guest blogging, this might be a good resource. From Jon Morrow of Boost Blog Traffic, on some major sites, broken down by categories and with links to guidelines, that accept guest posts:

    http://guestblogging.com/TheBigBlackBook-v1.3.pdf
    Tom Bentley recently posted…When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee

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    19 Iulian February 12, 2014 at 9:22 AM

    Tom, I read The Big Black Book and I really like it. If you post another book let me know about it!
    Iulian recently posted…MeetMagento Romania

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    20 John Soares February 12, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    Danyelle, I know it can be frustrating. You said you’re using your blog as a source of writing samples for prospective clients, and that’s one good reason to have a blog.

    There are many things you can do to promote your blog and get more readers. There are many sites on the web that discuss that. However, I wouldn’t plan your career around having a successful writing blog. As I say in the post, I’d get out there and market myself to my “dream clients,” as Tom Chandler said above.
    John Soares recently posted…19 Successful Freelance Writers Share Their Top Goals for 2014

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    21 Laura Spencer February 12, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    Twitter: @TXWriter

    Hi John,

    You did a very good job of thinking this through. Thanks for voicing this perspective.

    While it is true that more and more content is being published, there are also some sites that fail and ultimately are removed. Other sites are abandoned. In the end, those who succeed will be those who understand the importance of both consistently publishing high quality content and social marketing. That may indeed limit the playing field to those who have the money to hire professional writers (like yourself) to do the writing. I’m not sure that’s entirely bad.

    Another reason that I think this a bit over-hyped is because I remember a similar argument when I began blogging in 2007. Many were saying that the “good” years of blogging were already over. And I even worried that perhaps I had missed the boat myself–if only I had started in 2001 or 2002.

    Fortunately, I didn’t give up on writing then and I don’t plan to give up now. :)

    Reply

    22 John Soares February 12, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    I think we both agree that the cream will rise to the top.

    I use the Broken Link Checker for Wordpress. Some of those broken links are blogs that not only stopped publishing, but the creator didn’t even want to pay for hosting, and in some cases, keeping the domain. So yes, some of the lower quality or just unsuccessful sites will literally disappear, along with their content.

    And I hear you about potential over-hype. I’ve read many predictions online that wound up not being true.

    However, I feel the logic here is inescapable: a finite amount of eyeball hours confronted with rapidly expanding content choices. The winning content producers will be the ones that do everything right.
    John Soares recently posted…8 Time Management Techniques for Successful Writers

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    23 Laura Spencer February 12, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    Twitter: @TXWriter

    “The winning content producers will be the ones that do everything right.”

    I like that quote John. If they don’t do everything right, they will at least be the ones who do most things right.

    Reply

    24 Natalie February 12, 2014 at 10:23 PM

    Hey John,
    Great post.It means instead of starting a new blog it’s far better to approach established bloggers for guest posts and I think this is good for those bloggers also.Thanks for the information.Keep updating!!

    Reply

    25 Graham Strong February 13, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    Twitter: @grahamstrong

    Hey John,

    Another important point to make is that the content itself is changing, which will have an impact on writers. Ten years ago even, 90%+ of Internet content would be writing*. Now, you can watch videos easily, even watch movies through Netflix, listen to podcasts, etc. etc. So blog writing — any writing — is now competing for eyeballs with other media that frankly has a pretty good track record against all things reading…

    ~Graham

    *numbers made up for effect, but probably in the right ballpark. Dammit Jim, I’m a writer not a mathematician.
    Graham Strong recently posted…Happy Medium

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    26 John Soares February 17, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    Graham, very good point about the nature of content changing to non-text.

    And I dig the Star Trek reference!
    John Soares recently posted…How I Do My Taxes

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    27 Don Wallace February 17, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    Twitter: @SWCopywriter

    Hi, John – great article. You nicely handled the aspect of targeting content effort vs. throwing content out into the void and waiting for it to stick – hasn’t worked for me.

    I have developed a premise that content itself needs to be actively marketed. Even down to the choice of a title. “Pavlov’s Dogs”, er, peers on LinkedIn :) respond well to post titles with words like “Surprising” – hardly at all to straight informational titles. I’ve seen that with back to back posts with different title approaches and observing the new “Who’s Viewed Your Updates” meter.

    Your post was inspirational for me. It lead me to write a post (link attached) that attacks the problem of content shock from an entirely different angle – the resources and goals of the authoring organization.
    Don Wallace recently posted…A Buyer’s Guide to Content Marketing

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    28 John Soares February 18, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    Don, headlines are crucial. I always pay attention to writing an eye-catching headline, but I I also wince slightly at some of the headlines I see on some blog posts.

    And I really like your post.
    John Soares recently posted…How I Do My Taxes

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    29 Don Wallace February 18, 2014 at 3:24 PM

    Twitter: @SWCopywriter

    Thanks for reading, John.
    Don Wallace recently posted…A Buyer’s Guide to Content Marketing

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    30 Inderpreet Kaur March 9, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Twitter: @indywrites

    John,
    What an accurate description of what writers face now not just in terms of content shock but how the limited number of hours are available to the readers as well as writers.
    Content is the king but networking is the queen if you want to succeed in this game;)
    Carol is an authority on aceing the freelance writing career, we might not achieve her success but we can be inspired by her to work as hard as we can.
    Thanks once again for getting to the heart of matter and simplifying it.

    Reply

    31 John Soares March 10, 2014 at 7:54 AM

    Thank you for your kind words Inderpreet!
    John Soares recently posted…5 Things About Wordpress That Really Bug Me

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