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.
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?
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.)
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?