2005-2009 it was good enough to post and get traction. Then, 2010 “experts” started saying you need to post at least once a day to get traction. 2011-2015 the idea of posting really long articles. “Content is king” was thrown around as the viable strategy to get noticed, get traction, and get results. Those were the days. The golden age of blogging is over.
Now, long form, quality content is the bare minimum. It’s the price of entry. Content, data, articles, opinions, newsjacking–content has now become a commodity. Economics of publishing explain the current situation. Digital content after it’s published doesn’t cost anything to reproduce. Since each additional reader or pageview costs zero in additional expenses, also known as zero marginal cost, Publishers and bloggers flooded the market with more and more content. Some argue it’s unsustainable.
Demand for that content stayed the same. There’s a limited number of US readers and a limited amount of time in each day to consume content. In a market where supply floods over demand for a product with zero marginal cost means the value add isn’t in the product. It’s about getting that product into the hands of consumers.
Content Isn’t King. It Never Was.
Oil was once called black gold. That description sticks with us today. But it’s misleading. In 1870, Standard Oil was founded. This was after oil production had been around for a while. Standard Oil didn’t have the first mover advantage. By 1890, Standard Oil owned 88% of the refined oil flow. Flow being the important part. It wasn’t producing more oil. It wasn’t black gold that made John D. Rockefeller a billionaire. Oil is the commodity. Just like content is a commodity today.
Rockefeller understood its not about the oil. It’s about distribution. Distribution was the true asset generating abundant wealth for Rockefeller. Railroads, pipelines, shipping and refining centers were all the distribution assets to move the commodity to market. Both finding new distribution channels and controlling those distribution channels remained the real wealth creator behind Standard Oil. It had very little to do with production. As Rockefeller’s production competitors soon found out, the distribution assets quickly took control over the entire oil market. The producers lost control of the market to the distributors.
High Volume Publishing: The Future of More and More Content
Today’s content has become a commodity. The price of producing yet another article is near zero. The cost to serve another pageview is at zero. The cost of content production, quality content, are at zero. The flood of content isn’t going to stop. Mark Schaefer, author of The Content Code illustrates the glut of content problem, “depending on what study you read, the amount of available web-based content (the supply) is doubling every 9 to 24 months.”
In 1998, Google’s index had 26 million pages. In 2016, Google’s index held 130 trillion pages. At the same time, the amount of time online has gone from an estimated 213 minutes to 431 minutes in 2016. That’s including the time spent on mobile. The amount of content has exceeded the time available per day to consume that content. Even if US readers doubled the time spent consuming digital content, there would still be more content than hours in the day.
Large publishers have been a large driver of the trend in scaling content. BuzzFeed jumped on the high volume publishing strategy over the past few years. From 2012 to 2016, BuzzFeed increased content production a staggering 596.39% increase in posts. That’s not including video. Washington Post, Huffington Post, and others have been increasing the amount of content to the point of publishing 1,000 articles per day. At this point competing for eyeballs must evolve past write it and they will come.
“In a world of high volume content your amplification strategy will be more important. Producing quality content and hoping people will find it will no longer work, if it ever did. Content promotion via your own teams and influencers, via email to your subscribers, via paid ads and via social will be critical,” as explained by Steve Rayson, Director at BuzzSumo.
Yes, producing the content is important. And writing quality content will remain important. But that’s just the beginning. A commodity refined and processed to a higher grade by clarity of thought, editing, and originality increases the price of that commodity. However, it doesn’t change the fact it’s still a commodity. And commodities need distribution channels for any real value to be created. Your commodity (content) needs a strategy. A distribution strategy.
Distribution: Where Real Value is Created
There’s four main distribution channels. Each channel has several different routes for distribution. There’s also benefits and drawbacks for each. The four channels are, Owned, those are assets like email or a blog. Earned, larger trafficked sites sending referral traffic. Paid Marketing, buying distribution from larger sites. Syndicated, sharing assets with a larger property with greater distribution access.
1. Owned: Channels You Control.
Email. It’s the one channel you truly own. Everything else is rented. Think of all the top sites with a massive email list. Email makes up over 7% of the traffic to Tim Ferriss’ site.
Direct. Type in traffic for your brand is a huge driver of the largest sites. While you can’t send out an update and get people to type in the domain name, having a strong brand and measuring search trends for the brand name over time only helps direct traffic.
2. Earned: Larger Sites Sending referral traffic.
SEO. Begging for links, getting optimized for Google. There’s no doubt Google still sends a ton of quality traffic. But do content producers really have that much control over it? There’s a risk to every source of traffic. The amount of control over that source might not make the effort worth it in the long run.
Social. Again, Facebook recently decided to end the free ride brands and publishers were getting. Do you really want to rely on the whims of Facebook for traffic?
Referral. Much better source of traffic. Ryan Holiday is a great example of using a long-term relationship with much larger publishers to send consistent, quality traffic to his other content.
3. Paid Marketing: Buying Distribution Rights for traffic.
Paid Search. Ask.com after 10+ years still buys a ton of traffic. It’s more control. Quality traffic. And it probably won’t go away anytime soon.
Paid Social. There’s some large publishers testing paid social. It’s expensive. But much more control than the organic social side. Tim Ferriss is testing SimpleReach. It’s to the point where content producers have to start paying for distribution.
Paid Content Distribution. With Taboola, RevContent, Outbrain and other networks you can reach new readers on a cost per click basis.
4. Syndicated: Sharing assets on another property.
Medium. Re-posting on Medium and other sites. It could be the best of both worlds. Traffic from referrals, but zero marginal cost on producing exclusive content.
Aggregators. Content aggregators are still a huge business. Business Insider built a large audience aggregating content.
Content Distribution Benchmarks: 10 Individuals
From these benchmarks, it’s interesting to dissect some traffic strategies but also assess risk levels for those strategies. For two channels content producers own, email and direct, the average for all 10 is a healthy 42.39%. Algorithm updates from Google and Facebook still wouldn’t kill the ability to keep the servers running. It would still be painful but not deadly. Individual content producers should aim for at least 30% in direct traffic. This starts by establishing a brand. Create your Position based on content not being produced–find your uncontested space. And find profitable distribution to capture ongoing direct traffic.
Out of the entire list, Ryan Holiday has the least risk. Not only has he captured a healthy direct traffic, but he leads the way in referral traffic. Assuming Facebook and Google both decided tomorrow not to include his content in any link. His relationships with Thought Catalog and The Observer probably won’t end unless he stops producing content. Those two sites, along with his DailyStoic site would continue sending hundreds of visitors each month. On top of the referral traffic he earns, his email list continues to send a larger than average amount of visitors each month. Ryan Holiday has the most control of the list of content producers.
For everyone saying email is dead. Take a look at Tim Ferriss. Tim leads the pack in the amount of his readership comes from Email. At 7.05%. He does two ways. One constantly testing new ways to capture email. Right now using a tool called Bounce Exchange, Tim has tested a lot of different placements to capture email. Two, Tim has created expectations on email schedule. With his “5 bullet Friday” email, readers not only expect but also look forward to an email from Tim–every Friday.
The two most vulnerable for an algorithm update. James Clear and Nat Eliason. Both have above average dependence on Google. Both also have much lower percentages of email. Both might want to start testing more aggressive email capture experiences including exit intent, content upgrades, and other placements that would increase the retention of readers.
Average is Over: Distribution before Content
As the internet looks at more and more content being produced–sometimes automated by a robot–the old days of just pressing publish are over. Today’s content must find and own distribution channels not dictated by Facebook or Google or Tomorrow’s gate keeper. Finding, owning and improving distribution channels could mean the difference between winning the content marketing game or a spectacular loss. Great content isn’t cheap. Make sure there’s a distribution channel or a strategy to win in a distribution channel before publishing.