How to overcome content shock in 2021

What I’m about to say is unlikely to shock you.

In 2018, we hit the point of “content shock”; i.e. the moment when more content is published each day than there are humans alive to consume it.

This term was coined in 2014 by Mark Schaefer, at which point marketers worldwide flew into a tailspin — yielding thousands of very carefully crafted articles on engagement and quality and consistency. Then the maelstrom quietened.

And then, 2020 happened.

As we now shift in our emotional and intellectual seats, trying to find a new comfort zone in the peri-pandemic world, we must move beyond the era of content marketing as a game of ‘produce lots and see what sticks’.

The unbelievable tsunami

Since 2015, marketers have seen close up, a trend now known as the “content marketing paradox”: Brands are creating more content with less return. More production; less consumption.

“[H]uman beings have learnt to skim-read at an Olympic level. In 2018, the average person scrolled 91m of mobile content a day,” says Leigh Tayler in MarkLives (2021).

Schaefer himself said, in 2019, that, “[w]e’re marketing against an unbelievable tsunami of new content”. But quite shortly thereafter, we made the tsunami worse:

We flooded 2020.

Non-stop messages. Constant, panicked communication, under the guise of ‘pivoting’. We overdid it, and now people are deeply fatigued. Over it. Cynical.

I know I am. I’m unsubscribing from newsletters three times a day.

Like me, our readers aren’t just short of time. They’re short of patience. So, for 2021 content, I suggest that we wed ourselves to less is more. Pronto, before there’s no one left who wants to read anything at all.

What’s the problem?

You might think the problem is just an explosion of bad content.


There’s also an explosion of amazing content — and that’s the real issue. Because producing great stuff simply isn’t enough to differentiate you.

You need to tick some other boxes too:

· Fewer characters — i.e. shorter words

· Less dense copy — i.e. more visuals; more empty space

· Less frequency — i.e. more silence

I was surprised.

When I started researching this article, I had planned a fourth box for ticking:

· Fewer words — i.e. shorter messaging

So I went down all sorts of rabbit-holes to confirm if this instinct was correct.

It wasn’t. Turns out, there’s been a steady upward trajectory to content length over the last few years.

Neil Patel says that the average blog post was 808 words in 2014, but 1142 words in 2017. That’s an increase of 41%. And last year, in 2020, the average length of a top ranking blog post was 1447 words.

Yikes! I can barely remember the last time I wrote anything longer than 850 words.

It’s counter-intuitive. Our attention spans are getting shorter, yes, but it seems that people are still willing to invest the time in reading comprehensive and well-written posts. Detailed, relevant, useful posts.

So, let’s focus on the other three boxes. I mean, I’m not going to be the schmuck who discounts the advice of Neil Patel.

Rule 1: Less frequency, plus better quality, authority and relevance

Respect the majesty of silence. Of saying less. Of… sometimes saying nothing.

What if you could only produce four pieces of content for the next 10 months? How would you adjust your approach to get the results you need?

Look at Fresh Living, the print mag that John Brown produces for Pick n Pay. In 2020, the magazine went from a monthly print order of 500 000 copies, free to Smart Shopper members, to a paid model with four annual print orders of 50 000, at R25 a pop.

That’s 6 million copies annually, down to 200 000, but with an extra R5 million in revenue.

At the same time, Fresh Living amped up its website and produced a free PDF edition, available online. It’s thriving, says Lani Carstens, John Brown Media MD (in MarkLives, 2021).

It seems, from the Fresh Living example, that you can choose from one of two “winning hands” (yes, that’s Schaefer again):

1. Create must-see content that establishes you as a clear and cannot-be-ignored thought leader, or

2. Bombard a relatively un-saturated micro-market with so much lekker content that you’re able to dominate.

In both cases, you’ll need to start by thoroughly assessing the existing content density in your micro-market.

Which leads us to…

Rule 2: Shorter words that are a) data-backed and b) better chosen

Yep. Data!

Craig Davis, former Chief Creative Officer at J. Walter Thompson, said, ”We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

Only data can tell you that.

Use data to analyse your audience. Create content based on their specific interests, pain points, demographics and psychographics. Focus on finding out what content works and what doesn’t. Conduct A/B testing, iterate, and optimise.

“What you’re aiming for is a ‘thick data’ outcome,” says KLA (in Daily Maverick, 2020). A more refined version of big data, thick data refers to “fit-for-purpose, bespoke information that adds texture to, and unpacks the ‘why’ behind, observable consumer behaviour” (KLA, Daily Maverick, 2020).

And once you have thick data, be aware that short, snappy words and phrases tend to perform better than complex, elaborate copy.

Far from being unsophisticated, plain language writing takes skill and hard work. It neither oversimplifies nor changes meaning. It’s not “dumbing down”. In fact, the more sophisticated your readers or the topic, the simpler the writing should be.

Rule 3: More empty/open space (especially if the text is longer)

Designers love it. Writers don’t trust it. Clients desperately want to fill it.

It’s empty space (referred to in the industry as “whitespace”) and it’s the breathing room not only between design elements in the page’s composition, but also between columns and lines of text.

It gives the readers’ eyes visual oxygen, helping to guide them through the navigation of your content.

It also allows you to visually influence your readers, nudging them in the direction you want them to go.

When you’re dealing with a lot of copy, per Neil Patel, remember that empty space helps to break up large blocks of text, so your readers don’t feel intimidated or get fatigued as they try to decipher it all.

Empty space, says Alvalyn Lundgren (2011) “helps us understand what we’re seeing… Without [it], one thing flows into another with no relief, ideas merge and the message becomes confusing. When that happens, communication ceases…”

The bottom line?

I’m on 1083 words now, which isn’t even long enough to have been optimal back in 2017. But it’s 300 words over my comfort zone. So I’m done. Markman, out.

This article originally appeared on MarkLives on 29th April 2021.

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on words and writing. Want some?

Join Tiffany’s newsletter community by sharing your best email address, and get tips, tricks, info and advice whenever she has value to add.