Establishing the right quantity of content

Brands need to understand what key variables govern how much content they should produce.  As noted in my previous post, content strategists and content marketers tend to offer differing advice, and the rationale for their advice generally will focus on a specific aspect of content.  In this post, I outline how common goals for content can impact desired content quantity.  By having a more complete picture of impacts of different factors, brands will be better able to make informed decisions about how much content to produce.

photo of newsstand in Rome

What problem does growth solve?

Having a strategy for content is essential to implementing any content program, otherwise one is going to waste effort and miss important opportunities.  But even before developing a strategy, brands would benefit from having some sort of guideposts for understanding the utility of having more content.  Brands need a sense of what criteria to consider before they hire someone to help them develop a strategy that is based on goals that reflect assumptions about their problems.  That kind of criteria-based framework is not common currently.

Content strategy and content marketing each offer a perspective missing from the other.  Brands will want to ask what is their biggest issue: Is it having too much content (and too much poor quality content), which is overwhelming their audience, or is it not being heard in an increasingly noisy world?

Neither the strategy or marketing approach currently has a good conceptual framework for guiding the right amount of content over the long term. As a content strategist, I have a strong affinity with the approach of not pushing to add to an already large content stockpile, when this stockpile appears unvalued by audiences, and even by the brand itself.  That said, I believe this approach is valid only for the short term.   Though “less is more” can be an effective strategy in the short run, “more is more” will need to be where brands get to, provided it is done correctly.

Managing symptoms of too much content

One issue in particular draws much attention: that there is too much content, too much information, and too much of that is deemed poor.  Less attention is given to why so much content is out there.  There is an unspoken disdain for the people creating this content, as if they were foolish or willfully spiteful.  A common criticism admonishes those people in organizations who think of content “as a commodity” and who rush to publish “as much as possible.”

Rather than demonize the creators of unloved content, it is perhaps more constructive to understand their motives.  Content is created because there are incentives to create it that are based on a presumed demand for it — though the signals for the demand are often hard to read and are frequently misinterpreted.  It’s not just content that is growing: all kinds of things in our home and work lives are proliferating.  Marketers today need to communicate about hundreds of different toothpaste products, for example, not just a few dozen.  Complexity is a reality, even if one doesn’t like it.   What seems from one perspective to be unmanaged complexity, from another perspective can be seen as richness, diversity and choice.  The goal should not be to impose simplicity on audiences, but to hide complexity from them.

To grasp why quantity can be a hot button issue, consider the audience context.  Quantity can generate complexity for audiences.  Audience attention is adversely impacted by having to deal with irrelevant content. It is not just the amount of attention they are able to offer, it is the amount they are willing to offer.   Audience attention is capped, even if elastic within a narrow range.  Brands must manage quantity properly because audiences have limited attention to give to a brand’s content.

It is comparatively easy to stick to the safety of producing content for areas that one is absolutely sure that solid demand exists.  This is what GOV.UK did when it cut 75% of its content.  It is more difficult to interpret what content that one does not offer that one should offer.   It’s also essential to understand what content deserves fixing.  Rather than cut poorly performing content, it may be more beneficial to transform it.

Two kinds of quality problems: bad content and sad content

One should be careful not to equate poor quality content with useless content.  Content may not meet audience needs fully, but still offer them —  or the brand —  some value.  Such content is sad content, not bad content.  Brands should determine if there is a quantity surplus problem (too much useless content, but the rest is fine) or quality deficit problem (too little content is useful compared with the potential demand for it).  The two are not automatically the same issue, even though they often conspire together to damage the experience for audiences.  Brands face a choice: keep only useful content, or make all content useful.

Bad content should be cut: it offers no value to either the brand or the audience.  Sad content, in contrast, is content that in some way is valued by the brand but not the audience, or less commonly, valued by an audience but offering limited value to the brand.  Sad content can reflect general quality problems, but it also can reflect more specific issues relating to how to connect the right content with the right audience.  It may not be visible to an audience that is interested in it, or it might not be as relevant as it could be because it doesn’t provide sufficient details on the issues that matter most to them.

Brands have many goals for content

Sad content can be the by product of poorly executed attempts to realize different kinds of goals for the brand.  Rather than deride sad content, it is more useful to try to understand what it is trying to accomplish.  Generally these goals fall in four areas:

  • more frequent engagement with audiences
  • giving more specific kinds of information for audiences
  • providing more thorough explanations
  • getting more visibility, and helping audiences discover what you have to say

Each of these goals is worthwhile.  The following table summarizes how different brand goals relate to the quantity of content produced.  A goal may suggest producing less content, producing the same amount (but improving the quality), or creating more content.

Brand needs: Strategy: cull content (less content) Strategy: improve existing content (same amount of content) Strategy: expand content (more content)
More frequent engagement with audience     x
More precise content to improve relevance   x x
Better overall content quality x x  
More visibility in social or SEO x x x

The impact of goals on quantity

Engagement

The only unequivocal reason to create more content is to have fresh material to offer audiences.  This is a useful only to a limited degree, since only a portion of your audience will be willing to give more of their attention to the brand, and even for these people, there is a limit on how much attention they will be willing to offer.

Precision

To offer greater relevance to audiences often involves making content more precise.  Generally, this will involve adding more specialized content, or content with greater detail.  The simplest example of this are any of the big content providers: Amazon, Wikipedia, or Netflix.  They provide relevance to audiences by offering a big range of content addressing very specific interests.  Alternatively, a brand may improve existing content to make it less general, and give it more thematic variation.

Overall quality

To improve overall quality of content requires resources.  Generally, brands need to devote more resources to their existing content to make it better in terms of being topical for audiences, up-to-date, well written, having engaging media (quality graphics, photos, video) and so forth.  Although some incremental quality improvements are be possible with constant resources, most perceptible improvements will requirement more resources.   If additional funds aren’t available, brands face a strategic decision of whether to reduce the amount of content they offer in order to produce better quality content.   The “less is more” strategy can improve satisfaction with the more limited set of content that is published, but carries a potential cost of alienating people seeking content that is no longer available.  GOV.UK reduced duplicate content, and content that received little traffic, as part of their content culling.  But by drastically limiting content it may have reduced the level of self service and information transparency available to the UK public.

Clearly, any expansion of content will place a strain on content quality.  The case of Wikipedia provides an example.  Wikipedia is appreciated for the breadth of its content.  Many brands, from Apple to the BBC, use Wikipedia content in their products because Wikipedia is unrivaled in its breadth.  However, the quality of Wikipedia articles is quite variable, and despite having a sophisticated quality control process, poor quality content is not uncommon.  Even though Wikipedia is not a commercial product, the same issues confront commercial brands.  At times, it may be the case that publishing something is better than not publishing anything, when brands know their customers expect certain content from them, and the brand feels it has a responsibility to offer this content.

Visibility

The most difficult factor to gauge is how the quantity of content affects its visibility on search engines and in social media.  This is obviously important, since it impacts the discoverability of content, which in turn affects a brand’s ability to attract the audiences it desires.  On an atomic level, brands can promote individual content to raise its visibility through social media campaigns or search engine marketing, for example.  But the collective visibility of all the brand’s content is influenced by how audiences relate to the profile of the entire body of content.

Some agencies, such as Red Rocket (cited in my previous post) argue that more content automatically leads to increases in impressions, click throughs, rankings, and social media metrics.  Matt Cutts of Google notes that big websites don’t automatically get higher search rankings, so adding pages by themselves won’t improve search rank.  But he notes because additional pages typically drive more search queries and more page linking, these will help attract more visitors.

It can be argued that smaller organizations that need to attract interest around a specific core message will do better to limit the amount of content, so that audience traffic is directed to a limited set of content, rather than scattered across many different items of content.

Visibility involves a mixture of overall authority (utilization) of all content, and the authority (use) of specific items being promoted.  If a lot of content is weak, and fails to drive traffic, sharing or discussion, then the collective value of this content is weak.  If a few items are able to drive traffic, sharing and discussion, these items can be influential.  However, it can be risky to have expectations for gaining influence in a handful of content, hoping that it will become popular.  Relying on a narrow set of content to drive popularity could either involve narrowing the range of audiences it will appeal to only the most mainstream, or else trying to be too broad to find popularity, and failing to gain strong appeal from any group.

So from the perspective of content visibility, more-is-more, assuming the content is unique enough to get search and link traction.  Big sites having pages with high traffic also get a halo effect, where more niche pages are likely to get a lift through their domain authority.  When a brand is perceived as a source for content, it becomes a destination.

Can more content be better for audiences?

In several dimensions, audiences benefit from access to more content.  How does this square with the systemic problem that audiences face regarding information overload?  If attention is limited, does more content improve relevance, or lessen it?  This is the key question for brands.

In the future, brands should be able to produce more content that is more relevant for audiences: higher quality, more specific and precise, and delivered when audiences want to see it.  Audiences won’t feel overwhelmed, but more engaged, because the content more closely matches their specific needs and interests.  Developing this capability will require:

  • improvements in content production capabilities,
  • improvement in content categorization and discovery
  • improvements in content delivery intelligence

Note that such improvements are not free and will cost money.  Also, process and technology improvements won’t eliminate the problem of sad content, even if they reduce the issue.

Perhaps most importantly, automation and process alone won’t create great content.  The content with the most outsized impact will likely be content that received the most human attention, just as it is today.  Examples from award winning advertising and journalism show us that thoughtful and creative content gets the most engagement, and resonates more strongly with audiences.  Even when using technology to carefully optimize pages through repeated A/B testing, human attention and judgment are crucial to improving engagement.

The field of content is far from having an easy-to-understand and reliable framework to guide the right amount of content to produce.  But I hope that this overview provides practical guideposts to frame that discussion.

— Michael Andrews