The Yin and Yang of Content Economics

Tweet from Bob ScheierIt has the look of two trends hurtling toward a head-on collision. Content is getting ever cheaper, but to be effective, content has to get ever better. Sooner or later, one of these trends is bound to falter–but which will it be?

That was the implicit question in a plaintive tweet last week from Bob Scheier: After a look at HubSpot’s Writers Network, he asked: “Why are rates so low ($50/blog post)? Was hoping to eat in 2011.”

The skeptical might reply that HubSpot’s network is too new to be representative, that the writers set their own rates (some much higher than $50), and that those with established clients probably earn much more.  But the overall effect of such outlets, in which writers bid against one another, is undeniably to lower writing fees.

We may not like it, but behind this trend is the force of economic law. In a time when everyone is becoming a journalist, Neil Thackray says, “that must mean there is an oversupply of content. And that means the price falls.  Try writing for Demand Media and you will quickly learn the harsh economics of content oversupply.”

On its face, this trend would appear to be great news for marketers. As Josh Gordon pointed out last week, one of the primary attractions of social media is its low cost. Cheap content fits right into that equation. The only problem is this: Cheap content is crappy content.

Gordon puts it this way: “As anyone reading this blog should know by now, good content is not cheap and a social media program is only as good as its content.” As he points out, though, many marketers, at least for now, “see this differently.” It’s no wonder, he says, that they also think social media is one of their least effective marketing tools.

Fortunately, every yin has its yang. While an abundance of content creators leads to oversupply, the scarcity of attention among overwhelmed audiences increases the value of good content. As Paul Conley has argued, the result is an “excellence craze”:

“In B2B, where I make my living, it seems like every company in every tiny niche of every industry has become a content creator. There are a thousand voices competing for very small audiences. . . . The only way I can ensure that my voice is heard is if my content is fantastic.”

This is alien thinking for traditional B2B content producers, notes Conley: “Both trade publishers and custom publishers have seldom felt the need to be great. In a market with only three or four voices, only a crazy person would spend the money to become great.”  But in a market oversaturated with content, spending money for content that stands out from the rest is not just sane, but essential to success.

At the moment, low-cost commodity content is attracting all the attention. But its very prevalence  should ensure that well-written and thoughtful content with a unique point of view will be valued at its true worth.