Juiced: The Steroid Era of Content

In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit 70 and 66 home runs, respectively. Both surpassed a 37-year record for home runs hit within a baseball season. Fans, once jaded from the players' strike that happened 4 years earlier, flocked to parks and television sets to witness history. For a few sweaty months, 17 years ago, an ardent fan base marveled at the spectacle of sheer power and distance. It was a sports glutton's dream come true.

Many years and court cases later, audiences that were swept up in the majesty of that home run chase realize it was merely an over-juiced, steroid-infused display of creatine cocktails, inflated biceps, and bad acne. This has left fans, journalists, and baseball historians with an empty reverence for what is widely accepted as America's pastime. The simple truth is that all these varied audiences were so caught up in the sheer increase in numbers they consciously (or unconsciously) ignored the negative impact on the game. Many years removed, we scoff at getting caught up in all the glitz.

Today's digital landscape is not too far removed from the baseball parks of 1998. We are bombarded with articles, blogs, videos, white papers, newsletters, emails, text alerts, and listicles clamoring for our attention. For years, we've witnessed this glut of content permeate every device and screen we interact with. Five years ago, audiences universally despised digital pop-up ads; whereas today, they are universally accepted in the interest of getting to the latest celebrity tidbit or thought leadership download.

As a content professional, I'm still amazed at how we got here. Recently, plain-language initiatives and effective content strategies have taken a back seat to ineffective content marketing tactics that prize quantity of content over quality. The result is an endless buffet of content.

We've somehow crafted a digital landscape in which engagement no longer has an endgame; it's merely a continuous loop of information. When you finish this article, there are six more to choose from. While some marketing efforts have provided carefully constructed nurturing campaigns, many have falsely measured success by clicks and time spent on page.

In addition to the sheer amount of content we've been teasing to audiences, there is another problem: how the information is being presented. We've peppered perfectly readable paragraphs with links, call-out graphics, pull quotes, and keyword bait. Our industry has done a very good job of supersizing the content experiences we present to our audiences. The result is heightened frustration with useless content getting in the way of useful content.

The unique perspective we have, as content professionals, is witnessing this as producers and consumers. I am just as guilty in my insatiable quest for information. Every day, we hear from friends and colleagues about how they're never able to catch up on all the articles, blogs, and news that rotate through our devices. However, how many times are you halfway through an article, openly wondering why you are wasting your time reading it? And yet, we wash, rinse, and repeat our bad content behaviors every day.

In many ways, today's digital content consumers are no different than baseball fans of the late 1990s. We are driven by the concept that more equates to better. We also don't challenge the quality of what we read online. We accept the product at face value.

Years from now, we will look back at this age of content production and consumption and openly question why we were so hell-bent on creating so much content. We'll take solace in a simplified content landscape and wonder why we were so blinded by the concept of quantity over quality.  

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For as long as I have been covering digital media, the paid content question has been relentless. Will consumers ever really appreciate and pay directly for the costly journalism they crave? There have been many encouraging but false starts.