The Economics of Content Creation (or Why Most Roundup Posts Are Awful)

If you’re in the content marketing space, you probably notice that a large amount of content is now expert roundup posts, listicles, and shallow case studies. Why is that?

The short answer: this type of content is pretty darn cheap to produce.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’ve produced and directed a fair amount of these types of posts.

But this article will explain the cost of content production, and why that matters if you’re a marketing manager (or just a simple content reader).

The Cost of Content: A Sliding Scale

There’s a cost of creating content, and whether that cost is low or high has direct implications on how well you can trust the content, how competitive it is to create that type of content, and how easily you can produce that content (particularly at scale) if you’re a business.

cheap content

What is the “cost” of content?

When I say content has a “cost,” I don’t necessarily mean that in a direct sense.

Of course, a blog post does cost something, and that cost is particularly apparent when you either a) hire a content marketing manager or b) contract with freelance writers.

In the former, you understand content “costs” based on the resource and time allocation of your employee. A content marketing manager, even a great one, only has so much time in a day to spend writing and editing content.

An in-depth research report “costs” more than a listicle in the sense that it takes more time to create, which leaves an opportunity cost wherein you could be publishing more or different content.

If you’ve ever hired freelancers, you know the qualitative difference between hiring a content farm and hiring a top notch writer. The secret, from a business perspective, is that both sides of the spectrum can and do work from an ROI perspective.

I also want to point out that there is another, indirect cost of content: a piece of content could be “costly” in the sense that it involved years of experience to come up with an idea or piece of knowledge (look at the Animalz blog or Paul Graham’s essays – they don’t happen overnight).

As Whitney Wolfe Herd said on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, “The most expensive currency in the world is experience.”

It could also incur a cost if there is a substantial risk to writing it.

For instance, if a well-respected conversion rate optimization expert publishes an article on their CRO strategy, the costs, in the event that it fails to land or if potential clients poke holes in the essay, are much larger than if a random writer publishes a CRO strategy article (they have no tree to fall from).

Cost can be in the form of time to production (including years of experience), reputational risk, or in actual monetary value of materials and resources to create something like video or a research study.

Another very important point: the quality or value of the content is exogenous to the cost of creating it. That is, while cost is correlated with quality (pricy content tends to be better), there’s nothing inherently better about content because it is costly.

I want to drive that point home here: “cheap” sounds like it means “bad,” but it really just means there’s a low cost of production and a low barrier to entry. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just more likely to be bad because of that low cost and lower barrier to entry (which I’ll go over in a bit). In aggregate and categorically, quality and cost do correlate:

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The Business Case for Cheap Content is Strong

In business, you should try to maximize the delta between the cost of an action and the reward that springs from it.

If you can produce a cheap piece of content that gets the same or better results than an expensive one, why would you waste the resources on an expensive one? That’d be bad business.

Here’s an example: product listicles do super well for us at HubSpot. Not only do they bring in a ton of traffic, but they are conversion generating machines as well. Compared to other content, they’re easier to produce as well:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the “cost” of this content is partially hidden. HubSpot has been investing in content, and thus their domain authority, for years, so what we see now is really a cumulative return based on all of the years of previous effort.

…which is actually partially the point I want to make here. Cheap content won’t work if you’re new. Cheap content has a pivotal business purpose if and when you have the ability to rank it.

Huh?

When you’re first launching a website and up until you have the ranking power of the biggest competitors, you have to compete on quality or differentiation. There’s no other way to break through the noise.

Essentially, in the beginning, you need to “do things that don’t scale,” which is the sweat equity you put into the later ability to rank cheap content (templatized, UGC, etc.). A blog post on Atrium.co outlined this perfectly, and this graphic sums it up:

While there’s no set point or clear milestone when you can start to rank cheaper content, there does seem to be a “takeoff point” where it gets easier. It does seem to hit an inflection point though. In my experience it looks a bit like this:

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From working at a few content-heavy companies and with many clients, I’ve learned detecting that point is a mixture of two things:

  • Analyzing the competition and making assumptions on feasibility (and building a growth model based on those assumptions)
  • Publishing some content to get a gut feel to where you typically land on Google.

The former helps you architect the strategy before you start, and the latter is crucial for updating your priors.

I’ve found that for the analyzing competitors and assessing feasibility, this advice from Ian Howells in a GrowthHackers AMA is pretty great:

“I use a blend of search volume, intent, and “attainable position”. With any given project, I look to find the leader in the space. So if I was going to work on a site about outdoor/camping products, I’d likely toss REI into aHrefs and spit out all their keywords over 500 searches per month.

I’d then make an assumption about how close I could get to REI’s rankings – say (for sake of argument) I was assuming I can get to 4 spots lower than REI. I’ll just run a new column in excel/google sheets adding 4 to all of their rankings.

That new “attainable position” plus a CTR curve gets me a ballpark on the amount of traffic I could realistically hope to get for the site.

A pivot table to roll these up by page then gives me a map of what pages I need and what the potential traffic is per page. I’ll start with the biggest opp pages and just work my way down.”

You can find average CTR data on SERP positions here and make your own assumptions to build a model. It should be a pretty quick exercise, because when rubber meets the road, it’s rare that you’re very accurate.

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However, when you do start to produce content, you’ll develop a fingerspitzengefuhl as to how much effort and resources you need to invest to outrank your competitors. It’s likely more than you had planned on upfront.

That’s why the key to content strategy, at least in the early stages, is in investing part of your strategy in building out link assets, top of funnel content, and highly socially shareable content. That’s the stuff that will build up your overall website presence and authority so that later on down the line you can write and rank cheap content (and also bottom funnel content and produce pages).

The Role of TOFU

To recap, cheap content is economically smart for businesses to create, but it only works after investing time and effort into decidedly expensive content. Start with noteworthy, remarkable content in order to break through the noise, and then you can experiment with templatized content, UGC, etc.:

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This is why content marketing is said to be a “flywheel.” You put some work in, that force remains constant, and the more effort you put in, the more returns you generate consistently with time.

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Beware the Barrier to Entry (Why Cheap Content May Not Be a Long Play)

The cheaper the content, the more competitive it will be to break through the noise. The barrier to entry is wildly low to write a roundup post (you don’t even need to write anything, really). Therefore, more people will enter that space, and you’ll have a harder time standing out.

Not only that, but you can be easily knocked off your pedestal by an upstart who’s willing to invest more in creating better content.

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Easy example: everyone in the world can put together a loosely curated roundup post, but very few people can conduct original user experience research studies.

To go to an extreme length, if you and a team worked together on a project for two years, no one else but you and the team could tell the same story. Your cost to producing a piece of content in that regard is high, because you put in two years of work to get to the point of writing it.

That’s not to say that cheaper content formats are inherently low quality. A well-curated roundup post with true experts can be massively valuable (though I’ve rarely seen them, I have to say).

Similarly, expensive content can be poorly produced as well. Just because you worked on a project for two years doesn’t mean you’ll have anything valuable to say about the process (or especially that you’ll give an objective write-up of what you did).

That’s a sunk cost, and nobody else cares how much time you spent writing a blog post.

However, if done right, an expensive content strategy can be a powerful moat. The more expensive the content is to create, the harder it is for people to replicate what you’ve done. No one in the world can write the way Tim Urban does. You can’t compete.

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This is often the case with powerful thought leadership and original research. Many will try to replicate it, but it’s very near impossible to beat the initiator.

Don’t hold onto expensive content as a silver bullet method to get early results, though. In the early days, we produced lots of UX research at CXL Institute. The result? They performed largely the same if not marginally better than a normal blog post.

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I’ve touched very little upon business results and outputs of content, because that’s not the point I wanted to make here. But to point out the obvious; if you can get outsized rewards for producing the cheapest content possible, that’s obviously the best business decision you can make. It’s likely you won’t be able to do that, at least sustainably and at the beginning of your journey, but this is a business decision after all.

Now that we’ve got the business-side of this whole “content economics” thing out of the way, let’s dive into the fun and somewhat rant-y stuff from the reader side of the equation.

Cheap Talk and Teardowns: The Shortcomings of Cheap Content

A months ago, I randomly stumbled upon a blog post that was critiquing a campaign I had launched. It was all (mostly) praise. Still, it felt weird.

Some of the takeaways were questionable, but overall I felt flattered. It was nice being recognized.

I mentioned this critique to a friend, also in marketing, and he said, “dude, that type of content is super cheap to create. It’s easy to write those and get some quick social shares.”

That thought lead me to think about the value, accuracy, truthfulness, and benefits of writing (and more so, reading) critiques written by people looking in from the outside.

This seems especially pertinent now, as the new trend in content seems to be writing case studies on successful companies and how they got there (or what Ryan Farley calls “fake case studies.”)

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This thought is really what led me down to the idea of “the cost of content production.” It started out as a cynical brush off towards bad content creators and led to a somewhat pragmatic angle on content marketing strategy.

However, I’d feel bad if I left out my thoughts on why cheap content may actually externalize its cost to the reader. In other words, cheap content is probably contributing to a worse world (or at least a noisier world) and many of us are complicit.

All Talk, No Walk (and Why You Should Value $ Over Opinions)

I’ve done a few landing page teardowns in my life.

There’s a nervousness to doing these, for me. I always wonder, if when presented the landing page or website, will I have anything useful to say? Without seeing any of the site’s data (or even if I could see their data), what gives me the right to critique their CTA color or copy?

Still, I’ve seen lots of landing pages, run a ton of A/B tests, read through hundreds of UX research papers and articles, and have a solid understanding (for a layperson at least) of behavioral science. This, at least, gives me some sort of justification for the remarks I make.

Consider this, though, before you trust my experience-based wisdom:

I may spend a few seconds talking shit about a website for not having a phone number on their homepage. Or having a CTA below the fold. Or having a vague headline. Or whatever best practice you want to talk about.

But in this context, I am not the customer, and I do not have my credit card out. My opinion is almost (almost!) worthless.

The Halo Effect and “Why X Company Grew”

Another thought experiment.

This one explains why even an expert, someone with years of startup experience, for example, could mess up a case study analysis. It’s called the halo effect.

It’s much easier to talk about “How Netflix Grew,” or “Why Casper’s Marketing Works” when you’re analyzing a winner. Everything looks great under that light! But what happened to all the losers who did the same things people attribute as success factors to the winners?

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If Casper was a failed startup, would one reason it’s because “they wasted time on To-Fu content”?

Let’s pretend we had a CRO or UX expert who had the exact same knowledge and skill level as any other top CRO or UX expert, but for some reason they had never heard of Amazon.

If you asked them to teardown Amazon’s website experience, given that absence of knowledge, how different would it look from a CRO or UX expert on planet earth who had heard of the gigantically successful company?

If our opinions and teardowns are valuable, then one should expect zero difference between the critiques. Thank god we have experimentation.

HeloEffect

The view of the outside critic is limited

That’s why I have trouble respecting case studies written on “How [X Super Successful Company] Grew.” The halo effect is almost always going to ruin your hindsight view of what a company did right or wrong (how many companies did the same things as Airbnb but failed? We’ll probably never know).

That’s not to say you can’t learn things from breakdowns, case studies, etc. You definitely can!

In the context of landing page teardowns, people develop a type of fingerspitzengefühl for these things, and you can also learn a lot of underlying psychology and UX principles from these things. The author of a case study can interview the company in question. The author can simple pour tons of hours into truly understanding a given aspect and pulling insights from it. Running 1000 experiments gives you credentials to tell someone how to run their experiment.

But as the reader, you need to know whether that person has run 1000 (or 10, or 1) experiments, and you need to know just what level of knowledge and research went into that case study or breakdown.

Again, I’m guilty of a lot of this stuff.

I’ve given quotes on things I barely know anything about about.

I’ve written listicles, roundups, and other forms of cheap content. I like backlinks, what can I say?

But it’s an externalized cost, because the reader has to spend time and effort wondering, “can I trust the advice of this commentator?” while I get the backlink whether or not I know what I’m talking about. It’s the world we live in. (further reading: There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Lunch in Content Marketing)

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I’ve spent maybe $20,000 in my life on Facebook ads, hardly a huge expert

Here’s the rub: if you’re not skeptical (maybe even cynical) it’s hard to know who walks the walk and who talks the talk. The benefit to the content creator is the same whether they know what they’re talking about or not (more on that in a bit). It’s up to the reader to discern “fake news” from real value, which is a heavy burden.

This is actually a massive benefit to the content creator. In reality, it’s why the roundup post is so popular. There’s no risk; it’s only upside.

How to Write and Judge a Case Study

Bad case studies, in particular, can be dangerous to readers in ways that listicles aren’t. They’re often viewed as authoritative and sources of truth, when in actuality they can be surprisingly speculative.

I highly recommend reading Ryan Farley’s post on this. He nails it. Here’s a quote:

“So these case studies are cheap and intellectually dishonest.  But what makes them harmful?

They are harmful because they can mislead people, no matter how good their intentions.

I’ve been around the block long enough to recognize cheap content when I see it.  But four years ago, I didn’t recognize this.

I took this crap seriously.

When you produce this stuff, there’s a chance that someone actually tries to apply the ‘lessons’ you are teaching.

When answers are tough to come by, it’s easy to want an easy answer or to be able to simply adapt what another has found success with.”

When I say that the cost of cheap content can be externalized to readers that’s what I mean. The author/website ranks, it costs little in terms of time or reputational cost, but the reader may or may not waste days, months, or years implementing completely fallacious advice.

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Great website on BS case studies. Visit here.

This BS case studies problem was something I was hyper aware of while working at CXL.

Bad case studies in the CRO space were (and still are) a plague, and they contributed to a poor understand of what CRO was actually about. Therefore, we were combative about bad case studies spotted in the wild, but also meticulous about how we published our own case studies.

So we put forth some maxims: if you’re going to publish a case study, you should publish the losing tests as well as the winning tests, the full data set (obviously keeping in mind client confidentiality), and your justification for doing what you did.

Here are the exact words Peep Laja, founder of CXL, wrote regarding A/B testing case studies, and what could make them valuable:

  • Tell me how you identified the problem you’re addressing
  • What kind of supporting data did you have / collect?
  • How did you pull the insights out of the data you had?
  • Show me how came up with all the variations to test against Control, what was the thinking behind each one
  • What went on behind the scenes to get all of them implemented?

We were largely railing against sites like WhichTestWon (RIP), where they provide no context, only gamification and advice as insightful as “blue is better than green buttons.” But it applies more so when you consider the larger space of “case studies,” especially those written by people who don’t even work at the company they’re analyzing (!)

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Professional writers have trouble filling books with this topic, so how can a blog post do it justice?

Here’s what I look for when reading these posts:

  • Did the author work on the project?
  • Do they have something to gain by writing the case study?
    • What is it?
  • Do they have something to lose by giving bad advice or being wrong in their critique?
    • What do they have to lose?
  • Is all the information present? Is there anything fishy with the findings?

Essentially, we can look for “skin in the game.”

If the owner of an SEO agency, someone with 10 years experience and many clients, writes a case study on SEO, they can still be wrong. They have a pretty good incentive to make their work look better than it is, but that’s an easy bias to spot.

But they also have a) something to gain (recognition), but also b) something to lose. Basically, if they give transparently bad advice or information, their reputation is harmed and they can lose clients or industry respect.

Conversely, a record of amazing content positions you in people’s minds as a trustworthy writer, consultant, voice, etc.

Simo’s content is some of the best on the internet and he’s known for it (Image Source)

This is truer in some industries than others, which is why you’ll rarely get away with being a grifter in the analytics space, but you may be able to as a social media influencer (sorry if you’re a social media influencer, but a quick look at the conversations in those two industries makes the difference obvious to the eyes.)

This isn’t the case with a writer who is looking for social shares and backlinks when they write a breakdown on “How Trello Grew.” It’s all upside for them.

Other than Ryan Farley’s great article, if you want some help with identifying good vs bad case studies, specific to the CRO space, I suggest reading Justin Rondeau’s excellent piece on how to read a case study.

Be Wary of Content with Asymmetrical Benefits

People who make predictions for a living don’t suffer the same loss as those who follow the predictions they’ve made.

People who give advice for a living don’t suffer the same loss as those who follow the advice they’ve given.

Caveat emptor, as they say.

Here we have a rule, from Nassim Taleb’s ‘Skin in the Game’:

“Always do more than you talk. And precede talk with action. For it will always remain that action without talk supersedes talk without action.

When consuming any content, think about the asymmetric risks vs. rewards involved with the person who created the content. If there is little downside for the creator, I’m not saying it’s certainly BS, but be wary.

Imagine a roundup post with three people on it: Peep Laja, me, and a writer who has never run an A/B test.

  • Peep has many years experience in CRO and has run thousands of experiments.
  • I have a few years experience and have run tops 80-100 experiments.
  • Then the writer has never run a test and can’t say they’ve ever done true “CRO.” In fact, they’ve barely heard about CRO, save for a blog post written by Neil Patel a few years ago.

So it’s fair to say that is “cost” Peep more to give the advice in the roundup, simply because he had to invest more time and effort into gaining the knowledge and experience. Not only that, Peep has a reputational cost on the line, as he’s appearing in the same paper as a nitwit with no knowledge (not me, the other person!). The nitwit only has something to gain by being featured by those around him.

Yet we all get the same benefit: recognition and a backlink.

The audience gets a variable return: Peep’s advice is expensive, mine is less expensive, and the writer should have to pay you to give you advice. In fact, the cost of scrutiny is placed fully on the audience. This (in the broader world, not just in marketing) is part of the reason it sucks so much to read news: it’s so hard to parse out what is bullshit from what is true now.

Things that contribute to asymmetric benefit (and “penalty-free” content creation):

  • HARO
  • Roundup Posts
  • Scaled out keyword-based content (think Livestrong or other 400 word post content farms). These do have the negative that Google’s algorithm seems to weed them out with time.
  • Prediction posts (what will marketing look like in 2019?)
  • Baseless, opinionated critiques and teardowns

What’s there to say? You have to play the game if you want to benefit from content and SEO, so there’s no way to disincentivize bad authors. Like I said, I’ve given quotes for things I don’t know very well.

Want a cynical end to this story? There’s probably no real way to solve the problem of opportunism and asymmetric risk in content marketing. Why would we take advantage of a backlink, exposure, traffic, or whatever, if we’re given the chance?

Instead, the solution to the discerning reader here seems to be the frustrating advice: caveat emptor. Read things with skepticism.

Conclusion

It’s hard to know what to trust online. There’s the new “fake news” thing, but there’s also a phenomenon of content that is “real,” whatever that means, but without value for the reader and without penalty for the writer. Mirage content.

You can never fully remove this asymmetry, as even knowledgeable authors can give bad advice and vice versa.

The solution seems to be a simple but difficult one: read with skepticism, and call out true charlatanism where it is evident. Additionally, read intellectually honest and rigorous authors more regularly and promote them to the world.

Further, I’ve found that opinionated pieces tend to be pretty valueless, in aggregate. How to pieces, walkthroughs, and data-driven content seem to be pretty important, especially when you’re trying to solve a specific problem.

I’ve found that if you put the blinders on to marketing ideology (other than the fundamentals), and just put your head down and do the work, share knowledge with others on your team and in your industry (informally and privately, even better, as there’s less incentive to posture – the best info I’ve ever learned is at the after party of a conference or meetup), things work out pretty well. You can safely ignore most noise on the internet, anyway.

Content producers: find your edge, weigh costs of production with the expected return and keep in mind barriers to entry (the lower it is, the less likely it is you’ll truly lift above the fray, unless you’re already way above the fray, then publish away) as well as long term moats.

Finally, outside of business, all good art is written with blood. You can’t half-ass masterpieces:

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Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

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