The Mounting Challenges of an Established Social Content Market

Cowboy # 5
Image by Randy Pertiet

When blogging was new, anyone with vertical subject matter expertise could create their own site and become a success. These voices were integral role players within communities that shared the same interest. Today, the corporatization of social media by content farms, the use of algorithmic content sourcing, and an established tier of “A-List bloggers” has drastically reduced the chances of success for the individual voice. Increasingly, the desired outcomes of blogging seem like a myth of the past, just like the romantic cowboy of the Wild West.

It’s not impossible, but the dream remains big while the real opportunity has become significantly more challenging. Great content is not enough.

The pioneering era prompted the rise of books like Naked Conversations with story after story of content marketing success, and folks like Sarah Lacy who espoused the theory that anyone could create their own successes online. And there was a time when these things were true.

Years later — whether it’s traditional print, video content, imagery or applications — individual voices find it difficult to break through, unless there’s a sudden new “green field” such as the iPad application marketplace one year ago. The social content market evolved and embraced power dynamics, mostly in the pursuit of monetization. Established power structures weigh down on newcomers, forcing them to navigate a much more complicated field of competitors.

The Weight of Established Social Media

Content Farming

Last week’s AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post thrust content farming back into the spotlight as a viable means of generating ad revenue. Whether it’s an actual content farm or editorial driven sites that harness collective paid content and free “guest” columns, these corporate sites dominate the top tier of content producing social sites. Many of them are really vertical specific digital publications running on a blog platform.

Publishing on these mega-content sites is often the only way for new writers to garner tens of thousands of eyeballs in lieu of an established following. But it’s a serious trade off, sacrificing all copyright, search engine optimization (SEO), and the ability to create calls to action on one’s own site. Many writers use content farms to market their own blogs, or simply because they would rather have the eyeballs instead of launching a unique site.

Algorithm Sourced Social Content


Popularity driven algorithm sourced content exists on almost every social networking site with a significant user base, from Facebook and Twitter to Delicious and YouTube. Thanks to Facebook’s Open Graph protocol (Like feature), algorithm sourced content is now featured on many traditional 1.0 sites, too. These algorithms serve stories that have the highest probability of provoking engagement. Depending on the site, they even incorporate personal semantic data preferences to further encourage interaction.

The challenge for the new voice remains getting sourced by algorithms as a popular voice for content. This requires intense network development, interaction and hot content… Much more so than the open era of blogging’s initial days or even the first couple years of Twitter and Facebook’s market availability. In the maturing market of 2011, new voices have significant organic network development hurdles to overcome. Either that, or they need the runaway hit to break them into the idea market.

Competing with the A List

It’s hard to find any social content marketplace that doesn’t have entrenched voices already. While none will admit to holding newcomers back, all will fight to maintain position. Further, these voices often have years of community building behind them. Tactics include ignoring new voices, blackballing and punishing dissenting voices, and stealing content ideas and positions without attribution or cross-links. The rare winners highlight other voices, and welcome them.

If new voices are lucky, the existing blogging and content producing corps within their vertical lack strength in conversation. This allows for obvious differentiation. Otherwise, expect a thinly veiled dog fight.

Search Algorithms

Using social media to drive search has been a long standing tactic for bloggers. The rise of personalized and semantic data-based search changes the picture. Like the algorithms driving popular content, these algorithms not only reward linking behavior, but also personal behaviors, social context (including tonality), and popularity.

This creates tremendous issues for new voices who have not built their networks yet. Stellar content needs to perform well to drive the linking behavior necessary to be sourced. Breaking through without a strong peer network to help out requires stellar content backed by great SEO practices, such as keyword usage and titling.

Immediate Social Network Referrals


Referred content continues to be a great source of readership. Many people trust their social networks to bring them the news they need to hear. While the 2011 Edelman Trust barometer shows that we trust our peers less than we used to, this is still a crucial component of marketing content. In fact, as evidenced by the placement of algorithms, these referrals drive several tenants of the current content marketplace.

It’s not enough to write, produce and/or create anymore. Community centric content that drives two-way participation has become a must in 2011.


This assessment means to provide an accurate market picture of the competitive forces facing a new content effort. The 2011 social content marketplace requires a much stronger marketing effort behind it than past years. Instead of the conditions of the pioneering days, new content creators find a rapidly maturing media marketplace with strong power structures.

Start-ups have faced big companies and smaller entrenched competitors as long as there has been free market economies. In that sense, the content farms and A-Listers represent the traditional challenges of an established market. The technology charged online media environment of 2011 lends additional hurdles for content creators such as algorithms and social network referrals, all of which point to the need for savvy community marketing practices.

From traditional blogging practices and SEO to high powered social networking and visibility in top tier social content farms, new voices need to deploy a wide range of marketing tools to rise to the top. This becomes easier if the voice has traditional marketing strengths to leverage such as a house file of email contacts, and a functioning PR and events program. Integrating traditional marketing into social outreach creates greater opportunities for success.

How would you approach the modern social content marketplace?