Content shock: Why You’re Drowning, and How to Get Back on Top


Do you learn by consuming content? May as well ask, are you human? (though even bots do this).

Well, you’re in for a shock. Actually, you’re probably already in shock. Now it has a name: Content Shock.

What’s Content Shock?

Content Shock is the term coined by Mark Schaefer, hugely influential content marketing expert and author of the Grow blog. In a breakout post earlier this year, he drew fresh attention to the challenge of keeping on top of the ever growing content mountain that we try and climb ever day. What rate of growth are we talking about here? There’s no one go-to yardstick but there are some scary indicators:

  • Various measures suggest the amount of content available on the internet is doubling every 9 to 24 months.  
  • Google CEO Eric Schmidt estimated that every 2 days we create as much information than we did from the dawn of civilisation up to 2003*. And he said that 5 years ago. Things are only going one way.
  • The amount of information on the web is expected to increase by 500% in the next 5 years. If you think it’s hard to keep up with the content on the internet, I hope you’re looking forward to keeping up with 5 of them.

*(Granted, a lot of this is cat videos and comments about those videos. But still – that all clogs up your feeds and gets in the way of finding what you actually need.)

What has been our response to this content assault, as consumers and learners? We’ve tried to keep up. Schaefer estimates that we have on average increased the amount of time we spend consuming content from 2 hours a day in the 1920s to 11 hours a day now. 

But that’s nowhere near enough to keep apace with the explosive growth in content. It’s a losing battle. We can’t stay on top. That’s content shock – as he defines it:


In other words, supply outstrips demand by such an exasperating margin that there’s no hope of keeping up. We wake up dumber than we went to bed.

Schaefer is a content marketer, so he’s examining the problem more from the supply side. His arguments are that for content providers – brands, publishers, marketers, learning providers –  it’s not enough to just create great content and put it out there. It won’t naturally rise to the top, there’s too many layers to break through. He stresses the importance of amplification, building authority, being helpful, sharing, promotion and many other strategies to reach your audience. (If you’re in marketing, or content production, his book The Content Code is a must-read).

The shocker for learners

But let’s look at the demand side: People in the world of work. Many of us spend large amounts of our time looking for information to help us do our jobs more effectively. Are we feeling the shock?

It’s useful to draw a distinction between the impact of content shock in your personal and professional learning life. You can argue that for personal interests, more content is good. It means more choice, and since looking at that content is often a leisure activity, choice is good. You like cupcakes? Way more cupcake posts on Instagram = better (if they’re good).

Not at work though. When you’re trying to discover, assess and act on the best information professionally, you’re a long way from cupcake mode.  You have a limited amount of time, and there’s a high expectation that you’ll be very productive. You’re on the clock, billing for your time, trying to hit targets. Time spent searching for information is expensive. Time spent searching and not finding what you want? Well…that’s the real shocker. Content shock has sent shockwaves through every knowledge worker’s role: You feel it when you Google a term looking for the latest insights and get 100 million results. You feel it when you flick through your twitter feed looking for some insight and the volume of posts causes your head and heard to pound. 

It’s stressful. It has an emotional impact, and a financial one.  And we’re all feeling it.  Research from IDC, going back several years, suggests that we’re certainly spending a vast amount of our time trying to find, analyse and act on useful content.  They estimated that the typical knowledge worker spends about 25% of their time either searching for information or analysing it: 9.5 hours searching, 9.8 hours analysing information.

Their optimistic comment in response to this was: “If workers are spending a quarter of their time looking for information and another quarter analysing it, this time must be as productive as possible.”

10 years after that research, there’s not much more support for the knowledge worker trying to recover from content shock.

Did you find what you were looking for?

A few things strike us about how we as learners are dealing with the content shock and managing that 25% of our time 

Say you’re looking for learning content to help you with a compliance challenge. You might go to a structured system, like a Learning Management System. In there, we might do a course, on, say, emerging trends in financial regulation because it’s the closest match to our need. The course was (let’s assume) well researched, well structured, and did a fine job of filtering and synthesising content on the topic. 

Formal learning like this, the 10% in the 70/20/10 model, has its place. It’s great at building foundations and getting people off on a good start in a topic.But it’s out of date. It was out of date the moment it was made. If you’re searching for insights on recent changes in regulation, that course can’t help you. You need to know how to discover relevant content quickly, and filter for what you need. Those skills are increasingly vital for the knowledge worker. 

If you accept the general principles of 70/20/10, then you know that the time you spend on the job is where you do 90% of your learning, broadly 70% learning through experience and reflection, 20% through social learning, coaching and support. A huge part of this is searching for useful information, at point of need, to help us get on with the task at hand. But it’s generally under-supported compared to the 10% of formal course-based learning, which is easier to ask for, make, and buy.

Ask yourself how quickly you close the loop in any search for relevant content to help you do your job. Google search, or you ask someone, they ask someone, tick tock. Or someone forwards you a link to something and use the email header ‘might be interesting.’ Looks useful but not now, or no time to read it. You flag it in your email. And down below the fold it goes, forever. You may follow people on LinkedIn or Twitter, but how often do you find the time to filter for the best content, then read it and do something with it? The shock of the new drowns out what’s actually worth paying attention to.

How can we deal with it?

If we’re going to absorb and recover from content shock as workplace learners, then we need three things – and if you’re in a Learning team, these should be part of your job

  1. Focus: L&D teams should rebalance to spend closer to 90% of their time on this problem. Formal learning is 10% of what we need. It’s a mature market, buying courses shouldn’t stop, but it should stop becoming the primary activity that L&D teams engage with. It’s far more important to help teams to become better informal, workplace learners. Jane Hart says that the L&D world is splitting in two: traditionalists concerned with classroom and elearning courses and the LMS, and Modern Workplace Learning Practitioners, who help people to get over content shock and become effective social and informal learners.
  2. Better tools: The LMS isn’t designed to help you deal with content shock and filter the world’s content effectively. Search engines and Social Networks can help, but they can also add to the stress by returning huge numbers of results and unstructured feeds. We need better ways to quickly surface what we need, personalised, designed for workplace learners and teams.
  3. Skills: Most people, teams and businesses don’t focus on learning how to navigate information and filter intelligently as a life skill. We all had a study habits course in the distant past. School’s out and the world has changed. If we need learning in anything now, it’s how to become better at navigating the informal content world and becoming more effective modern workplace learners. It’s great to see Jane Hart also running a programme in exactly this topic. 


Content shock is a reality for everyone trying to productively discover, assess and act on information. It’s not going away, but with the right tools, skills and support, we have a fighting chance of staying on top.