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Are We Over Grazing With Our Approach to Marketing?

In Garrett Hardin’s paper ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) he describes the depletion of a shared resource (the commons), by individuals (herdsmen), acting rationally (adding more of their own cattle to graze), leading to the overall depletion of the resource (over grazing of the commons). What makes sense for the individual, comes at a cost to the collective. Once the commons is destroyed, so too is the livelihood of the herdsmen who have over indulged. In this article, Alan Gleeson explores what lessons modern marketeers can learn from Hardin’s seminal paper.

Since publication, his paper has primarily been referenced when describing externalities in the context of pollution and overfishing. It has rarely been considered in the context of the challenges of modern marketing (in particular inbound / content marketing).

Modern marketing shares many of the same characteristics of Hardin’s tragedy where actors acting rationally deplete the resource over time for everyone. It makes perfect sense on the individual level to market your service via all the channels at your disposal. However, when everyone replicates the same approach, the resultant noise depletes the effectiveness of marketing for everyone. In this context, it is our audience’s attention which is being ‘overgrazed’ as they succumb to a seemingly endless stream of marketing messages across a host of different media.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention ..”

Herbert Simon (1971)

In short, when most marketing managers follow the same broad techniques, and focus on quantity over quality, the environment degrades over time.

Early adopters of a host of social media services will recognise the trend here. Initial experiences are often positive; but the utility degrades over time, as the channels become flooded with users overgrazing; be it via Spam, significantly increased advertising or simply the growth in interruption marketing typified by push messages.

Over Grazing on Twitter

Twitter is a prime example. Many users timelines have degraded over time, as newer users simply seek to use the channel to push their messages to the masses (regardless of the relevance). Where once carefully curated time lines offered phenomenal access to a global community, the increase in those pushing their wares (as well as automatic push content from those using marketing automation tools) has reduced its appeal for everyone. Is it any wonder Twitter is struggling?


LinkedIn Pulse, the content arm of Linkedin initially offered value in terms of providing access to ‘thought leaders’ writing original content pieces. However, in its brief lifetime, the platform has now been open to everyone and it has quickly become over run by participants pushing everything from job adverts to repurposed ‘link bait’ type content. The result is that engagement is much harder to achieve on this channel, as the volume of content has increased exponentially, and many readers have simply tuned out, no longer viewing it as a worthwhile content source.

Email Marketing

Where once email marketing offered a fantastic way to communicate with a receptive ‘opt in’ audience, the line has been crossed where most people’s inboxes are now drowning in a ‘sea of noise’. Emails are increasingly being filtered off into folders never to see the light of day. As a result increasing numbers of users simply use false or dormant email accounts to deal with the barrage, reducing the effectiveness of this medium for all.

Blog Content

In recent years, blogs have been viewed as one of the key means to drive relevant traffic to a website (e.g. inbound marketing). However, as this approach to digital marketing has become so popular, the search costs of finding high quality content has increased dramatically, and as a result people’s willingness to engage with blog content has reduced. The search costs have simply become too high, based in part by the low barriers to entry for content producers, and an incentive to prioritize quantity over quality.


At the moment the signal-to-noise ratio is badly out of kilter. Instead of quality marketing, we get quantity and we are racing towards a scenario where the ‘commons’ will be destroyed.

“Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.

Garrett Hardin (1968)

For those of us working in marketing it is important that we recognise the trend, and resist the temptation to ‘overgraze the commons’ by lowering the bar and opting for quantity over quality. However, we face an uphill battle. As ever, the tension between short term ‘action’ and long term more sustainable growth will be at the heart of the debate. For the sake of our profession we need to heed the lessons of Hardin’s herdsmen. I for one hope this article has contributed to the debate, rather than fanned the flames by adding yet more content to the mix.

Thanks for reading.

Alan Gleeson is a B2B marketing consultant with a passion for SaaS marketing. Alan is based in London.

Follow Alan on Twitter: @alangleeson

Photo c/o Flickr USDA

This post originally appeared here

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