Content Firehoses, Absorption Rates, and The Endowment Effect

By Deane Barker

Atlas Obscura is a fantastic website about weird places, things, and cultures around the world. You should visit the site and look around.But don’t subscribe to their RSS feed. Seriously.

My reasoning for this statement has reinforced – to me, at least – a lesson about content.

Here goes –

Atlas Obscura posts a shocking amount of high-quality content. I don’t know how they do it. They push at least a dozen long-ish, well-written articles every day about fascinating things (it helps that weird things interest me, I guess). I want to read them all, but I can’t possibly invest that much time.

And this makes me feel bad.

I feel so badly that I’m unsubscribing from their RSS, which seems superficially absurd. I mean, why do I feel bad about this? Why can’t I just read what I can, then acknowledge that more exists and that I just can’t get to it? Why am I getting manic over things I can’t consume?

At first, I figured it was FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. But this is a social phenomenon. It’s something that’s been amplified through social media and involves some deep, subconscious form of competition with other people.

But, in the case of Atlas Obscura, I’m not competing with anyone. Was I possibly afraid that other people were reading more articles than me? No, that’s silly.

But I may have stumbled on the real phenomenon at work here: The Endowment Effect. This is a psychological phenomenon that says we anchor ourselves to a base “wholeness” of something as an “endowment” – a thing to which we are endowed, or given – and we don’t like taking anything away from it and thereby diminishing our sense of ownership.

[…] the endowment effect […] is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.

[For example,] participants were given a mug and then offered the chance to sell it or trade it for an equally valued alternative (pens). They found that the amount participants required as compensation for the mug once their ownership of the mug had been established (“willingness to accept”) was approximately twice as high as the amount they were willing to pay to acquire the mug (“willingness to pay”).

Once we have something – once we feel in control of a thing – we don’t want to give it up. We don’t like to take away from things we own. Another name for this is “divestiture aversion” – we avert ourselves from the idea of divesting something we possess.

Here’s an example from Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choicethat illustrates it perfectly:

In one condition, [test subjects] were offered the car loaded with options, and their task was to eliminate the options they didn’t want. In the second condition, they were offered the car devoid of options, and their task was to add the ones they wanted. People in the first condition ended up with many more options than people in the second. This is because when options are already attached to the car being considered, they become part of the endowment and passing them up entails a feeling of loss.

The test subjects refused to give up options and save $X, but they wouldn’t pay $X for those same options if they never owned them in the first place, even though the dollar value of both actions was effectively the same. When value is held constant, human nature causes us to amplify losses so they feel worse than gains.

(This is also why software manufacturers load up their products with default features and costs, rather than give us stripped down versions and let us pick a la carte, but that’s an entirely different post…)

I think this is my fundamental problem with the Atlas Obscura RSS feed. If I was simply visiting the site, I wouldn’t feel any “ownership” of the content. I could pick and choose and not feel badly about it.

But subscribing to RSS is different. I’m investing. I’m laying claim. I’m affiliating with the site in some form. All the content in the RSS feed is now the endowment, and when I can’t read it, I feel a sense of loss. I “owned” this content, and by not consuming it, I’m “losing” it. That loss nags at me and makes me feel bad about the entire thing.

The lesson here for content strategy –

Be careful with a firehose of content. If you have some content stream which involves even minor commitment or investment from the user – an RSS feed, an email newsletter, a social media account – be careful how much content you push. If you overwhelm the user with bad content, they just get annoyed. But overwhelming them with good content might not be any better because they feel bad about the content they can’t consume.

In a larger sense, to what extent do we concern ourselves with “content absorption rate,” by which I mean the rate of pushed content that a consumer can actually do something useful with? We can push lots of content out the door, but how do we make sure it’s done at the optimal rate of utility?

In the late 90s, an obscure Britsh car manufacturer called TVR made a monstrosity they called the Cerbera Speed 12. It had close to 1,000 horsepower. The owner of TVR spent a weekend with the car and then immediately canceled production, declaring it simply undriveable. It had too much engine – so much that the laws of physics couldn’t absorb it and the average driver was likely to kill themselves. It was an overpowered mess.

As automotive power has scaled up in general, other manufacturers have faced the same problems, but solved them by concentrating not on more power output, but on how much power the driver can actually put to use. For example, most sports car manufacturers have switched to all-wheel drive – four wheels can transfer power better than two. The next step has been launch control, where a computer actively manages engine power during hard acceleration.

What they’ve learned is this: it doesn’t matter how much power you can create; all that matters is how much usable power you can put on the ground to accelerate a car forward. Is content the same way? Does it not matter what volume of content you pump out, but it matters more how much content your consumer can absorb and put to effective use?

(The car site Jalopnik wrote a wonderful post called “The Joy of Driving Slow,” which posited: “It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.” Being forced to endure city traffic in a Ferrari makes one feel bad – you “own” the speed but have “lost” it. Conversely, I imagine flogging the hell out of a Cooper Mini on some twisty roads would be a non-stop riot.)

(And, at the risk of belaboring this point, there’s this video about how Rallycross cars accelerate to 60 mph in less than two seconds. The fact that they have a lot of power and little weight is treated as a mere assumption. The video is largely about all the other, less glamorous factors necessarily to actually put that power to useful purpose.)

If you push massive amounts of content, do you offer multiple feeds, filtering tools, digests, or alternate ways of absorbing the content? Or do you just throw everything down the same pipe and assume your consumer has nothing to do but sit on the other end and absorb it all?

In the end, pushed content feed is an implied endowment of content that you have “given” the consumer, and you might be inadvertently causing them subconscious pain if you hit them with more than they can absorb. Anything that’s unabsorbed counts as a loss.

The Endowment Effect shows us why losses make us feel bad. Unfortunately, your brand or mission might become a casualty of that loss.

(As for Atlas Obscura, there’s a book – maybe try that instead: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.)

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