All content is ephemeral

In this post, how to better understand the lifetime of different content formats to inform your strategy and drive traffic.

Stories are the most innovative content format since the video came out. The idea of a video or picture with a short, limited lifetime has proven so successful that Facebook copied the format one to one from Snapchat. Even Youtube adopted it.

The value of stories lies in their limited lifetime (Ephemerality). They disappear within 24h and that's why their Engagement is so high! If you miss it, it’s gone. Next level FOMO.

I love the definition of ephemerality from Wikipedia: "Ephemerality is the concept of things being transitory, existing only briefly." Transitory. Pretty cool.

Technology changed the content lifecycle

Newspaper boy

But stories are not the first ephemeral content format. News are and always have been very ephemeral. Once they came out, they were no longer interesting to write about. They were "old news". Before the radio, the news cycle was about a day because that's how long it took to print "new news" or for other publishers to catch on to the news one of their competitors broke.

When the radio came out and then the TV, the news cycle went from a day to hours. Today, the internet pushes it to seconds and, as a result, the ephemerality of news has gone up significantly.

Books are another type of content format but their ephemerality is usually very low. The high bar of getting a book published (in the classic way) means that the content in books has relatively high value compared to formats with lower bars. Everybody can write a tweet. Not everybody can publish a book.

But the reality is that all content formats are ephemeral. Stories disappear after 24h. Social deeds quickly push content further down to make room for new content. Thought leadership content dies out after its initial spike. SEO content decays after a while and is outranked by fresher content.

There are exceptions, of course, and we call them "evergreen content". Or, sometimes a curator surfaces an old piece of content, which is quite valuable because if old content is still relevant today it means it contains a deeper truism.

Let ephemerality drive your content strategy

First, we need to understand the impact of ephemerality on engagement and production effort: The higher the ephemerality, the higher the engagement, and the lower the product effort.

Content ephemerality on a spectrum
Content ephemerality on a spectrum

Stories have such high engagement because as a user, you either engage in the moment or you don't. But they are quick to make. You take your phone and shoot.

Evergreen content is different. It needs a high product effort and has comparably low engagement in the moment (it's just stretched over longer time).

The work we put into our content should be proportional to its lifetime. Make stories in the moment. Put days on end of effort into evergreen content.

How to decrease content ephemerality

The format sets natural boundaries to content ephemerality but we can optimize the lifetime of content across different formats. For stories or social posts, for example, it's very quick to see whether they catch on or not. If you don't get traction within a couple of minutes, it's probably not going to fly. The exact same logic holds true for evergreen content. It simmers.

Refresh, prune, create

We need to consistently groom our content. A blog is not a feed. On a feed, you can simply repost and experiment. A blog or content hub, on the other hand, should be treated more like a garden. If a piece of content doesn't perform well, we need to understand why and then take action.

Ask yourself:

  • What was the original purpose of the content (generic, thought leadership, backlinks)?
  • Is it still up to date?
  • Is it still relevant?

Measure ephemerality a.k.a. content decay

Content decay describes the slow loss of (organic) traffic for a piece of content caused by fading relevance, outdated facts, link stagnation, or stronger competition:

  • Fading relevance: content loses traffic because the topic isn't relevant anymore, e.g. travel guides in times of COVID
  • Outdated facts: updated versions of facts mentioned in the content exist, e.g. statistics
  • Link stagnation: some keywords demand a consistent stream of backlinks to the pages that want to rank for them
  • Competition: Sometimes, content decays in traffic because other pages offer more and deeper content (sometimes as a result of the skyscraper tactic)

It's important to understand the difference between content decay and decreasing demand for a topic. Both can lead to decreasing traffic but you can only do something about content decay, not decreasing demand - unless you invest lots of money into push channels to create more demand.

What you can do about content decay:

  • Rewrite
  • Update
  • Build links

You can monitor content decay with tools like