The Tragedy of the Commons

Authors Note: All frameworks have moved to a new home at Strategy Umwelt. Please join me at this new platform for a revised list of mental models, strategy frameworks and principles including an expanded version of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons (or the Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons) is a mental model developed by Garrett Hardin, rooted in economic theory. The "tragedy" refers to a set of individuals who, acting rationally, independently and in their own self-interest can create a situation where they destroy the collective's long-term viability by depleting a common resource. 

The original example referred to individuals sharing a 'common' parcel of land for herding or fishing. If an individual utilized the common area more than their fair share, they may receive an individual benefit (a few more fatter animals or a larger catch), but if all individuals made this decision, the common land would be overgrazed or overfished ultimately leading to it's destruction.

The theory is often seen as an example of emergent behavior, or the outcomes of individual interactions in complex adaptive systems.

In essence then, there is a failure to think long-term in favor of quick and immediate gains.

So what are some examples in Marketing & Advertising?

The Tragedy of Marketing Commons

When you look at traditional Mass Marketing behavior, we can loosely see the application of the Tragedy of the Commons on display. If we apply consumer attention as the common, there has been a definite trend of resource depletion over time, to the detriment of everyone.

The consumer today has been bombarded since birth with an ever increasing influx of advertising messages that were over hyped, idealized, or just plain false. This has led to consumer disappointment and an erosion of authority. Individual marketers acting in their own self interests has meant that consumers easily ignore advertising and don't trust it.

New social channels have emerged that allowed consumers to connect with each other and easily spread word of mouth recommendation. Instead of focusing on creating a great product that people will naturally want to talk about, the majority of marketers are again over investing in the same mass behaviors on these channels. The tragedy of advertising continues.

Is it any wonder that consumers are moving away from Facebook in favor of closed systems like Snapchat or WhatsApp?

The Tragedy of Email

Email continues to be a great tool to engage with customers. The major tragedy has been Spam. This degrades the usefulness of the email system and increases the cost for all users of the Internet while only providing a benefit to a tiny number of people.

The second issue here has been the increase in legitimate but 'spammy' type emails from brands, usually sent as un-targeted mass blasts. This got so bad that Google ended up rolling out a 'Promotions' tab in Gmail - this pushed pretty much everyone's brand communication into this area, reducing attention for everyone.

The Gmail tabbed browser view.

Seth Godin has told a great story to illustrate this. Back in the days before iTunes, people used to buy things called CD's for their music (crazy, I know). A company called 'CD Now' were a big provider of music on CD, and a third of their product was sold via a weekly email. When they went public, they needed to justify shareholder value by increasing profits, so management asked them to send more emails. 

When they sent an extra email each week, profits went up. So they decided to send a third email a week. And then five emails.

Suddenly, profits went down. And down. And they couldn't claw them back, even when they reduced sends. Frequency may have meant more people received the email each week, but they had less and less opens. By training people not to bother opening their emails, they created a tragedy that sunk their business.  

The Tragedy of SEO

The final example is SEO. When implemented correctly (creating lots of desirable content that consumers love to consume and share, with a bit of on page coding thrown in) SEO is a powerful way to let people find your brand when they search for the things they want.

The tragedy here is Black Hat SEO - artificially increasing the ranking of a webpage through manipulation.

Black Hat, similar to Spam email often results in reactions from Google to penalise this behaviour (think of the Google Penguin update). This ultimately ends up affecting all users of the web through knock on effects.  

An example of this is the infamous 'what time is the Super Bowl' story. In 2011 Craig Kanalley, a writer for Huffington Post noticed a spike in Google Trends for the phrase 'what time is the Super Bowl'? Huff Post style publications were employing a particular strategy at the time - find out what people are searching for and write stuff that when published will hopefully leech away traffic.

Needless to say, the 'what time is the super bowl' post did very well for traffic to Huff Post. The following year a huge number of publications wrote similar link bait articles to try and get in on the action.

The following year Google destroyed this tactic by placing a permanent panel answering this question as the top result. 

What time does the super bowl start Google search result.

The reason this represents a tragedy is a huge number of publications were wasting their efforts trying to scam the system within Google to drop a few extra people on their page instead of creating worthwhile content that answered the needs of searchers. This was diverting people from the right place they should have ended up, leading to frustration. 

Online 'news' organisations like Huffington Post, Upworthy and Buzzfeed are continuing to build toward further tragedies with their focus on list based, irreverent content that is flooding social news feeds. With so much increased noise, consumer attention is again being tested, and the common of trust is again being eroded. 

The Solution

Unfortunately there is no easy solution to the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. Small groups will continue to look for the shortcut, which can cause the knock on effect of others following, to the detriment of everyone.

The best way try try and mitigate this as an individual is to always try to take the high road, and keep the long term in mind in favour of the heard or the shiny new thing.

For example, instead of a knee jerk reaction of intensifying advertising efforts across the communication landscape when you experience a seasonal drop in sales (and adding to the huge noise that is already there), divert efforts to focusing on a smaller targeted subset with creative they would want to seek out. 

Or with email, invest in creating a pipeline of content that makes people look forward to reading them, ensuring you continue to have permission to engage with them in the future rather than being relegated to the Spam folder.

Can you think of any other examples of a 'tragedy' that affects marketing and advertising? Does this behaviour make you want to change any of your current practices?

A revised version of this model is available at Strategy Umwelt.