Don’t Drown in Sunk Costs When the Evidence Calls for a Change in Strategy

Economists call them sunk costs, the costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Apparently, we care a lot about sunk costs. And, strangely, so do mice.

It might seem that sunk costs should not influence whether we continue investing in an ongoing project. And yet they do.

Researchers have discovered that mice and rats will stay with a task longer based on the amount of time they have already invested in trying to complete it.

As The New York Times reported, “The more time they invested in waiting for a reward — in the case of the rodents, flavored pellets; in the case of the humans, entertaining videos — the less likely they were to quit the pursuit.”

Some kind-hearted researcher posited that there must be (or once was) an evolutionary imperative for such behavior. Meaning, there’s a reason for our seeming stupidity. I like when they try to let us down gently like that.

Which brings me to content.

Sometimes Content Won’t Come Together

If you’ve been publishing regularly for a while, you know how much time and effort various pieces and campaigns will take. And if you’ve been budgeting properly, you know the ROI without looking at the stats.

So when a piece just doesn’t seem to be coming together, what should you do? Do more research? Come at it from a different angle? Ask for input from a trusted editor?

Sometimes those are the right courses of action. But not always. If you write long enough, you will eventually write a piece that is dead on arrival, no matter what effort you put in. The secret is to know when a piece is officially not working and give up on it, at least for the moment. Sure, you feel some regret, and maybe even some chagrin or shame. Suck it up. It’s all about knowing when to quit.

The challenge comes when the evidence begins to mount that an entire campaign or series of pieces isn’t working. The answer isn’t to keep doing the same thing but “do it better.” If it were an issue of quality, you would have picked up on that much earlier.

Sometimes even quality content doesn’t resonate with readers because, as valuable as it may be, it’s just not what they want.

I will posit that a frustrated reader will drop a post quicker than a mouse will give up waiting for a snack. There are just too many other sources for quality information available. Sometimes even successful campaigns and strategies will have run their course, and it’s time to shake things up and try something new.

Strategies Need to Be Questioned

Content strategies are meant to be iterative, living documents, not precedent. They should be not just regularly reviewed, but questioned. Types of content have life cycles. At some point as adults, we stopped taking BuzzFeed quizzes and reading listicles. Your readers may also be maturing and looking for something new.

The worst thing you can do in the face of waning interest is defend a strategy’s longevity, or the fact that it worked in the past. Media publishers are constantly experimenting with new kinds of content and delivery vehicles. If evidence of waning engagement mounts, look at it quickly, and critically. Don’t become a victim of sunk costs, especially if there’s not a flavored pellet at the end.

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