THERE IS TOO MUCH CONTENT OUT THERE
There is too much content out there on the internet. Corporate magazines, white papers, SEO blogs, newsletters, branded content of every type, now podcasts. There are brands, startups, corporates doing content: they all pretend to be publishers and they all jump on the latest social bandwagon: yesterday it was Snapchat, now TikTok and Clubhouse. All around, hundred thousand creators doing content for fun, for money or fame. 99% of that content is irrelevant. Wasted bytes and poor quality.
Who is guilty of that? The simple answer would be all of us, the professional or amateur content creators. But we need to be more precise if we want to make better content. Behind this sheer amount of irrelevant content are the two big digital evolutions of the last ten years: the rise of the attention economy and the invention of content marketing.
CONTENT MARKETING: HOW IT STARTED, HOW IT GOES
My Space launched in 2003. Facebook was founded in 2004. YouTube in 2005. It was the age of web 2.0. Platforms gave us the chance to become all creators and provided brands with the opportunity to bypass traditional media channels and connect straight to consumers. The birth of content marketing - a mix of inbound and outbound content, made to reach out to consumers and clients on platforms in the hope to earn (free) consumer attention, drive conversions, engage and be propagated by the consumer themselves - is bound to the irresistible ascent of the attention economy.
But that was also its original sin. The “Content is King” manifesto published by Bill Gates in 1996 became a Cliché. The reality, after 2009, was different. Distribution became the game changer and platforms the emperors. Creators have to “feed the feed” and compete for attention following the rules of the algorithm. Since platforms became the cornerstone of a new marketing paradigm, ruled by programmatic ads and performance channels, content became... a tactic. A marketing tactic. And that ruined content.
Yes, I am telling this to you. Content marketing has a couple of problems: one of them is “marketing”. The other is the genericity of the word “content”. So, my thesis here is that, if you want to do better content - relevant, impactful, meaningful, good for the customers and the brand - you have to (1) delete the word marketing and (2) define better what content is. Follow me.
THE BEST CONTENT MARKETING HAPPENS WHEN YOU FORGET IT IS MARKETING
Things got worse when content became a marketing tactic. Even worse, when it became a performance marketing tactic, resulting in articles filled with keywords and made for search engines, not for humans. Clickbait headlines made to get clicks. Brand memes spread around social and lead magnets, which are lengthy, boring papers made to let prospects give their email addresses. Emails made to spam people until they buy. Or, overemotional stories that often have nothing to you with your product, your brands, and your values. Most such material is useless.
Sometimes, it can be dangerous.
What do I mean by that?
The data-driven hyper-personalization leads to creating one story for each person, one tailored to each customer. That might be good, up to a point. I call it the “Zelig” effect of personalization: you want to tell the right story for every person, and you forget your original brand story. Your content disrupts your identity. It does not reflect anymore who you are, but is the trojan horse to enter people´ screens, because it matches with the Zeitgeist and triggers some emotional hot buttons. Taken to the extreme, this “Zeligfication of content” means stories generated by AI algorithms or content only made to hijack the sentiment of the moment (the whole thing about “purpose marketing” has to do with that).
At the end of this path, do you still know who you are as a brand and what your content stands for? Content is first an expression of identity AND a means to deliver value to readers, viewers, listeners. Once content is a pure performance marketing tactic -only measured by CTR and CPC-, identity and added value come second.
CONTENT: A WORD THAT MEANS EVERYTHING AND NOTHING
A second problem with content marketing is.... content. The word “content” is too generic. The same word is used for a white paper and a podcast, for a TV series and a blog post, for a product brochure and an Instagram post. Too generic is also the word “marketing content”: a dialogue marketing email and a branded content website, a sales collateral and a video product explainer are all marketing content.
If a word means everything, it means nothing. The generic use of the word “content” prevents the right decision on what professionals and what skills you need in your brand newsroom. Try to read some vacancy notices published by startups looking for a Head of Content. For many of them, it does not make any difference to be a UX copywriter, an SEO copy, a technical writer or an author with a journalistic background or a PR professional. Same for video professionals or designers and illustrators.
That is why, when someone approaches you with a content request, the first thing to reply is “please define what you mean by content”.
CONTENT IS KING BUT IT COMES LAST: SILOS-THINKING KILLS CONTENT
Organizational silos kill content. It is a common challenge for publishers and brands: many of them keep content separated from the product and at the end of the product development process. Content makers - journalists, UX copywriters, video makers, writers - appear at the end of this chain, to “fill the pages”, without control over UX.
For that, we cannot blame the marketers. It is more about my former tribe of product owners and UX designers that do not understand that content and product belong together.
Brand should look at modern publishers and take inspiration from their digital transition: multidisciplinary teams - combining product, editorial, marketing - are becoming the norm in many newsrooms. They do not ask content creators to “fill the page”: they create together a content-driven experience.
NO EASY FIXES. YOU MUST GO BACK TO THESE FUNDAMENTALS: VALUE, RELATIONSHIP, COMMITMENT
There are no easy fixes to the problems of content marketing. You need to go back to the vital questions your content must answer:
1. What value does your content add to the audience? You often hear the word “relevance” to define what content must be, but that can be another of those meaningless buzzwords, if not clearly defined. Relevance is the ability to answer the consumer question “What’s in it for me?” when they read, watch, listen to a piece of content. The first principle of any effective content strategy is to be clear on what value you are offering. People see relevant content as an exchange of value: a reason to give attention, and to develop a relationship.
2. What kind of relationship do you develop with your audience? That is the second fundamental question. The funnel, as we know it from the marketing books, does not exist anymore. The customer journey is not linear. It is made of micro-moments and includes hundreds of touchpoints. If you only think funnel, or how to optimise for individual touchpoints, you miss the true potential of content: to develop and nourish a relationship that consists of values, emotions, memories and perceptions. Every single piece of content must play into a holistic customer content experience, where people always know what to expect from you, and you commit to delivering to their expectations, 365 days a year.
3. Content is commitment, not campaigns. A traditional marketing campaign has a beginning and an end. Successful content programs, instead, are open-ended: they can run for years. That is why they need to be anchored to a core editorial mission, a theme, an underlying idea to drive every content delivered. The core idea must transcend time, events, customer segments, channels and formats. The core idea is about what your content stands for. Can you answer that question? If not, get back to the whiteboard. Think again.
HERE THE SOLUTIONS
1 - EDITORIAL CULTURE AND THE PUBLISHER MINDSET.
- Focus on mission, not attention.
- Think idea, not format.
2 - ORGANISATION: ROLES AND PROCESSES.
- Content is a pipeline: you need robust processes.
- Content governance: the reason why of a Chief Content Officer.
3 - DATA AND TECH SKILLS.
- Take the content data out of the marketers´ hands.
- Know the "hardware" of content.