Why content is no longer king

Marketers need to now focus on harnessing the power of the web’s free distribution service of engaged consumers, writes Steve Sammartino.

This article was originally published in The Content Issue, our August/September issue of Marketing magazine.

 

Content. A word revitalised with additional meaning in the past decade or so.

Content issue theme badgeMarketing was a strange context for the word when it entered the parlance of the post mass media era. But in the halcyon days of the early world wide web it became very clear, very early that the web would become more than discussion forums and brochure wear. All these ‘free’ places of direct consumer communication – it was every marketer’s dream – free access to the people they sold to.

You could say that marketing, until that time, was kind of ‘empty’. There wasn’t much ‘content’ in the funnel at all. The funnel was filled with simple product and service offers. Features, advantages and benefits blasted 30 seconds at a time. Heck, there wasn’t any time for content, time was money – straight to the sell, a single sound bite at a time.

The laws of nature, however, say that vacuums must be filled. Content started to fill the infinite space of the internet. Marketing messages quickly became content, and content became the new king. Sure, the content was simply long lead marketing, or selling in disguise – but we bought into it big time.

And just like any kingdom, you had to pay your taxes. You couldn’t just sell what you made – you had to sell the story of the why, how, when and where. New rules of engagement, or should we say ‘taxes’, emerged as a kind of payment that brands had to hand over in order to be ‘more than what they sell’.

Content was the ticket to attention. The audience was hungry for it and marketers had to adapt quickly to a world where sound bites were not enough. The new game included a requirement for authenticity. What? We have to tell the truth? Yes, all of a sudden the stories had to be true, come from the heart and tell us what the brand or company believed in. They had to show us behind the scenes and give us a taste of some industrial tourism.

We wanted to know everything.

And this couldn’t be gamed – hordes of corporate consumer auditors sat ready on keyboards and social forums to ‘out’ hidden truths in a heartbeat. Nothing could be glossed over anymore and I honestly feel it put marketing on a trajectory for the good. But authenticity wasn’t enough. We needed an opinion too, a brand could no longer be a thing; it had to be personified, it had to take on a quasi-political position on where it belonged in the social spectrum.

So what did we do? We called the agency, we staffed up and started to play the content game – corporate brand blogs giving tips on how to remove stains with washing powder X, Twitter accounts as the new call centre, YouTube channels with the making of and extended versions of the 30-second TVC, CEOs with Q and A sessions on industry forums.

Everything that could be justified as a piece of corporate content, was.

After a slow start, we dived in head first, and let’s just say this: the void has been filled – the void is no longer. In fact, there is now so much content that pretty much everything is invisible again. A new problem has emerged.

Five short years ago, I would’ve said ‘stick to the content play and you’ll be making compound interest on your daily content deposits’… But the evidence now suggests that content as a promotional play is a strategy of yesterday. Remembering that the digital environment lives in dog’s years, or even flies’ lives (think weeks at a time) it’s time to revise the ‘content is king’ parable.

The glory days of content for brands are behind us. Go on to any YouTube channel, or blog about some esoteric topic, and you’ll find some world quality content that has got 10 views or readers under its belt. The content strategy is a game that is very difficult to win.

There are so many players, it simply can’t be won unless content happens to be the reason you exist.

So if you are still making a content play to get attention, you better be sure it’s world first thinking and, even then, you had better find a way to get it distributed. Because while content may well be king – distribution is now king-ier.

Attention is more scarce than content. Attention is now at the core of what brands must acquire. Good content is omnipresent. Being noticed is hard. But good news, there is a solution. You need to decide which of these strategies suits your business model better. Are you:

  • a content creator: here content ought to be your primary business – the thing you do and get paid for,
  • a content curator: a distributor of content, the place people go to get informed – the social web, the news, the people and channels you follow, or
  • an ingredient provider: you make and do cool stuff that content creators and curators like to talk about (this is where most brands should be – remembering, of course, that boring is invisible).

Given attention is such a hard thing to get, brands are far better placed focusing their limited resources on doing what they actually get paid for. And today they need to do it incredibly well.

Unless a brand is literally in the content business, or providing a content platform, the best plan is to be the most interesting at what you do. Provide the most radical content-worthy ingredients. If a brand has the courage to put its energy into living on the edge of what’s next in your category, the content will look after itself.

A look at many leading brands is very telling. While they don’t focus on content, there is infinite content about them because of what they are putting in market. Mac Secrets, Tesla owners forums, the latest Kickstarter record-breaking campaign, Uber ice-cream hashtags, national news stories on the line of people waiting to get into a fast fashion retailer’s first store opening in Australia.

Point your resources towards innovation in our own industry or category. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds, given that literally everything we make is being converted into something cognitive. All they ought do is undertake the inevitable, a little more quickly. No one ever said you had to create the content yourself. If you make what you create ‘content- able’, you’ll be rewarded by the web’s infallible free content department pushing out its own mash-ups. And while mash-ups sounds like a very 1990s web trope, they have never been more appropriate today.

Let’s say what you make is boring, and un-content-able, and the ingredients are not worth talking about; you can always buy attention. No shame in that. Some of the world’s most well-known brands that live in the necessities categories (think supermarket products and commodities) have done it with their wallets. If this is you, it’s probably a better strategy to pay to play, and keep that content creation money for inventing something worth talking about.

 

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Steve Sammartino is a regular columnist in Marketing mag. Purchase a subscription and be the first to read his articles!

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Steve Sammartino
BY Steve Sammartino ON 7 October 2016
After investing 15 years in managing some of the world's biggest brands, Steve took his marketing mindset into the entrepreneurial space. His ventures include rentoid.com, an air-powered car made of Lego and he’s the co-founder  of surfing technology company Sneaky Surf. He blogs at Stevesammartino.com, is a regular technology commentator on the ABC and his best-selling book The Great Fragmentation has been translated into multiple languages. His breadth of experience provides a unique perspective on the future of marketing.