The state of content and the spate of discontent

Sometimes, when you’re in a certain kind of mood, a lone statistic is more than enough to trigger an explosive bout of self-inquiry. The impact hits you hard at a visceral level – you feel as if YOU are responsible for the sordid state of affairs and you have to DO something about it.

In case you are anxious, here is that nasty little prick of a statistic I discovered in Nishita Lalvani’s blog which fomented my raging sea of discontent about the state of content.

“85% of Indian marketers claim that they struggle to create meaningful content” – Octane Research India (Source: LinkedIn Business Blog).

Before I put that statistic into perspective, let me share where I come from.

My day job doesn’t deal with marketing per se, albeit, I help my clients, once in a while, perform well in social media through storytelling. (I trained myself to be a Marketer in my B-School but later I chose not to take it up as my day job. That’s another story for some other day).

“Content” has been trending of late in my curiosity radar. I’ve recently begun to teach “Content Strategy” (not Content Marketing) to a bunch of creative folks at a film school here in Hyderabad. Which helps me examine the evolving landscape of “content” through contextual design lens.

As someone who has been blogging since the golden days of the Web circa 2007, I care for good content as much I care for a good filter coffee – refreshing to brew and taste to leave me with full of beans.[pun intended]

So, here’s why that statistic grated my nerves – 85% of the Indian Marketers are struggling to create relevant content in the only market in the world which is currently witnessing a positive growth rate (+40% YoY) in global internet users.

As you can see, the stakes are huge. No wonder, marketers have gotten defensive and turned into critics, deriding the role of content. A B2B marketer wrote this, not so long ago, in exasperation.

“If you ‘educate’ a customer through neutral content, (that is third party or non-product), are they likely to buy your product more than that of competitor? By how much, and what is the trade off versus the costs? or does it help your business meet its purpose. Is there any hard data? Facts? Anecdotes ? “ (Blog:Content is Overrated by Somesh Bhagat)

If you carefully observe the arguments made by traditional marketers railing against the “contentisation” of marketing, the crux of their argument boils down to the following two points.

1) Making too much of a fuss about “content marketing” is an unhealthy distraction for the industry as the term is tad too generic and misconstrues the difference between advertising, direct marketing and publicity.

2) Nothing really has changed because Marketing has always been about “Content”. The only change so far is that we have two new channels – Internet and Mobile Devices, which allow content to be created in diverse forms and shapes.

We have oodles to unpack. Let me start with the definition.

We haven’t reached any consensus on the definition of “Content”, as it means different things to different people. Lee Odden , a leading voice in the content marketing circles, curated about 40 definitions of content, sourced from digital marketing experts all over the web. In his blog post, he writes,

Fundamentally, content = information. Content = experience. Content = nothing specific.

Now, you know why it rubs traditional marketers (schooled in the values of precision) on the wrong end when content marketers write this and then proceed to give soundbites like,

“Content isn’t King, It’s the kingdom”.

If we have to get serious about “content”, here is what we need. We need one singular definition that can encompass all the diverse interpretations of content. Here’s my definition – my humble entry for the last word on what is “content.”

Content is a social object that attracts context

There are two parts to this definition. Let us look at the first part.

Social Object

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(Image Credits: Hugh Macleod Blog)

What sets apart “Content” in the Digital Universe is its intrinsic property to be a “social object” across each stage of the consumer’s journey. Remember. The consumer has more power than the brand to mediate the social discourse surrounding the brand and the social object created by the brand marketers.

This is a very critical distinction which often escapes the attention of the traditional marketers. Brand Marketers are so used to crafting messages in the past where they have wielded more control than the consumer that they find it now difficult to imagine what would it be to cede the brands to the consumer.

Ask the brand marketers from Airtel – who faced tremendous amount of backlash despite high brand recall after they relentlessly streamed the Airtel Girl from the nooks and corners of the country – what does it mean for consumers to have more control of the conversations and they will tell you.

And, when traditional marketers are unable to come to terms with this shift in balance of power, they complain and rant on. Here is Samuel Scott ranting on Techcrunch that Everything the tech world says about marketing is wrong

“Imagine that it is the year 1996. What did traditional marketing departments think about? The four Ps. The promotion mix. Communications strategies. SWOT analyses. The five forces. Building brands. Then, by 2006, what did digital marketing teams think about? High Google rankings and more website traffic. Getting Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers. Keyword density. Building links.”

Why is this happening now?

As Venkatesh Rao eloquently pointed out in his blog, we are seeing an uncanny trend where we are seeing “increased certainty in execution and decreased certainty in objectives”

In the past, when brands owned the social discourse surrounding the brand, it made sense to myopically focus on “conversion”, despite the fact that they lacked the sophisticated tools to measure the conversion at the spur of the moment (what Google calls as zero-moment-of-truth) involving the customer and the brand.

But today, brands are in a funny situation. Just when technologies evolved to allows brand marketers have the necessary tools to track the conversion in the zero moment of truth, the goal posts have shifted.

You can’t win this match by playing finite, time-boxed campaigns – one big-creative-campaign splash at a time. When consumers own the conversation and live online, brands have no choice but to have an infinite, persistent presence across the social web and churn out creative social objects in response to what’s happening now in real-time.

Which now brings us to the second part of the definition.

What does it meant for a “content” to be a social object that attracts context?

When brands are unsure of the goals they are supposed to follow, the best thing they can do is to be present and stay connected with the most valuable parts of the social graph that can yield disproportionate results for them. It is this particular focus which has now led to the renewed momentum on “Influencer Marketing”.

Think of a random moment in the Internet when an Influencer posts an update about a common pain point he is facing. Which incidentally becomes a perfect context to showcase your presence and the unique value you bring through your product. You can tap into such serendipitous moments only if you are now deeply enmeshed with the most valuable nodes of your brand’s social graph.

Many brands which are content churning out good enough content fail to move the needle forward in social media because either they are not influentially well connected or their content isn’t powerful enough to attract context of the influential parts of the social graph that can do wonders for their brand.

What happens when brands keep churning out “content” blithely unaware of their contextual distance from the happening parts of the social graph?

They become, in Venkatesh Rao’s insightful words, graph garbage.

state of content

(Image Credits: Breaking Smart Newsletter)

How can we map the existing “Content” landscape based on this new definition of “Content”? How can this new definition help us re-examine the notions of “Meaningful Content”? How can we understand “Influencer Marketing” through the games customers play? I will tackle these questions and more in my next blog post. Stay tuned.

If you wish to explore what I have covered so far in further depth, I would strongly recommend this blog post from Ribbon Farm: The Message is the Medium.

The article was written by Venkataraman (Venky) Ramachandran and first published on LinkedIn Pulse.

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