Content + Context Are the New Black

Content: even the word is complicated for marketers.

“Published information”? Sure.

A “state of being”? That’s sweet.

The “highest common factor of a polynomial’s coefficient”? Definitely not.

And lastly, from the never dull and often NSFW Urban Dictionary: “Buzzword popular in the Internet boom of 1999 that includes everything that takes skill to create; only used by those with no skills. I can take this content and make it into a killer Java-based web portal.”

Ouch. Well, sorry snarky man in black turtleneck, but content is back.

Digital marketers have always been content creators and publishers. Early on our efforts were focused on web copy and imagery – building websites and creating banners. As the web became richer, so did our content. Shockwave and Flash changed the game and enabled us to add animation and interactivity to both our sites and ads. As our bandwidth, contexts, and creation tools evolved, our content options have stretched wider and wider. In fact, they’ve stretched in both directions – our copy-only options have expanded and our options for rich media are amazing – who knew six-second looping videos could be so mesmerizing?

In recent years, as social media has exploded, the demands on marketers to create and distribute content at scale, constantly, and in a way that delivers real business value have been stretched, too. For many, especially those in organizations built around broadcast, there’s no clear way to effectively feed the beast, or, “meet the expectations of our social+mobile consumers.” ; )

In a prescient plea penned a year and a half ago for Forbes, Chris Perry, the digital lead at Weber Shandwick asked “Do Organizations Need a Chief Content Officer?” To which he replied:

“Sitting alongside lots of agency partners, inside organizations trying to make sense of it all, there’s a gap that fundamentally bypasses [consumer] trends. We discuss brand strategy, media planning, creative development, social media, news calendars that guide PR, plus all avenues to get employees behind corporate and brand programs.

Content is in the center of it all.

Few organizations have an overarching strategy that channels all this branded content into a consolidated planning model. In parallel, we see lack of defined leadership for overall orchestration and accountability for content-driven programs.

This will become a business priority as companies seek more discipline in how stories are conveyed – not to mention cost savings that come with more disciplined sourcing, curating and production.”

Prescient indeed, and while consumer adoption of the technology that’s driving these changes has grown exponentially, I still can’t find many chief content officers.

Enter Steve Rubel. I’m sure many of you know the name. Steve has been a leader in social media marketing for many years and has been the EVP of global strategy and insights for Edelman. Well, just a few days ago he was given a new role as chief content strategist. He works for one of the largest PR agencies on the planet; this makes some sense. Through his work in social media he has had a front row seat to the content challenges facing brands, and now he’ll be tasked with solving them.

And in the same week global agency Mindshare announced the creation of a content marketing practice. The company’s initial goal will be to extend the work it’s already been doing for American Express and Royal Caribbean. According to Antony Young, CEO of Mindshare North America, their clients are asking for it. “Every client is saying to us, ‘Tell us how to innovate – tell us what we need to do differently.'”

But what is the promise of content marketing anyway?

In the vast and immensely cluttered digital marketplace, among the looping animated banners, pre-roll videos, and 10 percent-off emails – are fans. They are actual people who like your brand and products and have invited you into their most personal attention streams. They are eager to be surprised, delighted, and informed; they are ready to leave a quick comment or share what they love about you with their friends. Since they like you already, they’re open to considering whatever you publish. But these aren’t the droids you’re looking for and Jedi mind tricks won’t help. They aren’t stuck in their car during drive time or glued to the couch during prime time.

To current and future content marketing leaders: if you’re listening, I have a challenge for you.

“Be innovative” isn’t a consumer insight. Instead of the expected “big idea” approach, instead of making custom iPad magazines or on-demand TV channels that are more focused on getting into Adweek than driving business value, and instead of reformatting old media into digital, dive deep into how digital consumers behave, what they expect, and what engages them. Spend time with them and with the retailers and sales people, brand managers, and product designers and really understand how and why people buy. Strive to truly understand the context and then develop the content. Lastly, focus on the most important contexts, where the most important consumers spend most of their time. And don’t try to drive them elsewhere. Reach, engage, and activate them within their attention streams and they will reward you with what you seek: attention, participation, recommendation, and consideration.

Content image on home page via Shutterstock.

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