Content or Context – Which Is King?

I’m a digital marketing nerd. I’m deeply fascinated by the intensely dynamic environment we work in where consumer trends change daily and marketers are always a few (or many) steps behind.

After I graduated college my father worked at O’Reilly, the amazing technical publishing and media company. One day when I was home on vacation he brought me a book with a CD – remember those? It was all about a new idea the company had. They believed anyone should be able to publish on the web and that idea became WebSite Professional. It wasn’t the first lightweight web server or publishing platform, but it was very early and the vision was, well, visionary.

Movable Type, Typepad, LiveJournal, Blogger, and eventually WordPress all followed. The evolution quickly gained speed, with first consumers and then marketers, and businesses to this day leading and forging a digital self-publishing revolution.

Email, while older, has run a similar evolutionary path, and social media – specifically Facebook, Twitter, and now Pinterest and Instagram – has taken self-publishing to the next level. And as we’re seeing with tools like Viddy and Vine, we’ll continue to see innovation in digital self-publishing for some time to come.

This is all great, but so what?

We’ve been talking about how marketers need to become publishers for many, many years, but it hasn’t really happened en masse. I get it. Even the most innovative marketers are slow to make fundamental changes and publishing is a biggie.

But, I’m starting to see early market convergence that might truly usher in the era of content marketing we’ve envisioned.

1. Social is mobile. I know you’ve heard this before. Sheesh, every day there seems to be a new stat proving this. I saw recently that Nielsen found that 30 percent of all time spent on mobile in the U.S. is spent social networking. It’s clear: when a marketer posts to a social network, she better think about the mobile experience, every time. While everyone gets that we must publish daily and the content and outcomes must be mobile-enabled, it’s much easier said than done and the complexity of context forces a more nuanced content strategy.

2. Content creation and aggregation (curation) tools are ubiquitous. I have iMovie on my iPhone. I can shoot, edit, and publish a film at the bus stop. Every article I read, photo I see, and song I listen to can be shared to my streams and the streams I manage. As a marketer, my ability to publish, especially “micro-content,” has never been easier or richer.

Moreover, consumers and brand advocates are creating content in droves that can be beneficial (or harmful) to our efforts. If we don’t participate in this “content conversation” in real and interesting ways, we lose our voice.

3. Brands are struggling to generate sustained business value from social + mobile. Go ahead and flame me in the comments for saying so. I welcome the conversation because I believe this to be generally true. Many brands have now begun to make significant investments in social media and mobile infrastructure, resources, and media, but they’re not getting the returns they need to justify the spend. Brands must be there (consumers certainly are) – they must reach, engage, and convert their social + mobile consumers – but the traditional approaches aren’t scaling.

This is an important point in market convergence because brands know they need to crack this code and some are working diligently to do so. Whether sitting on the sidelines silently listening and watching, or actively conducting A/B testing, as a market we need to go through this process in order to find the formula that decidedly works for content marketing. Marketing is, after all, an art and a science.

4. Marketers are starting to understand how content works. BuzzFeed and others have gotten deep into the science of how and what content gets shared. Get your top 10 lists ready! But this is just the beginning. There is much we can learn from media companies (obviously), and from retail and e-commerce brands that have learned what “content converts.” To me, this is the most exciting and fascinating place for marketers to dive in, bringing together what we know from multiple disciplines into a strategy that serves customers through content that engages, fulfills a brand promise, and gets people on the path to purchase. Marketers are good at throwing either creative (and content) or technology at this problem, but now we must weave them together.

Last summer, Brian Solis sat down with Deanna Brown, CEO of Federated Media, to discuss this exact topic. While it’s a bit of a winding conversation, there are a few nuggets that I found particularly interesting and which make it worth watching.

Within the first 30 seconds, Deanna shares her thoughts when Brian asks if content is king in a “democratized” media environment:

“Content, on its own, [is] not as important in a more distributed web, a more kind of democratized world. But content, in the right context, is ultimately king.”

When Brian asks if we should reframe the question to be “context is king,” she shares this:

“What’s inherent in the ‘content is king’ statement is the quality of it. So, the best context with less than desirable content, not important. So, I think they are very dependent on each other.”

This is the key insight: great content in the right context should be the foundation of our content marketing strategies and should force our transition to become more like publishers than Mad Men.

While this may sound lofty to execute well, we must reach consumers where they spend their time, which requires that we understand and capitalize on social and mobile. Increasingly this means that to gain the biggest impact, we must publish to social streams across networks and devices, regularly.

However, focusing solely on content that builds the brand and engages fans and followers to like, share, comment, tweet, and pin isn’t enough to drive sustained business value. To achieve that goal, we must become experts at sourcing, creating, and publishing the kinds of content that provokes customers to explore and consider our products and ultimately do business with us. Only then will marketers, vendors, and agencies be able to come together to create the next generation of content marketing tools and strategies needed to succeed in our amazing digital world.

Crown image on home page via Shutterstock.

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