Hey Marketers, Content’s Back in Style

Those of us in marketing share a strange kinship. Almost all of us have experienced the joy (?) of unsolicited marketing advice from those who don’t know market segmentation from marked pigmentation and wouldn’t know Philip Kotler from Philip Glass.

Needless to say, we get a lot of folks’ opinions about marketing, especially when we don’t ask for it. That’s why the day after Gary the accountant sets up his AOL account, he is compelled to buttonhole us in the parking lot with his strategies for revamping the organization’s web site. It’s also why when Irma down the hall receives a piece of direct mail, she commandeers your afternoon with her ideas for your external communications strategies.

A colleague of mine had one of those experiences the other day. Someone we’ll call Ol’ Irma parked herself in the marketing department with some four-color monstrosity from the competitor. The thing was big on white space and stock photos, light on just about everything else, including information. “Nice,” the marketing professional said, trying to keep the conversation brief. “No, it’s not nice. It’s exactly what we need to be doing in marketing,” Irma instructed.

Now, these moments don’t come around very often in our biz, but remember — and only those of a certain age may actually respond to this memory — that wonderful “Annie Hall” scene when a bubblehead tries to impress his date by waxing on the writings of Marshall McLuhan? Suddenly, old Marshall himself steps forward and tells the guy that he’s Marshall McLuhan and the loudmouth has no idea what he’s talking about.

It just so happened that, much to Irma’s dismay, my colleague had focus-group tested the four-color extravaganza against a much simpler, content-rich two-color document. Guess what the survey sample said? The group participants liked the simpler, content-rich stuff. “With all the fancy pictures and glossy design, you look as if you’ve just got money to burn,” they said. “It’s not very responsive to the consumer’s need for information.”

Now this test was done in healthcare. Wasting resources in healthcare is understandably a very unpopular matter. And being perceived as non-responsive to the customer… well, that’s territory no one wants to tread.

This whole story is intended to help us marketers vent a little and partly to suggest that perhaps our profession should consider what we’ve finally realized for our web sites. Flash is out. Content is critical.

Think about it. Wasn’t Generation X so eager to tell us that hype wouldn’t cut it? (That is until marketers found a way to super-sell grunge rock with the same fervor now expended on Britney, Jessica, Christina, and all other clones.) Weren’t we supposed to see more meaningful forms of marketing back in the ’90s? Obviously, the time wasn’t ripe back then. It may have taken us a decade of actually reading material on the Internet to help us see the light.

Is being content-driven and informative back in style? Consider the following:

  • Oprah Winfrey and her book club fans at last beat out sleazeball Jerry Springer in the ratings this year. Have Americans finally realized “Sex with My Sister” isn’t great content?

  • Thick Harry Potter books now interest 10 year olds almost as much as Nintendo 64 (mind you, being the mother of someone in that age range, I wrote “almost as much”). Are we finally looking for something to stimulate — not dull — our imaginations?
  • America still plays along with “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” cheering for the nerdy savants and snickering at the more pedestrian contestants who must poll the audience at the $100 level. Is being smart back in style?
  • The sock puppet didn’t save Pets.com, and Taco Bell finally let its Chihuahua dog out. Could it be that audiences saw through the cute stuff and asked what the product was?
  • There is still The History Channel..

Careful, marketing colleagues, don’t base your entire marketing budgets on my “return to content” theory. After all, it is only built on a few simple observations and a couple of rudimentary focus groups performed in Southern California. (And wasn’t that completely content-lacking flick “Meet the Parents” the top grossing movie for an interminably long time this year?) However, it is some food for thought and perhaps an indication that if rich content’s our goal for the web, it might be worth revisiting the entire marketing communications mix.

Again, just a theory, guys. It obviously needs some more testing. However, if you’d like, I’d be glad to park myself in your office and expound on all my many scintillating thoughts. If you’re in marketing, you’re undoubtedly used to that sort of thing.

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