In this guest post, Magnum & Co’s head of content, Nick Snelling (pictured above), says everybody may be doing content these days, but, he muses, are they doing it well?
We need a new word for “content”, but buggered if I know what it should be.
Trawl the interwebs and trade op-eds for insights into whatever new trend is burgeoning in the exciting world of… [blare of trumpets]… CONTENT MARKETING(!!!), and you find a swag of listicles all jostling to tell you the “Top Five Tricks to Making Your Content Work”, or “10 Reasons Why Measuring Content Performance Is The Future!”
Now, not to malign some of the genuinely good advice to be found in these pieces but they invariably position content in quite an unambitious light. Framed as this sort of savvy but soft sales methodology, it’s at best a utilitarian tool to be mastered by any self-respecting marketing manager if they hope to maintain both relevance and presence for their brand.
Problem is, if we only ever think of content as a mere pathway to purchase, a corral to gently steer the bovine consumer towards the feed trough, or a means to stop sinking into the SEO soup and nothing more than that, then essentially all we’re practicing is the online equivalent of “One Potato, Two Potatoes, Three Potatoes, Four…”
And as we know, after a while, everyone gets jack-shit of potatoes.
Content can and should be better than this. Now, admittedly we’ve seen the churn rate on posting content for content’s sake subside in the years since Google changed-up its algorithm, but the reduction in quantity hasn’t always led to a boost in quality. Admittedly, part of that reticence by brand managers to invest in quality content can be put down to legitimate concerns around ROI, regardless of whether the content is driven by diligent strategy and data-based insights. In a nutshell: “Hmm… if my brand invests in this beautifully made video, how do I really know for sure it will work? Nah, let’s just stick with the blog for now… ”
What we need to communicate effectively is that by creating “online stuff” of genuine interest or value to the consumer – stuff that can operate both tangentially and symbiotically to the brand – a bond is formed. After all, good content is about shared ideals, and when consumed by audiences who value said stuff, the brand is the bit that rubs off along the way. In other words, affection by association. It’s an old trick.
And yet, this degree of ambition in content marketing is often absent. The fear of over-investment. Of reaching too far. Because, let’s face it, in waxing lyrical about the so-called “future of content” why not start by acknowledging just how interminably beige, banal and boring a term it really is. Platitudinous and ubiquitous, “content” stands for nothing and yet everything at the same time.
Think about it. Whether it’s another clunky EDM unspooling in your inbox, a heavily hashtagged selfie, a genuinely beautiful series of photographs or some slickly produced branded short film, it’s all deemed “content”. From infographics to instructional videos, to output of the Insta-famous influencers and their infernal UGC, it’s assigned the same description and, by extension, the same worth…
… which, of course, is simply not the case.
The reality is, across all types of content, there’s the great, the ho-hum and the plain bad. And as more and more brands start to practise content marketing, their efficacy in connecting to indifferent consumers is inevitably going to diminish unless they’re firmly committed to producing the first category. Which is why the next wave of content is going to have to be increasingly sophisticated, creative and require significant resources.
This is also why, as content creators in the industry, we cannot afford any malaise when it comes to presenting a passionate and informed argument for why brands should invest in kick-arse content – and by that I mean content made by both the talented social influencers as much as the professional agency creatives.
In each case, we need to aim higher.
I get it, though. Cynicism is easy. Hey, every time I hear the phrase, “Oh, they’re producing some great content over at so’n’so…” I still do a little upchuck in my mouth. The worst is when you hear brand marketers start talking about HBO series, musicians’ back-catalogues or the big film studios films in the same way, as though these bastions of culture were now mere warehouses to be mined for “great content” and repurposed for brands. As if lumping the Chewbacca-Mask Lady and her viral unboxing video with classic cinema should ever be in the same ballpark.
Let’s be clear, great art is not content. To call it such is demeaning and disrespectful to the great artists – directors, photographers, writers and musicians – who created it.
But content can be artistic. In fact, it can be so much more than the space-filling, stop-gapping, cardboard-padding, sales-driving purpose that the word now implies. So that’s why, if we’re really serious about crafting great content that genuinely connects with people (no, not consumers), we need to stop using the C-word altogether.
(What about “stuff”? I quite like “stuff”…)
Anyway, to provide an example, my agency Magnum & Co reps Red Bull in Australia. Now, as arguably one of the biggest, most iconic and successful brand publishers in the world, Red Bull is always getting big-ups for its “awesome content”. But in my opinion, it doesn’t just produce content – rather, it shares incredible stories of human endeavour and athletic virtuosity. It champions individuals who are pushing the envelope and taking things to the extreme, and it empowers their pursuits. It’s aspirational. It’s ambitious. It’s beautifully shot. It’s out on a limb (in some cases, quite literally). And it’s grounded in something real and relatable, which only tangentially links back to the actual product. Result? The brand is beloved by people everywhere. Moreover, to label Red Bull’s film, footage and features as simply “content” diminishes the ambitions of the brand, the film-makers who crafted it, the athletes who risk their necks and the audience who live in awe of their feats.
Now obviously, not every brand can execute content of this level or high production value, but what they can start to do is look at all the compelling narratives that already orbit their brand and find a way to turn them into cracking yarns and shareable stuff. The new playground is in the periphery.
And I guess that’s probably my main objection to the C-word. It’s kinda cheap and it pigeonholes. By definition, it’s limiting, immediately categorising whatever the “content” may be – regardless of its execution, expense or higher aims – as still occupying this uninspiring limbo, trapped somewhere between marketing materials and not-quite-art. And it doesn’t have to be!
Speaking of trade articles, I stumbled upon a good one the other day. For the life of me I cannot remember the author’s name now, but the guy said (and I’m paraphrasing here) something like this…
We should always aim high. Higher than most. When most people talk about good content and its efficacy, it’s invariably positioned in terms of engagement and reach… Whereas great content should also be about elevation and the realisation of potential.
Yeah, what he said. Whoever he was. Ahem.
If we can’t find a new handle for the C-word, let’s start shifting the goalposts on what its potential can be. Make it less about what it can do for the brand, and more about what it can do for the people expected to engage with it. Because if you nail the second part, the first is a done deal.