Content – the best word we have to describe what we should be making

“content”   [kon-tent]. Noun.

 something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech,

writing, or any of various arts:

“a poetic form adequate to a poetic content.”

significance or profundity; meaning:

“a clever play that lacks content.”

substantive information or creative material viewed in contrast to its

actual or potential manner of presentation:

“publishers, record companies, and other content providers; a flashy

website, but without much content.”

Philosophy, Logic. the sum of the attributes or notions comprised in a

given conception; the substance or matter of cognition.

Source. dictionary.com   http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/content

Richard Huntington wrote a great piece of content on his blog the other day about how the word content is useless, Richard and I work together and nearly always entirely agree with him ;-). But not this time.

In this case I kind of agree that the word content is in danger of being over-used,  and in danger of becoming an empty buzzword and generally bandied around.  But I don’t agree that it is completely redundant and a completely useless generic label for all sorts of creative products like film, telly, journalism, apps, and advertising.  For me the word “content”  is a powerfully loaded with positive meaning and can help to create an essential mindset shift for brands trying to operate in a digital world.

As we all know, it used to be that brands could buy media space and interrupt peoples’ lives to get their attention.  People could then try to mentally edit out brands and their messages, and the brands that succeeded were the ones that interrupted people in the most engaging and entertaining way, such that people actually quite liked being interrupted – this was the fabled and I suspect apocryphal era when the “ads were better than the telly programmes”.  But then media fragmented and digital technology came along which enabled people to physically edit their now vastly more varied media diet. And so the ability of brands to interrupt was much reduced.  Telly advertising hasn’t died of course, it remains a massively important part of any large brand’s marketing mix because it is really important to people and still the best way of reaching a mass audience.  But peoples’ relationships to brands did shift. They became more able to chose the things that mattered most to them.

In this context the reason the word content is so useful is that, as per the dictionary definitions above,  it connotes something that is useful or entertaining, something that someone might chose,  and it implies the consumer is in control of whether the content is consumed and shared or simply ignored.  And so thinking of the output of the brand’s creative activities as content  – whatever that stuff is – means a massive mindset shift.

That mindset shift is from that of being an interrupter, crassly dressing up commercial announcements with the wafer thin patina of emotion.  To the adoption of the mindset of the producer of culturally relevant and welcomed entertainment, or utility. Moving from thinking “what do I want to say”, or “what do I want people to hear”, towards “what might my brand have to offer” or “what could I do that might be interesting to people?”

Quality does matter with content, because the form that content takes is a format like advertising, video, social media posts, or even film, music and TV shows. And so it is competing for attention against all of those formats, to get viewed, or to mean something to someone and be shared. It isn’t a separate thing from the rest of culture, it competes with culture for attention.

It would be lovely to think that as an industry we’ve always thought about the things we make in this way in the past and so it isn’t necessary to use the word content, and therefore more explicitly just talk about specific format instead, i.e. if we are making a film lets just call it a film rather than giving it the generic label content. And from time to time this has probably been true. However,  in the main, old habits die hard. The marketing industry has relied on paying for eyeballs for so long, and remains so desperate to prove a short time ROI rather than drive long term growth, that it is all too easy to end up serving your own corporate agenda and under emphasise the need to genuinely delight people with content that is high quality and worth them having in their lives.

As such the word content it is a really powerful tool for forcing us to keep thinking differently about brands and how they should interact with the world and consumers. To bastardise Google’s phrase –  to keep putting the user first, and create content that connects them with the magic at the heart of the brand by making things that are relevant, distinctive, and worth people’s scarce attention. And thinking like that should also help us face into the future, where the longevity of reliable channels that deliver mass attention which are underpinned by an ad business model, like TV airtime, are less assured.

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