Content is the big new thing. From blogs to videos to social media, everywhere you look organizations are looking to publish and engage their customers. Content is sexy and exciting and everybody wants in on the action.
Of course, publishing content isn’t new at all. Unlike other hot new trends, it’s literally centuries of years old and it’s something that is very well understood. The difference is that today everybody seems to want to be in the publishing business.
The hot new show Alpha House is created not by a major network, but Amazon. High brow consultants publish journals to show off their expertise. Consumer brands are investing in native advertising and YouTube channels. Yet for all the time and money that’s being invested in content, very few are doing it well. Here are some rules to guide you.
1. Creation is King
In 1996, Bill Gates published an influential essay declaring that content is king. Even in retrospect, it is in many ways remarkably prescient, foreseeing that faster connection speeds would bring video content, a healthy advertising market and communities centered around publishing.
His ideas clearly had an impact as exuberant investment bankers rushed to create business models that combined content and distribution throughout the 90’s. At one point, one particularly optimistic entrepreneur told 60 minutes that he was in the business of putting them out of business.
I don’t remember the man’s name and haven’t been able to locate the interview, but CBS is still around, still raking in billions in profit every year and growing at a healthy pace. In fact, TV is entering a new golden age, with an amazingly vibrant content ecosystem emerging that promises greater quality and selection than we ever imagined.
So Bill Gates had it wrong. Content isn’t king, creation is. Everything else is mere distribution. So if you expect to be successful publishing content, the best place to start is to have something worth saying and learning how to say it well.
2. Information Wants To Be Free
Probably the biggest mistake you can make with content is trying to control it. Newspapers waste time with paywalls. Scientific journals deliberately restrict distribution rather than trying to expand it. The result in the first case is a slew of failing businesses and, in the second case, a boycott by world renown scholars.
As Daniel Dennett put it, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.” In much the same way, a consumer is content’s way of making more content. Successful content is that which is watch, read, listened to and ultimately shared.
So if you want your content to be valuable, make it available and shareable. Don’t narrow your options to a few favored distribution channels or revenue models. Don’t get caught up on pre-canned notions of who your audience is or should be. If you’re publishing content, your mission is to spread information, not control it.
3. Holding Attention Is Different Than Grabbing Attention
One significant change over the past decade is marketers’ heartfelt embrace of owned media. Marketers have, in effect, become publishers and there is no shortage of “content strategists” that offer to help them on their way with a wide variety of tools, profiling strategies and brand positioning schemes.
What many of these content strategists lack—at least in my experience—is any successful track record in publishing. From what I can tell most are failed brand planners, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they often fail to make the distinction between grabbing attention and holding attention.
The function of an ad is to deliver a message. The function of a media product is to deliver an experience. The two are vastly different tasks. While great ads “cut through,” effective media user experience thrives by utilizing conventions. As a legendary editor once told me, the secret to a great media product is “consistency and surprise.”
So rather than focusing on content strategy, marketers would be much better served by building strong content skills. Without consistency, surprise isn’t exciting, it’s distracting.
4. Media Models Do Not Last
Although The New York Times remains a top-notch journalistic organization, its business is struggling. Meanwhile, The Huffington Post mints money. Although magazine publishers fret about declining copy sales, online video is opening the door to that big pot of TV revenue they have always coveted.
While much of the focus is on product innovation, the need for business innovation is far greater. Newspapers were built on a classified ad business that is now dead for them. Yahoo missed the opportunity to buy Google because its model was based on keeping users on site. AOL thought it had hit pay dirt with a walled garden. The list goes on.
As Rishad Tobaccowala likes to say, the future will not fit into the containers of the past. The new media universe has less friction and more transparency, it’s faster, less forgiving and far more exciting. It is also potentially far more profitable for those who are willing to go beyond the context of their experience.
Originally published on Dec 30, 2013 4:43 PM, updated Feb 10, 2016