Content Strategy vs. Content Skills
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about content strategy in marketing circles. I must confess, I don’t really know what that is.
Possibly, that’s because I’ve spent a large portion of my career in publishing, shared a lot of time with other publishers, gone to conferences, the Stanford Publishing Course and never, in all that time, heard of such an animal.
Nevertheless, marketers seem to be quite excited by the idea. Content is becoming a hot area and so would seem to require a strategy. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, I don’t know what a content strategy is. However, after being involved in dozens of successful media launches over my career I do know how to publish. Here’s how it’s done.
A publisher always starts with a mission: to inform, excite or inspire an audience about a particular subject. That could be heady subjects of import, like news analysis or business strategy, simple guides and tips that make life a bit easier or emotionally driven stories that can make us laugh and cry.
The one commonality I’ve noticed among successful content people is that they are absolutely passionate about their mission and their audience. It’s not just a job for them, but a calling. You can’t fake that. The audience will know. They always do.
One thing I have noticed with much of the advertiser produced content that I have seen is that it often lacks that soul. The purpose is split between producing engaging content and promoting a product – and it shows. Big budgets are no match for a mission passionately pursued.
Any good content person is a student of their craft. Part of their passion is that they have an insatiable appetite for what’s going on in their field. They want to see what their peers are doing, what’s been successful, what hasn’t been and which new approaches have promise.
From a publishing standpoint, any good development process starts with key questions: Who’s done this before? How did they do it? What can we add? What can we subtract? Marketers need to start with the same questions.
Moreover, they should staff true experts – those who are willing to devote their careers to producing content for consumer consumption. Editors, directors and programming people all have the expertise, experience and passion (notice how I continue to use that word) to put out a superior product.
To produce something new and exciting, you have to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Possibly the most important, and certainly the most overlooked aspect of content creation is structure. As I wrote in an earlier post about media user experience, every content discipline has its own rules and every content product is defined by the rules it chooses to break.
Magazines have a clearly defined “brand bibles”, which designate flatplan and pacing. Radio stations run on clocks. TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on. The rules not only set audience expectations and make content easier to take in and enjoy, but form the crucial constraints in which creativity can thrive.
So when marketers approach content, they must go beyond the advertising pillars of target and messaging and think seriously about such mundane concepts such as standard length of content, how different elements are integrated to create a greater whole and which part fulfills which purpose.
As I’ve noted before, every great media product combines consistency and surprise, so it’s okay to break some rules now and again, but you have to know what they are first.
Once you get beyond the basics of strategy, the content product itself has to perform. It has to, in the words of Peter Guber, provide emotional transport. It needs to connect with the audience on a visceral level. If it does not, it fails. Everybody can name their favorite movie or TV show, but I’ve never heard of anybody having a favorite instruction manual.
And it’s not just about being warm and fuzzy. Emotions are critically important for retaining information. They are, as I’ve previously written, like little yellow highlighters in our brains. They release chemicals that promote synapse building, memory and cognition.
And that leads us to the very crux of the matter. You can’t wake up one day and decide that you will stimulate the passions of millions of people. The huddled masses are not, as many would have us believe, idiotic drones. They are, in truth, ourselves and can smell bullshit from a mile away.
The Post-Promotional Age
A year ago, I pointed out the difference between digital strategy and digital skills. Companies that pursued the former made big bets on big ideas and lost fortunes. Those, however, who took a skills building approach tended to do much better, albeit without fanfare or headlines.
Moreover, content skills are distinct from, although related to, marketing skills. Creating stories that inform, excite and inspire is a lifelong craft, not a three month campaign. Ironically, due to the upheaval in the media industry, such people are in abundant supply. They need only a conducive work environment and a reason to believe in order to thrive.
In a sense, the issue of marketing content is a microcosm of the central marketing challenge of the day: the need for a bigger tent with more diverse skills. We are, in a sense, in a post-promotional age, where core values need to be infused throughout the organization and not just trumpeted in promotional materials.
Strategies, in truth, only become successful when the right skills and true passions combine to further business objectives.