Content Is Crap
In a famous essay written in 1996, Bill Gates declared that content is king. He presciently foresaw that faster connection speeds would make content the “killer app” of the Internet, creating a “marketplace of experiences, ideas and products.”
Yet unfortunately, Gates mistook the transaction for the product. While his vision of the future was correct and he moved quickly to create and acquire valuable content assets, he largely failed. Today, almost 20 years later, Microsoft has no significant content business.
The reason is that content isn’t really king. Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.
A Mission Is Not A Transaction
Henry Luce was not a fan of mainstream media. He saw it as made up of dry and dull daily newspapers on the one hand and sensational tabloids on the other. He wanted to create a new breed of product—informal and concise—which would prepare people to discuss the issues of the day. The result, Time magazine, succeeded beyond his dreams.
Later, much like Gates, he presciently saw that photography would change publishing forever. In his prospectus for Life magazine he wrote:
To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed;
Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind
To see, and to show, is the mission now undertaken by a new kind of publication, THE SHOW-BOOK OF THE WORLD
Luce is arguably the most successful publisher the world has ever seen. Time, Life and Fortune became not just magazines, but icons. Later, People and Sports Illustrated created—and dominated—new categories as well. Even today, Time Inc. is the largest publisher on the planet.
The contrast between Gates and Luce is stark. Gates, while he insightfully described the forces that would shape the new “marketplace of ideas,” expressed no special opinion about it, except that he thought people should pay for it. Luce, on the other hand, saw not just an opportunity or a task, but a mission.
And, of course, Luce succeeded where Gates failed.
Why Pixar Movies Don’t Suck
In the film industry, Pixar is an unparalleled success. It’s 14 animated films have won 27 Academy Awards and every single one is on the list of highest grossing animated films of all time. Yet in his recent memoir, Creativity, Inc., the President of Pixar, Ed Catmull, laments, “early on, all of our movies suck.”
The trick, he points out, is to go beyond the initial germ of an idea and undergo the tortuous process it takes to get “from suck to not-suck.” That takes commitment. As Catmull writes:
It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.
Again, notice the contrast. Where Gates saw a “marketplace of ideas, Catmull sees a personal journey. Most successful people—and successful companies—feel that way about what they do. It takes passion to spend the long, hard hours required to produce anything good enough to make an impact. Excellence is about more than just showing up.
And that’s why most marketers fail at content. They see it as a strategy rather than a meaningful way to exchange value, a ploy rather than a craft. People like Luce and Catmull are not merely seeking an audience, but to share something important with the world.
If marketers are ever to be successful with content, they will need to learn to think more like publishers. Most enterprises do have something to offer the world. They have important experience, expertise and insights. Unfortunately, when digital technology empowered them to share anything they want with the world, they chose crap.
The ROI Trap
When I returned to the US a few years back, I found that marketers were enamored with the new field of content strategy. Apparently, it was the most exciting thing going. I had spent my career in publishing, but had never heard of a content strategy and had no idea what one would look like. I have to admit, I was intrigued.
Alas, I discovered that content strategy was in reality just another name for brand planners selling long form ads to clients. Nobody who was talking about content strategy seemed to have ever published or produced anything.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they approached content like marketers. Instead of a mission, they began with a “consumer insight.” They would envision a typical consumer, research the content that consumer would most likely have an affinity for and make a connection between that particular content and their brand’s values. The objective was often stated simply as ROI—return on investment.
Yet metrics are not a strategy. In reality, successful marketers must attain three core objectives: awareness, sales and advocacy. Successful publishers, on the other hand, have one: build a meaningful relationship with the audience. Clearly, that can enable marketing objectives, but marketing and publishing are separate and distinct.
Red Bull’s adventure sports gives meaning to its brand of energy drinks. Nike’s Lebron James video inspired millions. Wine store owner Gary Vaynerchuk became a social media legend—and built a successful business—by producing videos that helped people enjoy and appreciate wine. Does anybody question whether these are worthwhile?
The Paradox of Emotional Connection
Great brands have a lot to offer. Some have unparalleled technological capabilities. Others make finely crafted products through processes that have been honed over decades, or even centuries. Still others embody a deep commitment to service, making our lives better in small, but not unsubstantial ways. Every brand has a story to tell.
That’s why marketers like to talk so much about “emotional connections.” The problem is that they usually get it backwards. They spend their time seeking out emotional triggers in their consumers instead of bonding with the story of their brands. The result, as I hope I’ve made clear, is crap.
The truth is that if you find yourself feeling the need to talk about an “emotional connection,” you probably don’t have one. True emotional connections come from passion and passionate people are committed not because they’ve made a strategic choice, but because they have answered a calling and never felt like they had a choice.
Every brand has a great story to tell. But please, don’t call it content. Content is crap.