The Problems With Content

It's one of the top buzzwords of the last couple of years. It seems everyone in marketing and advertising is constantly crapping on about 'content'.

Clearly, it suits agencies and production companies, because they get to make more stuff, and making more stuff earns them more cashola. And what agencies and production companies love more than anything is cashola.

And it suits a lot of clients, because they get to make something that people (theoretically at least) choose to watch. A lot of clients are in love with the idea of people 'loving' their brand (even though the notion of punters loving brands has largely been proved to be nonsense) so the idea of people choosing to watch their stuff seems very attractive. Plus, it seems (on the surface of it) like they will save loads of money on media.

All good right? Errr, right.

There are two not inconsiderable issues with content:

1 – Why on earth would someone choose to watch it?

2 – So someone watched it. Now what?

So, issue 1. The minute that you decide to make something that relies on people choosing to watch it, you're in competition with everything in the world that someone might choose to watch instead. You're in the content business. I don't make the rules, that's just how it is. If you're asking me to choose to watch your one minute, two minute, or god forbid, thirty minute piece, why should I choose to spend my time doing that rather than watch something that Pixar made, or that HBO commissioned, or an old episode of South park, or a video of a cat playing the piano? Why should I, why will I, watch it? Does it have some vital information that I cannot live without? Is it more entertaining than the best that TV companies, film companies and various talented ne'er-do-wells can muster? If you can answer this question well, you're a huge step in the right direction. If you're answer goes something like "Er... because there's a cat in it..." or contains the words "Hack" or "Tips" you might be in trouble already. A lot of agencies get around this fundamental problem through the practice of 'seeding'. What seeding really is is paying for opportunities for people to watch the content. This very common. When you are seeing brand videos suggested to you on youtube, for example, you are seeing a paid for space. So when an agency boasts about the five million views that its latest piece of content for brand X gathered, more often then not, those view were bought, yes, just the same as if they were bought on TV. Except that on TV no one brags because the audience actually watched the ad, that's taken for granted. And it's not quite the same, because TV is a linear format – if you start watching a commercial, it's more than likely that you'll see the end of it. Whereas, as I'm sure you'll recognise from your own behaviour, with content, you don't always finish watching what you start watching.

So that's issue 1. Quite a biggie. I'm not saying it's impossible to achieve natural, organic large viewing figures, but you have to have the answers to those questions. And they have to be good answers.

On to issue 2. So we got people to watch your content. Now what? The problem comes because largely to make the content watchable (see point 1) the makers tend to leave out things that viewers don't like (or that they think viewers don't like), like commercial messages, products, reasons to buy, strong role for the product or service, strong branding or attribution etc. and just make something that is entertaining. Now, even though that's the case, many of these pieces still aren't up to the level of broadcast content, but we'll leave that to one side. So someone watches your content that doesn't really relate strongly back to why they might choose to buy or use your product or service. What happens next? Are you hoping that because they watched it, they are going to like you more? And that liking you more is going to make them hand over their hard-earned cash in exchange for your product? I've got some bad news for you. Studies show that people's buying habits are not strongly influenced by their attitude towards your brand, rather it happens the other way around – people's attitudes are more shaped by what they buy. So what exactly is the value of that amazing kitten video or dancing baby film that you got them to watch?

And that's issue 2. Where does your content fit into the process of buying decisions that your customer makes? Be honest, and don't be tempted to kid yourself.

When brands become producers of content, there is a tendency to measure success by how many people watched it. But as we've seen, these views can be bought, and the value of those views is up for debate. So often the number of views is simply a proxy measurement, it measures something that is not necessarily of any actual use or relevance to the business, or proof of effectiveness.

And it makes brands and companies become obsessed with things that they don't need to become obsessed about. As the manufacturer of loo roll you should be obsessed about making good loo roll and being good value, and making sure that people know this. As a brand of chocolate bar you should be concerned with being a good chocolate bar and making sure that customers know why. The last thing you should be spending your time obsessing about is ratings. There are whole established giant industries full of highly-paid experts built purely and single-mindedly on the rabid pursuit of better ratings, and working out how to get more viewers. There are very few movie producers or TV comedy writers being distracted from their primary purpose by worrying about how to make a four-ply roll or a more velvety chocolate.

Of course, as with anything, there are the brilliant exceptions. And they are hypnotically impressive when they happen. They, in fact, keep the cycle going. Like the weekend golfer who keeps coming back because of the one great shot they hit every round. A hundred brands commission content based on the one brilliant exception.

The problem is, of course, that everyone promises the brilliant exception, and everyone imagines that their particular piece of content is going to be the brilliant exception.

Content is the height of fashion right now. And in marketing, something being en vogue is a rarely a good reason alone to do it (often quite the opposite). But, if you're tempted, for God's sake make sure you go into it with your eyes wide open, and that someone, somewhere, has good answers to these two points.

3 comments:

  1. Amen to both. I read a comment somewhere that I think summed up the whole phenomenon perfectly. "Content" as marketing fad is what happens when people who used to do digital builds move to creative. "OK, now we have this amazing responsive website with all the coolest fonts and colour schemes, we need some to fill up these lorem ipsums with, uh, content. You know, what writers churn out. It should be downhill from here, all we have to do is write engaging, well-written pieces that everyone will want to read. Easy, right?"

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  2. You know, advertising used to have an acronym, which like everything older than two, has fallen out of favor.

    It was AIDA.

    Attention.
    Interest.
    Desire.
    Action.

    That's my determinant as to whether something is consomme or masturbation.

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