Why we're all missing the point about content

The quality of content is useless if it doesn't also forge connections between customers

content trap

Two things happened recently that made me question the way we sell content.

On the way home from Burda’s DLD conference in Munich, I read a piece by the outgoing CEO of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt, in the Harvard Business Review (18 Euros of brain food). It was a blow-by-blow account of how he’d used his 16 years in charge to remake GE into a digital industrial company that "acts like a 125-year-old start-up". One quote really grabbed me:

“We learned the need to sell outcomes as a service, rather than sell a product and a service contract. That’s not something we were brought up to do. We learned it from software vendors.”

It’s a tough time to be a specialist content marketer. There are well-documented external pressures – media and advertising agencies selling content as a cheap bolt-on; big platforms with infinite user data setting up their own content shops; media brands bundling talent, content and audience into glossy it-looks-like-editorial packages.

But Immelt’s observation made me think that the biggest problem is internal. Most of us still talk about content as a product, something we make and deliver: a thought-leadership initiative, an always-on stream of social posts, a thematic series of short-form videos... even a really smart integrated campaign is packaged up and sold like an off-the-shelf small electrical. And then we complain that clients only pay for production, that they don’t pay for the juicy bit – the custom strategy, competitive thinking and business-changing ideas.

The other thing happened during a talk by Harvard’s sparkling professor of strategy Bharat Anand at the conference. He’s written a (brilliant and accessible) book called The Content Trap, which makes the case that it's not content that matters, but the connections between users that content creates. That focusing on the quality of your content – your product – is useless on its own.

burda dld

Dr Anand presented evidence from lots of different industries in support of his view – telecomms, newspapers, music and more. He urged us to do things differently – to do more than "take content and put it through digital pipes". He urged us to build connections into content from the very start.

He made me think differently about two of our clients, Vitality and Weight Watchers. We do integrated content marketing for both, including campaigns, experiential and always-on digital content. But it's not the awesome campaign creative or the lip-smacking recipe videos that are most valuable – it's the way this content connects people to each other, encouraging them to talk, compare and share their own content. This content very literally builds connections between customers, making the brand's customer network stronger and more active.

What a great reason for content marketers to go beyond the content, the product. To think bigger and more imaginatively about how content can forge connections between our clients’ customers, and between their products. This has loads of awesome possibilities. It could mean an end to the idea of a defined content team that make everything, and instead co-creating with a much more diverse range of partners (especially customers). It could mean doing loads more stuff in real life where the content is a lovely side benefit. It definitely means focusing more on customers’ whole experience with a brand, and less on single or even chains of interactions.

It made me feel excited. And feel like there’s a s**tload of work to be done and we need to get better. To stop griping and start selling – to talk about the outcomes, talk about what happens when you deliver a bespoke, strategic and integrated content marketing programme that's unflinchingly focused on forging connections between customers. Moving beyond product to the real value of content.