More content-bashing from Samuel Scott

In his Drum opinion column Samuel Scott continues his attack on 'content', which he neither wants to recognise as a word or an approach.

In this recent piece from the Drum (an otherwise excellent website) columnist Samuel Scott once again takes aim at the use of the word ‘content’ to refer widely to created works.

 

Full disclosure: our parent Fourth Estate Creative (4EC) is a content creation company – so we certainly have a dog in this fight – but we’re no strangers to the slightly queasy feeling that resulted when this word came into more common parlance in media circles (read a short 4EC blog piece on whether content is a dirty word here) and the unease with which we and others still use it.

 

We also know that there are a lot of problems with content marketing or branded content and many contexts in which it doesn’t work well (see the 4EC blog piece ‘Where does branded content come from?’ for more on the journey that got us here), which is why its so important brands use skilled professional content creators rather than just doing it themselves.

 

But Scott’s gambit that: “The word content means nothing precise, specific, or useful” is just linguistically naive. The claim is no more true of ‘content’ than it is of ‘marketing’ or ‘promotion’ or ‘business’ or any of the other words that he uses in his piece because, well, you have sometimes have to use generic words when you are describing things.

 

Indeed ‘content’ doesn’t describe anything specific, but is no less useful for that. It’s not intended to. It is a generic term that describes information communicated at some length intended to be worth consuming in its own right – a message (commercial or otherwise) as separated from its medium.

 

Yes, it can be difficult to define, as can many other useful and powerful blanket terms like ‘art’ – fuzzy categories where the edge cases can’t be placed with confidence – but this repeated trope that therefore it doesn’t mean anything at all is simply wrongheaded.

 

Scare quotes

At 4EC we create content that is ‘multi-platform’ (another neologism that is uncomfortable but genuinely necessary to the new media environment). This means we take a message – say, that online marketplaces can be risky for consumers who aren’t aware of their rights – and we communicate it through different media. We write an article about it, we make a short video, we interview an expert about it on a podcast, and we link to all of these through social media and inbound links from other sites (what Scott calls “pushing it around online to get clicks, traffic, conversions…”). We’re often not selling a product – just a message – but this is still marketing.

 

Now Scott is right that there is a lot of low-quality content marketing out there, just as there is a lot of low-quality advertising and marketing more generally. But that really doesn’t tell us anything – there are a lot of bad filmmakers out there, that doesn’t mean the film industry is not a powerful force.

 

He’s also probably right (although he offers no evidence for the intuition) when he rhetorically asks: “where is the evidence that busy people in the real world want to get informational material from the mustard, beer, or dishwashing soap brands that they buy? Everyday people do not give a second thought to brands more than the two seconds they use to take them off a shelf in a supermarket.”

 

There is a reason 4EC doesn’t have any mustard, beer or dishwashing soap brands as clients – content marketing doesn’t work if there isn’t anything genuinely interesting to be said about your product or service. Better indeed for companies like this to advertise in 30 second slots on TV.

 

But it shows a real paucity of understanding of the modern business environment to imagine all or even most businesses and organisations can easily be explained in 30 seconds or chosen in ‘no more than two seconds’.

 

The slow game

Research by the Online Marketing Institute shows it takes on average 6 to 8 touch points with a prospect before they are ready to make a buying decision. If you don’t have enough content to be interesting in 6 to 8 different ways, you’re at a serious disadvantage.

 

Content and content marketing remain strong and growing forces for different use cases than traditional advertising and marketing. Scott observes that “A classic ad made by David Ogilvy will have a headline, informative text and graphics, and a call to action.” That’s right – Ogilvy was ahead of his time in realising that sometimes there’s more to say than a glossy photo and a cheesy tagline can cover. This is not even an edge case – Ogilvy’s ads were classic content marketing.

 

Scott issues a challenge to us to banish the word ‘Content’ from our vocabulary, suggesting at first that we replace it with more specific terms but – when this prevents him from talking generically – suggesting the equally vague stand-in ‘promotion’.

 

He says: “The product of The New York Times – journalism – is now just “content”. Radio programming – a product – is also now just “content”. Netflix TV shows – which is entertainment programming – is also just “content”. Movies are just “content”. I can now scan this QR code to get “content”. But what does that even mean? The word “content” has come to refer to anything and everything that we create for any purpose and for any reason. But remember: if a word means everything, it means nothing.”

 

Journalism is not ‘just content’ it is a type of content. Radio programming and movies are not ‘just content’ they remain both part of the set ‘content’ and of the sub-sets ‘radio programming’ and ‘movies’. That’s how language works.

 

The New York Times, Absolute Radio and Netflix are also all ‘businesses’. I wonder if Scott also finds that confusing or meaningless.

 

So-called ‘Digital’

Before ending the article Scott makes a swipe at social media platforms: “After all, if digital is so wonderful, then why is Facebook itself doing crisis PR over TV and outdoor campaigns rather than using its own ad network?”

 

The obvious answer is that the $500bn platform wants to create buzz not just for its one billion users, but also for all those potential and lapsed users that read or saw the Cambridge Analytica coverage in traditional media but don’t use the platform.

 

But this reveals the problem underlying this article and the attitude it represents. It’s uncomfortable and untidy for marketers to admit that there are lots of different – and new – ways to promote and communicate business and organisational messages. No doubt, expectations for some newer platforms and approaches have overshot – business as usual for new markets – but neither ‘traditional’, nor ‘digital’ nor ‘content’ will emerge as the final winner. We will all continue to co-exist and good marketers need to understand and appreciate all approaches.

 

The advice to think about what – if any – content you need to produce ahead of producing it is sound (if obvious), but let’s not try to replace serious attempts to communicate directly, and in engaging ways, the many different, important, interesting, nuanced stories businesses and organisations have to tell with purely promotional material just because traditional marketers don’t understand what the word ‘content’ means.

 

Read the full article ‘Content’ is the worst word in marketing here >


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