There are two reasons why I believe content is not king but something less.
Customer Experience Trumps ContentAt a conference last week, I heard someone declare that "Content creates relationships." Is this really true? Do you love your spouse because he or she produces great content? Your friends may be funny, insightful or informative, but are they your friends because of what they say or because of who they are?
Brand relationships are no different. Think of the brands you hold most dear--are you brand loyal because they produce great content? Of course, you may love Disney or FOX News, but in those cases content IS their business, but what about other brands you cannot live without? Do you love Google, Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Walgreens, Lowe's, Subway, Ford and Target because these brands produce engaging content?
Content is not king. It is important, but it is not king. The king is customer experience. Give customers what they want when they want it, support them in new and innovative ways, make their lives better, and do this all at a reasonable value, and your brand wins. If you get the customer experience right, consumers will spread the word for you. Think of how you first learned about Amazon, Google, the iPhone, Instagram, Square, Facebook, Twitter and Zappos--was it from brand content or was it from friends and family?
If you look at the brands that top YouGov's BrandIndex list, you will find some that produce good content, but many are not known for their content. What they all share is an obsession with furnishing the customer something different. Sure, you can read Subway's site to get tips on eating better, but what came first for Subway was not content but good, healthier, convenient, fresh fast food. Amazon produces almost no content, but it holds a special place in people's hearts and wallets by providing the most efficient and innovative retail experience around. Lowe's may offer some helpful DIY content, but is beloved for its competent employees, great online experience that enables shoppers to get info about past purchases and schedule reminders, and innovative Iris smart home kits.
The lesson from strong and popular brands is that content is not king. Content cannot save your brand if it offers lousy customer service, a disappointing product and a terrible digital experience. In the social era, great content cannot overcome poor experience--your blog posts, infographics, tweets and Pinterest pins cannot win over customers who see poor ratings, hear friends gripe and observe brands focusing more effort on getting the word out than in changing the actual brand experience.
The Supply and Demand of AttentionOne of the things that I think brands lose sight of in the rush to become social media publishers is that the laws of supply and demand apply as much to consumers' attention as to consumers' wallets. Fifteen years ago, brands spoke infrequently through infrequent channels--marketers may have produced a campaign every quarter, sent a direct marketing piece once a month and tried to get their information into traditional media via PR, but brand content was limited and sporadic at best. Today, brands' content machines rival newspapers'--every brand is attempting to be interesting, educational, funny and endearing through a constant, daily stream of content across dozens of channels.
The supply of content is exploding in the social era, but what about the demand for it? Consumers may be multitasking more, but they still have just two ears, two eyes and so many hours in the day to consume media. Brands are broadcasting more information than ever before, but customers' brains have not changed--there is only so much interest and ability to focus on, ingest, parse, evaluate and remember information (and let's not forget that the new tsunami of brand content is also competing for attention against larger amounts of entertainment and news content on Twitter, YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Funny or Die, LiveLeak and the like.)
What happens when the supply of something explodes while the demand stay steady? The price drops. Content distributed via blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter may be free to consumers, but the price is dropping nonetheless--in this case, people pay for content with their attention, recall and trust, and the bottom is falling out in this market:
- Consumers punish brands when content is perceived as advertising: Late last year, MediaBrix released the results of a study that found that advertising appearing as content (so called "native advertising") negatively impacted or had no impact on brand perception. For example, 85% of people who had seen sponsored video ads that appear to be content said the content negatively impacted or had no impact on their perception of the brand being advertised. The 2012 Digital Advertising Attitudes Report found that 20% of US consumers would stop using a company’s products or services entirely as a result of receiving too many advertising messages, while 28% would be less likely to respond positively to that company in the future.
- Consumers do not trust content from brands: Forrester finds that consumers have little trust in the things brand say. Just 18% trust emails from brands and 15% trust social network posts from brands. The most trusted brand channel was web sites, where 32% of consumers trust content, but consumers have considerably greater trust for consumer-written online reviews (46%), professionally-written reviews (55%) and recommendations from family and friends (70%). (These results, of course, track closely with Nielsen's findings on trust in corporate messaging.)
- Consumers suffering information overload turn attention away from brands: Do you sign in to Facebook to see what brands are saying or what friends and family have to say? It's no different for your customers, and the result is that brand engagement is meager. According to the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, just 1.4% of the fans and friends of fans of the top 200 brand pages on Facebook are actually engaging with those pages. A recent Forrester study found that over the previous three months, less than half of people on social networks have interacted with a brand through social media; moreover, just 7% say they've followed a brand on Twitter and 7% say they've posted feedback on a company's social networking profile.
ConclusionContent is vital. I am not suggesting content is not a worthy marketing investment, but when I read that marketers are investing more in content creation and management than in search engine marketing, web site usability and design, mobile and the commerce experience, I question if the priorities are right and we are allocating budgets where they are most needed. Content strategies are easy to grasp and "in the wheelhouse" for marketers, but we must first ensure our organizations are prepared for the era when customer sentiment trumps advertising, press releases, blog posts and other forms of branded content.
Brands have their own version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and content does not rest at the top of the pyramid. Getting your product and service right, having the right digital and mobile tools customers need and want, and being responsive to customer needs in all channels are more important than content. The best content in the world may help to gain a little attention, but it will not sustain a brand that does not get the fundamentals right.