Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Two Reasons Why Content Is Not King

"Content is king." This is something I hear every week in conversations, at conferences and on blogs, but does the fact it is so often repeated make it true? Content is vital, no question about it, so perhaps it does not matter whether we coronate it as king, queen, prince or duke, but I question if giving the throne to content might not cause marketers to lose focus of more important needs and strategies in the social era.

There are two reasons why I believe content is not king but something less.

Customer Experience Trumps Content

At 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 Attention

One 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:


Content 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.


Tom Snyder said...

EXACTLY! Here's the math:

Marketing 101: Your brand is not your logo, it's the promise of an experience. It's also not your content, because your content is only what you say about what you do. The experience is what you actually do. And so your brand is also not what you say it, it's what your customers say it is.

Still amazed at how some folks think they can produce a crappy product or service and somehow content or Social will make it better.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks, Tom. I love the succinct summary of Marketing 101. So true. Companies keep trying to find the "next big thing" when the "only big thing" is getting your product and service right.

Unknown said...

Augie, I think you're creating a bit of a false opposition here between content and the myriad other factors that enable brands to resonate with people -- whether that be those things largely outside the digital experience (products, service, agent sales training and professional experience) and within it (SEO/SEM, usability, mobile, sales support, social media), etc.
No Question: "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." But, really, how many companies out there can be described thus that are attempting to fix these problems with good Web and Social content? I shudder to think there are any, but, if there are, we won't have to worry about them too long.
Also if it is really true 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" in total, then these guys indeed have a big (strategic) problem.
When I ran Internet stuff at New York Life, we never regarded any of these things -- which in my case included not only the main corporate Web site but some two dozen sites supporting it or particular business initiatives, content, SEO/SEM, lead generation, mobile development, Social participation, and a dozen other related competencies -- purely discretely or as anything other than crucial parts/pieces of an intelligent digital strategy. And, of course, we always knew just how dependent our efforts remained on the overall corporate business strategy, the strength of brand perception, and not least the regard in which our sales agents (our 12,000+ Customer Relationship Managers, so to speak) were held. We didn't go around saying that Content was King, but we did believe passionately that good content -- objective, reliable, literate! -- was crucial to building and reaffirming Trust online. And that, for a life insurance company at least, Trust is King.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Ken. I cannot say that I see the "false" part of it--I agree many strategies can live together in harmony, but they all compete for the same budget. Data demonstrate marketers are focusing budgets on content before other more important factors, thus the problem.

I believe in content too, of course, but I also think a lot of brands are using it in a lipstick-on-a-pig approach (and will be correspondingly disappointed with the outcomes.)

At Forrester, we used to joke about how companies would always be in search of the "next big thing." We'd look at their web experience, mobile experience and social presence, and we'd wonder why they care about the next big thing when they haven't gotten the last three big things write. I think content is "the next big thing," but until brands get correct the things that have been important for years, their content strategies will, I believe, fall short.

Unknown said...

Augie, if, in fact, the trend is putting lipstick on a pig, that is a sad commentary on our digital marketers. If I may be allowed to resurrect an old cliche, I've always believed in a synergistic strategy that makes the most of its various components -- of which content, again, is crucial. That's certainly one way to make the most of finite budgets. But another way is to grow your budget by proving success, which we did by showing the bottom line profitability of our online lead-generated sales.
As for chasing the next big thing, I've probably been guilty of that at times, but keeping an eye on your overall business strategy can mitigate that as well.
Please keep up the good work...

Anonymous said...

"Content as King" is nothing without Context as the Court Jester. Because who do the serfs and vassals identify with?

Augie Ray said...

Ike, you made me laugh--thanks!

Brenda, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. At the end of the day, I still see it as a priority and budget problem--there IS opposition to different priorities and strategies! That certainly is not false.

I sometimes (okay always) write blog posts that are too long, so I am working to keep them shorter, but if there is a thought I omitted that could have tied together this blog post (and in fact, many of my blog posts) it is this: Marketers have to start working much more internally with peers and not just focus on external communications (which is their habit, of course.) Marketers must engage those within the enterprise so that others recognize that the brand is not created with colors, logos and tone of voice--it is created with experience. Every brand is pursuing the same content strategies targeting the same overwhelmed consumers and customers--the differences that will separate the winners from the losers won't be the content but the experience.

All that said, as I noted several times in my blog post, I think content is vital. I just feel we put too much focus on content (which is relatively easy to produce) and not enough on how to get mobile, web and social right (which is much harder). (Ironically, just this morning I saw an Econsultancy report that 45% of businesses still don't have a mobile site or app--that's what I'm talking about. Don't invest in a significant content strategy is your firm isn't even yet investing in serving the customer in their channel of preference!)

Augie Ray said...


I'd love to continue the dialog a bit to see what you're seeing (and what I am not.) I agree with you when you say "it's easy to create content." Marketers and PR people know how to do it, and they can create a post, ad or press release in their sleep.

But I do not agree that it is "just as it's easy to create a customer experience." That's actually really tough--it takes a sense of knowing touchpoints, collaborating across the silo (product, packaging, service, etc.) and making a fairly profound change. A press release is easy; changing the experience is really tough, I think.

That's the point of my blog post--that marketers ought not to focus on the easy stuff in their wheelhouse but invest in the larger and more important things that alter the brand experience.

Help me to understand where you're coming from, please. I'd love to better challenge my perception on this topic!

csrollyson said...

@Augie So happy to see you on this issue. Brands and marketers espouse "content is king" because content creation is their core competency. Interaction in digital social venues is king because people can see how much the brand cares (or not), real-time. Brands and agencies don't want to believe that, so there's a lot of resistance. It's so ironic: the latest content creation schtick is "telling stories"; agencies don't seem to realize that brands create their own stories, live, interacting with customers and prospects in public. No own "owns" customer experience; the group co-creates it, constantly. Advertising & marketing have little credence because brands tell stories how they *want* them to be, not how they are. #kudos