Editorial director Gemma Champ takes a look at the rise and fall and rise again of marketing’s most misunderstood discipline.
Wow, content, eh? What a ride it’s been over the last few years, as the marketing industry frantically scrambled to understand what it is, who should be executing it, how cheaply and prolifically it can be done, and how to monetise the kids with webcams, who have been doing it better and more profitably for a decade already.
Content, content, yadda, yadda. I bet you’re sick and tired of hearing about it by now. Content is king? Emperor’s new clothes more like…
Well, not quite. There might be a lot of awful keyword-packed articles out there achieving nothing – but good, well-executed content isn’t going anywhere. It’s just been democratised: dethroned, humanised and integrated with the rest of the marketing landscape.
Content’s not king any more: it’s a commoner. It’s no longer the exception: it’s the norm.
I know what you're thinking: does that mean we can't just skip over content and move straight on to AI?
Well, AI technologies are mind-bogglingly clever, of course, and can be essential tools for amplifying targeted content. But the content itself, done properly, creatively, by a real person, serves a unique purpose that an algorithm simply can’t achieve alone: it creates a profound emotional connection with the brand.
Content can explore, augment and express a brand story in a way that makes customers want to hear it, without ever forcing them to listen. And to get it right takes the same level of strategy, creativity, craft and planning as any marketing discipline.
Which is why it needs to be embedded in the campaign strategy from the start. It’s simply no longer enough to think, partway through a campaign, “Ooh, content. We should probably spend 50p getting a content farm or a computer to stuff the internet with keywords.”
If this fills you with long-copy dread, don't worry. Content now is more fabulous than you think. In fact, it’s remarkably similar to the glossy world of lifestyle journalism. (That’s my background: a long-time lifestyle writer and editor.)
Those crafted words, pictures and extravagant layouts in your favourite style magazines? They were designed very, very carefully, with one aim only: to maximise the appeal to as many of the target readership as possible.
Of course, for us idealistic journalists and designers, it was because we believed passionately in the work we were doing. For the publishers, though – the people making the real money – it was because attracting a highly specific audience meant that advertisers would be willing to pay vast amounts for media space to reach them. And if their products got a nice little push in a fashion shoot, well, that’s a lovely bonus, right?
That was content then. That, and TV, cinema and radio, replete with PR, product placement and ads. And it actually hasn’t changed much. It just got bigger. The internet didn’t kill it at all: it expanded its reach, with gorgeous video and voice, AR and VR, prolific social media, ingenious apps and seemingly limitless native content.
That’s why even now, in the 21st century, the words of Mad Men-era ad guru Howard Gossage ring true. “People don’t read ads. They read what interests them and sometimes that’s an ad.”
That’s content in a nutshell.
Because the thing is, people are the same now as they were then, and as they always have been. They want something they can trust, something to entertain them and something to enhance their lives. Whether seeking out a gladiator in ancient Rome in 180AD or a vlogger on IGTV in 2018, people are actively looking for recognisable brands or figures that they can rely on to fill those roles for them.
Which means you can use content both to reflect culture and to create culture. It’s the stuff current and future customers will seek out and absorb. It’s everything from the highly anticipated Christmas ad that people rush to watch on YouTube to the semi-coherent Insta-ramblings of a beauty blogger or the helpful financial advice on a bank’s website.
It can be amazing and beautiful, and it should reveal just how extraordinary a brand really is, quickly enough for casual readers and profoundly enough to satisfy the most curious consumer. And it works because it’s compelling, but not authoritarian.
People still want something to trust. They just trust different voices now, and that’s what our content must give them: authentic, human voices that sound like them, rather than the old establishment voices that told them what to buy.
In other words, the voices of commoners, not kings.
Gemma Champ is editorial director at Proximity London