The C-Word: Five rules for the new content era

The lean-back, passive model of mass-market media consumption is under attack. But are brands in danger of viewing content as the marketing industry's "silver bullet", asks Nicola Kemp.

In an age where a mission to the edge of space can be conceived, funded and created by a brand, it is no surprise that content marketing has remained at the top of the marketing agenda for years. Felix Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos free-fall to Earth has been watched 34m times on YouTube and heralded a new era of content marketing.

Despite this genre-defining triumph, marketers would be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the notion that every brand can have a Stratos moment. Yet even without almost limitless imagination and that all-important independent multimillionaire owner, the opportunities for brands to engage directly with their customers by creating and sharing their own content have never been greater.

However, brands must beware of viewing content as the answer to all their marketing problems. Chris Hirst, chief executive of agency Grey London, believes they must address the myth that all content is created equal and recognise that, in many ways, the success of Red Bull Stratos is problematic for other brands. "Marketers can't simply do a viral," he says. "You don't get something for nothing and it's important to ditch these false expectations when it comes to content."

The success of products such as Nike+ and FuelBand show the possibilities for brands to create not just content, but products that can also become media platforms in their own right

The success of products such as Nike+ and FuelBand show the possibilities for brands to create not just content, but products that can also become media platforms in their own right. Matthew Hook, chief strategy officer at media agency Carat, explains: "The challenge is to re-focus away from the prop of advertising, and back onto the brand's full media footprint. If a brand can get its media right, it could be not only a source of media exposure, but also a revenue line."

In this brave new world many marketers are falling prey to buying into their own hype. "The industry is guilty of focusing on content at the expense of everything else," warns Tom Dunn, digital strategy director at media agency Maxus. "Marketers should view content less as a 'silver bullet' and more as a string to add to their bow. Publishing has become more democratised, but brands should beware of believing there is a one-size-fits-all solution."

Many brands also overestimate the degree to which consumers want to engage with them, producing substandard content or, worse, failing to invest in getting anyone to actually read or connect with it.

With this in mind, here are five tips to avoid adding to the wasteland of content produced by brands that ends up languishing forever unseen and unloved.

1. Ditch the myth of "paid, owned and earned media"

As the media industry has struggled to continue to impose old advertising models on new formats, marketers are at risk of being misled into believing that content marketing as "earned media" can plug the gaps in their marketing budgets.

Mark Boyd, founder of content marketing agency Gravity Road, says that the language of paid, owned and earned media sounds attractive to clients who believe they can simply replace paid-for media channels with "earned" channels and thus reduce their budget. "The industry is still very stuck on promoting an advertising model, when in reality the competition for attention is not a rival brand any more - it's life itself."

He adds: "We never use the term 'branded content', as it has helped to sustain content that wouldn't otherwise get made, as it simply isn't good enough. We have entered the third wave of content marketing now and marketers need to embrace bigger ideas."

These big ideas need cold, hard cash to sustain them, and this is where the notion of "earned media" is holding brands back. Jeremy Pounder, head of media agency Mindshare's research department, warns that marketers must break free of the idea that consumers will flock to any content they build.

"There is a massive oversupply of content, and one of the assumptions driving this is that branded content is able to stand on its own two feet - but to be brutally honest, a lot of it simply isn't that good," he adds.

2. Embrace the sharing economy

The shift toward a "share first" rather than "search first" mentality is a key trend for brands. "Millennials provide a great opportunity for brands to bypass media-owners and connect with them directly, but that doesn't mean they don't need to invest in content," says Mark Lonergan, managing director of customer communications agency August Media. He believes that while advertising on social-media networks isn't working, good content is, so smart brands won't devalue the importance of social-media channels.

Matthew Hook, chief strategy officer at media agency Carat, says that, while the tyranny of the schedule may be breaking down the importance of editorial curation, the need for a credible source is greater than ever. However, at the same time, the distribution of credibility is wider than ever. "Often it still sits in the hands of media companies and journalists, but increasingly citizen journalists and creative communities are also delivering the credibility that consumers require," he adds.

Nonetheless, in the rush to embrace the sharing economy, many brands are running into problems. As the recent #fbrape campaign highlighted, new-media channels are facing up to major issues surrounding disturbing, violent and sometimes downright vicious content.

"At the moment people are so excited about content they forget about context. Advertising has to be agnostic, but the old rules and assurances of advertising within a particular TV channel or programme no longer apply," warns Gravity Road's Boyd.

3. Address your consumers as individuals

Harper Reed, chief technology officer of Barack Obama's landmark 2012 re-election campaign, believes that broadcast television and newspapers are dying, so marketers need to shift their thinking. "As content becomes more addressable, things like broadcast television and newspapers will become irrelevant. When you can address someone as an individual why would you want to focus on media that isn't pinned down?" he asks.

In line with this, marketers are switching their focus away from traditional media platforms to a greater emphasis on their consumers. However, Piers North, strategy director of Yahoo! UK and Ireland, believes paid-for mass-market media are still crucial. "The technology revolution is more of an evolution; platforms like Tumblr or Facebook allow everyone to be publishers," he says. "But there is such an oversupply of content, the danger for brands is becoming the proverbial tree in the forest no one will hear when it falls down."

While social-media channels have empowered brands to create content to connect with consumers on a one-on-one basis, coupling this with scale remains a key challenge for brand marketers. This does not mean, though, that brands can afford to turn a blind eye to the fundamental flux in media- consumption habits.

"I can't imagine a world without TV, magazines and banner ads, but a 17-year-old can," warns Grey's Hirst. By concentrating on the consumer as the individual they want to reach, rather than fixating on individual media platforms, marketers will be able to better adapt their strategies to this fast-changing landscape.

4. Quality and sustainability are everything

The chances are if a plane you were flying in had engine trouble, you would leave it to the experts to sort it out. Yet such is the curse of content marketing, particularly writing, that everyone thinks they can do it. Worse still, everyone also has an opinion, which is not always backed up by any relevant expertise or experience.

Nicola Murphy, chief executive of content marketing agency River, warns that many brands believe that content is something they can simply do themselves, regardless of the lack of in-house skills. "There seems to be this view that 'if we build it, they will come', that they can simply whack stuff up to populate your website and rely on your consumers to distribute your content, which is simply naive," she explains.

Certainly many in the media and content industries are of the mind that marketers suffer from a distorted view of the importance of their brand to consumers. "There is a great deal of expectation, which is often unrealistic when you look at the quality of the content being produced," warns Mindshare's Pounder. He adds: "Marketers are good at judging the subjective, like packaging or a 30-second ad, but producing compelling content is a much more nuanced skill."

There is no doubt that over the past three years content has become a much bigger part of most marketers' strategies, but there are not always the necessary skills or budgets to support this change. Gravity Road's Boyd says there is a quality issue when it comes to content and brands need to understand that it requires a distinctive skill set.

Pointing to his agency's Bombay Sapphire Imagination series, Boyd contends that brands need to break free of the campaign mentality to create an ongoing strategy and content pipeline.

"The key is to create an idea that empowers people and then work with the best talent; work with an Oscar-winning writer, not just any writer. When you get it right, it develops the momentum to become the centre of advertising, rather than the periphery," he explains.

5. Embrace "Generation Me"

The social-media age has ushered in with it unfettered narcissism where, in effect, consumers have become their own media platforms.

Instead of bookmarking traditional media sites, Millennials are visiting their own Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. For those of us who grew up poring over Just 17, or one of the other now-defunct teen magazines, understanding the generation that dedicates as much, if not more, time and attention to doing the same with their own web profiles, is crucial.

"I don't care about digital overload - we all had friends who were only allowed to watch TV one day a week," declares Harper Reed, the outspoken former chief technology officer of President Barack Obama's successful 2012 re-election campaign. "It's only going to get worse. This generation's rock'n'roll is digital overload, over-sharing is the new normal, and it will only increase."

As consumers ditch bookmarking media-owners for themselves, via their personal Facebook and Twitter feeds, the balance of power between media brands and consumers is irrevocably shifting.

As consumers ditch bookmarking media-owners for themselves, via their personal Facebook and Twitter feeds, the balance of power between media brands and consumers is irrevocably shifting.

Certainly a growing number of brands are seeking to bypass traditional media-owners by using consumers as the primary distribution model for their content. The big question for brands is, will consumers surpass media-owners as the key distribution partners for their content?

Carat's Hook believes that consumers "do not replace media-owners because, without scalable platforms on which to share, and media coverage that creates interest, their content will never reach its full-scale potential".

But will this appetite for over-sharing ultimately run out of steam? Reed believes not. "Most people believe we are at an inflection point when it comes to privacy and sharing, but this is (only) partially true," he says. "The truth is, people don't really care about privacy. The young consumer understands the relationship between their data and what they get in return."

Ironically, at a time when digital overload is becoming the norm, consumers are seeking out expert opinion and content in their droves. Millennials may no longer care whether this content comes from traditional media owners or brands, but they do care whether it is any good. Brands wanting to earn the right to connect and converse with consumers won't succeed without investment, and marketers would be wise to remember the true cost of "earned media".

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