At one point in time content was a component of art – subject, form and content. A piece of art was identified first by its subject – meaning it was a painting, a sculpture, an installation, etc. That piece of art was then distinguished by its form. This is the art’s visual orientation – how lines, colors, shapes, were used to make that paint or clay into something. And then you had content. Content was the message, the sentiment, the feeling that resonated from the mixture of form and subject. It was the meaning of every piece of art.
Today content is the only component and it has lost all its meaning. Today content is all form and no function. That’s because content became king and killed all the artists. And the moment content creators stopped seeing themselves as artists, we got click bait, we got popup ads, we got spam. As long as content is king, long live the gimmick.
So how’d we get here? Let’s take a quick scroll down memory lane.
“Content is king,” was not first said by Bill Gates in 1996, but that’s when people really heard it for the first time. That was at the beginning of the Internet revolution and Gates, being the inspired forecaster that he was, hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t the new technology itself that was important; it was how that technology was going to be used by people that really mattered.
The original post, first appearing on the Microsoft website, has two particular statements that got us going in the direction we are heading today.
“The television revolution that began half a century ago spawned a number of industries, including the manufacturing of TV sets, but the long-term winners were those who used the medium to deliver information and entertainment.”
At its origin, “content is king,” was positioned on an idealistic path for what we hoped it would turn into today – an avenue that “delivers information and entertainment.” Here we see the key to good content – the accounting for the consumer, reader or follower of a brand, company or individual and the experience had within that relationship, not the content itself.
We Started Off People First
Within the same blog, however, we get a hint at what’s to come. Gates says:
“In the long run, advertising is promising. An advantage of interactive advertising is that an initial message needs only to attract attention, rather than convey much information.”
And here, in the first piece that really ushered in the era of digital content, we also get an introduction to the thing we see today, clutter. The beautiful thing about this new digital advertising, Gates says, is not the information it can carry, because admittedly you should convey as little of that as you can. And it’s not the experience the user has with that information, because as we just said there is little to speak of. No, the beauty of digital content is not information or an experience; it’s simply the attraction of attention – it’s simply getting people to think that information, entertainment or an experience is there just long enough to record their attention. And then the job is done.
As we scuttle further down the digital timeline, there is another popular quote that made it into the zeitgeist. It was from Jonathan Perelman in 2015. He says:
“Content is king, but distribution is queen and she wears the pants. It’s not nearly enough to create a good piece of content. You have to understand how content spreads across the web.”
This is very true in the sense that for people to be informed, inspired or entertained by a piece of content, they have to first be aware of its existence. But in the end this further builds on Gate’s point of attracting attention. Distribution in its pure sense is providing content to people who want it – think magazine subscriptions. Slightly less pure is providing it to people who might be interested based on their habits and tendencies. But building a subscriber list and tailoring a targeted ad campaign take time and usually lead to less impressive vanity metrics. So instead, distribution has devolved to be no more than spray and pray.
Right in the middle of these two statements came a third by Jeff Jarvis in 2005. Jarvis distills both thoughts down and gives us something that brings us closer to where we should have started. He said:
“In our post-scarcity world, distribution is not king, and neither is content. Conversation is the kingdom, and trust is the king.”
For the first time in the history of our short and sweet digital marketing mantras, we have something that calls not just for attracting attention but for creating engagement – and not just engagement as in a percentage of people who may have accidentally clicked on a link only to quickly abandon path after actually seeing what it was. No, engagement as in conversation. As in someone feeling so provoked by an experience they want to become part of it. Dialogue is the true engagement. And then we have trust, the new king Jarvis crowns. Trust is what keeps the conversation going. Trust keeps you from having to show up at someone’s door unannounced and instead gets you invited to the party.
So where are we now?
Now we’re in an era where content has to mature to something greater than simply form – to something greater than a semblance of meaning. The gimmicks no longer hold water. They are just taking up space and that is something we have little of today.
So content became space filler. But abundance has lost its allure and the marginal utility value of the never-ending scroll has exhausted itself. It’s time again to remember quality. And not just for some altruistic ploy to better the world (though that should be enough), but for better business practices.
Quality has again become the key to strategy. In every algorithm update on social, brands are penalized for being promoters. It takes more money to get your content in front of the same people you did just months ago. And the return on those impressions are getting smaller and smaller because we spend more of our time focused on how to attract attention rather than creating something of value that holds attention.
When was the last time you read, watched or heard something of value? Like real value – not “value” like you would say to a co-worker to hit on a corporate buzz word. But real value that stuck with you. Value that made you reconsider some things. Made you reframe your perspective on life, and what you do or how you do it. Not many times. But that is what content should do. And, yes, we cannot make life-changing content every day. So we shouldn’t.
Content is not king. Value is king. The awe-inspiring is king. The plot twist, surprise ending, emotional roller coaster is king. The smile is king. The laugh out loud not LOL is king.