Let’s face it the best branded content looks and feels like culture.
It’s either film, journalism or 'cultural out put' of some kind. It is not advertising. At least in the way we used to understand it.
I believe we are witnessing a new phase in content led by a new breed content creators. From disruptive media brands, a new content creator class, innovative content marketing technology and progressive publisher brands.
I am calling this phase Next Generation Content. (I know classy huh…)
So WTF is Next Generation Content?
Next Generation Content is quite simply content that has learnt the skills and strategic agility of 21st century media craft.
Crafted content that does not betray its audience.
Content that doesn't cheat the consumer experience. That delivers something of value in the content experience. That rewards and delights the audience.
Next generation content is about forging value for a new consumer dynamic.
One based on shared interests, amidst a fierce competitive environment.
Next generation content has learnt the lessons of the content marketing and digital journalism goldrush.
This is the next phase of the journey for brands as content creators.
I wanted to collate some musings on how I see this playing out for brands.
How content marketing, brand building, media innovation and content technologies are all colliding to forge a form of 21st century marketing that is winning over the connected consumer.
Navigating a Next Generation Content landscape
The church and state of advertising and editorial has unbundled.
And brands are right in the middle of this fallout. We are now all marketing in an age of content overload.
We know not every brand should be a publisher.
But every brand needs to tell their story. Figuring out how far you go down the rabbit hole is part of the challenge in the brand as publisher journey.
I believe we are beginning to see a new landscape emerge:
Attention deficit: everyone is competing for attention. Those precious moments where you can captivate an audience and hold the experience. But gaining attention means fighting distraction and finding bandwidth for your content.
Signal to noise ratio: we are seeing an exponential increase in the amount of content available. Demand is increasing but over supply is making it noisy for everyone. The competition is brutally fierce for quality brand signals.
Rise of the content creator class: the emergence of an almost aristocratic content creator class is changing the economics of content marketing. Collaborating with influencers and partners is now an almost junkie like dependency.
Media fragmentation: the choices are infinite. The formats diverse. The topics endless. The devices seductive. Channel proliferation and complexity is everywhere we look.
The filter aware consumer: the connected consumer is constantly in edit mode. From Gen Y to Gen Z each generation has a content antennae and filter that brands need to play to. Winning means getting through both active and passive content filters.
New content ‘languages': from emoji to notifications, to gifs, messaging stickers and virtual reality there are new languages to master.
Programmatic is eating everything: the promise of marketing automation and making ‘smart content’ even smarter is putting a spotlight onto the role of creativity. How can you optimise for unknown audience needs? How can you serve predictive content reliably with a great user experience?
A radical transparency: the culture of share everything and work out loud is becoming mainstream. This means branded content needs to retain a sense of mystery in an environment of Total Content Knowledge.
The bottom line is your branded content is competing with everything.
It can be cast to oblivion within one millisecond of a thumb swipe.
The challenge is to think about how to play to different consumer content modes – both passive and active content modes.
One is defined by what is curated for you by people and brands in your network. The other mode is where you seek discovery and serendipity.
So, why content?
So if this is the context of the content marketing landscape then as a brand: why would you?
Why bother with content? Really, why bother?
There is an inherent tension in the idea of content marketing.
Creating value for the user/audience vs. creating value for the brand is on a spectrum that can’t always go both ways. In this sense advertising can be seen as the opposite of ‘content’. A distraction. But one that is being more cleverly disguised every day.
Content has to have inherent value for the audience for it not to be advertising. This value is, unsurprisingly, either entertainment, utility or 'information as interest'. Content is something you want to spend time with. Something you lean into.
And the content making game is hard graft. Just listen to GE, Patagonia or Amex talk about the efforts required to become a brand publisher and earn attention. It's not easy, but it does pay off.
So, why content?
According to Seth Godin because "it's the last marketing left" in a post interruption marketing environment. Maybe, but this sounds a little final perhaps.
Why content? Because it is the currency of the web. And we are all now Connected Consumers. Of course. Content is the atomic particle of digital marketing. And it is infinitely scalable.
But, WHY content? Why really!
Because you can’t compete without it that’s why. Can a brand compete without using content? Yes, but it is impaired and arguably suboptimal.
Dramatic, but increasingly becoming true I think.
A 21st century brand just doesn’t stand a chance without thinking about how they can use content to win and keep customers happy.
Here is a quick and very unscientific ‘case for content’ pros and cons comparison:
There are probably more but you get the gist.
It’s a difficult decision for a brand marketer. Obviously it’s different for different categories. Some are more clear cut like B2B for instance.
I think there is a difference between those brands ‘doing content marketing’ and those brands that are becoming publishers.
One is short termist, tactical and uncommitted.
The other is playing the long game.
Going 'allin' and making a fundamental shift in the way they go about marketing.
These are brands recognising the imperatives of Next Generation Content.
The eight strategic imperatives of Next Generation Content
I believe there are some strategic imperatives driving the change in branded content for brands:
1) From story focus to distribution focus
The battleground for branded content in the next few years will be how you distribute, promote and embed your content. How you deftly blend the idea, the channel and the distribution. It will require brands to think about who is going to amplify your content? How to get through filters? Making share ready content for 'super sharers' who are on point and into your topic. How to seed, embed and bake in distribution. And how to chunk down content investments into a wider brand ecosystem.
2) From audience reach to audience building
Up until this point most brand content marketing efforts have been about how to reach as many people as possible. One offs. A churn and burn approach with content designed to work for a specific campaign objective. The big switch is to think about what your content offer is and why would someone bother? What is the reader value? How can you serve that audience in a better way? How can you build owned brand channels that can deliver value for audiences over time? Think about why someone would subscribe rather than watch.
3) From brand messaging to brand provocations
Editorial means having a point of view. Being relevant and provocative in a topic area that your audience cares about. Bringing your brand purpose alive through a cause, a point of view or position that is distinctive. This means confidently demonstrating your values through a tension that can strike a chord. Making emotional connections that provoke people. Or help people.
4) From content in channel to content in context
Increasingly content that recognises context over channel will perform better. This means finding contextual relevancy by understanding the user, devices, the environment and the world. How to surface content during ‘aha’ magic moments. How to be unexpected but relevant. How to craft mobile notifications that delight not despair. How to think about triggers that can expose the brand world in a way that just fits with your flow.
5) From borrowing currency to earning cultural currency
Borrowing currency are content deals that you buy. There is no brand authorship or footprint. The audience can almost smell the transactional association. Earning cultural currency is about making an effort to participate in a consumers world in a meaningful way. Taking on a topic, mission or issue that can put fire in the brand belly that can earn the audiences respect and attention. The challenge is to ask what can we do that can shape the world around us and earn attention.
6) From organise to commission to organise to partner
The brands that are winning in content are the ones partnering with likeminded souls. Not commissioning content creation as a separate ‘bought in’ asset. But working with collaborators, specialist agencies to collaborate and co-produce content together. This means being prepared to cede editorial control. How to take calculated risks. How to take the brand into new places through unexpected partnerships.
7) From macro discovery to micro discovery
Going wide with content doesn't really work on the 'splinternet'. Niche content can unlock scale in a way diluted universal content can't. Activating communities of interest and small pockets of enthusiasts to trigger high value amplification works. Micro discovery also means vividly personalising the content experience through programmatic smarts. How to use user data to serve next generation dynamic video? How to enable brands to appear on point and relevant to different content consumers?
8) From a culture of marketing to a culture of content
This is about organising new talent, skills, operations and ways of working to win in content. It’s hard work. It’s not about replacing the fundamentals of marketing but recognising that organisations need to develop new capabilities. How to orchestrate teams around live workflow data? How to find creative insights to make best in class content? How to actually behave and act like a media brand.
Next generation content is not a silver bullet.
You still need conventional advertising to market your content. And importantly conventional paid media to help it travel through the noise.
It's the way you mix it up that matters. How you blend tactics, channels and formats to make quality content that stands out and performs.
This is about strategy as delivery.
Above all else you need to think about the overall editorial mission for the brand. What is the organising idea? Why would people care? Are you adding value? Does your content live up to its promise?
Ultimately, the test is quality.
The test is attention.
Remember: don’t betray the reader.
(This is the first of a couple of posts on the subject of Next Generation Content. Hope they make sense!)
(Image credit: Scorpion Dagger)