Debate Team (Part 1): Does the future of media companies, ad agencies, and content marketers lie in technology or content?
Around the MarketingExperiments labs, we are constantly debating the future of Internet marketing. Unfortunately, for the really big picture stuff, our normal answer of “test it” simply doesn’t work. So we’re taking our latest brawl into the streets (so to speak), and asking you to judge what the future holds.
But there’s a bit of a twist. In this debate, we’re forcing our team to take the opposite opinion of what their day-to-day role would suggest. On Friday I must hide my content-creating hat and make an argument for the centricity of technology. But first, read on as Boris Grinkot, a technology (among other things) guy, touts the merits of content. Use our Twitter and comment features to tell us who you think is right.
Executive summary (in three sentences)
The Internet is swarming with content. Technology helps make the content easier and quicker to digest by auto-summarizing, sorting, classifying, or repurposing it in various user-preferred formats. By enabling conversation, technology helps us choose content to consume based on deliberate recommendations or computed popularity. However, technology doesn’t impact content quality.
Shiny boxes sell faster
Technology for content is packaging, which can be visually appealing, convenient, and useful. If anything, it allows those who are bad at content, but good at gaming the system, to float the lousy content to the top, and pile on lots of it. Both owners of the systems being gamed, and increasingly incredulous consumers, are wising up to the games. Just as Mother Goose, or Honest Abe, or Santa Claus (I am sure it was one of these three) has taught us, it is what’s on the inside that counts.
How did we get into this predicament in the first place? Until the last decade of the 20th century, owning publishing technology to a large extent had meant controlling the content. The technology was localized, prohibitively expensive, and required extensive training. Furthermore, distribution channels also added barriers to entry.
In digital media, it’s almost exactly the opposite. The technology is largely distributed and free to users, requires little or no expertise, and provides access to billions of potential readers. However, this blog post is not about the paradigm shift in the publishing industry. The argument that Dan and I got into centered around the question of whether publishers (whether it’s their core business or part of marketing strategy) need to focus more resources on the quality of their content or on the technology. It’s not a rhetorical question, with the obvious answer “Both.”
What I’d like to communicate is that while technology certainly helps efficiently deliver and format content, it inevitably becomes a commodity. It does so at an increasing rate, as the proliferation of both new technologies and best practices associated with them (also traveling down the same content channels) is becoming near-instant. In other words, you need technology to compete, but it’s not enough to win.
There is a good parallel in SEO. For a good decade, the “secrets” behind SEO were known only to the initiated few. With search engine technology in its early stages, there were plenty of opportunities to exploit it, increasing the SERP position or even density of content that was less useful or relevant to the user than its rank implied.
Those practices were used both for spamming the searchers and for increasing the ranking of legitimately relevant content– even the “good” content had to employ black hat techniques to rise above the junk. This cat-and-mouse game is ongoing, but is fought more with resources than with unique know-how.
SEO has become to a large extent a commodity – a must-have, but not sufficient to beat your competition. Various technological tools make SEO management more efficient, but that enabling aspect doesn’t transpose well to content – we have a ways to go before typing becomes obsolete.*
The other spam
The SEO arms race had led to an explosion in the demand for writers, reaching so far as to create an entire industry of bloggers-for-hire and, at a lower quality level, of blog commenters for hire. The search technology that was supposed to help us focus in on what we need has been responsible for an avalanche of garbage that has flooded the Internet.
However, just as spam didn’t eliminate email as an efficient communication medium, this junk won’t eliminate the Web as the primary content platform. With spam, both technology and human auditing combined to continuously update white- and black list databases, as well as to improve algorithms to recognize spam that passes the latter. Finally, better-late-than-never legal restrictions took accountability to the next level.
So how are things looking for the content providers out there? Certainly the publishing industry is yet to find itself in the digital medium. I am anxiously awaiting how The Times and others in the newsprint industry will standardize a profitable way to monetize their online presence. I expect independent content providers are going to settle into their own profitable niches (whether combining forces to establish competing brands or continuing on their own), while others will simply drop off the radar, as they realize that the time they’ve spent ranting on blogs just doesn’t pay the bills.
Lawmakers might get involved to put a leash on content mills because they reek of mendacity, if not false advertising and conspiracy to commit fraud. The consumer is ultimately going to be the judge of quality, and technology is only going to be important in the sense that, for the consumer to judge, the consumer has to see the content first.
Bottom line: technology delivers, but content quality sells.
Content quality ROI
Now let’s get to the question the ROI-driven marketer is really concerned with: How should I invest my resources in a content-driven world?
- Use technology, but don’t rely on it to write the content for you. – Invest in research and editorial production and then do the same market research you would do in your product development cycle: understand who your audience [market] is, understand what information [product] needs they have, what communication and reading tools they prefer.
- Quality is essential, both in these summaries and in the content that follows. – You can fool your readers once with a promise in the headline that doesn’t deliver, but you will sacrifice return visits and/or email subscribers. This is another huge problem with thinking that technology can help you by getting your content in front of a large audience: if the content is poor, your one exposure will not likely net any results.
- Find out where the conversation on your topic is taking place and engage with your audience. – The latter statement is not meant to guide your social media strategy – it’s far too trite for that. My point is that social media will help you get your content in front of people that are already interested in the topic, and likely have both ability and desire to provide meaningful feedback and pass it on to others.If you have quality content, then even if they may disagree with your particular message, it will generate discussion resulting in additional exposure (earned media). Obviously, feedback you receive becomes an essential part of your content “product development” cycle.
- Take stock of your resources and make decisions about scope. – Today, there are many technologies to help search, read, and store content. Ultimately, the same folks that deal with communication technology in your organization (whether in Marketing, PR, or IT) need to continue doing so. They can help you package, deliver, and market your content on the new platforms, test their performance, and ultimately advise the ideal channel mix.Engage only in the content channels you can afford to support. Spreading yourself too thin may gain short-term exposure at the expense of the brand. Whatever content categories you choose to maintain, ensure that you have dedicated resources, whether in-house or outside. Having a company blog can be a powerful tool for maintaining communication with your market, but a poorly maintained blog can reduce the credibility of the core offer.If you do have a blog, it doesn’t mean that you can automatically re-package the content for other channels – quality control must be maintained in transit. The content you produce, whether as part of your marketing strategy or as your core business, is going to be a part of your brand. Its quality can either increase or decrease your brand equity. Technology you use to deliver it has little to do it.
Use what you know already: the abundance of content has made us picky, so you cannot rely on brand name (unless you are Barron’s or The Economist) to get your content read. Just as we talk about conversion on landing pages, with content you need to provide a reason for your audience to give you their time. In other words, you need to “sell” your content. Powerful headlines and short summaries require little effort from your readers, but can efficiently trigger a decision to read on.
This strategy works well for fly-by-night affiliate marketing schemes, where the supply of unsophisticated site visitors is effectively unlimited for the duration of the enterprise. However, if you are a respectable business, especially in B2B, losing potential customers with poor content is not an option. It noticeably reduces your addressable market size.
So tweet and comment about this issue and let us know which you think is more important – content or technology. And, if in the process, you think I’m right and Dan’s wrong, well…that sounds like the highest-quality content to me.
* I can’t lose here—either I am wrong and we shortly cross into a new realm, where our thoughts are immediately checked for spelling errors and patriotism, and committed to a file, or otherwise my witty remark will live on for a few centuries… like a speck of ocean sand.