Content isn’t king, Creative and talented people are

groupon logo

[Note: By mistake, I posted an early draft of this item earlier. While no post on this blog has ever been more than a draft (finished stuff appears elsewhere in my “distribution chain,” I have a feeling the earlier version made even less sense than this version.]

A NY Times article today has a wonderfully accurate headline, “Groupon Counts on Writers and Editors to Build Its Audience,” and gets to the crux of why I have a long-standing and well-documented unease with the use of the term “content” to reduce to one generic glob what teams of talented writers, editors, artists, programmers, et al., do at places like Groupon, or, say, Hammock.*

Listen to how the reporter describes one of the keys to Groupon’s success:

“Groupon’s breakthrough sprang not just from (offering customers deals) but from an ingredient that was both unlikely and ephemeral: words. Words are not much valued on the internet, perhaps because it features so many of them. Newspapers and magazines might have gained vast new audiences online but still can’t recoup the costs from their web operations of producing the material. Groupon borrowed some tools and terms from journalism, softened the traditional heavy hand of advertising, added some banter and attitude and married the result to a discounted deal. It has managed, at least for the moment, to make words pay.

While I might disagree with the ingredient that was Groupon’s breakthrough (my vote is for the amazing cash-flow generating discovery that people will buy pre-sold vouchers if you call them coupons, and that they could hang on to that cash a few weeks before giving the merchants their share), I completely agree that Groupon has experienced an epiphany that more internet marketing companies need to experience: It’s not “content” that’s king. It’s the way in which the correct content fulfills a specific business objective that’s king. It’s the talent and skill of the people who create and understand how to use that content that is king (or queen).

In my opinion, far too many otherwise savvy marketing professionals have bought into the notion that success on the internet comes merely by deciding to embrace the next, new tools and platforms and distribution channels and “social-anything.” Moreover, they display a childlike belief that salvation (in the form of more website traffic) comes if large sums of cash for keywords and inbound links are burnt at the altar of The Great God Algorithm of Google.

Far too many people seem to believe that internet marketing is something akin to voodoo — but too embarrassed to use that word, they choose words like “content” instead. Sobeit. If that is the case, the Groupon story provides an example of why it is important to understand that all content is not created equally. As much as some “gurus” would like us to believe that out there, somewhere, are “Top 10 Content Marketing Ways to Spread Pixie Dust and Solve All Your Problems,” the reality is (at least based on my 25 years of experience): Content is usually the least important part of what is being called “content marketing strategy” these days.

What’s the hardest? The exhausting, expensive and incredibly detailed work that goes into understanding the essence of a client’s true business objective. More importantly, a similar journey in understanding everything there is to know about the person on the other side of a transaction — and fulfilling their desires, not just the marketer’s. The hard part is having the willingness to tell a client that no amount of content is going to make a bad product good. The hard part is knowing what can and cannot be accomplished with carefully planned and skillfully executed media that include excellent words, design, art, video, audio, code, etc. — with skillfully executed being king.

The hardest part is finding talented people who understand enough about words to know why they don’t want to be called a “content creator.”

*Begrudgingly, the term “content marketing” in used by Hammock to describe the services it provides. Why do I say begrudgingly? We use the term because it is the term used more-and-more by people looking for our services. If that’s what clients want to call it, I’m not one to put up obstacles between them and us based on my personal linguistic prejudices. But I also say begrudgingly because I believe the word content belittles and commodifies the incredible talent necessary to do what the people I work with do: helping clients achieve specific business objectives, most notably building deeper, long-lasting relationships with the customers or members. I described why I don’t like the term “content marketing” in this post in 2008, in which I wrote: “I believe using the word content voluntarily to describe what I do insults the talent, skill, creativity and craft that goes into the media my colleagues and I create and manage in collaboration with our clients. I believe the term content marketing makes it sound like I’m marketing a service to shovel out some commodity created primarily to fill up space or time. Creating content is not what we do. Helping tell brand stories. Adding value to products. Encouraging loyalty or involvement. Educating. Activating. Those are the things the talented individuals at our company do with and for the talented individuals who are our clients. Generating content is, frankly, merely a tool in what we do. Helping clients build stronger relationships is our business.