'Content' is the means, not the end
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
One of the most common requests that a communications practitioner will get today goes something like the following:
"We're releasing a brand new widget into the market next month. We need content to support the launch."
As a request goes, that's rather like walking into a supermarket, grabbing the nearest member of staff, and saying "I need some shopping" and expecting them to get you what you need.
"Content" is a term that has grown to dominate the marketing and communications sector in the past few years. 'Social content', 'content marketing', 'website content', 'editorial content' and so on. Like any word, if you say it often enough it becomes meaningless.
Which, arguably, it is. 'Content' is just another way of staying 'stuff'. It's a shorthand way of declaring; "I haven't really thought too much about what I'm actually trying to achieve, so I'm going to delegate the thinking to someone else and call it job done."
If that seems harsh, consider the potential needs for the fictional widget launch. What might fall under the all-inclusive banner of 'content'?
An internal announcement to the company's employees
A promotional e-mail blast to customers
A manual of how to use the widget
A technical brochure to support the sales team
A media release to announce the new product to the trade press
An advertising campaign (imagery and copy) to raise awareness
Copy for the packaging and display collateral
Social posts across different platforms to promote the widget
A microsite or product page on the website
'How to' videos
Customer / user testimonials
A presentation and script to customers / distributors at the company's trade shows
Diagrams and infographic showing to assemble / use / maintain the widget
And so ad infinitum.
Obviously no single function can take responsibility for creating all of this. Editorial writing is different from ad copy. Technical brochures are different from sales brochures. Product photography is different from infographic design.
On top of that you need to think about what needs to be licensed, what you actually own, how you track, measure and optimize material, show you share it with other stakeholders, how you deliver the material in multiple languages, how you manage updates across the entire ecosystem and so on.
The problem is that communications functions are too often seen internally as being responsible delivering a product - 'content' - when in fact they should be responsible for delivering outcomes. The content is simply the tool - the means to an end, not the end in itself.
Any good communications plan begins with six questions:
Who do we need to reach? (Audience segmentation)
What do we want them to do, think or say? (Target outcomes)
What will motivate them to do, think or say what we want? (Audience psychographics)
How does our product / offer / insight align with those motivators? (Significance and relevance)
What do we need to communicate to trigger those motivators? (Messaging and proof points)
What are the most effective channels to deliver that information? (PESO matrix)
Only when those six questions are answered is it time to think about the actual collateral material that needs to be created.
That's not to say that an organization doesn't need a content strategy. Indeed, an overarching content strategy is critical in an environment where the historic lines between PR, media, marketing and advertising are blurred and integrated communications is essential to success. It is the content strategy that defines how the organization will collate, create, manage, optimize, distribute and measure content across the various platforms - owned, earned and paid - that the organization manages.
The development and ownership of that strategy needs to sit across the entire marketing and communications function. It needs input from, but should not be solely beholden to, the public relations, media relations, creative, advertising, marketing, digital and corporate communications functions among others.
A key component of the strategy should lay out who 'owns' each different piece of the content puzzle and how those different owners work together to deliver the target outcomes the organizations needs. How does SEO feed into editorial? How does technical information feed into product manuals? How does the brand's visual language reflect across the entire content ecosystem?
But ultimately content should not be the first question asked. It should be (part of) the answer to the bigger question of how communications can contribute to the wider success - commercial or repetitional - of the business.
As communications practitioners it falls to us to frame that bigger question and help the organizations we represent be thoughtful about how they engage, inspire and motivate the stakeholders that drive their success.