Content is NOT king

In 1996 Bill Gates coined the phrase “Content is King” in an essay where he explained why Microsoft was partnering with NBC. He predicted that content providers would be in the best position to monetize the nascent Internet, and he wanted to put Microsoft in a position to benefit from what he perceived to be the greatest profit potential.

One of the exciting things about the Internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create. In a sense, the Internet is the multimedia equivalent of the photocopier. It allows material to be duplicated at low cost, no matter the size of the audience.

The Internet also allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher. Opportunities are remarkable, and many companies are laying plans to create content for the Internet.

On this specific topic, his prediction was only partially right. Yes, content producers can harness the vastness of the internet for financial gain, however some of the webs biggest companies earn vast sums from other’s content they just aggregate: Google, Facebook, Spotify, Netflix and the list goes on.

Low quality content

The fact that Bill Gates’ thesis was on the type of high quality exclusive content produced by a media conglomerate like NBC makes it even worse the way the phrase “content is king” has become a part marketing lexicon. All sorts of marketing books, conference presentations, and trainings exhort marketers to focus on content as it is the most important component of any marketing effort.

Somehow this idea that content must be created became a call to arms to just create without any bar of quality. And, marketers have fallen in line flooding the Internet with the kind of garbage that makes you dumber for reading/viewing it and wishing you could turn back the clock to reclaim the minutes you wasted. The world is awash in rambling audio, shaky video, and the worst travesty of all: poorly written long form content written for SEO.

Does it even work?

The belief is that somehow this content will draw people in from various channels and then once they are on the site they will be trapped into buying, calling, filling out a lead or whatever the KPI might be.

This problem is endemic across all verticals.  Do a search on Google for luxury hotels and then read the descriptions of the rooms. You will find more than a few examples of content that reads as if it was written by someone with a keyword goal. Try the same for local jewelry stores. It gets even worse when you look at websites for local small businesses.

Bad content isn’t confined to a specific marketing medium, but it is less prevalent on paid channels. Paid and brand marketers are smart enough to know that if you spend money on your marketing, it would defeat your purpose if customers were then repulsed with useless content.

Content  worked to the bone

To achieve this goal of crowning content as king, content producers (whether in-house or outsourced) are given the kinds of goals that might be given to a warehouse worker packing boxes. X amount of content needs to be produced per day which must contain Y words and use Z keywords.  This kind of content is not royal, it is indentured servants expected to work the magic it is simply not equipped to do.

Imagine if some of the greatest media stories of the last century had been written in this framework. Or if the TV shows of the previous decades had been walk and talk videos, would TV watching have become a family affair? Or if newspapers were filled with infographics that forced you to turn page after page just to get to the end and see all the advertisements.

Content is selling

I assume creating content for content’s sake works for some websites and products, but offline it would never be the preferred way of selling anything. Using low quality content as a teaser is like walking into a high end store and first being shown the cheap knockoffs as an enticement to keep going deeper into the establishment where someone might reveal something real.

Instead of declaring content to be king and then prescribing impossible requirements, I think content should be considered with the same gravitas as deploying a highly paid salesperson. Just like no business would allow themselves to be represented by a slurring sloppy drunk, they should feel the same by any content they produce.

As another corollary to sales, businesses are always diligent to track the performance of every salesperson and pay out appropriate commissions, content should be treated similarly. Content should never be deployed and then not measured. Unlike other marketing methods, content is inherently trackable.

User centered content

As with sales, a salesperson targets their approach with a user in mind, content needs to be written with the end user in mind. If there is no added value for a user, then the content should be deemed useless. Smart readers will see through the veil of sentences strung together for no purpose other than to garner a click.

I think we need to put an end to the idea that content is king and therefore writing content is an end unto itself rather than just a means to achieve a goal. Content is a business tool much like any other. content is correctly viewed as a tool, setting arbitrary goals on content seems even more ridiculous. Only a fool would mandate spending a set amount on paid advertising even if it never converted, but yet these kinds of objectives are commonplace around content.

Content is a tool

Not every tool is applicable in every scenario and content is not always required. Restaurants don’t need long form content describing their ingredients just so they might get SEO traffic. Not every doctors office website needs to replicate the medical library of WebMD. Small service-based businesses do not need a blog. Not every business needs an active social media following. This might be digital marketing heresy, but not all businesses even need a website. A local business will get more customers on Google My Business than they might on a poorly built website with weak content.

The resources that are wasted on bad content are better spent in channels that will actually reach the right customers and bring in revenue. Deployed effectively content can have an ROI in the thousands of percent over many years, but content with no purpose will never have any return. Content is a tremendously powerful tool in the hands of the right marketer. It should be wielded effectively and revered, not given a fake royal title and depressed to the role of an indentured servant.