In a previous article, we briefly laid out a methodology that promises to allow organizations to integrate steams of content as part of their output. In this first article, we’ll look at the concept of “content” and at what it really means in the context. In defining “content” more precisely, we will hopefully avoid trapping the term in a buzzword cage, which would render it meaningless.
What is content, and why is it such an important concept in the digital age? In the physical world, content is defined as anything within the boundaries of an outer container. Think Russian nesting dolls. It turns out that in the natural world, anything you see or hear is content, simply because everything is contained by something else, including you and me. As a result, the sole exception to this broad definition of “content” is the universe itself, which — though only a concept — has no known container or boundaries. As you can probably imagine, this broad definition of “content” will not get us very far.
How, then, do we refine the definition of content so to make it a meaningful concept at the dawn of an era where everything is either purely digital or else is being extended through the Internet?
The raw material of digital content is information. Let’s ignore for a moment that the concept of “information” is ethereal at best; we will simply assume that information is the material that you want to communicate before it has taken its final shape. Information becomes content once it has a form or shape.
In the digital age, what acts as containers is a set of complex interactions between conditions which are partly out of anyone’s control. The immediate container for the blog living on your website is the language and the words that the journal entry is written with. The fonts, colors and layout that renders those words impose their own properties and boundaries to the previous. The browser forms another layer of containment around the blog and controls how those fonts, colors and layouts are actually displayed. The operating system, the hardware (monitor or display, CPU, etc.) and the conditions of the connection then affect the browser and add another layer to the container, which can either limit or enhance the content, albeit indirectly. All those layers are invisible and interact asynchronously. The sum of those interactions is altering the field in ways that are impossible to fully control.
In content marketing terms, information is better referred to as the value that you, the author, intend on communicating. In the same vein, the container is the overall context in which that value is rendered — some of which, as we just saw, is controlled by you, and some isn’t.
Hence our definition of content for the purpose of content marketing (or marketing in general):
Content is an expression of value bound to a given context.
At this point, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what probably amounts to a universal truth: in order for a business to thrive, the organization must provide its customers with value that exceeds that which it takes in. The latter value is generally expressed in terms of money, the former as a product or service. For the vendor, the benefit is realized through a series of business transformations and processes that allow a product to provide more value to its customer than what it cost to produce, deliver and maintain in the first place.
Let’s put this another way: If you’re in the business of exchanging exactly 1 dollar for every dollar to take in, you don’t really have much of a business model and you’re wasting your time and money promoting it. If your machiavellian plan is to return 85 cents for every dollar you pocket, chances are high that your business will fail — no matter how fancy your scheme is — long before you can retire a millionaire. Viable business models find a way to add enough value to their product to make every transaction a winner for both parties.
Content marketing is a mechanism that continuously injects value into a product or service during the entire lifecycle of the product, even before it changes hands. Soft marketing opens channels of communication between the prospective or actual customer and the business infrastructure; it then use these channels to maintain a continuous stream of value that enhances the product itself, albeit often indirectly.
In the modern marketplace, service and support are integral parts of the products sold. Most physical products can be viewed as services. Modern content marketing practices ensure that there are enough channels opened for that value to be continuously added to the offer.
To the vendor, the ability to use content marketing techniques to amplify the value of a product is, for the most part, a benefit brought about by the digital age. The mechanism itself ties into digital channels and allows businesses to save money by replacing physical attributes with informational value. The latter can take the shape of timely online advice, remote technical support, an extensive range of options, personalized reporting, fast reactive or proactive services, and so on.
This recent and unusually rapid evolution of the market — which, for all practical purposes, came about within the last decade — has consequences that can be observed in almost every segment of the market: whether it is for physical goods (cars, apparels, grocery, etc.) or plain traditional services (banking, legal, etc.), the shift towards a service-oriented marketplace is shaking the ground under every segment of the market. Let’s look briefly at a recent product offering that provides such a tie-in between the physical and the digital worlds.
Fitbit’s main offering is a watch-like wristband that monitors the health of its owner through sensors. The product is selling for anywhere between $100 and $200 (US) at the time of this writing. The wristband itself is rather plain plastic band with a minimal numerical display. The device monitors the health signals of its carrier and reports the data it collects back to a central system — typically, the carrier’s own smartphone — through a wireless connection.
The actual manufacturing cost of the physical device is likely very minimal, especially when compared to its selling price. As a product, the fitbit wristband is essentially a proxy for a data service, so its real cost to the manufacturer has less to do with manufacturing than it has with maintaining the logistic of the network services that support its functionality. This setup allows the product to evolve simply by upgrading the services that extend it. In other words, the fitbit device can gain, or lose value without any change in the device’s characteristics.
From a marketing perspective, to the customer the value that this combination provides — i.e., a healthier self — can be perceived as to far outweigh its acquisition cost. In order to nurture that perceived value and to continue to enhance the service as the technology and customer requirements evolve, the company’s marketing team relies almost entirely on prevalent digital channels, such as their blog, their website and their social networks, to channel information and updates to the user. For example, the product comes with no manual except for a note which points to a URL. Without those digital, expandable channels, a product line such as fitbit could not even exist.
There are obviously a ton of products that follow similar patterns of integrating network services into physical products. New ones are filling the space every day, and existing products and services are being “upgraded” daily to fit the same general pattern. fitbit is but an example of a trend that is not likely to die anytime soon. In this new kind of marketplace, the ability for a business or an organization to provide “content” at a rapid and constant rate is critical, since the flow of information is an integral part of the offering. So let’s repeat our definition of content:
Content is an expression of value bound to a given context.
Therefore, in order to come up with content, an organization needs to:
- continuously discover value
- identify suitable modes of expressions for these new values
- manage the contexts to which these expressions will bind
- maintain the channels that allow the above to flow uninterrupted
In our next installment, we will examine where value discovery fits in an traditional business workflow and how it can be implemented progressively through small, targeted organizational and cultural changes.
Need help with your content generation and marketing? Give Backbay a shout!