Despite my early resistance to the notions of brand journalism and content marketing—and my criticism contains caveats that I continue to clutch—I have concluded that this is the third of three major trends I’ve seen in the communications ‘hood since I started slouching around here in the early 1990s.
The popularization of the Internet in the mid-1990s was completely nutso. Desperate communicators were flocking to conferences to see what the Internet actually looked like. “Is that the Internet?” they’d ask, pointing to the big screen. And in the bar later, the speakers used to fantasize about replying, “Does it look like the f****** Internet?” Communication pundits who I dismissed as “Internet geeks” actually engaged in public arguments over whether the Internet was as important as the invention of fire, or just the Guttenberg Press.
Then came social media a decade later, which I greeted with a Ragan Report column whose headline I still remember: “Blog wonks need chill pill.” I said social media would proceed at its own pace, and didn’t need blogging boosters to whip communicators in the direction of the inevitable. I was right—except I didn’t see Facebook or Twitter or YouTube coming like the Arab Spring. (Look, somebody has to be the ballast.)
And now one more decade on, we have content marketing. I’m on this one. Not only have I come believe content marketing is the third megatrend of my career … I’ve embraced it as a practice that, in theory, can make organizations more human and less institutional, can force corporate leaders to be more frequently familiar with the truth, and most importantly for us, can transform communications from a cost center to a profit center.
That, for professional communicators, would make the advents of the Internet and social media look like hula hoops and pet rocks.
So content marketing is more than a “thing.” It’s a good thing.
That’s why I’m the program chairman of the first annual Content Marketing Awards! When a trend is so profound that it gets through to me … yes, you want to be able to call yourself a content marketer, and you want to be able to distiguish yourself from all those bandwagon jumpers.
In a warm and enthusiastic way, he was talking about the importance of communication.
He had a glass of water at the lectern and a piece of litmus paper in his hand.
He dipped the litmus paper into the glass, and as he pulled it out, he said—and these were his exact words—”Communication is the litmus test of management’s decision-making.”
Meaning that, to the extent you have a hard time communicating it, it’s probably a bad decision. And if it’s easy to get across, it’s probably a good decision. So communicators, and management, should use the attempt to conceive the communication of a new policy as a way to evaluate the policy and, if needed, modify it or scrap it altogether.
I accepted that, then and there, as a fundamental truth about our work.
Felton also remarked on parenthetically on the litmus paper gimmick, saying that connecting messages to visual things helped people remember them.
Yeah, I guess so.
You know when that meeting took place? Twenty one years ago. It was put on by an organization I don’t remember, it was held at some hotel reception to which my 23-year-old ass was sent for reasons long lost to me now.
Aside from trying to pretend I was enjoying my first glass of scotch, I remember only what Jack Felton wanted me to remember—and I remember it as warmly as I remember it well.
I once asked my retired adman dad if he ever felt bad about making good ads for bad products, and he trotted out the old saw that nothing kills a bad product like good advertising, because the advertising exposes the product to the harsh light of day.
But I pressed him, asking if he ever felt weird about making warm creative for cold corporations, smart ads for dumb clients or noble messages for morally bankrupt executives.
Even in the privacy of his den, he leaned forward and whispered.
“Sometimes,” he confessed, “we hoped our stuff might make them a little better.”
Virtuous communication shaming a client into changing its ways, or inspiring a client to live up to a higher standard: It’s the communicator’s secret hope.
Strategic communicator, what would you say if I advised you that, in order to get more clicks, hits and likes on your communication media, you should seek plausible ways to encrust your articles with photographs of scantily clad female employees?
Well, it’s exactly what the communication experts recommended—and what the editors of conservative corporate publications routinely carried out—only a few decades ago.
Ragan.com editor Michael Sebastian (who’s on his way to Ad Age—good onya, Michael!) unearthed a wonderful article on the proper use of what was called “cheesecake,” in a 1962 issue of Reporting, the magazine for the International Council of Industrial Editors (an association that merged with another to become the International Association of Business Communicators in 1970). “An alert editor should have no trobule finding plenty of professional model material among employees, and employees’ wives and daughters,” the Reporting article advised. “Don’t settle for girls that are not photogenic or would be out of place in a bathing suit.”
Apparently DuPont editors were particularly adept, and their “fine inter-and-external magazine is a good example of the effective use of sophisticated cheesecake.”
The haunting question is, what are we doing now that will in a half century seem as shockingly insane as this? What current standard practice is Cheesecake 2.0? —DM
The results of the 2013 content marketing Industry Characteristics Survey are proprietary for members of the Custom Content Council, and the summary we’re offering in ContentWise won’t be out for another week or two.
But I’ll offer one of the more profound findings right here and now: Video is smoking hot. How hot? Three years ago 37% of marketers said they were using branded video as part of their content marketing strategy. This year? Um, 68%—with 57% of marketers planning to do even more next year.
The questions is: Who’s going to watch all those corporate videos?
And the answer is: No one, if they’re not brilliantly enough conceived, made and distributed to cut through the clutter.
That’s why I think you should attend the first and probably the best of what will surely be many conferences on making strategic videos. It’s the Essentials of Strategic Video Storytelling, put on by my friend Russell Sparkman next month at his cool facility on Whidbey Island, Wash., near Seattle.
As you’ll see from the program, speakers at the two-day course (May 9 and 10) will cover video from conception to budget to distribution to measurement of results. And everything will be discussed in the context of how video fits into the overall content marketing strategy.
You should go. And give my best to Russell when you do. —DM
A true story illustrates the need for communication professionals to have some journalism training.
A Fortune 100 intra-company communication retreat, somewhere in the hinterlands. The corporate communicators are trying to teach the local communicators about storytelling, persuasion and other modern communication techniques.
The storytelling session includes an exercise where everyone is asked to write a compelling story about the organization. They are told that, for the purposes of the exercise, they can make up some of the facts and the names.
Then they get up and tell their stories. One guy tells a really compelling one about a company engineer who suffered a family tragedy and then surmounted an astounding series of obstacles to create a profitable product that ensured that the life that had been lost had not been lost in vain.
He is asked how much of the story was true. None of it, he confessses. He was just trying to apply storytelling principles to the kinds of stories the company would like to tell.
One of the local communicators raises his hand.
“Can we do that?” he says with a little quiver of excitement in his voice. “Can we just make stuff up?” —DM