Context, not Content, Is King | Adweek Context, not Content, Is King | Adweek
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Context, not Content, Is King

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It's a lovely time to be in or around media. Fewer and fewer of the old tropes apply. Metrics are out the window. Audiences fragment. Long tails emerge. Things are so uncertain that even that most bloated of sacred media bromides appears to be in the crosshairs: namely, that old saw about "content is king." Don't get me wrong, content is vital, but the unrelenting fragmentation of the mediascape has brought the importance of context to the fore. Many of us are still in denial.

We've all gone bananas creating content: branded, UGC, pretend UGC, interactive, reality. All the new paradigm-y, "you-either-get-it-or-you-don't" stuff you could ever wish for. I'm in there too, of course, throwing around proclamations on the necessity for "participatory content" in the new media ecosystem. And then the dreaded question arrives: How will people know that this content exists?

Pause, assess for emergency exits. . . . Oh, it's, eh, it's going to be viral. Ta-da!

Chucking in the word "viral" was the safe escape. "Well, we don't know of course, but we think this has MASSIVE, viral potential." Viral was nice because not only did it get us off the hook and into a la-la land of possibilities, it also held lovely budget connotations for the client.

(Reality) check please.

I'm all for content creation, new stuff, new formats, new, new, new! But there's a surfeit of crap that drowns out even the most brilliant. Digital content providers hit us with one demographic presumption after another, and, with Panglossian glee, screech: "We've made this and now they will come! Moneybag marketers hand over the loot." ("I mean, if Will Ferrell can ... ")

Where marketers once did, now they don't. They know that traditional media isn't what it once was. They know the metrics aren't great. They know all about time shifting, place shifting and viewer ADD. But for marketers, digital content has always been about the possibility of better and bigger: Better content, better reach, better connection and, maybe, bigger (even new) franchises.

If that's true, then very little of the ocean of digital content out there, or the tsunami about to hit, cuts it. Me, I love to see squirrels with tiny little helmets scooting around on skateboards. And, I think that in a perfect world every brand would have its own original content destination that viewers/consumers would just crave to hang out in (and maybe the best finally will), but for the moment I think that the creative challenge and the commercial opportunity revolve around the context for a new marketing message, not the content. Again, quite simply, context, not content, is king. Without the platform, and the right one at that, you ain't got nothin'.

We've been focusing on aggregating the now fragmented audience through different branded content that we wouldn't see on broadcast media. We've sought (read: prayed) to achieve mass, broadcast-level scale via the content stickiness (going viral) rather than aiming for the right scale that the right media channel using the right content combined can bring to the right target. Why do you think NBC and News Corp. are brimming with pride at the early success of Hulu.com? It's like not seeing the woods for the trees. We have a diffuse media landscape that gives us license to create, distribute and reach our sweet spot only to ignore it because we want to create our own mass content destination. I mean, is there not something sublimely ironic that the Bud digital content destination is called BudTV?

We've let ourselves be lured into the fantasy and ever increasing improbability of delivering mass scale through viral success rather than exploiting the better probabilities on offer via a plethora of discrete and better-targeted media environments -- often with established brand equity and robust audience bases amassed through traditional platforms (like NBC and Fox, in the case of Hulu). Everyone talks about Hulu's superior user interface and its repurposed and original content as the linchpin of its ability to drive traffic, but its meteoric success wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for its built-in distribution scale.

We at Ideocracy have recently been witness to the benefits of an established equity with significant, targeted scale, in a content initiative we're creating with a well-known entertainment brand and a number of our advertising clients. Annoyingly, too many of us ignore these media gift horses, passing up the kind of advertising content innovation that could spark a genuine creative renaissance in our industry.

Adland desperately needed (and maybe even deserved) the commercial breakup that digital content offered: A new type of advertising that would allow the old cost-plus-fee cuffs to come off. Unshackled, agency creativity would be unleashed and the good old days of making money while you sleep would return. But we've approached (or at least some of us have) this new world of possibilities with a bunch of out-of-date and unfortunate practices and assumptions about what to make, how to make it, and how to distribute it.

The problem? Fixating on content not context. The mass broadcast mentality still distracts us with the prospect of big-time hits when what we need to do, in this narrowcast new world, is back a much larger pool of smaller winners. This is ultimately a more remunerative way of spending client dollars and will particularly resonate with them in the current economic climate.

The promise of smaller-scale digital media environments requires that we let go. Let go of how we create, how we budget, how we produce, how we sell. Let go of the notion that mass and big are the right goals. The word "standard" must be scrubbed from our language. And in the same way that we now see the auto industry needs retooling, we need to retool to be a sustainable and useful industry (whatever we end up calling that industry).

Contextualized content opens the door to more effective advertising to the ever larger and more discernible digital tribes. To simply hang on to an industrial age marketing order that is both ineffective and uninspiring is to do what big auto has done for years: Where they make trucks, we make commercials.

We have at hand an awesome creative renaissance: A moment when we can really deliver the right stuff for the right audience on the right platform. For advertiser-supported digital content to realize its potential, context, not content, must be our start point and the questions "What can I do in this environment?" and "Who can I reach from here?" should be our creative launch pad and commercial justification.

Dogged inventors get to work; prospectors hand in your shovels.

Context is king. 

Ted D'Cruz-Young is the founder and managing partner of Ideocracy. He can be reached at tdcruzyoung@ideocracy.com.