The Future of Content: Fewer Buzzwords, More Feelings

Lessons from the Oscar-winning digital arts platform of WeTransfer on creating meaningful content

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Many words are ubiquitous in brand language these days, but perhaps none is quite so omnipresent as “content.” That reductive, catch-all term that means everything and nothing, and is touted by so many as the way to “connect with an audience” and “build community” (a couple more buzzwords there for you).

That’s not to say that content can’t do those things, but when everyone is making it, how do you stand out? And how do you know if it’s working? Does anyone even care?

Make it meaningful

Our stance on the work we create at WeTransfer: Try to make something that will cut through the white noise. And if we get it right, it might even mean something.

The best content should be able to do two things: tell you about the moment in which it was made, and make you feel something. Best-case scenario, it can even start important conversations or help to move the cultural needle. It’s brand marketing at its best, and today we’re seeing more brands opt for this approach over the cold, impersonal nature of performance marketing.

When we start any new project or creator collaboration, we try to think about why it might matter and what kind of audience it might resonate with. Crucially, it’s thinking about people in human terms, not just as users or metrics. If you wouldn’t read, watch or listen to the work you make, then why would anyone else?

Today, brands need to have a grasp on what is happening in the publishing and media industries to understand how to better serve their audiences when it comes to brand marketing. My background as a journalist has been the best tool for finding the beating heart of a story, the part that I think is essential to good content. As a journalist, you are taught to lead with the hook—the easy and understandable way into the story for your audience—then follow up with the emotion, the part that resonates with them.

Brands should take this same approach with their content. You have to be able to pique people’s attention and then keep it, especially in an already oversaturated media market. It’s not easy (and we’ve not even mentioned the competition from social media) but it’s a human approach that will likely garner far more affinity for your brand than treating every person as a statistic.

We no longer live in the heady days of massive traffic and Facebook algorithms driving eyeballs to publisher channels. It’s much harder to be successful and find an attentive audience in an industry that seems to be in a constant state of flux. Audiences are fragmented, and when it comes to content types there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

You have to meet people where they consume and understand the intrinsic needs of their preferred platforms. That means the work you’re creating will need to be nuanced, tailored to and representative of the community you’re trying to reach. It will need to be in a format that can hold their attention, be that video, social, written words or an event. But maybe most importantly, it still has to have heart.

A couple of recent projects at WeTransfer have exemplified this and, in turn, backed up the company ethos of empowering creators and driving creativity. For the past year, we have collaborated with actor, podcaster and curator Russell Tovey as WePresent’s guest curator and, through this, he has been focused on telling stories that bring history to the present: artists who were lost too soon to the AIDS crisis.

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Russell Tovey worked with WePresent on a documentary about the life of artist David Robilliard, who died in his prime from AIDS.WeTransfer

At the end of November, we hosted a pop-up exhibition in London where we premiered Life Is Excellent, a documentary created by Tovey charting the life of artist David Robilliard, who never received the recognition that he deserves for powerfully human work that inspired so many. Alongside this, we exhibited rare T-shirts worn during AIDS protests to show how the humble item was a visible tool for protest, telling the stories of the courageous creators behind them and drawing parallels to the inequality we still see today.

Seeing a room full of people with whom this work resonated—some who knew Robilliard personally, and some from younger generations eager to understand the past to contextualize the present—was moving. It felt like an important moment to share stories that matter.

It was also a reminder of the power of gathering in person and hosting events that allow your audience to feel connected to each other. In a time when the conversation around machine vs. human grows louder by the day, I don’t think this can be overstated. We’re sociable creatures, after all.

Share the mic with the next generation

Since the beginning, WeTransfer has championed emerging creators, those we believe will shape the next generation and our industry moving forward. Drop School, a podcast and TikTok documentary, is a testament to this.

Launched in October, it follows an emerging creator on a journey to drop the first product from his brand. Tasked with challenges and graded on his efforts in each episode by industry experts, the series explores whether hype can be taught, and what it takes to market a brand in an ever-evolving industry obsessed with newness.

Aimed at a younger audience, it was important to us that the series be led by them (because is there anything worse than a bunch of brand types puzzling over Gen Z like they’re an entirely different species?), so we looked to people like Pablo Attal, the 25-year-old fashion entrepreneur who works with the likes of clothier Corteiz, to advise 19-year-old Jordy on what it takes to make it today.

It’s important to know when to hand over the mic to the experts, no matter what age they are. Drop School was a hit; when Jordy finally dropped his product—a pair of vintage military-inspired trousers—they sold out and, so far, the social videos have been viewed more than a million times.

In this instance, we leaned on our creator collaborators to let us know what they felt would work for the target audience (their peers) as opposed to enforcing our vision on the series and risking alienating those that it was intended for. It was a learning curve, but when working with creators you have to trust them, learn to listen and build a two-way relationship.

Focus on the ‘now’

When it comes to brand marketing, there’s maybe one lesson that’s most important: Never assume that you know everything. In a world that keeps moving faster and an industry that is almost unrecognizable from what it was a decade ago, be willing to accept that you will need to continue learning every single day. Instead of trying to predict the future, focus on trying to understand the present.

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Networked Counterculture is a piece of research WePresent created to provide an understanding of contemporary culture through the lens of the networks that mediate it. WeTransfer

WeTransfer started co-creating reports aimed at providing context for the transitional moment we find ourselves in now, starting with this year’s Networked Counterculture. Created in conjunction with Berlin-based think tank Co-matter, the report begs the question: Is counterculture possible inside a system that turns us all into perpetual content creators? Can you subvert the attention economy for your gain? Individual creators can ponder over these questions, but so can brands.

The more that brands understand the culture they inhabit, the more they can create relevant work that will resonate with an audience. And if they’re lucky, maybe even make them feel something.