In defense of the niche: content marketing and the rise of the smart web

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Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin once said that “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” Even for those folks who’ve never so much as heard of lead-gen or nurture programs, the importance of relevant content and compelling narrative has never been so necessary as it is today — especially because the digital sea is brimming with the wreckage of too many voices with far too little exposure.

That doesn’t seem to stop the superfluousness from spreading, though, and quickly drowning out a lot of the more substantial content that arguably deserves a bigger platform. The Internet is a minefield, and discovering anything worthwhile is often an accident (which is, of course, why the content curation movement started up in the first place).

But what is it, exactly, that makes content more globally valuable, shareable, accepted, meaningful, or engaging?

Context, Popularity and Perspective

The other day I got into a discussion with an old friend about parenting and discipline. She’s a mom and holds a master’s degree in childhood education. I, on the other hand, don’t have kids and so, don’t have much besides theoreticals to rely on, but she said something that stuck with me: you teach your kids what’s acceptable to you through your own actions and reactions to their behavior — meaning, if you throw a toy to the ground in frustration at their insolence, you’re essentially telling them it’s fine to pitch a fit when you’re angry. The same could easily be said for content and the way we consume it.

I am convinced that this is the only reason things like Gangnam Style are allowed to happen.

Bottom line, people use the content they share to present an image of themselves to the world, whether that means hopping on a meme-train, sharing their own creations, or regaling friends with their latest underwear purchase. And maybe, sometimes, what we’re sharing is shallow or unoriginal, but it matters to us, or we wouldn’t be tying ourselves to it.

So, if marketing through the medium of a more intelligent internet means circumnavigating shallow content, we need to be careful about how we do it. We should be working towards bringing the platform of the internet back down from its celebrity-filled pedestal, and when I type “what is…” into Google, “twerking” should not be the first thing to auto-populate. But generalizing acceptability and value for a mass audience means we’d still be force-feeding a hierarchy of content on people that’s dictated by virality. In other words, popularity still plays a mammoth role in content visibility, and it can actually alter our perception of what deserves a share. And that begs the question: if curation efforts make finding certain content easier for the people who already want it, won’t further splintering that content’s reach simply narrow the audience, thereby lengthening the path to visibility?

Content is a Currency

…maybe, but it depends on what your goals are in terms of that audience and what type of visibility matters to you. If you’re aiming for content reach, you’re talking about numbers. Clicks. How many times it’s been tweeted or mentioned in some way. The major flaw of gauging value based on reach is that it doesn’t provide a metric with which to measure how the audience (you) was or will be impacted by that content. I can tweet literally anything without so much as looking past the URL, so the only thing those numbers are really indicating is a snappy title.

That’s why it’s so important to focus on content engagement — things like comment feed conversations and forums, or posts that include opinions and insights — any sort of interaction that’s truly building a relationship between the content and the consumer. Finding out who we’re actually talking to is of the utmost importance, and this is where the idea of ‘content as a currency’ becomes really necessary — because you’re going to get exactly what you pay for.

Creating something robust takes time, is an investment and a risk, and you don’t see immediate returns; however, the returns you do get will likely be more stable (i.e., loyal brand ambassadors). On the other hand, simple, snackable stuff is easier to produce and gains traction in a conspicuous way across a broader space. It’s a quick and dirty method of infiltrating super-impacted market territory, but at the end of the day, you’re probably going to end up with little more than some easily forgotten flashes of visibility. Great for short-term bursts of exposure, virtually useless for perpetual growth.

The rise of a lean, customizable web is allowing marketers to directly engage with people at eye-level, unlimited channels with which to do it, and the opportunity to be something more than just a product. If you’re unwilling to tell your customers a story that means something to them, you’d best be ready for your saga to come to an end.

Arwen Petty is Mindjet’s social media punk and purveyor of light bloggery. Follow them on Twitter at @Mindjet and @arwenrenee.

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10 years ago

Thank you for this article it had a lot of good tips and advice!

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