Ever since I made my first professional walking attempts in the digital world (20 years ago that must be #feelslikeyesterday), I heard this mantra everywhere in the pre-dotcom bubble euphoria of Cluetrain afficionados, would-be Internet prophets, and notorious panjandrums:
CONTENT IS KING! They all said.
I had been studying Storytelling for five years, long before I even knew it was Storytelling. Back then they called it literature. So it seemed a little odd to hear these Internet geeks regurgitating their royal mantra when I had just meticulously learnt about the history, structure and perennial powers of stories told by early-day classics like Homer, Cervantes, Dante or Boccaccio, classic classics like Goethe, Schiller or Lessing or modern classics like Grass, Mann or Böll. Admittedly, I was also getting carried away by this millennial the-end-of-business-as-usual atmosphere of imminent change. Felt somehow audacious to dust off the venerable Germanstik patina in favour of some fresh … ehem, content?
It was only many years later, after necessary detours through the fires of corporate Mordor, that I realized one ring, I mean thing: The business world was (sorry: IS!) overly attracted by the glare of technological possibilities and features, fanatically prone to wanna-be-first- and because-we-can-itis. And thereby narrowly and one-sidedly interpreting the word “content”, neglecting other, much more elementary facets – facets that become clearest in the three different German translations the word “content” offers.
Back in the late 90’s, corporate content creation had nothing to do with journalistic research or writing talent. Its creators literally were content “managers”, i.e. project managers for pieces of content that they 1:1 transferred from paper to HTML and pinned to the newly discovered digital blackboard called website. Period. Their job was simply about the most general interpretation of content: words and pictures on a screen, publishing material. The (most probable and wide-spread) German translation for this aspect of content would be:
Or: “Something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing, or any of various arts … something that is contained.” (dictionary.com)
But it this Inhalt automatically something meaningful? Something that goes deeper than letters strung together by punctuation marks? Something that links beyond the surface not to just another succession of trivialities and soulless pixels, but to true substance? Mostly not. This is where in recent years (in continental Europe) or maybe decades (in Anglo-American dominated countries) the bandwagon of storytelling has already been able to do a lot for the greater good of meaningful content. If understood well and deployed according to the storycodeX of Expectation, Surprise and Change. The (a lot less wide-spread and more rarely spotted) German translation for this aspect of content with substance would be:
Or: “Significance or profundity; meaning” (dictionary.com)
But interesting: Gehalt also means “salary” in German. So maybe in the end all just about the dough, be the content meaningful or not. Surely, what did you think? Now let’s once and for all get past the naïve, childish, even insulting notion that any one corporation on this planet has a different purpose than making money. And the more they want you to believe that they’re sustainably trying to save the world, “do something good” on the side with CSR and foundations, a little like a Hollywood actress doing charity, the more they’re deceiving you.
The labyrinth of linguistics … Whatever. What I actually wanted to say was: Meaningful content with substance is a good thing. But is it enough? No. Not today anymore, that’s for sure. Inhalt and Gehalt were a great, successful and sufficient, but nevertheless rare combination in the pre social media age. When the third facet of “content” didn’t really matter. It was the age of broadcast after all, old-school Shannon-Weaver style.
Bad news: those days are over. Interactivity, ubiquitous commentaries, likes and forum discussions have changed the recipient side practically over night (in a historical sense of time).
People and the conglomerates they form called audiences (NOT users!) will no longer be satisfied with consuming content-turned-into-great-stories and commenting on it in a more or less intelligent and fruitful discussion with fellow audience members or members from other audience groups. They will first of all want to be able to dig deeper behind your story, deeper into the spider web, find proof for your story, get in contact with the heroes of your story, and maybe some day also with you. If they’re not disappointed on their journey.
But, even more substantial, they will want to become an active part of a company’s business story and stories, not as actors or heroes, but as co-authors. After all, they are the other half of the corporate truth, the devil on the corporate shoulder, internal versus external perception. Devils who might become angels when they turn into a renowned and emancipated member if a brand’s story creation team. Only then will they be what the third, most vital and rarest facet of German translation attempts hints at:
Or: “Satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else … Archaic: willing.” (dictionary.com)
Yep, content is also an adjective, not only a noun.
And the central question is: Who is it that you want to satisfy with your content? Yourself? Your bosses? Your bosses bosses? Or maybe, only very maybe … your customers? Your customers’ customers? Your audiences? Maybe even a targeted small portion of your audience? Certainly, your answer will be: Of course my customers! Of course my audiences! Plus the fact, now I have all these big and massive and powerful data, I now even know what my audience wants before it knows that it wants it! Ha! There you go, eat this!
I’m eating …
Only: Lies are hard to digest. And all the easier to unmask. As written in the world’s most successful example of purposeful storytelling: “Thou shalt not lie!”
Which brings me to the answer of above-asked headline question: As long as you betray yourself and thereby the people you are apparently creating your content for, there will be no sustainably successful content! Take all your pig data, winnow the refuse from the valuable gold nuggets, take an honest and disarraying look at them, shuffle your cards anew, do away with your organization’s and your management’s old shibboleths, dare, launch a pilot, let go, and see what happens.
There is an even older mantra from our economy’s service sector, way back from the days when storytelling was still literature, when relevant content didn’t need to be called king, when it in fact was a rarity due to its scarcity, not due to its abundance. Back then, the saying went:
Der Kunde ist König. The customer is the King.
Aha. So, so. Let’s try that for once, what do you say?
I can’t get no satisfaction, he says? All the better; let that be your stimulant.