Content: the creativity conundrum

Creative is only sometimes welcome. Creative accountancy could get you into a lot of trouble, and creative answers by politicians are often infuriating. But creative content? Like gin and tonic, fish and chips or Prince and The Revolution, it just works.

Content – more normally translated as ‘stuff you are supposed to find interesting’ – drives much of the marketing sector right now, particularly in digital marketing.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented a system to link computers together 25 years ago, his World Wide Web was used by academics and early enthusiasts to exchange ideas. As the web idea took off, it evolved slowly at first, retaining a rather nerdy air. More recently the tremendous possibilities of the web have attracted large numbers of consumers, making it a compelling place to advertise. This professionalisation of the web changed it, and better quality has begun to creep in among the odd, the cranky and the wonderful.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that ‘digital’ is nothing more than a blank canvas. To make it beautiful it needs paint, and this paint is the content, whether done diabolically, tremendously or indifferently: it’s the glue, the motivation and let’s face it, IS the web, and why so many people spend time there.

The company that made the web accessible more than any other is Google. Its search corralled the randomness of the web into something digestible. Marketers noticed that if websites focused on particular words, then consumers searching for that word would be more likely to see their site. It was like advertising, but… free? Not quite – an entire industry has grown around Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). This was the real start of branded content for the web and an unintended consequence of Google’s innovations in search.

Fast-forward to today, and ‘content’ is the buzzword that compliments so many other buzzwords of the moment. Take your pick: mobile, social, native: content runs through them all.

There is a good reason for the popularity of content. Good content done well is not just persuasive, but alluring, exciting and that other marketing buzzword, engaging. It’s not a surprise that brands have become confirmed content-aholics. Coupling search with strong content helps give your brand visibility. Content really is a new frontier in advertising or marketing.

So if creative is so important, why is creative so often an afterthought in content campaigns? Why are so many content campaigns rather limp affairs?

The answer is that these bright shiny new things: mobile, social, whatever, are symptoms of the increasing complexity in the digital world. All these things may be pointless or even inappropriate for your marketing, but the panic that these new channels have stimulated in the industry has forced marketers to keep focused on the channel rather than the creative. Whoops.

This can be illustrated pretty easily. What was the last mobile campaign that really rang your bell? Can you name a mobile campaign you actually remember having seen? The same for social – have you seen a promoted tweet or a suggested post that had you running down to your local Sainsbury’s to buy?

I thought not.

This is because the channel has taken over. Marketers are worried about how to deliver a message before they have thought of the message. It’s a simple mistake, but a serious one.

There is a right way to do things, and that’s to work out creative, elegant ideas to business problems. The answers will define not only how to approach writing, filming or developing your content, but also then determines which channel – should it be mobile, social or whatever.

So be pragmatic – stick to what you know works, but be creative in your execution. Perhaps the most famous example of this is how the Rothschild brothers learned of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo one full day ahead of the rest of London, and made a killing on the markets. How did they do this? Well actually we don’t know but it’s fairly certain it involved carrier pigeons. Why? Because this medieval system of communication worked, and worked terribly well.

Bear this in mind the next time you tackle perhaps ‘a mobile campaign’, and ask yourself: “Shouldn’t I find something to say first?”.

Ed Owen is a freelance digital consultant

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