Zen and the art of content

Robert M Pirsig’s classic book Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance explores the notion of quality as its central theme. Pirsig’s obsession with quality, what it is and what it means, drove him to a manic state, eventual breakdown, and diagnosis of schizophrenia. But the end of it all is that classic book.

Pirsig notes that it’s possible to make quick distinctions based on quality – between good and bad, whether it’s in clothing, music, food, the construction of motorcycles and so on. So if it’s so easy to make distinctions based on quality, why is quality so difficult to define? This, in essence, is what drove Pirsig to a breakdown.

Quality not the same as popularity

For content production, the quality question is important because of a web paradox. Quality and popularity are not the same thing. Consider two popular forms of content: news stories and cat pictures.

Cat pictures like Grumpy Cat (who has ‘written’ two books) are well-shared items on the web. So the question is this: if a cat picture is well-shared, does that make it high quality? If you ask a media analyst, then yes, probably it is. If the cat picture is well-shared then a graph tracking shares would show its stellar performance rising high off to the right. But brands know that cat pictures, while well-shared, might not exactly be quality after all. In fact, aren’t cat pictures a little puerile? Could messages associated with cat pictures damage your brand? Possibly, possibly not.

On the other hand we have news. News stories might serve a civic good, inform and sometimes entertain too, but news content is not always necessarily either well-shared or well read. Does that mean news is at least sometimes low quality? Again, possibly.

Content is pitched somewhere between these two ideas, but for different ends – designed neither to be shared nor to dig out the truth, but to tell brand stories.

What works, works

Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti believes quality is not enough, and that spreading the word – sharing – is what keeps ideas and businesses growing. That’s why Buzzfeed includes listicles of cats and other animals among its more serious reporting.

Peretti says publishing today has become like a Paris cafe, where intellectuals bring their copies of Camus and Sartre. “But there are also dogs under the tables around you. If you pet the dog, it doesn’t make you stupid,” he says, comparing the dog under the table to the viral animal picture. But that’s Buzzfeed’s brand, based around sharing and content.

It could be that the sharing model has limitations and once consumers tire of the novelty of lists then new tactics need to be developed. We can measure how well content is shared, so cat pictures and news stories can be directly compared for click-throughs or a number of other metrics. It’s rather trickier to measure how that content performs for brands or how good it is. Is it quality content?

Made to measure

Two terms have become part of the modern marketing parlance – programmatic advertising and content marketing, and they represent opposing philosophies on how to reach digital audiences.

Programmatic involves handing control from media buyers to computers. Real-time bidding, a subset of programmatic, cedes control to an algorithm, and this is where display marketing is moving. Everything is measurable. Facebook’s new display system, Atlas, is one of many systems designed to bridge the gap between display and sales. According to research from Magna Global, 90% of US display advertising will be sold programmatically by 2017.

Content can’t (yet, at least) be sold programmatically, or measured with the same sort of accuracy. According to the Content Marketing Institute, only 48% of marketers think their content campaigns are effective. That’s because there are too many imponderables, whether it’s a video or an article. More than that, content is bespoke, while display ads are general; they will achieve different outcomes, but are often lumped together.

Strange qualities

Media and PR agencies are investing heavily in content departments, and the expectation is that content should be held to the same metrics as other ads or media. They have their work cut out. Yes, shares, page views, sales uplift and so on can be measured, but is the content any good? There is yet to be an algorithm that can check for quality, although Google’s recent Panda tweaks to search are an attempt to distinguish real articles from dodgy sites (Google still can’t distinguish between a listicle and a news item).

Good writing relies on ingenuity and the ability to tell a story persuasively. How do you measure that, other than to read it?

As Pirsig writes:

“A person who knows how to fix motorcycles… with Quality… is less likely to run short of friends than one who doesn’t. And they aren’t going to see him as some kind of object either. Quality destroys objectivity every time.”

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