We Curate Content, but Over at the Museum, They Really Curate

Research Institutions Practice a Rigor and Transparency That Would Benefit the Marketing Profession

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Marketing is woefully complicated these days, partly because our ideas have gotten so vague and convoluted. We no longer sell things, but "engage in conversations," "prompt engagement" and "achieve exposure." We don't deliver sales, but "ROI" and "brand equity. "

One of the hardest concepts for me to get is marketing or branding as "curating content." As I understand it, "curating" means collecting and "content" is the articles, videos and other digital media that marketers present to consumers via social-media platforms. This is how the marketer prompts the conversation and engagement that leads to the exposure that one day hopefully leads to sales.

The collection as a whole is what defines a brand for consumers, and its placement and propagation on the Web is the branding. You can't go to a marketing event without getting lectured on how to curate content. Books have been written about it.

But I know real curators -- I'm working with one of the world's preeminent museums right now -- and their work has nothing to do our version of it. Claiming that we build rocket ships would be about as accurate. Actually, we could learn from these curators, especially considering that the museums and other research-based institutions where they work score incredibly high on consumer rankings of authority and reputation.

What should we be doing that they do? Here's my layman's list, with explanations:

Known objectives. Museums want to educate the public. Curators make no bones about why they're collecting and presenting the content they collect. Conversely, we marketers obfuscate our purposes, sometimes even convincing ourselves that we're collecting for the sake of collecting.  Of course, that 's not true. We curate so we can sell. Call it French dip, but it's still marketing. Maybe we'd have more credibility and sales success if we were upfront about our aims.

Established criteria.  Curators are required to have earned advanced academic degrees and published original research in peer-reviewed journals. This is widely known by the general public.  What qualifies marketers behind a brand to be curators, other than available money and a hired hand, however expert, willing to propagate a campaign on the Web? Stricter and more transparent standards -- maybe certification of some kind -- would make our efforts a lot more credible, wouldn't they?

Added value. Every museum exhibition endeavors to get viewers to think about things in a fresh way by revealing a new find, a more accurate measurement, a fresh connection -- adding value to our understanding of dinosaur bones, medieval warfare or whatever is on display. Imagine if a portrait show did nothing more than collect what art critics had already said about the paintings? That's what constitutes the collections that marketers curate -- aggregations of available stuff, presented to reinforce consumers' thoughts and feelings about our brands, after we have decided what those feelings should be.

Public utility. Museums are nonprofit organizations with a mandate to serve the public good. This is a hard one to translate into the marketing world. A museum curator has no interest in getting individuals to do anything other than comprehend and, hopefully, remember. That's why they don't call themselves marketers. Perhaps we're no more curators than they are salespeople?

I don't think we marketers want to be in the curating business, any more than museum curators want to be in marketing. If we're going to borrow their terminology, we should do a better job of emulating their proven successful techniques.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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