Lately there has been a lot of talk about the need for brands to become more like content publishers to remain relevant to their consumers. For those with short memories, that chatter usually gets deafening about once every decade, as consumer behaviors (and media) shift.
In the past, it has given rise to things like content sponsorships, custom publishing, advertorials and branded content. Brands, no longer able to say, "We're not in the content business," have found content-friendly media and creative financial models. New "branded entertainment agencies" and, eventually, "digital production companies" were launched to capitalize upon the opportunity. But digital agencies, for the most part, stayed out of the fray.
It's time for that to change because the modern digital agency is equipped to lead the next era by thinking as much like a modern newsroom as it does a creative department.
If there's one thing that we should have learned in this era of social media, it's that people are being drawn to content not through publishers and pages, but through people and feeds. The best content is not what surfaces most often through search results, but what travels most often between people. When we look at the success of content these days, there is often an inverse relationship between how good it is vs. how much we had to pay for people to actually see it.
What if instead of optimizing branded content to hit every marketing bullet point on a brief, we optimized it to maximize the amount it got shared? The former yields TV commercials; the latter, something completely different.
As digital agencies, we are supposed to be leading our clients to make decisions that are more reflective of the ways that media consumption is evolving. We are supposed to have an intimate knowledge of the ways that consumers use technology to connect to brands, entertainment and on another. We are supposed to be on top of the latest trends. We are supposed to deliver a return on social-media investments.
We can do all this by taking another look at our creative processes.
The traditional creative process generally includes briefs, brainstorms, boardrooms and 70 rounds of revisions. While this process can lead to rich brand experiences, it does not deliver consistent content that is immediately relevant at a given moment in time.
That matters because we no longer ask ourselves, "Which website should I visit now?" Content finds us through our densely connected social networks. We explore content because it is relevant to us topically, personally and culturally. And nothing is more relevant to a consumer than right now.
Historically, "the news" has been the most timely and relevant mechanism for that kind of content. But even "the news" has had to adapt to evolving consumer habits. Successful cable news networks are more about entertaining and telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to know. Blogs reward their employees for the number of page views they generate, not the number of Pulitzer prizes they win.
Lessons and rewards
While that may sound a bit depressing, there are lessons we can learn from it as agencies.
The access we have to real-time intelligence and data is unprecedented. It must be put to use in fueling a new creative process, one that favors sharing over classic digital metrics like clicks and visits and one that rewards consistency over stunts and capitalizes on conversation, rather than thinking it can be the center of it. If we expect to be at all relevant to the modern consumer, the microsites and display advertising we've been producing for years should (at least) be complemented by content created by an editorial process.
Think of it as a creative newsroom that produces social content. It should turn out content optimized for sharing and deliver on a brand's brief over time -- not the entire brief each time. Short, visual, "social quality" content that people can immediately react to, and are proud to share.
And in today's connected media environment, engagement can lead to reach. Media spending gets to amplify the content that gets shared most often to achieve exponential results.
The process of arriving at the best social content looks more like "Newsroom" than "The Pitch." Creative and social staffers merge the zeitgeist with the brand ethos all day, every day. Creative latches onto trends immediately, before they expire. If something culturally important happens, you need to be able to build a concept, execute it and publish it without delay. That means implementing a frictionless process with quick client approvals, then tracking that content like a hawk and understanding when to pull the trigger on boosting which piece of content as it spreads.
Building your channels
Try as we might, our brands' social-media presences are generally not communities but rather distribution and engagement channels. Over the last few years, for better or worse, you have probably spent money building the size of these channels. Now we've got a responsibility to put them to work. The development of creative assets for these channels is something that should be taken seriously, even though the content itself may be lightweight. We know that the content that works best in these channels is highly visual, very timely, culturally allusive and not overproduced. This is content that becomes authentic when it's shared not because we say it is .
This isn't just a Facebook thing. It isn't just a Twitter thing. It's about building real-time content that is feed-worthy. There will be hits and misses, but if you're consistently publishing, the hits will be bigger and more frequent.
But the only way to create this content with regularity and efficiency is to add a new component to the agency model.
We live in an era where everything can be disrupted. It is foolish to think that our own agency business models aren't susceptible to that . If you're not busy getting better at creating content that people will share, you're putting your brands' relevance at stake.