Content Is No Longer King. Audience Is Everything.

It’s the most common mantra in digital media: “content is king.” We’ve been led to believe that content is the single-most important element to successful advertising campaigns in today’s media environment. For over a decade, companies have pumped out content in search of business ROI. Earn share of mind by maintaining share of voice.

I take issue with this strategy. The internet is infinite. There is no end to the space which content can fill online. That’s a problem for a couple rather significant reasons:

  1. A lot of content goes unseen (ask Google).
  2. A lot of the content that is seen isn’t very good.

People spend a ton of time in front of screens on a daily basis. A ton. Time spent online as a share of total screen time is increasing. In fact, many people are spending over five hours daily online. The average person is awake for 17 hours, so nearly a third of their waking time is spent online. Advertisers and media have followed suit by increasing spend in online media to earn the attention and ultimately, actions from consumers in the form of purchases.

Yet as money pours into online media, Ad blocking has risen 30% globally in the last year. Why? Because people don’t like the ads to which they’re being asked to give their attention.

source: Global Web Index

Too many advertisers still believe that share of voice equates to share of mind. Is it really helping a company long-term if they pump out trivial content in the hopes of earning impressions? What the hell is an impression?

From the IAB:

“‘Impression’ is a measurement of responses from a Web server to a page request from the user browser.

Many marketers still invest in media and measure performance by this metric, along with many other metrics that are nothing more than window dressing to make companies feel good. Read that definition again and then ask yourself — if your goal is getting people’s attention so that they will consider and ultimately buy what you’re selling, does that investment and focus for marketing seem like a good one?

Similarly, does it make sense to follow consumers across the web with re-targeted ads, regardless of any analysis of that consumer’s behavior? Raise your hand if you’ve had an ad from a shopping site follow you as you looked through entertainment, news and other non-commerce-oriented sites. Now raise your hand if you’ve clicked on one of those re-targeting ads in the last six months to a year. That’s what I thought.

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme…

Online media has become largely a transactional environment. Company X serves an ad where they think Person Y or Tribe Z will see it, and the company either follows the person/tribe all over God’s green internet or pumps up the frequency, induces auto-play features and other tactics in the hopes of immediate graitification in the form large statistical counts. It’s a numbers game. Companies take and take and take valuable time, attention and dollars from consumers and give back… what, exactly? Cat GIFs?

This type of strategy treats people like statistics. The problem is, the statistics themselves aren’t valuable. What the statistics mean, however, is essential to earning attention and re-shaping human behavior.

Advertisers operating with a stats-focused mentality should ask themselves the following two questions.

Would you want to be treated this way?

Of course not. We forget this in digital. We are people, and we want to be understood and treated as the unique individuals we are, yet we’re constantly bombarding everyone else for our companies and clients with uninteresting, basic content blasted far and wide.

A person is not the sum of his or her statistics — he or she is the sum of their attitudes, beliefs and experiences shaped by the moments of their lives. At Uptown Treehouse, this question drives everything we do for our clients in helping to shape better consumer experiences through shared storytelling. If an idea sounds like something one of us wouldn’t pay attention to, we don’t do it and we advise our clients accordingly.

So What?

This is probably my favorite question to ask in relation to advertising and marketing performance. I probably ask it ten times or more daily, whether I am asking myself, teammates or clients. This is the question any advertiser must ask of any statistic or statistical set. The numbers don’t matter, what the numbers mean does.

So your video campaign earned 100 million impressions and 25 million views. That means web servers called pages 100 millions times and 25 million eyeballs saw your video for about three seconds. So what?

If you can’t answer, “So what?” then whatever stats you’re talking about are worthless to your storytelling strategy. You’re not engaging customers, earning their true attention and building relationships — you’re accumulating numbers. Eventually, those numbers will decline and your audiences will move towards other companies in your industry that they have stronger connections with.

It’s All About Trust

There is an erosion of trust occurring between advertisers and consumers, and that’s why the rise in ad-blocking has been so swift. Consumers want relationships, and advertisers are asking them for transactions. It’s resulting in frustrated experiences and people tuning out ads. That leads to advertisers wasting money chasing impressions, engagements and clicks that are, at least in part if not in full, a mirage.

It’s not pretty.

source: Global Web Index

Study that graph for a second. There are three key insights:

  1. Many people fall into the “Frustrated” segment, meaning they dislike the ads to which they are being exposed.
  2. Many people also fall into the “Selective” segment, meaning they are very particular about clicking on any ad.
  3. There is significant overlap between the “Frustrated” and “Selective” segments, which means most people would engage with ads that are non-intrusive and relevant.

Advertising is still one of the top ways in which people discover new brands and products. That hasn’t changed. If people see a compelling story — whether it’s told by an advertiser, media or a person — they seek out more of that story.

source: Global Web Index

Specifically, online ad money is pouring into is social media. It makes sense, because people tend to follow brand accounts on social media more than any other type of account.

source: Global Web Index

And yet, most people are not prioritizing looking for new brands or products to follow on social media. They’re staying connected to people they know and what is happening in the world around them.

source: Global Web Index

The last two graphs would appear to contradict each other. Why do people follow brands so often if they’re not actively seeking to purchase things from those brands? Well, because people don’t follow brands to buy new things. People follow brands that they believe in. They’ve been exposed to that brand’s story, they’ve given it their attention and they like it. Maybe they’ve gone so far as to purchase products or services from that brand, and maybe they haven’t. But their attention begats other people’s attention, and that’s when the needle moves. People care about a brand’s story.

Finding Balance In The Force

There’s a balance between art and commerce, between science and storytelling that is extremely out of whack in advertising. Research shows more and more people want to invest in experiences, not material goods. People want to be a part of something that they can feel inside their soul.

Nearly 6 in 10 people worldwide are considered ‘Entertainment Networkers’ on social media. Translated, this means 60% of the world’s population using social media is primarily using it to find entertaining content or follow music artists, actors and other celebrity personas.

source: Global Web Index

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Nike and Apple are in the positions they occupy today because they cultivated relationships with people, not transactions. They developed and shared stories that connected with people as human beings, not as consumers. They built narratives rooted in their core vision and values, and they executed those narratives through compelling and entertaining storytelling tactics.

People are telling brands what they want and need. They want entertaining, meaningful stories. They want to be asked to share in experiences, not transactions. Brands need to listen, and then develop stories based upon the attitudes, emotions and motivations for behavior that live within people.

Content is no longer king — the audience is everything. Time is precious, and attention is priceless. To earn share of mind, companies need to start understanding how to earn share of heart. That’s the path to a greater share of someone’s wallet. Earning share of heart requires asking why:

Why does this person(s) identify in this way?

Why do they hold these attitudes and beliefs?

Why are they behaving as they do?

WHAT a person is are statistics. WHY a person is gets to the root of that individual, or that tribe of people. Too many companies focus on their WHAT — the products or services they sell. Instead, more emphasis should be placed on storytelling that focuses on WHY — Why does this company exist?

When people see the human side of a brand, when they can see their own beliefs and values intertwined with that of a company, that’s when they buy in for the long-haul. That’s how relationships are built. It’s a straight-forward process:

  1. Acknowledge that your brand is not what you want it to be, it’s whatever an audience deems it to be in their heart and mind.
  2. Learn WHO the people in your audience are, not WHAT they are. I’m 34 years old, and share some interests with 18 year old boys, just as I share motivations for behavior with 50 year old women.
  3. Understand HOW people in your audience identify themselves, and WHY they’re motivated to behave as they do. People aren’t simple — we are complex as hell.
  4. Create shared storytelling that connects with WHO a person is, HOW they identify and WHY they do what they do.
  5. Embrace their perspective — not your own. (Remember point #1).

A Wild, Crazy Idea

Here’s a thought — instead of thinking about statistics first and people second, let’s re-orient our thinking as an industry. Instead of designing campaigns as marketers working for a company, let’s develop ideas as people who live lives with shared experiences. Let’s share and celebrate those ideas with other people. If a person is no longer the sum of statistics but rather the combination of attitudes, passions, experiences and behaviors that shape their experience we unlock endless storytelling potential.

Doesn’t that sound powerful?