The Great Social Gulf

What if I told you that the President of the United States and an 18th-Century statistician provided some of the most valuable content marketing advice for 2016? Hard to believe? Dig this: Way back in the late 1800s, statistician Francis Galton postulated that most statistically measurable phenomena would regress toward the mean. To those of us in the modern world, we recognize this idea as a bell curve. You see this curve when you graph test scores in a classroom — human height and weight, life expectancy, etc. He called it “an unsuspected and most beautiful form of regularity.” You probably learned and forgot this in high school. Today’s world, however, seems to have flipped upside-down, creating an inverted bell curve, or a “well curve.” The middle (middle class, middle management, moderate politics) is dropping out while the extremes rise. The majority is moving toward the edges instead of the mean. Galton theorized that this would only happen in times of “great transition.” Well, that’s what we’ve got in the world today. According to Barack Obama in his final State of the Union Address, “We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world.” We can now clearly see this change, reshaping and growth on the fringes in charting screen inches, income distribution, political stance and company size.

We can also observe this growth in the margins in content marketing. Brands are dedicating more resources, time and attention to social content creation, while also managing consumer expectations of constant output. The scope of social is expanding, and the types of publishing required are expanding in kind. The divide between content that’s thoughtful, beautiful and deep, and that of the instantaneous, short and simple variety is growing quickly while everything in the middle is falling by the wayside.

They Say ‘Shorter is Better’
When it comes to optimal length of digital content, there are as many opinions as there are hashtags. The prevailing wisdom has been “shorter is better.” Experts recommend Facebook posts under 40 characters and YouTube videos under 3 minutes. This idea has proven itself with higher engagement typically coming to simple, clearly communicated content. It’s this thinking that has fueled the rise of networks like Vine with its 6-second videos, and the increasing prevalence of GIFs on networks like Twitter and Facebook. Instagram’s Boomerang app and the continued popularity of Cinemagraphs hint at the long-term viability of micro-content. Get in, say your piece, and get out. The American attention span is dwindling, and social media is feeding into the trend.

But Depth Equals Resonance
On the other hand, we’re more than willing to invest time with content that resonates with our values. As the quantity of content explodes worldwide and the expanse of platforms grows, publishers are specializing and creating content for smaller and smaller niches. This provides an opportunity for consumers to engage with their passions. The popularity and growth of long-form focused social networks proves this point. Look no further than the rapid acceptance of Medium, a social blog-publishing platform founded in 2012. Top 100 posts on the network average a reading time of seven-and-a-half minutes, yet the network has grown to over 25 million monthly visitors. The big boys are also exploring longer content. Facebook recently revamped its “Notes” tool to allow freedom for long-winded minds. Similarly, in June, LinkedIn expanded their publishing platform by opening the doors to all users to create long-form posts about their expertise and interests. Even Twitter’s famous 140-character limit is rumored to be expanding to 10k. If the content’s great, we’ll make the time for it.

Your brand’s potential audience consists of a broad spectrum of interest levels. There’s a platform and a purpose for content at both ends. From one extreme where followers may not have more than a passing awareness of your name to the other, where your die-hard fanatics know the ins and outs of every product you’ve even considered bringing to market. Your shorter content is perfect for the former; get them in the door quickly. Your longer content is suited for the latter; their appetite requires a deeper dive to be satisfied. According to Buffer, your social content should be “as long as it takes to convey the message, and no longer.” Some messages are meant to be long, others are short, and that’s the way it should be.

It’s Quality Over Quantity…
This “growing divide” is impacting not only the length of digital content, but also the quality. The social media audience is growing up. No longer is your social community a small group of early adopters. Social media is mainstream, necessitating higher quality content to match. Simply “doing” social media is not enough. Instagrams from iPhones are advancing into meticulously edited images from DSLRs. Tweets pecked out by interns are becoming carefully crafted tag lines written by professional copywriters. Repurposed commercials don’t cut it. Your video content must be optimized for the network. “Quality over quantity” is becoming a clichéd statement about how to best execute social media, and that’s a good thing.

…but it’s not quite that simple
At the same time, pressure from consumers for instantaneous content is immense, and the growth of networks that facilitate this kind of interaction makes that clear. Perhaps the biggest of these is Snapchat. With its emphasis on real-time content created only with your mobile device, immediacy is valued over perfection. As a primarily one-to-one network, in the Snapchat universe, it’s connection over everything. Not only is high budget content not king here, it’s actively discouraged. “What works on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, likely will not generate the same success on Snapchat,” Jason Keath, the founder & CEO of Social Fresh Conference said. The explosion of live video streaming tools/networks in the last year is yet more proof of this idea. Periscope, Meerkat and Facebook Live are all bringing fans directly into the worlds of brands and celebrities with no filter. There’s no big budget or fancy lighting to obscure the real view. At this end of the quality spectrum, it’s reliable relevancy, not big budget that succeeds.

There’s more to “quality” than just professional photography and beautiful design. Quality tells a story, quality connects at the right time, in the right place. There are occasions when a dark/grainy Periscope broadcast of an incredible moment is just as “quality” as a dazzling clip from the director of the moment on Vimeo.

With all this said, marketers are soon going to have to make some difficult decisions about the content they make. If you’re currently creating content that falls in the middle of the quality/length divide, it’s a good bet that you’re not seeing the returns you’re hoping for. In the middle is average. It’s the lowest common denominator. It’s safe, and it’s boring. The platforms and technology of social media are moving toward the extremes, and so are your communities’ appetites. Brands who follow suit and structure their content output accordingly will see success in this time of “extraordinary change.”

Originally posted at CallahanCreek.com.