Content Is Not King, Context Is
Debunking one of internet marketing’s most pervasive myths
It’s been a truism on the web for millions of years of internet-time. “Content is king.”
It’s nonsense. Don’t believe a word of it.
Context rules all.
Content derives a large part of its meaning from its context, so if you control the context, you can have an outsized effect on the meaning of any content. Any content.
In an Orwellian fashion, you can change black to white while even suppressing the knowledge that it’s being done. It’s a scarily powerful way to influence people.
Killing your mother, for instance, is generally regarded as a bad thing. Give it the right context, though, and it can become heroic. The manipulation of contexts is a very powerful tool that is used every day on all of us, mostly without even knowing about it. It’s a tool that is part of the national defense toolkit, and a large hammer in every political consultants’ black bag of tricks.
We see this all the time in politics. Something terrible (or just newsworthy) happens, and the main players in the drama all want to control the narrative. One way they try to “control the narrative” is by gaining control of the context. This (most of the time) enables them to change how people see the event, how they perceive it, and thus how they understand it and what opinions they form about it.
Then…what they do about it.
And there is no reason that every marketer, storyteller, and communicator can’t use the same tool. As with many tools in a communicator’s kit, it’s not hard to do and it’s easy to mess up because people have sensitive BS filters and inauthenticity sets them off faster than almost anything.
Content without context is only partially informative.
Here’s a simple example of the power of context, first presented by Dr. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow.
You go into a store and buy stuff and the total comes to $20. The guy behind the counter says that down the block the same stuff is on sale for $10, half off. Do you go?
Most people would at least consider it, and many would do it.
Next you go into a store and buy something for $1,299 and the guy behind the counter says that down the block the same thing is on sale for $1,289. Do you go?
A vast majority of people say “no.”
Why? It’s the same $10?
The difference is the context. It just changed the meaning of $10 right in front of your eyes and you (probably) didn’t even notice.
Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash
Reframe and Change the World
Behavioral economists call this “framing” or “reframing” and it’s been used, (mostly) unconsciously, likely since humans started talking. Con men, politicians (wait…what’s the difference?), spies, propagandists, and anyone with an agenda to sell has likely used it.
Oh, and marketers, too. We’re certainly as guilty of anyone as employing this tactic to our own ends.
Because it works so well. Reframing can make minuscule things seem enormous and huge things seem insignificant. Just drop a New York Times piece into The Onion and see what happens.
In over 30 years of doing this, here is what I have found to be the most effective way to use the power of narrative in marketing (we call it longitudinal messaging).
This system has a lots of benefits, the main two being: it creates a context for your marketing — something all the rest of your marketing will play against — which makes your marketing (all of it) more efficient and effective over the life of the company, and you create a narrative you can use to frame future events to protect or promote your company (depending on if something bad or good happened).
How to Create a Narrative That’ll Outlive You
This system operates as a framework for a marketing (or business) plan. Here’s the recipe:
- 60% What you need in the next XX months (24,36,48…)
- 25% What you need in the following timeframe
- 15% What you intend to be in 30 years
The last one is often articulated as a vision, and that’s a mistake, IMHO. Businesses have goals not visions and just because your goal is for 30 or 50 years out, does that really make it a vision? I’m calling that a bit of corporate arrogance groupspeak.
I bias toward goals because they can be measured; visions, not so much, and business success or failure is measured in numbers. Measuring the success of a vision might be possible, but oy. That’s barely possible today.
Of those three elements (60/25/15), the very hardest one to do is the 15% one. It’s also the foundational one, the most important to long-term success. Ideally, this should be so authentic that it will still be accurate even if you make a substantial pivot. Getting to that level of authenticity is challenging and requires a lot of hard self-analysis to get it right.
And, strictly, it’s not necessary for a business to operate. There are plenty of successful businesses out there today that pay no attention to any of this and they do just fine.
But the effects of that decision will be felt for years in increased marketing spend and reduced marketing efficiency.
It’s the same outcome any time you focus only on the short term; you lurch from crises to crises and from campaign to campaign, never really ever understanding the direction or how to make the best decision in each moment (meaning you make more bad ones). Sure, you can operate that way, but why?
Photo by Drew Willson on Unsplash
Apple. OK, trite, but still a good example.
They have done a wonderful job of this. Not that they planned to, but that’s the way it worked out.
From early on, Jobs and Wozniak knew that what they wanted to do: make powerful technology accessible to everyday users. They didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be one of the things that made Apple the company we know today. It was so authentic to them that it became the core of Apple’s culture, the axis around which the company rotated.
When you look back at the company over time, it’s when they have strayed from that theme that they have gotten themselves in trouble. Just look at the performance under Gil Amelio or the other cookie-cutter CEOs they tried.
Other than those times, when you look at everything Apple has done, you can see that all of their marketing, product development, operations, everything related to this theme and this theme related to everything they did. It wasn’t because they planned it that way; no one, in 1997, made this the marketing plan for Apple. It happened because that goal was so authentic to the company’s genes, that it was reflected in everything they did.
Decisions in every moment of every day were made with this as the context. This is a high-resolution picture of strategy and culture informing the day-to-day operations — how Apple made this real.
It was a cultural cornerstone. Everyone in the company was on board. They didn’t need to optimize anything to execute it; it was who they were and that made everything they did focused on it.
How Can *You* Do It?
If it’s not who you already are (like Jobs and Wosniak) and you haven’t already done it, the very first step is that you need to make a serious commitment to do it. It will consume resources that appear to be completely unrelated to revenue or the bottom line.
In fact, this is one of the single best investments in long-term success any company can make.
Unless, as in Apple’s case, the founders could articulate this narrative from early on, you’ll have to spend the resources to create it. If the narrative wasn’t there from the start, then creating it will require introspection, honesty, openness, communication, and time.
To paraphrase Simon Sinek, you need to get to the why.
Why are you doing this?
If it’s just to make money, good luck. Markets respond badly to that over time. Remember that sensitive BS meter that all humans have? Over time it’s impossible to hide inauthenticity; if money is your only motivator, people will get it and you’re done.
Why did you choose this problem to solve? Why is this important? Why is this who you are?
These are obviously open-ended (and can be rather personal) questions that you’ll struggle over for a while. You’ll think, feel, talk to people, iterate, iterate, and iterate some more. It helps to have a storyteller to help — someone with some perspective on you and your company, someone who knows the structure of a narrative, and someone who knows how to use words to evoke emotions.
There are few things more challenging in business than developing this. Humans just seem barely capable of this level of introspection. It’s just not something we’re comfortable with. And, there’s the cultural inhibition about selling yourself (whether that’s you or your company). None of us want to be guilty of the sin of pridefulness. It was even hard for my companies, even though I have known and used this for decades. Outsiders were frequently the answer.
When you get it right, it’s beautiful. It’s a choir. It’s a highly tuned orchestra, each player performing an exquisite piece that contributes to an even more exquisite whole.
It’s one of the ways to ensure that your whole is larger than the sum of your parts. And it’s one of the ways you’ll build a company that persists. That’s a better player in the infinite game of business.
Now, go tell your story.