Two axioms, "produce the best content" and "content is king" are what I have spent most of my career as a content marketer following. They hailed as the north star to guide my way to the land of profit.
But here was an email in my inbox calling these axioms as part of a so called content trap. An even bolder claim stated that these axioms would not pan out for the long term.
Confused and unsure of exactly what this meant, I thought to myself that this concept of a content trap couldn't be true. I have been doing this for years and have been able to consistently win by doing so.
Was I missing something?
Was this concept a sham?
I wanted to know more so I hopped on the phone with Bharat Anand, the Henry H. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and author of The Content Trap. As a Harvard Professor who has been studying the contributing factors to success and failures behind media organizations for the last 20 years, I knew he had to have some insights into the field to be able to make such bold claims, so I had to find out more.
Bharat explained the 3 versions of the content trap to me:
1. If you produce the best content, you will find success.
Bharat stated that it didn't really matter if you had the best content or not. If you predicate your strategy strictly on the idea of creating great content to get customers, you win or lose customers one at a time.
By focusing on creating the best content, you will not be able to scale or grow rapidly.
2. Charge the most you can for your content.
It sounds like sound advice. But Bharat said that if you follow this strategy, then you are doomed. He laid out what happened in the music industry. Record labels were focusing on CDs and concerts. The word on the street was that the value got redistributed from recording studios to consumers. This was only one portion of the equation though. What really happened is value shifted to other parts of the industry like events, broadband access, mp3 players and hardware.
Bharat further explained that decisions are made by other players in the broader ecosystems who have different initiatives, incentives and core businesses that can create a roadblock.
Players who are market share leaders in hardware, software, advertising and ecommerce all play in the content space. But each and every single one of these major players like Google, Amazon and Apple have incentives to make the price of content as low as possible because it helps their core business. By trying to charge the most you can for your content, you will ultimately lose.
3. Do what other successful companies are doing.
It sounds logical. If one publication adds links from one article to the other, you would expect another to do the same. If the New York Times has a paywall that works, then other companies can do the same. But according to Bharat, there are outliers like The Economist who go against the grain and have no links, no paywalls and have their publication digitally integrated with print, yet he sees them as still being one of the most successful media companies.
Bharat also highlighted that you also need to look at context. There are reasons that virtual gaming currency worked in China, but didn't work for Facebook. And why the paywall worked for the New York Times but wouldn't work for another media outlet. They have different audiences, demographics and so forth.
Bharat further explained that strategy isn't a collection of initiatives. The essence of strategy is connection across these choices.
What you should do instead.
I told Bharat that in my role at Keck Medicine of USC, I focused on creating the best content and copied what other successful companies were doing. In return, I was able to grow the social media audience size and impressions 10 fold and increased the social referrals to the website by 500 percent within a year.
I asked him how I was able to do this if content wasn't king and explained the process of what I did.
Bharat pointed out what I did differently. I put the customer first and focused on user connection instead.
Bharat explained that consumers are connected in the digital world and in most cases, connectedness clashes with content. In regards to value, connections usually win. With two to three decades of experience in gathering stories, Bharat claimed that connectedness trumps quality.
An example that Bharat provided was between Craigslist and the Classifieds. The classifieds are now next to unheard of while many users across the world still use Craigslist.
The magic solution: User connections.
In my role, what I did was I identified some core issues. Content was written at a college level, but the academic medical center is located in Boyle Heights. I think I'm a pretty smart guy but even I had trouble reading what was being created.
Plus, on top of that, I couldn't think of a single person who went to see a doctor based on how much research they did. Most people choose their healthcare providers based on friendliness, trust, and advice that will keep them from having to see their doctors again.
I realized that even though the content was amazing, it couldn't connect with our target audience. So when content was being created, the focus was on making sure it was easier to read, interesting, had information that could be implemented immediately and easily shared. Content went from focusing highlights in research to being something that users could connect and relate to, like general health tips or the kinds of things you could read in Men's Fitness or Women's Health.
This created content where the end user could build connections over.Bharat saw the same thing three months into building HBX. His team fell into the content trap and was working on producing great content, but some former students pointed out that they don't learn just from faculty, but from each other, study groups and in gyms. By recognizing these key components, the team pivoted and now HBX now has one of the deepest sources of engagements at Harvard, while communities continue to build up online and in physical communities.
Bharat ended with saying that when your predicating your strategy on the idea of user connections, you get a multiplier effect. When you get customers, you get exponential growth.
It's time to stop looking at what everyone else is doing and focus on connecting your users together.