Marketing, PR & Advertising

Content can't be a commodity

September 30, 2013
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Content can't be a commodity
A FEMA warehouse in Orlando, Fla. — full of everyday commodities. Photo via

A colleague recently shared with me an article in Harper’s magazine that discusses changes in journalism, advertising and, really, all things media.

The author, an editor, talks about the need to maintain high journalistic standards and resist the temptations felt by many media organizations to favor efficiency over long-form journalism.

As part of that, he bemoans the commoditization of content.

I've been thinking about that a lot myself — more from a public relations perspective than as a journalist. Although I started my career in journalism.

Managing content

For people in PR and advertising, the new media landscape offers countless opportunities to get messages to publics.

These opportunities don’t necessarily involve going through the news media via news release, press conference and other traditional media relations tactics.

While reaching people via journalists still happens, many PR professionals are now called “content providers” or “content managers.”

Much of their job, and in some cases all of it, involves populating a company or organizational blog and social media platforms with copy, photos and videos. The idea is that the publics with whom they want to build and maintain relationships can be reached directly and more personally with controlled messages.

Looking outward

This all sounds great, and it's effective in many cases. But there are some cautions to consider as well.

For one, the direct communication gives control, but there is a danger that it lacks credibility.

For all the noise about social media, the reality is that traditional media — with journalists and editors standing between an organization and its intended audience — still provide a service by vetting out the information that lacks news value. Therefore, what makes it in the paper and on the air has third-party credibility.

Also, the conventional news media, in spite of declines in subscriptions and audience, have a greater reach than an organization’s own blogs and social sites. Some large companies and nonprofits get impressive numbers of readers or followers, but this often is rare and not typically sustained over time.

Another concern is the oversight of audiences who cannot or don’t want to follow organization’s blogs and social media sites. To put all communication eggs in that one basket is to miss opportunities to reach audiences through other means.

Content strategy

Finally, referring to messages as content has problems that run from semantic to strategic.

I always laugh at hair salons — or used to, when I had hair — that referred to hair gel, shampoo and other bottles of stuff on their shelves as “product.” Why a generic reference? Of course, it might be they were distinguishing the hair products from the service of a haircut or style. But it always struck me as odd that they didn’t refer to shampoo, gel and conditioner specifically versus the vague and general "product."

In the same way, communications professionals should be careful of calling everything content.

Be specific.

Are you offering news, information, entertainment, response, commentary?

If professionals only call what they communicate by a generic reference to content, they run the risk of “feeding the beast” and just getting something out there without strategic consideration of audience. It’s the difference between actually having something to say and just having to say something to keep a stream of content going.

Often, less is more for a media consumer who is overwhelmed by content coming at them from journalism and legions of organizations like yours, not to mention personal friends.

Many studies have shown that for brands on Facebook, three posts a day is a maximum before people unlike a page. The same is true for other channels.


So what to do in this media madness?

Consider the consumer, who doesn’t say, “I think I’ll consume some content.” They more likely are looking for news updates, specific information that's of personal use or just trolling for fun.

Organizations pushing their own content have to ensure that it's credible, relevant and has utility. It should also supplement and not replace traditional media efforts.

And there actually is a good lesson from hair salons. People are not going to buy hair products from a salon that provides a bad haircut.

Remember, if you don’t provide good service first, the content you offer becomes irrelevant. 

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