When you work in marketing (or if you work with marketers) these days, you hear the phrase “Content is King” all the time. You also hear that it isn’t or that is due to be deposed any second by something else. But do you know where that phrase comes from and what it actually means? Does it still mean what it originally meant? Finally, is it true or isn’t it?
The phrase “Content is King” was coined by Sumner Redstone in the mid-90s and if anyone knows content, it’s the man who’s been sitting on a MOUNTAIN of content for decades. The phrase then crops up in 1996, used by Bill Gates as both the title and topic of an essay he wrote describing how he saw the internet and the monetization of the internet evolving. Both men were making the point that the way people engage with content changes and that drives change in the content itself but the need for content itself is a constant. Movie studios and theatres, DVD players, streaming video, publishers, newspapers, magazine, bookstores, television programs, broadcasting companies – they come, they go, they change, but the appetite for the content they put out remains high.
Well, 16 years later, looks like they were right about that whole ‘plus ça change plus c’est la même chose‘ thing.
Is print dying? I don’t know. Frankly neither does anyone else, not really. But what I do know is that books and newspapers used to be the primary vehicles for delivering reading material to the masses and now they are just one of many methods. These days people get reading materials from books, newspapers, on their e-readers, on their phones, through their headphones, on their computer. Has the amount of reading material produced gone down? Are you kidding? We’re DROWNING in the stuff. Has the demand for reading material gone down? No, again. Thanks to the greater number of access points and the tidal wave of content being produced to fill that ever expanding space, people can pick and choose like never before.
Let’s look at this by segment.
News: In regards to news consumption, the increased choice of delivery vehicle and amount of content being delivered is undeniable. We’ve got:
- newspapers (not dead yet),
- news magazines (also not dead and showing signs of evolving),
- 24 hour news channels,
- niche channels,
- the expansion of what is defined as news,
- the explosion of the news-fed blogosphere.
I can’t say that I feel the explosion in availability of information has done a lot for the quality of that information or the discourse around it but it’s certainly ratcheted up the quantity. So, regardless of whether newspapers are dying or not, news production and news consumption are alive, more than well and kicking.
Books: Books used to be the only long form game in town and the path from author to reader was pretty well defined. A book was written, picked up by an agent and sold to a publisher (usually one of a limited number of publishers). The publisher produced the book and sold it to the distributors who then sold it to the bookseller and the bookseller sold it to the reader. Yes, there were smaller publishers but back in the day they had real problems getting access to bookshelf space in retail outlets or even catching the distributor’s eye.
These days, you might:
- curl up with a book, turning actual paper pages as you go.
- curl up with your Kindle, NOOK or iPad, clicking your way through the story
- don headphones to listen to the works of Charles Dickens during commute to work.
- have bought your reading material at a bricks & mortar store or from an online retailer.
- get your book “serialized” into your inbox once a week or downloaded from the library.
- be enjoying a read produced by a mainstream publishers, a small publisher, an established author or your next door neighbor’s teenage daughter.
As for the amount of content itself – well, with so many more options for producing and delivering this content, the scope of that content has gone similarly through the roof. An argument is often made that all this easier production process and multiplicity of delivery platforms hasn’t done much for the standards of consumer fiction (or non-fiction come to that) but I don’t think the it’s the only thing at play here.
Yes, the ever-simplified path to production and the rush to cash in means there is quite a lot of slap-dash stuff out there and stuff that wouldn’t, in earlier eras, would have never seen the light of day. But you know, publishers de-prioritized proofreading LONG before the internet and I’ve got the typo-filled books to prove it. Not to mention, quality standards when it came to deciding what to publish were always – let’s say – flexible and usually driven by the bottom line more than anything else. You can’t lay the whole history of dodgy topics, poor writing and crap story-telling at the door of self-publishing. Publishing needs to take a big girl pill and face their questionable output as well.
Music: Let me ask you a question – when was the last time you went into a record store? Do they even call them record stores anymore? Of all areas of content, the market for music has undergone the most comprehensive change of all.
Film: Movies have gone through a similar evolution to books as far as production process and access points. Back in the day it went like this: Movie studios made movies (based on some economically proven story structures) and distributed them to the movie theatres who then showed the movies to the audience. It was a single, stream-lined path from movie makers to the mainstream movie-going audience. Today? Movies and movie-watching has become a many-headed hydra.
Anyone can make a movie.
- The Big Studios: who make only a few types because movie making on their scale is expensive and they are answerable to stockholders these days.
- The Independents: Still banging on a certain number of doors but finding it much easier to be seen and heard than ever before.
- You: Though whether the world is ready for your three part documentary on traditional thanksgiving turkey recipes is another question.
- The Barista at the Coffee Shop on the Corner: who wrote a screenplay but doesn’t know any of the right people and instead knows a lot of folks willing to pitch in and help out.
Considering how much content is being produced by all these channels (few of them with output dictated by economics to the same extent as the big studios), we may never run out of things to watch despite having so many options of where, when and how to watch – in the theatre, at home, on the phone, via YouTube, streamed from Netflix, etc.
So – now we know where the phrase “Content Is King” came from, what was meant by it and how it has apparently played out. Is it still true? Is Content King? I don’t think so. And what’s more, I don’t think it ever was.
Content is important, no doubt about it. It is absolutely key. It is the content that people want and will pay for pay for. Is the vast array of delivery mechanisms now more important than what is being delivered? I don’t think that either. Delivery is as important at the content itself. Why produce product if you can’t distribute it? How will you reap the rewards of your content efforts if you can’t get that content to those who want or need it.
So, content and delivery of that content are both central. But let’s face facts – you can produce all the content you want, have all the delivery systems you can dream up, delivering as much product as they can all hold – and none of it means anything without the consumer.
- If you want to sell – you must have something the consumer wants.
- If you want them to buy, you have to make it available when and where they want.
There was a lot that people got right when they predicted how the internet would change commerce and content consumption. But the empowerment of the consumer, the increasing importance of the audience in the equation seems to have snuck past and taken people by surprise.
Content and platform are now mere consorts to the real power on the throne – the consumer.
The King is dead. Long live the king.