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What is this content stuff and why should I care?

by Ben Birchall

Content. Content. I get it. I hate the word and I make it. It’s a buzzword. A catch-cry for the lazy. The emperor’s shiny new holographic jacket.

In some ways, even as an ‘Editorial Creative Director’ deep in the content game, I get why it’s decidedly unpopular among established advertising professionals like Dave Trott.

But we dismiss it at our own peril if the amount of smart people placing bets on it are anything to go by.

One of the reasons content is under attack is that it’s poorly understood, even by practitioners. At the most recent BEfest – a day-long celebration of branded entertainment, content, editorial, whatever you want to call it – there was a session called ‘What is content?’ That’s like pausing in the middle of the Logies for a segment called ‘What is Neighbours?’ It was faintly ridiculous that it had to exist, but at the same time it was useful. I’m paraphrasing, as it’s evolved over numerous tellings like a campfire tale, but the following definition was offered up.


So it can come in many forms, it needs to have a purpose for our clients, and it needs to be interesting or useful. But the key word there for us is choose. What makes something ‘content’ as opposed to traditional advertising, is that people choose to interact with it.

That’s what makes it the purview of our editorial offering The Newsroom and why departments like us don’t exist in many advertising agencies – agencies that only believe in buying an audience instead of earning it.

Because of ad blockers, the age of the invasive, one-size-fits-all banner is over. Skippable ad units, catch up TV, savvy consumers – it all adds up to less prevalent, less effective traditional advertising. And the revolution that programmatic trading promises means that a narrative – a true narrative – is more important than ever.

When it comes down to it, we can chase people around the internet with clever targeting, put our things in their feeds, tag it at the bottom of the article they’ve just read, but people need to choose to read it.

Even this article, you chose to read by opening an eDM or clicking through between stalking old bosses on LinkedIn. You chose to open it, and you chose to read this far. This didn’t pop up, or pre-roll, or page overtake, or autoplay with sound (it still happens), or slot into an ad break. It floated past you, and you latched on.

It’s content’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. What we create doesn’t compete with other branded content for other energy retailers, or telcos, or super funds. It competes with the other things you choose to interact with. It competes with articles in The New Yorker. And FiveThirtyEight infographics. And Snapchat filters. It’s not enough for it to exist, or to fill a hole… It needs to be good.

And that means we need to raise the bar and throw out the rules that advertising agencies have traditionally lived by. Agencies like those built and made successful by industry doyens like Trott.

When it comes down to it, we can chase people around the internet with clever targeting, put our things in their feeds, tag it at the bottom of the article they’ve just read, but people need to choose to read it.

We recently had a young Welsh journalist come in to have a chat about doing some editorial writing for us. She had a great book of lifestyle pieces, arts reviews, even crafted technical writing. She’d never worked in an agency, had no experience in advertising and wouldn’t know a Titanium Lion from a Black Pencil. So of course we hired her. Because she knew the value of earning the attention of your audience, and didn’t know the rules that the Trotts have established.

So it takes a different mindset and things that are new can be scary. That being said, we’re fighting a much bigger battle when it comes to content: a lot of it isn’t very good.

It might have been created by a grad with a laptop and two hours to become an expert. It might be constrained by old advertising thinking. It might be dishonest about its intention. But if it’s any good, dishonesty is superfluous. Everybody knew Red Bull was paying to hurl Felix Baumgartner out of a balloon at the edge of space. Nobody cared. But they watched anyway.

 The challenge for agencies is to create useful or truly engaging content. To connect creators and experts with audiences that want to get involved. And if we do that, then content, or editorial, or branded entertainment won’t kill advertising or disappear any time soon – it’ll feed into our communal evolution.

And here’s why:

It forces us to be useful

Look at US mattress startup Casper: Their content hub, Van Winkles has been widely celebrated for its shiny, largely branding-free articles about the science and culture of sleep. But click on their resources tab and you see both the SEO driver for the site, and a list as long as your arm of answers to sleep-based questions. Should I sleep in a bra? What is croup? Why does cheese make my dreams crazy? If you’ve searched it, they’ve answered it. This isn’t advertising masquerading as journalism, it’s a useful resource. And a smart one at that.

It lets us think about new kinds of creative

There is a multi-player arm wrestle over content at the moment. Media agencies are placing big bets on it – perfectly encapsulated by Ooh Media’s $11m purchase of Junkee Media. The publishers are creating more and more native content. Vice, for example are creating some of their best work with advertiser dollars, like the Bank of America web series ‘The Business Of Life’. Professional services agencies like KPMG and Deloitte are creating smart content. Brands like Telstra are creating their own platforms. And creative agencies like ours are hiring data journalists, documentary makers and podcasters. It’s yet to be determined who’s doing it best, or if anyone will ultimately triumph. Or if anyone needs to.

We’re saving journalism

Ok that might be a stretch, but brands are paying for some interesting journalism, and pushing the envelope for publication formats. Vice are at the forefront, but there is also Guardian Labs, Fairfax’s ‘Brand Discover’ tab bringing together their branded content, and News Corp have innovation arms like Alpha, exploring how to better connect brands, technology and content.

We can show that interesting sells

Another bomb lobbed at content is that it’s hard to prove its worth – but we’ve found it works just fine. A recent content series we created for one of our major clients resulted in 55,000 visits to their site. The analytics showed readers that interacted with the content were twice as likely to become considered buyers, spent three times more time on the campaign page, and viewed 2.6 more pages per session on average. For another client, we’ve generated 25 per cent of their leads through editorial content, and reduced their cost per lead by 200 per cent. It actually bloody works. Demonstrably. 

So we here at CHE Proximity hope you enjoyed this piece of content that we totally tricked you into reading. Because this is content: It’s communication. It has product meaningfully integrated. In this case, the charming smarts of CHE Proximity. It was (hopefully) useful. And you chose to interact with it.

See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?

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