Why we don’t make ‘content’

Telly surf on any sleepless night and you’ll eventually find The Store – a strange takeover of ITV. In the wee small hours the channel hands over to JML, a home shopping company founded by John Mills, for what they call a “chatmercial”, a parade of products ranging from Snuggies to Myleene Klass nails demonstrated in front of a live studio audience. The tone is informal, friendly; Loose Women with phone-in offers and special guests.

But don’t be fooled by its light touch. Mills once told me: “The whole show is geared towards selling. Every frame of what you see is designed to sell a product. It might be selling a benefit for the latest gadget; it might be promoting a lifestyle you want to sign up for – but if we’re not selling something, we’re wasting air.”

Regardless of how you feel about easy-fit ironing board covers there is a lot to admire about Mills’s single-minded focus on his show’s mission. For all the glitter and gloss, JML recognises the studio as its showroom. The results are impressive: JML was recently named among the 150 most dynamic companies in Europe.

If only all content marketing had the same sense of purpose.

A study in September by Reboot Online found that “85 per cent of content on the internet is redundant”. In an internet of some 4.62 billion pages, that’s 3.97bn useless pages. The problem is that the study judged content “worthiness” by how many “likes” and “shares” it got.

Not by how effective it was.

Marketers are in danger of commissioning content solely on the basis of how much it engages. But how do we measure engagement? Yep. Eyeballs. Likes. Shares. Marketers judge success by how many consumers they reached, and for how long. Big data has given us a Gradgrindian fixation on whether a piece of content engages, not whether it works.

Data is vital to the iterative process. It helps us to optimise our stories, to plan the best ways to deliver them, and to find the people who want to hear them. But we also need a singular vision – like John Mills – to cut through the redundant content and write stories that have a purpose.

In the creative world, the singular vision always beats the view of the herd.

Mills told me that when a product isn’t selling it is immediately mothballed. “Maybe the timing is wrong or the product needs a better sell,” he said. “If so, we hide it away and rethink how we sell it.” In a creative context, it’s impossible to hide away the dross. It sits there on the internet and on our devices and swamps the truly effective stories we really value.

We don’t just want to add to the pile.

We therefore won’t create any old content. What we can promise instead is stories and features and videos and articles that serve a purpose. We believe that if you give someone a story that provides value, you will necessarily make a bigger impact.

So when you ask us for some “content”, don’t be surprised if our first question is “what for?”