How do brands gain the attention of the often distracted consumer? With a wide swatch of digital channels, they create content. Create content to get attention, to build relationships and to add value that the consumer is so desperately seeking. However, most are ads disguised as content.
When brands become content producers, they often do it with the intention of content going viral. I understand the intention, but the approach is often flawed.
As the saying goes: “content is not king”. People and the ideas that connect are.
In this context, it is about the exchange, not the content. The traditional view of branded content undervalues the nuances surrounding the socialization of online exchanges.
To better understand how brands should reformulate their view of digital media, I think it is important to reexamine the current online environment and the type of economy this system of exchange creates.
Viral vs. Spreadable Media
The formulaic notion of viral content is rooted in Richard Dawkins’ gene-meme analogy. Under this assumption, memes act as cultural artifacts and have the ability to spread like a biological virus through a network. When memes reach critical mass, we often label them as having gone viral.
Marketers have tried desperately to create viral formulas for digital content. This notion creates the idea that content can be broken down and defined via scientific methods.
The problem with viewing media this way, is that it removes any agency in the “host”. While media is inherently social, it doesn’t spread due to a “viral component”, or because a push tactic was employed. It spreads through active participation. There was something was compelling about the content.
The reason why the formula crowd’s logic fails, is due to this shortsighted view of the ecosystem that content is exchanged in.
A better lens to view how content spreads, is through Jenkins’ spreadable media perspective. Spreadable media describes the disseminating of content, based on “informal transactions of commercial and noncommercial participants”, due to the “conscious actions of participants/consumers”. So, we have an environment based on an economy, that is driven by content.
Under this presumption, social is more about ideas and less about this traditional view of branded content. When brands act as content producers, the content is merely the raw material.
Ideas are the packaging that lead to replication, and embedded in the right content, have the ability to latch on to a larger, ongoing conversation.
Thus, spreadable media is a conduit for ideas between people.
To better understand these social exchanges, let’s unpack what we consider the informal transactions of commercial and noncommercial participants (exchanges) and the participatory actions of consumers (social).
Social Without Content is Empty Space
I like Faris Yakob’s treatment of digital media. He describes it as being one system, or an omni-channel. Content doesn’t just live on one channel. Social media isn’t a tactic, but an understanding. This understanding is based on the supposition that ideas connect. Ideas are what we act on. The conscious actions of participants/consumers are the social exchanges of content. Yakob wrote: “social without content is empty space”.
Content helps create a system of exchange. Ideas that replicate create value for participants.
Social as a Gift Economy
Under our spreadable media, one system understanding, the exchanges between active noncommercial (consumers) and commercial (brands) participants operates as an economy. Branded content is often created to add value for the commercial participant. However, this exchange is merely transactional. It does not shape or influence the circulation. Content created to go viral, often fails for this reason. Henry Jenkins wrote: “nothing spreads widely in the new digital economy unless it engages and serves the interest of both consumers and producers.” Content is a commodity, the ideas that are packaged with it spurs the exchange.
Lewis Hyde’s description of a gift economy provides a much better understanding of this exchange. We envision gift giving as being socially motivated, not economically motivated. “When gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnectedness of relationships in its wake”.
Ideas create value, in that they allow consumers to use them in status, prestige, or esteem-seeking ways. Brand-focused content does not often allow this. People did not respond to Dove, but the conversations surrounding the concept of beauty. Instead of injecting content into networks that focus on the brand, inject content with ideas that consumers can edit, remix and control in their exchange.
Obviously, consumers no longer have to wait around for permission to edit, remix or even produce content. The democratization of content distribution underlies this entire investigation. This renders the viral formula useless. New combinations of ideas create engagement. I think brands would be much more successful operating with an understanding of how ideas (not necessarily content) foster social exchanges.