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Content marketing: A lesson from history

I genuinely feel sad when I find an unloved website. Its owners have clearly forgotten why they needed it and have abandoned it, destined to exist unchanged from the day it was launched, until the day someone stops paying the hosting bill. They are often unintentionally fascinating, when so much of the internet changes so fast they are like an ancient monolith, freezing in time the skills and tools available to the web designers of 2004.

Just as hordes of tourists gaze agog at Stonehenge so we in the web design community look at these sites and go “How did they build it like that? And why would you?”

It’s easy for us to mock the rudimentary tools of Web 1.0 but we shouldn’t. History is our greatest teacher and rather than smug superiority, it would reflect rather better on us today if we  used the principles that created the early world wide web and asked ourselves this question:

If we have such advanced skills and tools in 2016, are we using them for the right purpose?

Web 1.0 was the era of the “brochure website”. For two reasons, firstly because we didn’t have the tools or internet speeds to deliver much more than simple words and images laid out like a brochure. And secondly because making a digital version of a hardcopy brochure was a way of making websites an understandable, useful commodity to everyone. Everyone had a marketing brochure, this was one that lived on the internet. That’s why digital used to be called electronic marketing back in the day, everyone could get their head around what that meant.

So much has changed in the last 10 years it’s very hard to summarise the different place we find ourselves in now but, at the peril of over-simplifying, I’d suggest the 3 biggest changes have been:

  • The rise of measurable data – driven by Google
  • The rise of social – driven by Facebook
  • The rise of mobile – driven by Apple

NB: other firms were involved in this stuff, I know!

What those broad areas of innovation have done for how we think about websites I’m going to cover in another post, let’s concentrate for a minute on what hasn’t changed. When I used to sell web design services back in 2004 these three things above never got talked about. It was just about having a nice “presence” on the web. Good design, interesting content, arranged in an understandable way. Those basics haven’t changed one bit, they’re just glossier in the presentation.

But the desire of the digital industry to innovate is a ball that is rolling down the hill with ever-increasing momentum. And for brands it feels as though conversations about digital marketing leap far too quickly into channel strategy (how are we going to make Instagram work for us?) or into data strategy (how can we mine better intelligence about customers?) and completely skip the basic, rudimentary principle of having something interesting and useful to say.

Suggesting this history has no relevance is like saying that ancient cave paintings have nothing to teach about art to someone who owns a Photoshop licence

I’ll give you an example. A few months ago I pitched and won a website project for a client in the leisure industry. Their existing site was a sprawling mess, hard to use and full of dull, dry content. I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into reinvigorating them and working on the brightness, sharpness and simplicity of their site and turning it into the compelling journey their brand deserved. Instead, when we met for the project kickoff meeting, all they wanted to talk about was personalisation. They’d read that this was the latest thinking, that they could take their content and serve it up in more relevant, targeted ways. I think I might have upset them when I pointed out that crafting the most delicate portions of their tasteless content would not a fine dining experience make!

So when it comes to planning your website project and writing the brief please, please don’t attach yourself to the latest bandwagon and throw away the lessons of history. Right now you’re bang on trend if you are planning a content marketing strategy. That’s right, content! Words! The currency of good old web 1.0.

Some people are getting seriously revisionist about digital history. They suggest we’ve never thought about content like this before, that all we did was write “brochure” style copy for our brochure websites and now we’re so much more sophisticated we can create emotive brand storytelling. I’m sorry, but that’s a load of crap. That’s the 2016 version of my 2004 sales pitch just dressed up differently.

People wrote bad web copy then, just like they write bad web copy now. I do agree that social media has allowed brands to loosen up a little and take on a voice that very few people were comfortable about adopting in more formal marketing times. But with the rudimentary tools we had, we still told some great stories. Suggesting this history has no relevance is like saying that ancient cave paintings have nothing to teach about art to someone who owns a Photoshop licence. Not so.

Good content and good storytelling are not the preserve of trendy hipsters, don’t let them con you into thinking only they now how to do it. In many ways the current generation have lost contact with the art of storytelling in the last 10 years as our we’ve all been obsessed with the brevity of social posting. Thankfully they’re just finding it again now and good for them. I’m not trying to be disingenuous about content marketing in any way, just offer a reminder that every single one of us, every single brand out there, cool or not, can succeed in creating websites that tell amazing stories. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, they don’t know their history.

At Agency Interface we help brands work effectively with digital agencies.

We do this by helping our clients understand the fundamentals of modern digital web design and marketing and helping them work with the creative community who can make it happen. Our success is measured in the time and money that our clients save in getting the right people doing the right work and taking away guesswork, frustration, miscommunication and wasted time. Chat to us today to find out more about how we can help your brand.