2014-21-April-online sharing

Online content helps businesses and brands achieve business objectives. Until relatively recently, that content was centered around websites. But how has the growth of social media changed the equation?

Ryan Skinner, senior analyst for content marketing at Forrester Research, told CMSWire that one of the biggest changes from social media is "the idea of content as conversation." He cited New York University professor of media Clay Shirky, who has noted that the ability to communicate broadly has shifted from "an instrument of power" to "an instrument for everyone."

Content as Conversation

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Content planning encompasses conceiving, strategizing, creating, marketing, distributing and assessing content in online electronic media. Social media, however, has fundamentally altered the view of content.

Continual interaction with audiences is now a central part of content planning, since audiences can, in Skinner's words, "re-broadcast, alter or entirely subvert" the messages.

"Discussions and conversations are among the most important things we do," Content Marketing Institute (CMI) Marketing Director Cathy McPhillips told us.

In fact, McPhillips pointed out, questions offered by the brand in a social media context – such as through a Twitter hashtags – can become a way to generate topics for, say, blog posts or a website section. In other words, the audience is not only factored in as part of content planning, but sometimes participates in the topic planning itself.

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Conversations with brands existed before online interaction, primarily in the context of customer service, which now has a new dimension. Kristina Halvorson, CEO of content strategy consultancy Brain Traffic, told us "the primary opportunity for social media is customer service." But customer service is no longer simply an agent answering a product or service question. It's also the agent, live or virtual, offering an article and FAQ on the topic.

Sharing Content

A conversation is, by definition, a shared exchange of content, and this sharing is the second big change that social has wrought for content planning. But Forrester's Skinner told us the fact that content these days "can be shared in social networks … is only touching the tip of the iceberg."

He pointed out that sharing is a propellant for the content and the related media property, as Facebook sharing has done for BuzzFeed, Upworthy and branded content from GE, Coca-Cola, Red Bull and others. Forrester's research indicates that nearly one third of US online adults share content from companies through social media at least weekly or monthly. Content sharing via social networks, Skinner said, is "distribution at its fullest."

With the leverage from sharing comes visibility and influence. Skinner predicts a third major change from social media on content planning will be the rise of independent voices that can bolster or trash an article, campaign or meme. Content planners now "have to account for a new body of writers and influencers," he said, "who wield a surprising level of power" in communications, particularly online communications.

This dynamic situation means that content is no longer material that is just stuck on a website, for users to take or leave. It is now part of what is, in some ways, a marketplace – sometimes of ideas, sometimes simply of the most engaging or oddest material.

"When any party – company, government or other authority," Skinner said, "tries to dodge tough questions or mislead people with their communications, it is true that this gets called out and exposed more easily due to social networks."

There are downsides to such distributed and often anonymous power, of course, like "trolling, flame wars and false profiles," but he described this situation overall as a "vast improvement" over previous ways for audiences to respond to content.

Channel Fragmentation

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When online content primarily meant websites, the notion of channels was not as prevalent as it is today. CMI's McPhillips told us that her content planning is largely focused on channels – a website, email, Facebook, Twitter, mobile and others -- and how they interact. "Some channels help other channels," she noted, "like Pinterest posts that are used to drive [users to] blog posts."

The relative importance of channels and their interaction determines which content goes where, which content is repurposed, and which content is designed to stimulate conversation.

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Brad Shimmin, a social media analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, told us that this multichannel approach has required a variable "ability to handle feedback."

In other words, some of the channels are fully conversational, like Twitter, Facebook or customer service phone lines with live operators. Some can be partially conversational, like comments on an author's or a company's blog. And some are still one-way, like a website without feedback mechanisms.

"It's easy to publish information," Shimmin noted, but harder to control or incorporate the feedback. It's hardest of all to create content that goes viral through the channels you want.

Skinner said that, while the idea itself of channels has been around, "social media has only led to even more fragmentation." Often treated as a single channel, social media actually represents a wide variety of different kinds of channels that each require different planning and treatment – Pinterest images, Facebook profiles, Twitter micro-blasts, and so on.

Brain Traffic's Halvorson pointed out that a key part of content planning these days is "understanding what format goes where," and then "ensuring that there's consistency of message across channels." And, of course, not all content fits equally well into all channels, especially not into social ones. If the subject is Tide detergent, Halvorson said, "how important is sharing?"

Conversations Evolve

Where is all this heading? Skinner noted that there is still a lot of offline content that doesn't get into the social stream, such as content inside an app or in a comment-disabled website.

He pointed to a need in the future for a massive amount of attention to how all those growing libraries of content are going to be tagged, organized and channeled, a future where post-planning is as important as content planning.

There is also the distinct possibility that what we now think of conversation, propelled by social, is only a primitive form of the exchange and transformation of content that will occur when intelligent sensors become part of the mix as wearables bloom.

A smartwatch that you use to stay in touch with your buddies, for instance, can also stay in touch with your heart rate. When it reaches a certain peak, you get an alert to check out that article on stress control your friend sent yesterday.

Remember that, once we've opened the door to content as conversation, we've opened the door to almost all the kinds of conversation – nagging, praising, scolding, expert opinion, diatribes, and, yes, such emotional connections as indicated in the movie Her.

Social media has opened content to human interaction, and, like human interaction, content is now on an evolutionary path.

Title image by Barone Firenze / Shutterstock.