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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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