Are We Dumbing Down Our Customers?
We’re creating too much crap content to fill massive digital pipes, just because we can and because it’s cheaper than good content. This serves the short-term interests of stockholders but cheats the world of the substance that makes content valuable.
Digital keeps us all in business, generates new business, and helps us understand our business—from our customers and our reputations to our competitors.
Many years ago, some friends of mine in the information database business (when information was stored on big optical platters and there was no Internet to speak of) used to tell me that I was too preoccupied with the amazing hardware and software my client engineers were designing.
“The technology is trivial, Nick. It’ll keep getting better and cheaper. Content—content is king!”
All these years later, I know they were right. YouTube, social media, on-demand—it’s all great technology, but what we remember and what influences us is the standout short story in a good TV commercial, the well-written and thought-provoking movie, and the well-researched conclusions of a solid news story that leaves us worried or perplexed.
It’s the content.
Which is why we’re in trouble, says Jeffrey Dvorkin, former managing editor at CBC Radio and VP of news and information at NPR. “If ever there was a double-edged sword, it is the digital culture. It has enlarged our informational possibilities while at the same time offering up trivia like cat videos, celebrity sightings, and ‘listicles.’ It is, in effect, driving journalistic deviance downward, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” (See “Why Click-Bait Will Be The Death Of Journalism.”)
Short version: We’re creating too much crap content to fill massive digital pipes, just because we can and because it’s cheaper than good content. This serves the short-term interests of stockholders but cheats the world of the substance that makes content valuable.
Worse, warns Dvorkin, we’re producing too much crap “news” because we’re substituting “freelancers, citizen journalists, bloggers, and vloggers” (at cost-saving lower salaries) who produce “fluff” for experienced, older (more expensive) journalists who produce “serious content.” It’s far more profitable to deliver “WTC”—weather, traffic, and crime—because most of it costs nothing: It originates from government sources. “So much for independent journalistic inquiry,” says Dvorkin, who decries the prevalence of click-bait. “It’s rarely newsworthy, but it does attract eyeballs.”
Why should we care? In my world, click-bait is resumes on job boards and profiles on LinkedIn. They’re essentially free, so employers gobble them up while they complain they’re starving for talent in “the talent shortage.” In my world, great content is great workers who reliably produce profits long term because they have depth, integrity, genuine skills, and the ability to learn and change. That’s a far cry from all the wrong job applicants—click-bait—who lard their profiles with phony keywords to get interviews and jobs.
Why should you care? Because advertising—print, digital, any kind—needs to be embedded in the best content we can find or produce ourselves. Put your digital marketing message in a cesspool of click-bait, and you quickly find your audience and customer base isn’t very high value. (See “Five Signs Your Outbound Marketing Isn’t Working.”) I know HR managers who spend good money to float their job listings among multilevel-marketing come-ons and marketing managers who eagerly run analytics to see which junk videos deliver the most clicks on their ads.
Dvorkin is not a digital naysayer—and neither am I. “It’s not all bad. Many businesses have been properly transformed and modernized by digital.” I know mine has, and I know yours has. But Dvorkin echoes what my old library science buddies used to say—“Digital is merely a technology, like the telephone. It’s a technology that will only thrive if it has something of value to transmit.”
The better the content that surrounds our message, the better we serve our constituencies because we drive up their knowledge and sophistication. What’s that old tag line from Sy Syms? “An educated consumer is our best customer.”
I think the essence of Dvorkin’s warning is that low-grade content contributes to the dumbing down of consumers—and we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves because our ad budgets pay for it. Digital is great, but mind your content—because it really is king.
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