The 21st century's defining medium could well be social media. As brand reputations can rise and fall in bite-sized, 140-character chunks, so content marketing must now compete, not just with traditional media channels, but also with the complex ecosystem of the feed, where consumer attention is often fleeting and technologies’ demands unrelenting.
This has prompted critics to argue that the knee-jerk response that this ecosystem demands is creating a shallow substitute for the painstaking and time-consuming task of formulating honest, considered answers to the complex and difficult questions of our time.
Among the creative community, some of these questions are focusing on how brands, for better or worse, are shaping their communication to fit better within the walls of social-media channels and the way these constraints are driving and challenging creativity within content marketing.
Ross Neil, executive creative director at ad agency WCRS, compares the industry’s obsession with social media, and the instant response it demands, to waterskiing.
"The danger is you skim the surface and don’t have enough time to think," he warns. "Agencies put too much weight on believing in Twitter when only 15 percent of the country is on it."
Ultimately, he said, "you can’t boil everything down to the constraints of one medium still in its infancy."
A virtual prison
Constraint has long been used as a way to trigger inspiration for creative ideas. Perhaps the most famous example is the Oulipo movement of French writers and mathematicians, founded in the 1960s, who actively sought out constrictions of form and pattern to better mold their writing and focus their creative thinking.
In fact, many creative directors might have more in common with Oulipian artists than they first imagine. Raymond Queneau’s "Exercises in Style" is the recounting, 99 times, of the same story of a man witnessing a minor scuffle on a bus; each account is unique in tone and style, but the essence of the story remains the same.
While the unfortunate copywriter facing the 79th proof of a single page of editorial for a major banking brand may not view the experience as anything greater than a creative groundhog day, the consistency of constraint remains.
In fact, many believe that creative constraint is part of the wallpaper of everyday life in marketing. While today the fabric of this prison may have changed predominantly to a virtual one, the marriage of creativity and constraint is well established.
"It is no coincidence that the world was so willing to jump on the social-media bandwagon," says James Kirkham, co-founder of social-media agency Holler. "Creating content in 140 characters is such an easy trigger. It may well be an echo chamber, but it is almost a live brainstorming session, and that lies at the heart of what is creative. A painting is constrained by canvas, a TV ad constrained by the box,and the likes of Twitter and Vine constrain users with their formats."
These formats also demand that marketers rethink their approach to creativity. Graeme Noble, executive creative director at agency TMW, says that creatives are now more aware of the constraints they operate within.
"How can you get carried away with 140 characters?" he asks."Five years ago, the default answer was microsites, then it was Facebook — then, almost overnight, the industry decided Facebook wasn’t right.The real question now is where can an idea best live?"
Marketers must shift their thinking to take account of the fact that a growing tranche of consumers are filtering their lives via the walled gardens of their social-media feed. Michael Litman, founder of micro-content agency Burst, believes that brands need to adopt a new screening process when it comes to content.
"We are moving from the TV generation to the ‘feed generation,’ who are getting drips of content from different devices," he says. Facebook, which obviously has a vested interest in promoting the cultural prominence of its newsfeed, is bullish on the impact of this shift.
Rob Newlan, head of the social network’s creative shop for EMEA, describes it as the "sorting function of consumers’ lives, in that it helps them decide what matters." In the midst of such fundamental changes it is no surprise that agencies and marketers have sought solace in constraint, and there is no doubt that the growth of social media — particularly networks such as WhatsApp and Snapchat — have placed certain perimeters around content creation.
However, Alec Bec, director of creative agency INT Works, believes their phenomenal growth has left marketers inclined to spend too much time thinking about when and how content is distributed rather than the important bit: What the content actually is.
Marketers and media-owners alike are all too often guilty of looking for shortcuts, when in reality there is no single best format for engagement. "There is no universality," Newlan says. "There isn’t an optimum time for video length. There is a far greater collision of creative and execution."
There are shifts in consumption habits, of course, but no one-size-fits-all rules of engagement for content marketers.
"Nobody knows (what is coming next in content) in terms of the lists," according to Newlan. "Meme-type content is interesting and has a role to play, but the real challenge is how do we get the best storytellers a platform. It is about better-using the skills that are innate within the industry."
Despite this assertion, the industry is awash with bleak tales of the restrictions implicit in harnessing new platforms better, such as a creative team tasked with little more than creating a solitary Facebook post, or the tweet that went through 78 drafts. Even the greatest Oulipian artists would struggle to express themselves by emoji alone. Yet many believe brands need to embrace these new formats.
"There will always be shifts in language, and emojis are language in their own right," says Neil. "You need to ask yourself whether you want to (invest in) making a film or creating extra content, are you asking too much of consumers?"
In the process-driven world of social media, questions remain as to whether consumers are being stripped of their ability to meaningfully decide whether they want to see particular content. When the drive is compulsive, the ability to self-censor is lacking. Moreover, popularity on social platforms is perhaps not the ultimate arbiter of relevance and success for brands, but just underlines the fundamentally fleeting nature of attention spans.
"Audiences have become more demanding of momentary experiences," says Katie Barber, strategy director at digital agency Wunderman UK. "Brands that are going to thrive need to create shorter, quality content. But, crucially, they need to use data and insight in order to better understand consumers’ ‘passion points.’ "
A growing number of brands are employing analytics to better understand how to capitalise on those passion points.
Liz Wilson, chief executive of creative agency Stack, says that, with increased automation, brands have a greater depth of knowledge about what content people will be drawn to and can create a better profile of their consumers. She believes this development has created an insatiable demand for more content.
"The real question with this surge in content is what is pollution and what is the type of content that provides a genuinely deeper connection with the consumer," Wilson says.
However, some believe that brands have been guilty of chasing metrics, such as shares or "likes," rather than investing in the often more difficult task of driving deeper engagement. There are those who share instead of reading content, in effect becoming curators, not consumers. On a broadcast network such as Twitter, what you are seen to be, rather than what you do, is sacrosanct.
Tony Haile, chief executive of Chartbeat, which measures real-time traffic and sharing data, sent ripples through the content-marketing community in February when he tweeted: "We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading."
Despite the unrelenting demands of digital formats, one of the main constraints faced by content marketers remains the universal pressure of time. In the midst of ferocious change, brands need to condense their content-marketing schedules into ever tighter deadlines.
"There needs to be a shift from strategic thinking to strategic doing," says Newlan. "We have the ability to test now, so instead of taking 18 months to create content, we need to use the opportunity to test continually."
While the market is in flux, universal truths remain. The biggest constraint the industry faces is not governed by the demands of Facebook’s newsfeed or the size of any given screen. It lies not in any device, but in the creative prowess, or lack thereof, within the content-marketing industry.
In the all-encompassing, rapid action-reaction demands of the feed, each piece of content rises and falls on its own merits. Marketers must ask themselves, as they attempt to snatch moments to engage consumers, what they offer in return.
Beautifully crafted content will thrive, not in spite of the constraints presented by smartphones or social networks, but simply because it offers users something greater than the traditional transaction between brand and consumer.
Something, that, at its best, can live beyond the constraints of any given format and take on a life of its own in our imaginations.