Picture: 123RF/9dreamstudio
Picture: 123RF/9dreamstudio

More than two decades ago Bill Gates penned an essay titled Content is King. In it he said the internet, then still in its infancy, had the potential to redefine the way information is delivered and consumed.

“The internet allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher. Opportunities are remarkable, and many companies are laying plans to create content for the internet. Those who succeed will propel the internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products  – a marketplace of content,” Gates wrote.

The prophetic nature of the essay makes it an intriguing read. However, fast forward to the present day, and while content still reigns supreme, this is only half the story. The other equally important aspect is the context in which the audience, prospective customers and users engage with the content. Simply put, context is what makes the content meaningful.

In the present day, we are inundated with content that is emitted by the multiple screens that surround us, every waking moment. Whether it is in the professional setting or in the comfort of our home, multiscreening across various devices has become a way of life. Marketers have tapped into this reality, and as a live event unfolds, audiences and consumers are encouraged to react to what they are witnessing, be it a beauty pageant, a sports fixture or an episode premiere. Gone are the days of logging in and logging off. Instead, we are always online, constantly connected, enjoying a steady and never-ending stream of content.

This overload of content in the information age has led to audiences becoming immune to much of what they see, leading them to effectively tune out that which does not appeal directly to them. For example, consider the WhatsApp group you’ve had to mute simply to maintain a sense of sanity and productivity because of its never-ending notifications. With so many brands competing for our attention, the amount of time people are willing to spend focusing on your brand’s specific content continues to shrink. Research suggests that on average, digital audiences are willing to pay attention to content for no longer than 10 seconds.  

If we accept this to be true, it becomes imperative that the content we prepare for audiences is succinct, attention-grabbing and bite-size. Given these parameters, the most effective medium to deliver content is video. The wholesale adoption of video-sharing platforms such as Tik Tok is a clear indication of this.

Contrastingly, the continued proliferation of long-form content such as podcasts, multi-hour streams and series binging indicate that audiences can, and want to, engage with these. However, this is only if the content speaks to them directly and personally, hence the insight that context is everything.

Factors such as weather, seasons and socio-economic trends already shape the content campaigns that brands prepare. In SA savvy brands appreciate that streamlining their content according to different contexts gives them the best opportunity to reach the most eyeballs.

Context can simultaneously be both broad and narrow. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic ushered in a broad and unexpected context to marketing and general brand communications. Inversely, context can also be hyper-personalised to one’s immediate experience. For example, pregnant women are likely to consume highly specific content that the rest of the population may have no interest in.

So then, how do brands find the people that their content is most likely to resonate with? First, by using technological aids and tools such as artificial intelligence, social media analytics, market research and, perhaps most importantly, by keeping a finger on the zeitgeist.

In the latter half of 2020 a major international haircare brand produced a blunderous campaign that promoted negative stereotypes about black hair. The outcry that followed was deafening, and rightly so. People, particularly black women, were frustrated by the lack of representation dedicated to the education, treatment and care of black hair. Ironically, in the aftermath of this public relations disaster, SA personality and businesswoman Boity Thulo was set to unveil her new haircare range with Halo Heritage specifically targeted at treating black hair.

The challenge was how to announce Thulo’s collaboration in a culturally sensitive manner that reflected an appreciation of the broader discussions permeating through our society at the time.

In response, Eclipse Communications conceptualised a YouTube campaign called Halo Diaries. The show, which is moderated by Anele Mdoda, features a cast of strong and successful black women, including Thulo, having roundtable discussions about the importance of black hair care, reflecting on the heritage of black hair, different styling techniques, what their emotions and feelings towards their hair are, what its cultural significance is, and much more. The show was a success and its second season premiered in September 2021.

Naturally, augmenting great content with context awareness is easier said than done. It requires bold action, extensive research, omnichannel thinking and, most importantly, time. However, those who take the trouble will benefit from having created memorable campaigns that form lasting connections with consumers, fostering greater brand loyalty and cementing their brands as an authority in their respective fields.

The shifts in consumer behaviour and trends brought on by the “new normal” reflect great opportunities that we as communications players, if armed with the right balance of empathy and ingenuity, can use to create even more engaging content. But remember, context is everything!

Jacki McEwen-Powell is the founding partner of Eclipse Communications.

The big take-out: Context is what makes content meaningful.

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