What If Brands Stopped Thinking “Content” & Started Thinking Something Else?

Ah, “content.” The Tupperware of the internet.

Just saying “content” brings to mind a hollow shell, a container. And so us marketers plod along, obsessing over exactly that. We talk about “pieces” and “deliverables” or even name the things — posts, ebooks, tweets, videos — rather than agonize over the stuff inside, i.e. the stuff the audience is really after.

Content. It’s a growing mess of containers that — hold on, didn’t we start with a neatly organized system? Why do I see nothing but chaos? And, wait, why do we have SO MANY of these things? Do we actually use them all? And, c’mon, how are these still dirty? I thought we cleaned off all the greasiness and smells from the old stuff: the interruptive advertising; the internal corp-speak; the chicken tikka masala.

Yes, content is the tupperware drawer of this-here internet kitchen — and dammit, we can do better than these empty containers.

Ask yourself: What if we used a word that referenced the stuff insideinstead?

What if we createdprogramming?

This idea comes from Bryan Rhoads, formerly of Intel. While at the company, Bryan and colleague Luke Kintigh launched Intel’s tech-and-lifestyle magazine, iQ. Bryan was also one of the masterminds behind the company’s genius collaboration with Vice. Out of the partnership sprang the great Creators Project. (I’m told that a regime change at Intel caused the company to pull their involvement in the project to instead focus on content sitting closer to product sales. I’ll just leave this here…)

(Let’s move on.)

In a recent conversation, I told Bryan about my desire to create more elevated, more impactful content. No more making “yet another” and a lot more making “the only.” It was then that he revealed what I’ve always known: the very word, content, might be the single biggest barrier to doing truly great work. “The Daily Show of Tech” or the “This American Life of Marketing” just seems so far from what most people think of when they hear “content.”

“We should talk about it like programming,” he said.

If you really think about it, programming makes a world of sense.

Just as “content” makes you think of something bland, forgettable, and empty, “programming” brings to mind something much more powerful. There’s intent behind the creation of programming. It’s the stuff that fills the channel or container, and the individual installments all fit together to take people on one coherent journey towards a conclusion — a realization, a resolution, hell, even a product.

Brands are indeed like a sort of Hollywood studio, backing and creating educational or entertainment media. And our marketing channels are like TV networks (we say “channels” after all) — it’s how our audience tunes into our work. And content marketers and creators, both internal and external to our companies, are the production teams and the talent.

As content marketers, we’re in the business of creating things that can be distributed over any number of networks. What do we call the stuff we distribute? Content is a jumbled mess of individual pieces shot haphazardly through a given channel. Programming, on the other hand, implies intent, purpose, and a commitment OVER TIME to an audience.

Just think…

Like the Universal Studios of your niche, you approve and fund various programming — distinct, coherent ideas, conveyed by the creative (that “stuff inside”).

  • Written words, held together with a specific editorial mission.
  • Spoken stories, delivered weekly to listeners.
  • Data, delivered by any of those the common B2B marketing tactics white papers or reports, with a prestigious name and recurring cadence to the series, instead of “yet another PDF.”

Like the NBC of your niche, you offer channels for the distribution of your programming. That could be your owned channels (website, newsletter, events, etc.) or channels where you’ve either paid for airtime or find it for free (organic and paid social, search, co-marketing, etc.). For instance…

  • Those written words can be delivered through your blog.
  • Those spoken stories could “air” in an event series or your iTunes page.
  • That data to disseminate might be distributed on SlideShare.

Like the Spielberg, Beyonce, Ira Glass, Jennifer Lawrence, and yes, even like the Zach Braff of your niche, YOU are the production power and the talent.

YOU make the programming actually happen.

YOU know how to produce a story, how to see the world like the audience does, and how to execute the creative process.

YOU are the nerdy but lovable talent…

Words Matter. Let’s Speak Well English More Gooder.

Saying “programming” is similar to saying “content brand.” It’s a standalone, often overtly named project or series. You build it by treating it like a product, not a campaign or glorified substitute for an ad.

So, sure, you’ll need to use all those tupperware containers, but you connect them in a smart way based on what’s inside. You cook up that delicious chicken parm with spaghetti (the big idea, the approved concept), then dish it out into all those containers.

Bryan Rhoads’ examples were Intel iQ and the Creators Project. The list goes on though — eBay’s Open for Business or AmEx’s OPEN Forum or Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays or InVision’s Design Disruptors video (great content brands) or Contently’s Ask a Content Guy or NextView’s tech trend shootarounds.

Unlike that messy drawer of still-greasy containers, programming elevates our eyes in our creative kitchens.

Here’s a look at the specifics of programming:

Here’s Why “Programming” Is a More Logical Bet than “Content”…

First, in a noisy world, the name of the game is attention.

Without it, no amount of transactional marketing matters. Unless you get people to stop swirling around their millions of options across several screens to focus on you just for a moment, you don’t exist. More content containers just add to that already messy drawer. How can you stand out from all that crap? Don’t add more containers. Make something different. Focus more on the insides.

Second, stories turn every sell into an upsell.

Although I’d love to defend my beloved storytelling from a HUMAN element (emotion, science of the species, etc.), let’s appeal to the inner Quarterly Business Review in all of us: It’s far easier to convert someone who has been primed by a story they agree with than to try and interrupt someone elsewhere and sell them cold.

Every story has three parts, which when completed, lead to the upsell moment. Those parts are: a status quo your audience faces, the conflict they encounter, and the resolution. For instance, with my show idea “The Magic” from above, it might be this:

  • Teams are complex, multifaceted, ever-changing groups of people.(status quo)
  • But that doesn’t change the fact that they still need to make ideas happen as a group, despite the seeming impossibility of that ever happening. (conflict)
  • That’s why you need to find The Magic: unite together to execute on a idea you all believe in. (resolution)
  • Oh, by the way, to start experiencing that resolution, try our product.” (upsell)

Good sales and marketing happen in the natural movement of the consumer. Stories are the roadmaps leading you and your audience along the same path.

Stories are upselling machines.


You’re competing against everyone. Across tons of channels. And screens. And mediums. And (shoots bourbon) … ugh, you get it.

Among your competitors today are your audience’s friends and family, plus their favorite media outlets and individual influencers and personalities. You have to be just as good or better than THOSE groups to gain attention. The only time you’re really competing with competitors directly is immediately before a transaction, which we all know by now is just one very small part of the buyer’s journey. Otherwise, you’re up against your customer’s favorite things in the world.

And nobody ever missed the big game, turned off Game of Thrones, closed their friend’s Instagram feed, DVRed the latest sitcom, stopped listening to This American Life, and Pocketed their favorite column for later…because they couldn’t wait to consume YOUR content marketing.

But what if they did? What if that was our goal?

What if we could make something so good, your audience would say, “Whoa, they made a SportsCenter for my industry! … They launched This American Life for my world … They filmed a late night show just for me!”

As content marketers, we are the studio, the network, the production power, and the talent. And unlike many organizations we associate with powerful programs, our business models are thriving.

What if we made programming, not content?

What if we embraced a bigger vision than “demand-gen” or “conversions” .. and in turn, we could generate more of each?

What if we earned our audience’s attention over time, not tricked our way into a few seconds in one moment in time? What if we became the thing they couldn’t wait to choose?

What if we made programming, not content?

This might not be our holy grail … but it’s damn sure better than more tupperware.

>> Want to talk more about this idea of programming? I can help. Say hi: [email protected]

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