Thanks no doubt to a helpful boost from Alexis Madrigal, my November 8 post, “The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity,” found a passel of new readers this week. One of them was constructively skeptical of my argument.
What does it really mean, he asked, to say the future of content is in its identity? Or that content must be imbued with the brand? However people find content, he argued, they “always wind up back at the brand to read it.” He also took issue with my suggestion that the container—the original site of publication—doesn’t matter anymore. As he pointed out, it does matter “if you want to keep people hanging around on your site reading more beyond the link that brought them there.”
Because his objections are too good to leave in the obscurity of a comment on a week-old entry, and because my MUD obligations limit the amount of time I can spend on this blog, I’m addressing his comment in today’s post.
It’s possible, of course, that I overstated my case considerably, which one is wont to do when blogging. But people don’t always wind up back at the brand to read content. Like my commenter, I read a lot of content in my RSS reader. But unlike him, I don’t go back to the source to read most of it. Thus, for me, the experience not only divorces the content from its original container, but also strips away much of its original formatting. Others may read content through Instapaper or Flipbook, which can similarly deracinate content. And I think this way of reading will only grow more common with time. (UPDATE: That should be Flipboard. And reading through it just now, I realized it actually does a good job of preserving original branding.)
It was certainly rhetoric more than conviction that prompted me to say that containers don’t matter anymore. Done well, they can still lure readers in and keep them hanging around. But containers are not nearly as good at containment in the digital era as they were in the analog. Because it is so easily copied and transmitted, content (not to mention readers) now can much more readily drift away.
When I suggested that, in response, content must be imbued with brand, I was again, no doubt, overstating. Publishers are obviously free to let their content wander off like wayward dogies without any identifying brand on their flanks. But a publisher concerned with promoting and propagating its brand would be wise to ensure that the content carries some form of brand identity. That can be done in a variety of ways: instilling a brand voice into the content (The Atlantic was once superb at this—you could always recognize its voice, no matter the author), incorporating brand references (Wired‘s Wired vs. Tired, for instance), or employing an identifiably distinctive point of view (Reason, perhaps?).
It used to be that publishers and their editors didn’t have to worry so much about this problem. When an article was contained within a print magazine, the context was enough to brand the content. But online, that context is much weaker. To me, at least, infusing your brand directly into your content seems like a smart response.