Creating Commodity Content Isn’t Just Ineffective for Marketing — It’s Dangerous
Let’s play a little game.
Think of the last really great piece of branded content you interacted with. Maybe a blog post, maybe a podcast, maybe a video. What comes to mind?
I’ll bet I can guess what you’re not thinking of. I bet you’re not thinking of a listicle. Or an aimless interview asking the same old questions of the same old industry experts. Or an infamous “talking heads” video.
No, I bet you’re thinking of something entirely different: something refreshing and original, something that entertained you or inspired you or taught you something new. (Or maybe all of the above.)
That kind of content — proprietary content that takes consumers on a transformational journey — is our gold standard as showrunners. It’s the reason we exist. It’s what we at MSR believe all brands need to focus on creating, so they can earn their customers’ trust and love — which is what gets them not just to arrive, but to stay.
At the other end of the spectrum from this ideal type of content is what MSR founder Jay Acunzo has dubbed “commodity content.” Commodity content is neither proprietary nor transformational. It’s transactional: a consumer has a need, and the commodity content fulfills that need, without forming a deeper relationship. Rather than entice consumers to stick around with the brand and embark on a more meaningful journey, commodity content almost seeks to expedite the transaction — to offer the quickest solution so consumers can go about their business. It’s helpful content to be sure, but the source of that value (namely, your brand) doesn’t matter. Consumers could get that same value from just about anyone. There’s no point of view. No inspiration. No transformation. There’s just a transaction. Transactional content might help people in one moment in time, but it fails to do what transformational content excels at: developing sustained relationships over time.
You’ve seen this type of content before. In fact, most content produced by most brands falls into this category — you can toss your listicles and “how-tos,” your standard interviews and talking head videos into this bucket.
We want you to create proprietary content, because we believe it provides the foundation you need to evoke trust and love from your customers. But I’ll take it one step further: producing commodity content isn’t just low value for your business; it’s existentially dangerous for your brand.
With every piece of content designed to provide a quick answer or solution, you lose an opportunity to form a deeper relationship with your audience. With every blog post you write or podcast episode you produce that customers could get anywhere, you dilute the value of your brand’s unique voice and perspective.
For example: consider a standard clickbait listicle, designed to optimize certain keywords and attract a large number of visitors to your company’s blog. Once a visitor lands on that page, what do they do next? Once they’ve completed the transaction that listicle was designed to produce — they’ve been entertained, or they’ve found a quick answer to a question — what entices them to stay? What drives them to remember your brand specifically? A company that continues to publish listicles might retain the interest of that same visitor for a while. Eventually, though, the visitor outgrows the content provided in those types of pieces. Eventually, they stop seeing a reason to interact with the brand at all.
With content like this, companies keep building front doors to their brands. Once people enter, though, they find an empty house: their only option is to continue opening door after door. They don’t have the opportunity to examine unique furnishings or to climb the stairs and learn something new. With a surfeit of commodity content, we keep focusing on getting people to arrive — at the expense of giving them reasons to stay.
How Commodity Content Distances You From Your Target Audience
With your company content, you’re generally aiming to engage with a few types of customers at various points in the sales funnel: randos who’ve never heard of you, prospects with various levels of interest, and existing customers you’re hoping to retain. The content you create needs to dance delicately among each of these groups.
The problem with commodity content is that it focuses too much on that first group (people who’ve never heard of you) — which, incidentally, is the group furthest from developing trust and love for your brand in the first place. Commodity content designed simply to attract an audience without regard for keeping that audience fails to make a compelling case for why a consumer would or should continue to spend meaningful time with your brand.
That doesn’t mean that brands should ignore customers at the top of the sales funnel. It does mean, though, that they should constantly be thinking of “what’s next,” even for these prospects at the earliest stages.
For example: video marketing company Wistia masterfully creates content for visitors at all stages of the sales funnel. (Full disclosure: Wistia is a presenting sponsor of MSR.) Their content runs the gamut: from instructional blog posts that detail how to shoot better videos to a fully produced video series that explores the relationship between capital and creativity.
At first glance, some of these pieces could seem like commodity content, with titles copy-pasted from a Google search. Take, for example, this one: Choosing a Background for Your Video.
Other brands might make such a piece purely transactional, with a list of best practices and perhaps a few images here and there. Wistia, though, takes a transactional topic and makes it proprietary. This post answers a casual reader’s questions, but it also goes a step or seven further and engages someone who is more likely to develop trust and love for Wistia’s brand. It speculates that the reader who has stumbled upon this post might have more questions about how to make videos remotely and provides a helpful link to a collection of videos on that very topic. It seeks to inspire, with links to pieces on how the company created a beautiful set for its original video series. And throughout the piece, it retains its distinct brand voice and aesthetic, complete with colorful example videos and even an elaborate choreographed roller skating scene (seriously).
With this piece, Wistia has created something that could never be mistaken for another brand’s content — it’s distinctly, proprietarily Wistian. What’s more, it has enhanced a piece of “front door” content with a series of windows and interior doors that reveal a true understanding of the type of customer who might come to develop real trust and love for the brand. With Wistia’s personal touch, this content becomes valuable for two groups: first, people with a distinct problem — the need to choose a background for a video — who may not have heard of Wistia before; and second, Wistia’s target audience: people who regularly create company videos.
Too many brands don’t do this. Too many brands stop short at providing the one answer to the one Googleable question, without infusing any elements of brand personality or conveying a deeper understanding of their core audience’s ultimate goals. By not doing this, brands put the onus on their core audience to keep coming back on their own, even as they continue to promote content that doesn’t feel like an exact match for that audience’s wants and needs.
And that’s not just a missed opportunity — it’s dangerous, because it can drive those most valuable prospects away. When brands create commodity content, they don’t just miss an opportunity to go deeper with their core audience. They actually route resources away from those core groups that are the most likely to develop trust and love for the brand. As Lincoln Murphy of Sixteen Ventures writes, “Companies generally end up diverting resources from the customers with Success Potential who could actually benefit from their attention to those that, regardless of effort, will not be successful.”
When companies churn out too much transactional content, they dilute the value of each and every piece and risk alienating their most valuable audiences. In order to gain customers’ trust and love — the currency that will entice a visitor to stick around and spend meaningful time with the brand — companies need to earn it. Trust and love aren’t mere transactions purchased by a quick exchange of value. Rather, they’re the result of a transformation from passive viewer into passionate supporter.
As they divert resources away from customers with the potential to love them, brands send a tacit message to increasingly savvy customers who increasingly demand personal relationships with the brands they support: they are attempting to transact customers, not develop an ongoing relationship with them. But the customers with the potential to trust and love your company don’t want to interact with the majority of your commodity content. They don’t want you to be Google. They want you to be you. And every time you choose not to be, their disappointment grows.
Commodity Content & Customer Churn
In addition to creating distance between brands and their most successful prospects, commodity content can also — dangerously — contribute to customer churn.
Customer churn is, quite simply, the rate of people who stop being customers. According to a more scientific definition from HubSpot, churn is “the percentage of customers that stopped using your company’s product or service during a certain time frame.”
Churn is…not good. The ideal customer churn rate is zero. For companies whose customers can pay them more over time (e.g., subscription-based companies whose subscribers can upgrade to more expensive plans), ideal churn rates are actually negative — as customers upgrade, they can offset revenue lost from customers who have suspended business with the brand.
You would think that, to minimize churn, companies would expend a disproportionate amount of energy on ensuring customer happiness. They would focus on customer success. They would listen to customer compliments and complaints. They would create content specifically for these customers, with the ultimate goal of earning their trust and love.
But that’s not typically what happens — particularly on the marketing side. As Patrick Campbell of ProfitWell wrote in a recent blog post: “Too many SaaS companies end up in the same situation. They launch a product, start bringing in some solid revenue, and put all their efforts into acquiring new customers. Their success blinds them to the hidden dangers every SaaS company faces–dangers like high customer churn.”
In short: companies expend all kinds of effort and marketing dollars on acquiring precious new customers. Then, as soon as those customers are in the door, companies forget about them, choosing instead to start the cycle all over again. Some of those customers will continue to interact with this commodity content and answer their questions one by one. But over time, by failing to create a more proprietary experience, brands hit a ceiling with their audience. Once all the one-off questions are answered, there’s nowhere else to go — and no reason for that customer to spend more meaningful time with the brand.
When companies focus their content marketing strategy on bringing in new customers, they make a tradeoff: the highest-value customers are often met without content tailored to their needs and designed to help your brand become their favorite. It’s a missed opportunity.
But more than that, a continuous stream of commodity content that neither helps them nor exhibits an understanding of their specific pain points and goals can be annoying. Think about signing up for an email list because you have a certain idea of the quality and messaging of the content you’ll receive. How many times have you then received email after email that you either don’t want or that doesn’t speak to you? When that happens, what do you do? You unsubscribe.
That’s the worst thing that can happen to a marketer — and, by extension, to the company. You had someone who was willing to listen to you and who was interested in what you had to say. Then, you couldn’t keep their attention. You bothered them or failed to address their needs. You lost them.
We shouldn’t leave it up to our audience to find the content that will resonate most with them. We can’t expect our audience to sift through a stream of mediocre, could-find-it-anywhere content in pursuit of those one or two diamonds in the rough. When there are so many brands and outlets competing for our audience’s attention, that’s simply too much to ask of them. As more companies create more and more content, commodities will no longer suffice. We can’t just be helpful one time. We can’t just surface on the first page of Google results. We need to be memorable. We need to prove to our core audience — from the very first interaction — that we are special, that we alone can provide something they need. We’re not looking to make transactions. We’re looking to create relationships.
And that’s why producing commodity content isn’t just sub-optimal — it’s actually dangerous. Too much content that doesn’t articulate our unique vision, that doesn’t demonstrate the story of what could be for a customer, that doesn’t evoke any kind of emotional response — too much of that content gives the audience we want to embrace the wrong idea about us. It risks losing them — or never meeting them in the first place.
And it’s a hard thing for marketing departments to grapple with, because shifting from a mix of mostly commodity content and a few proprietary pieces to the opposite can upend your content strategy and marketing operations. It can be hard to explain to your boss why you’ve narrowed your focus, why you’re choosing to make really rich, really resonant content for a smaller group of people, rather than making commodities for people who were never going to love your brand anyway.
But the more that brands do that — create proprietary experiences for their target audience, rather than create something mediocre for just anyone — the easier it will be for customers to find their favorites. In this sea of commodity content, the first brands to create something proprietary will rise like beacons.
A somewhat accidental marketer, I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve spent a decade working with global brands to craft on-target content and streamline complex ideas into clear (and even…exciting?!) language. Now, I get to spend every day immersed in content and strategy here, as Managing Editor of Marketing Showrunners, at my company, Molly Donovan Content & Communications. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of eager next-generation marketers and marketing showrunners.
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