Can you brand with borrowed content? The problem with curation

We can’t really pay adequate attention to the musings of 500 or more friends on Facebook or Linked-In, or follow hundreds (thousands) of tweets.  Who has time to scroll through and read all those posts – not to mention the links – let alone absorb what’s being discussed and formulate responses? Short of unplugging, how do we cope? All the while more content keeps coming; we keep joining more groups: a vast wilderness of voices gets vaster.

Attention deficit isn’t the problem, it’s information-overload; we have way too much to process. But there is an answer, says Steven Rosenbaum: “curation.” His book Curation Nation: Why the future of content is context: How to win in a world where consumers are creators (McGraw-Hill, 2011) tells readers “the noise is rapidly approaching a place where it drowns out the signal” and that we need some kind of a filter. Curation – what Rosenbaum calls a human form of content aggregation – imposes the clarity we need.  Or does it?

Since “the future is all about gathering and sorting content with new tools, and consumer engagement,” Rosenbaum believes the new-style curator, each building a “fortress of content,” is destined to become a leader in the new digital world.”  I’m not so sure. What do we get out of simply gathering, and then passing-on, information? If you believe that what you communicate exposes your intellectual blueprint, what message do you send if your “intellectual blueprint” comes from someone else? (Or worse, is borrowed from a large number of disparate sources).  No wonder so many organizations don’t know who they are.

Rosenbaum’s “fortress” will be no more secure than a sandcastle if it is built on borrowed content. People aren’t looking for more messengers, they’re looking for experts able to decipher and provide insight – what does all this damnable content mean!!?!  In other words, to cope with content overload, we need dissemination. In the long run what will win the day is proprietary content that that becomes the catalyst for generating a perception of leadership.

If you want to be a well-differentiated organization, make sure you have something to say that is valuable and all yours.

Just about the time the Internet bubble burst in 1999-2000, Marc Braunstein and Edward Levine wrote Deep Branding on the Internet, an excellent book loaded with lessons for organizations focusing today on social networking.  They complained about “the shallowness of Internet branding,” a process that “was hurried, one-dimensional, without rigor,” where the prospects for producing deep brands were unlikely.   Ultimately, they concluded, there was “nothing quite so despairing as watching a dot.com struggling to find new meaning when they had little meaning to begin with.” Ouch! And all this because these upstart tech businesses refused to concentrate on fundamental issues for brand deepening ideas. Instead, they “confused displaying their symbols for a brand with the arduous process of developing a brand of value” using all appropriate channels.

Has anything changed? Is social media – and what the PR industry hopes to do with it – really “new,” or is it just a new way of doing the same-old thing?  It’ll be the old-wine, new-bottle scenario if that content isn’t proprietary, substantive, and insightful.

The problem with curation-as-gathering is that as the practice becomes increasingly popular and part of the mainstream, those who simply pass-along gathered information will struggle to standout; you can’t differentiate with sameness. Curators will discover, sooner or later, that the community they are working hard to build will dissipate over time if they don’t ultimately focus on dissemination and providing leadership about their subject.  They’ll fade away if they don’t ask “What are we giving people to talk about?”

Unfortunately, few organizations worry sufficiently about that question. Which leads me to the best part of Rosenbaum’s book: what I enjoyed most really has nothing to do with his own argument, but the insights he conveyed (curated) from content strategy evangelist Kristina Halvorson. Content, says Halvorsen, ends up being cosmetic and superficial because organizations don’t invest it with any sense of glamour. The prevailing belief, she acknowledges, is that content is easy and technology is hard, so the latter wins all the glory. Content, she says, simply becomes  “an afterthought,” “somebody else’s problem—‘the client can do it,’ ‘the users will generate it.’”

Consequently, most organizations are pathologically passive about the care and feeding of content. And with no one asking essential questions about the dirty business of content development, says Halvorsen, “do you think it’s a coincidence…that Web content is, for the most part, crap?”  Which is too bad, of course, because instead of being simply “the stuff you use to fill up your wonderfully designed web site” it is supposed to be “the voice, the message, the meaning that your customers come to engage in”

Rosenbaum, on the other hand, believes the destiny of content – replaced as “king” by curation – is to be commoditized.  In one sense, he’s right: content will be commoditized if it is simply repackaged and passed-around. Its value, however, will be raised if the content is disseminated to provide insights and new meaning.  People are looking for unique ideas and leadership, and organizations that take the time to interpret and explain are demonstrating their capacity to lead and inject their brands with quality perceptions.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Braunstein and Levine were right a decade ago when they cautioned organizations from handing-off the responsibility for branding to an agency. Don’t abdicate control: a do-it-yourself communications ethos that firmly positions your organization in the marketplace of ideas will ensure audiences know who you are, what you do, and that your mission is being successfully accomplished.

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