The Content Conundrum: To Create Or Automate?

When it comes to content creation--even in short bits and blasts on Twitter---the human touch is what will keep marketers relevant and real. A look at J.Crew, Wegmans, NASCAR, and other brands that are getting it right.

Last weekend I snagged a lounge chair at our community pool next to a friend and fellow marketer I haven't seen in weeks. We're both managing the demands of family and careers and rarely get a chance to catch up with each other or with our reading. I pulled out Runner's World from my bag, she pulled out J.Crew. Before long we were swapping magazines, and, as like-minded marketers, our conversation quickly shifted gears to how J.Crew had snagged us (cynical shoppers that we are) to become advocates for its brand.

Consider the catalog--a source of poolside perusing--that is now called the J.Crew style guide. It's less about the specs and more about the style. I had the opportunity to share a stage recently with Diego Scotti, the company's CMO. Our panel discussion was all about "moving beyond the 'like'" to more engagement with stakeholders. He shared the story of J.Crew's evolved thinking in this area and its recognition that the catalog is a catalyst for the brand to offer a point of view. The J.Crew created content, online and in print, shares ideas from in-the-know fashion and jewelry designers on current fabrics, cuts and fashion trends while remaining unmistakably J. Crew: polished and fresh and conversely, appropriately classic. The revamped catalog--disguised as a style guide--is an example of company-created content done right.

When it comes to generating compelling content, fashion companies may have it easy. But, every marketer can take a page from J.Crew's guide on how to create and manage a lot of content while maintaining a consistent voice across multiple channels. And, oh yes, to generate interest in your content in ways that drive actions that benefit your company. It's that new nuance of paid, owned and earned media singing Kumbaya together.

Help is available. At a time when it is imperative for brands to communicate 24/7, a growing number of tech and media companies make it possible to automate content creation and curation. A few keywords typed in here and there and---voila!--content. The Huffington Post, for one, offers to create web sites for brands and use algorithms to repurpose relevant HuffPo content. Meanwhile, there are tech companies that can generate articles that look as if they were penned by real writers.

Like many of my peers, we're exploring these tools and doing so with an eye toward simplifying content management while maintaining an authentic and engaging brand voice. Algorithms can do amazing things, including suggesting topics of discussion and identifying popular issues that will resonate with a target audience. But they can't put together a style guide, say, that motivates customers to engage regularly and meaningfully with the brand. When it comes to content creation--even in short bits and blasts on Twitter---the human touch is what will keep marketers relevant and real.

The companies that are truly winning over audiences and driving consumers are the ones that are experimenting with a balance of automated aggregation and human-directed curation. It's a process of out-sourcing and in-sourcing.

I've been following Intel's approach. It recently launched iQ, an employee-curated digital magazine created to connect with a younger audience and share with them the bigger, living brand story. Not only does the site provide original stories about tech, it also aggregates top tech stories from other sites that Intel's audience will find interesting. Readers and employees dictate much of the moment-to-moment interaction on the site, but it is all closely watched by editor-in-chief Bryan Rhoades, who spurs conversations by judiciously placing some stories on the iQ homepage.

NASCAR, too, is experimenting in this space. A partnership with Twitter includes a site that compiles #NASCAR-related tweets from popular drivers, who send 140-character blasts from the track or wherever they may be-- along with those from sports writers and other industry folks. They pull it off by using a search algorithm and human editors who understand narrative---and appropriate content.

My friends over at Wegmans (I call them my "friends" hoping the Wegman family will open a store in Fairfield County, Conn.), were among the first to the table in using relevant content to connect with consumers. In 2001, way before Twitter and Facebook and before actor Alec Baldwin proclaimed his mom's love of Wegmans on the Late Show, the company created Menu magazine. It's a "tuck-in-your-pool bag" food guide that is sent to consumers free of charge and features practical, balanced yet appetizing meal ideas that even the most harried of parents (that would be me) can make with the help of a Wegmans' shopping list, of course. The company is connecting shoppers with relevant content--among the many reasons Wegmans was recently named one of 16 brands with fanatical cult followings.

Bill Gates was right in noting that content is king. Today, we are all publishers. It's a daunting prospect. New content curation tools make automating the job easier--but easy may not always be as effective. It would be a mistake to let algorithms do the entire job for you. No one knows your audience like you do. And, keeping the human touch in the process is more real, which is really important to today's info-overloaded consumer. This begs the question, which brands are serving up content to you poolside?

[Image: Flickr user Gwen Vanhee]

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3 Comments

  • Carly A. Heitlinger

    While J. Crew is undoubtedly performing remarkably well, I believe they have the potential to be doing even more. With a visionary leader like Mickey Drexler at the helm, it surprises me that they aren't doing more to connect with current customers and to draw new ones in. I would say that J. Crew is only 'notable' when it has the potential to be extraordinary. 

  • Vince Robisch

    I absolutely agree Christa that the human touch is essential. Curation as a compliment can definitely work but is a delicate balance. I am drawn to brands that curate things I might not have otherwise seen rather than simply parrot popular content. What I am REALLY drawn to is interesting, original content.