I’d thought the Content is King debate was over, but I saw it rearing its jester’s head once again recently. Argh!
“Content is King” is a phrase that seems to have come out of content marketing to express the simple idea that content is now the most important form of marketing. Which is actually a rather weird and restricted meaning of the word content, since it was meant to contrast with traditional advertising which is, after all, content.
What I think those who coined the term were really trying to say is that in marketing content that informs now performs better than content that attempts to persuade. This is a direct result of content being easier to get on the Web, which means that readers can get the information they want while avoiding any overt attempt to persuade them.
A simple enough idea — though its implications are profound — but boy did it produce much hand wringing, debate, and attempted palace coups. Content isn’t king — the customer, or context, or revenue, or whatever else — is king.
Thinking in terms of Kings, of course, betrays a fundamentally hierarchical world view. The debate about what is King is a debate about what is at the top of the hierarchy. And that debate fundamentally misses the point. As long as you could maintain a hierarchy, the marketer was king: they governed the content channel and controlled what the prospective customer was allowed to learn and how they were allowed to learn it.
What has happened, with the advent of the web, is the death of hierarchy. No one controls and directs content on the Web. It is a boundless landscape without fences. There is no king. Content is a republic. That is the point.
It is because content is a republic that you can no longer force readers to consume your persuasive material. The republican reader simply ignores what you try to force upon them; they can find the information they want on the Web.
The only way to reach them, then, is by providing the content that they want to read, rather than trying to force on them the content you want them to read. Democratic content, in other words, not autocratic content.
Calling content “king” is a dangerous misnomer. Kings are autocrats, and if you imagine content as king, you can easily fall into the trap of creating autocratic content — which your republican readership will cheerfully ignore.
But making something else king is not the cure. There is no autocrat any more. Not even the consumer is king. The consumer is a democrat. One dollar, one vote. The rise of the long tail has profoundly changed our access to music, books, and other forms of culture, greatly broadening what is available and allowing every taste to be satisfied. Never before has individual taste been more fully catered to.
Content is a republic. All politics is local, and the same goes for content. Local, grassroots, bottom-up, pork-barrel content is how you are going to get out the vote.