Let’s Give Them Something (New) to Talk About

You’ve all heard the story of Henry Ford commenting on the automobile: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” There is a fair amount of debate as to whether he actually said this, but certainly the sentiment rings true. Ask customers what improvement they would like, and they’ll probably come up with something incremental to what they already have.

What about content?

One of the things that marketers can get wrapped up in these days is overanalyzing content consumption data and persona research to understand what the “customer wants.” Call it a learned habit from wearing our marketing messaging hats too long – where the driver is repetition of the same message over and over and over again.

For example, a director of content at a large technology company told me that after doing an exhaustive analysis of third-party social content (a social-conversation analysis), their own website content, and interviews with current and existing customers, that they had landed on five topics that their customers wanted to talk about. He said he was going to focus his content people on those five topics.

I told him the story I’m about to tell you.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for Showtime Networks, which is owned by Viacom. Now, Viacom is a massive company and (at the time) owned a broad range of entertainment companies, such as CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Paramount Pictures, and on and on. (In 2006, they split CBS and Viacom into separate companies, but that’s a different story.) Anyway, back in 1994, Viacom bought this hugely successful company called Blockbuster Video. The chatter around the various offices was about becoming a “software company.”  See, one of the primary reasons Viacom purchased Blockbuster was for access to the Blockbuster database. The feeling was that this massive database of 50 million consumers and their content-consumption habits would provide incredible data for the various networks to use for strategy. They could look at the popularity of movies, actors, directors, plot lines, etc., and use that to create the “perfect” content.

There was only one problem. As it turns out, when you assemble the most popular plot line, cast it with the most popular actors, and have it directed by the most popular director, you typically wind up with a fairly horrible movie.

You can use consumption data to surface similar content. That’s a great model, as Netflix has discovered. And, to some extent, you can use consumption data to predict a finished work’s success, as Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos did when contemplating whether to produce the TV series House of Cards, Netflix’s foray into original programming and, by most measures, a smash. 

But using that same data as a means of limiting your creation of content is a recipe for mediocrity.

One of the primary reasons we find a piece of content so resonant, and so valuable, is that it surprises us – it gives us something we never knew we wanted. So it can make sense to avoid limiting ourselves to what our consumers are talking about or have said they want.      

Instead, let’s examine what they might not know they need. Let’s get creative about how we deliver it to them. If we’re going to start a conversation with a customer, we have to give them something new to talk about.



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