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Why Meaning is the Future of Marketing -- and How These 3 Companies Are Pointing the Way

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Recently, I've been thinking about what comes after the current rage for content marketing. As I argue here and here, I think that over the long term, the over-abundance of content will lead to "no-content marketing."

But even now, we're seeing the next step along the way: what we can call "meaning marketing."

Meaning is what people really seek in most of the content they consume. (The writer in me hates the idea of "consuming" content, but I guess we're stuck with that term).

Meaning marketing aims to give them more of it. Here are three examples of companies that practice meaning marketing.

1. UpWorthy. UpWorthy defines itself as "social media with a mission: to make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof." As co-founder Eli Pariser said to Adrienne LaFrance of the Niemann Journalism Lab:

It's been so awesome to see the hunger that people actually have for content that does have meaning. That's what gets me so excited: proving the thesis that people don't just want fluff stories. People do actually want to be engaged, and treated like adults, and thinking about interesting and thoughtful stuff."

Until recently, content has been optimized for search engines, by stocking the content with search-friendly key words. The meaning-based model doesn't focus on SEO, but on social sharing.

UpWorthy's content curators scour the web for stories that move them, and then package those stories for the greatest sharing appeal, especially by obsessing over the headline. It's working: UpWorthy hit 30 million unique visitors in May, and may be the fastest-growing news site ever.

A recent, typical UpWorthy headline: Ashton Kutcher Just Told A Bunch Of Teenagers How To Be Sexy, In The Smartest Way Ever. It tops reports at Pando Daily, one of the keys to PolicyMic's approach is the scientific analysis of human behavior, including the dominant role of emotion. Says PolicyMic behavioral analyst Elizabeth Plank, "Although we like to think we are rational beings, we are in fact driven by our emotions."

PolicyMic, which according to Quantcast has grown to 4.4 million monthly uniques, also prioritizes social sharing over SEO. McKenzie compares an SEO oriented headline -- "Turkey protests: Has the Arab Spring finally reached Turkey?" -- with PolicyMic's socially oriented one: "Taksim Square protest: 11 images from Turkey that will give you the warm fuzzies."

Such social-friendly language can make serious journalists (and me) feel a bit queasy, but the goal is make a rapid connection over meaning, aiming for the heart and bypassing the flood of information that increasingly overwhelms the intellect.

Of course, every publisher tries to offer meaningful content, and sometimes explicitly so, as in HuffPost's GPS for the Soul. And just about everyone encourages social sharing. What I'm pointing out here is a shift in priority, to the point that the emphasis on getting to the meaning is changing the model.

Now let's turn from the publishing side and have a look at how this works on the advertising side.

3. DataPop. In contrast with the human-driven techniques of UpWorthy and PolicyMic, DataPop uses automation to discover what's meaningful to a consumer -- and then to write ad copy that will appeal to him or her. Evoking the semantic web, it calls its method "semantic marketing."

DataPop CEO Jason Lehmbeck says [video] that current online ad exchanges work like investment banking as run by Gordon Gekko, because they seek to "commoditize consumers into targets, and then price those targets in a hyper-efficient way." The fatal flaw, he says, is that "most ads still suck," because they're not very meaningful to the individual.

Lehmbeck says DataPop's software acts more like a shopkeeper, seeking to offer the right value to each particular customer.

He compares a standard web ad and a DataPop ad, each of which might appear in response to a search for "Louis Vuitton handbag." The standard ad appears the same way for everyone in the target demographic who searches for that phrase, and, in this example, offers them free shipping and returns.

The DataPop software gleans data to guess that this searcher probably doesn't care most about saving money. So, on the fly, it writes a custom ad promising the latest colors and a wide selection. Lehmbeck claims that in a test, this ad outperformed the more generic one by 30 percent.

It may not be the meaning of life, but it is meaning marketing.

This post has been updated since its original publication.