10/05/2012 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Content Isn't King. Often, It's Barely Even Content

by Michael Ramah, Acting CEO, Senior Partner, Global Director, Strategy, Porter Novelli

Please stop calling every message, banner ad, blog post, uploaded video and social media update that tumbles out of an organization "content," and then reverently declaring that "content is king."

The word "content" is now so overused and broadly defined that it is at best meaningless -- but it still raises the question. King of what?

However you want to define, categorize, idolize or hyperbolize it, the fact remains: Content is just content. In and of itself, it doesn't really do anything. To position it as some sort of skeleton key to engagement gives it far too light a pass and distracts from its very purpose.

Content can be a powerful way to execute an overarching, well-defined strategy. Often, though, it can carry only a narrow spectrum of a broader plan for strategic engagement. It is not the final destination, but merely one route that organizations may consider taking to get to where they would like to be. And as many are starting to realize, it is very easy to drive endlessly in beautiful, scenic circles and never get anywhere at all.

Because even when content is an essential component to an engagement strategy, that content component itself must be governed by solid and coherent content strategy that aligns with and adheres to the larger objectives.

Without this type of sound content strategy, content on its own is often confusing, jumbled and contradictory -- and not insignificantly: expensive. Content creation is time-consuming, labor intensive, creatively challenging and complex to manage. To do it well requires a very clearly defined objective, target and trigger to that target -- and a brand better know what the turnaround and payoff on that content is going to be before making it public.

Without those elements in place, content creation propels many brands down a narrower and narrower path. All too often I see a sporadic, piecemeal approach that causes organizations to push out idea after idea, message after message, often in real time, hoping to find something that sticks.

Yes, content needs to be compelling, clear and interesting. But calling it king is like proclaiming that a functioning Web presence is king. Of course it is important to have links that work and pages that load properly, but that in and of itself is not going to solve the communications challenges that brands and organizations routinely face. And neither, on its own, will any piece of content.

What is more paramount than ever is what I like to call the confluence of influence. When content creators scramble to entertain, they lose sight of the fact that real influence is not defined by message consumption. Influence is a considered process, where an organization and the audience and stakeholders that most matter to it meet at a shared point and flow together in a way that is often simple, logical and symmetrical. And yes, elegant. Certainly the creation and absorption of content can be an aspect that engenders that confluence. But content alone is not strong enough or sturdy enough to sustain it in a way that will be meaningful. Focusing on content to the exclusion of strategy simply misses the bigger picture.

There is not much difference between fawning over the greatness of a piece of content and the beauty of an ad layout. No matter how exquisite, clever or beautifully crafted it might be, messaging that drives little meaningful conversion is not content -- it is couture. And right now, however in vogue it may be, there are very few companies that can afford it.