Media, Messages, and Meaning: Is it time to rethink content marketing?

Pundits, journalists, and your Uncle Joe all wring their hands about the state of discourse online. Too siloed. Too promotional. Too empty. Too rage-inducing. The list could go on and on.

I truly don’t want to add to that particular conversation. But I will admit that I find it difficult to wade an Instagram feed full of Reels or use a news site that combines titillating headlines with product reviews that leverage affiliate marketing for revenue.

Long before TikTok was the “it” social media platform, people were thinking about how to elevate great thinking and writing on the web. One of those people was Ev Williams, a co-founder of Twitter (where there is still a surprising amount of excellent content) and, before that, the founder of Blogger. Williams had a vision: to deepen the online discourse with high-quality writing. 

And so ten years ago, Williams founded Medium. Medium was designed to leverage the best of social media with the best of blogging. It would be a place where great ideas and nuanced writing could spread to new audiences. It was noble vision.

I signed up for Medium pretty early. But I didn’t start using it until a few years later. I had some early success there when the platform was still in its rapid growth phase. Within six months or so, I saw diminishing returns. I’ve kept up with writing or reposting there on and off over the years. 

Last week, Ev Williams announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Medium.

At one time, Medium was the place I visited to discover new ideas and fresh writers. 

I don’t know what it’s like on other people’s feeds, of course. But when I visit the feed of articles that Medium suggests to me today, I’m not just underwhelmed. I’m often appalled. 

Here’s a smattering of the titles that greet me when I open the app:

  • The Golden Rules of Content Marketing for 2022
  • 10 Ways I Turn What I Know Into Uniquely Valuable Content
  • 6 Hacks to Become a Content Creator Machine
  • Right Now, Writers Can Make Money—Lot’s of it [sic]
  • Lessons From Making $4,502 of Passive Income
  • 4 Simple Habits for Better Self-Esteem
  • My 11 Favorite Tools With A *Free Plan* To Build A Modern Startup

I’m a writer, and I’ve posted plenty of articles that have to do with marketing and business. So I’m not surprised that this is the general gist of what I see. If you’re on Medium, your feed might be pretty different–maybe geared to wellness, or self-improvement, or politics. But even when I click on the Mental Health or Wellness topic, I’m greeted by similar headlines.

Anyhow, none of those headlines intrigue me, even though they’re designed to.

Take “6 Hacks to Become a Content Creator Machine.” It sounds good, but my immediate assumption is that the article won’t add anything to my knowledge of how to create content. I’ve been burned too many times by headlines–and my guess is that you have, too. The headline–as a medium for communication–has a reputation for inadequacy.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” It’s catchy, right? 

When McLuhan says “message,” he means content or, rather, meaning. The “medium” is the structure or container of that meaning. For McLuhan, a video can be a medium, but so can a house, computer, or telephone. The medium is an extension of some natural capability we have (e.g., video is an extension of conversation, computers are an extension of our brains). The nature of that extension tells us a great deal about what the meaning of the message.

While there is a straightforward meaning to the message contained by the medium, the medium itself contributes another message. That second message, and for McLuhan, the more influential of the two, is character

The medium conveys both the straightforward message and a certain character that informs how we relate to it.

Headlines are media that serve two main purposes. First, a headline conveys something about the further content it represents. And second, a headline is designed to draw the reader in–to signal that the longer article is worth reading for one reason or another (e.g., usefulness, entertainment, etc.)

Let’s look at “6 Hacks to Become a Content Creator Machine” again. Without looking at the article, I can guess that the straightforward message contains six tips for producing more content at a faster pace (e.g., “keep a list of ideas with you at all times”). That’s the first purpose of the headline.

However the words “hacks,” “content creator,” and “machine” also convey a message–which fulfills the second purpose. These words are all about signaling ease, speed, and productivity. Even the structure of the headline (# of Things, Transformation, New Identity) imparts meaning and a sort of political thrust.

There are many reasons to choose a headline like “6 Hacks to Become a Content Creator Machine.” Intrigue, search engine optimization, or potential for virality are just a few. I won’t suggest that this is a bad headline. But the headline does communicate more than the writer probably intended–and that additional meaning, compounded by the millions of articles that are published each day, helps to create the content sea that we all swim in.

Medium (the platform) is also a medium that conveys a certain character as part of its message.

Williams dreamed of making Medium synonymous with quality, depth, and thoughtfulness. But the message Medium delivers today colors many of its posts as clickbaity and attention-seeking. 

In a later book that explores television advertising in 1970, McLuhan calls commercials “the cave art of the twentieth century.” He explains “(1) because [commercials] are not intended to be examined in detail but to create an effect, and (2) because they express not private thoughts but rather corporate aims” (W. Terrence Gordon, McLuhan for Beginners).

Articles like the ones I listed above, as well as social media posts, aren’t meant to be examined in detail, either. They’re designed to create a certain effect: i.e., conveying the appearance of expertise, usefulness, and/or value. That effect serves “corporate” (or rather, transactional) aims. 

When I visit the main page of the writer behind “6 Hacks,” I note that they’re a B2C content strategist. Medium is where they can demonstrate expertise, usefulness, and value with headlines like “Why You Need Video in Your Content Strategy” and “If You’re Not Collecting Email Addresses, You’re Essentially Screwed.”

I’d argue that the posts on this page aren’t so much designed to be consumed as individual resources but, instead, to create that overall effect. The list of titles is just as important, perhaps more important, as the message of each article in terms of reaching their business objective. The core message is communicated through the headlines, not the articles.

You can apply the same sort of analysis to Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube. You can even apply it to your own website, newsletter, or podcast feed.

Now, the overall impression that someone gets from scanning through the headlines on your blog or the pics on your profile is important. Choosing the effect you want to create is a canny act of branding. But what’s become so frustrating for me as an internet user as well as an internet creator is that so little exists behind that initial impression. There’s no there there.

In fact, the very effect of expertise or usefulness conveyed by a list of headlines creates, for me, skepticism.

When I see something that’s been so carefully crafted to create the impression of authority, I tend to assume that, well, it’s compensating for something. 

I’m not proud of this. But I have plenty of reasons to be dubious.

For the first time in the last 14 years, I see plenty of evidence that content marketing is on the verge of a major shakeup. Williams’s departure from Medium is further evidence of this.

The reason? Content marketing and social media marketing simply don’t work if no one is willing to engage with their products. 

The effectiveness of content marketing depends on attention. If we squander attention (not just as individuals but as a culture) with meaningless, algorithm-pleasing content, we end up shouting into the void. If we optimize for overall effect rather than depth or truth, we waste the attention of the people we say we want to help.

If everyone shows up on Instagram to post their perfunctory photo and then flees because there’s nothing of value on the platform, the overall effect (i.e., valuelessness) impacts every post. If everyone diligently sends out their email newsletter but doesn’t subscribe to anyone else’s newsletter because they’re all perceived as junk, then that overall effect impacts every email.

If the perception of having something to say seems more attractive than actually saying something, we’re wasting our time creating content online. That perception is fleeting and unsustainable. 

I am absolutely not immune to this problem. Market forces work on me the same way they work on others.

For me, genuinely having something to say is a practice. It requires being willing to start pieces I never finish, reading books that don’t seem to apply to my work (but almost always do), listening to thinkers discuss their work on diverse subjects, and learning new skills for identifying ideas. It also requires slowing down: one idea per week for 6-8 weeks with a solid hiatus in between creative blocks.

My practice wouldn’t work for everyone. And heck, I don’t know that every business owner or independent worker needs to have something to say on a regular basis to be successful. 

But what we all need—as individuals and as a culture—is a marketplace of media we want to engage with. Communication creates culture. Meaning inspires action. Sharing together, in all the different ways that occurs, is one of the things that make us human.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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