NEEDLES & DIGITAL HAYSTACKS

She introduced herself as a ‘content curator’ with a PR consultancy, a role that didn’t exist when I last worked in consultancy. I hadn’t met one in real life before. So, intrigued, I asked what her job entails. It turns out she maintains and manages a database of facts, figures, stories and press cuttings that the agency’s account teams can refer to when creating new content for their clients.  In a previous life she’d been a librarian.

“There’s just so much information out there today, with more created every day. It’s difficult for the account teams to keep on top of it all, so I try to help them,” she said.

“Fair point”, I thought afterwards, but then began to wonder who’s doing this ‘curating’ for the ‘public’ that the public relations industry is paid to influence?  How does the public find the information it needs? How does it determine what’s important among the tsunami of tweets, blog posts (yes, I know!), Facebook updates, Instagram pictures or Pinterest pins, email and newspaper articles they’re bombarded with every day? Increasingly, it feels like the comms department’s job today is to create more and more content needles for placement in an ever-expanding field of digital haystacks.

How social media channels must sometimes look like to consumers

How social media channels must sometimes look like to consumers

The more information that’s produced, the more difficult it is for its intended audience to find it, engage with it and act upon it. Furthermore, there’s evidence that the average attention span has dwindled from 12 minutes to five minutes in the last 10 years. It’s a classic case of more equals less.  If anything, it looks like the noise is likely to get louder as companies hire more and more former-journalists and digital communications specialists in an attempt to create more opportunities to get heard over the din. Shouting louder and more frequently, it appears, is the answer.

It’s easy to blame technology but that would be to miss the point. We live in the era of what some call ‘content marketing’, an attempt to bypass traditional (and declining media) and target consumers directly. Former FT journalist-turned Silicon Valley watcher Tom Foremski identified the cause when he pointed out that every company is a media company now.  Are all these media businesses causing information overload?

Clay Shirky, the American academic, writer and new media commentator, famously said that there is no such thing as information overload, just filter failure.  Shirky believes that when the economics of traditional publishing meant publishers carried the heavy upfront costs of producing books, newspaper and magazines, they invested in ‘quality filters’. Those filters, otherwise known as editors, were tasked with separating the quality content from the drivel.  But then, the Internet arrived and it turned the economics of publishing on its head. As a result, publishers no longer need to worry about the cost of producing content. The role of quality filter from the past has been passed to the consumer. Consumers typically don’t have the access to professional curators.  The digital world has tried to help with the use of hastags, RSS feeds and the like.

With volumes and media growing every day, the only filter that will work in the long run is the same that traditional publishers employed: quality. Most comms departments might serve their employers better if they spent less time on creating content by volume and more producing fewer, high quality content that creates real value – better stories, better creativity, better humour and stronger, more compelling messages.

If quality content can’t be produced today, maybe silence will be an overwhelmingly better message?  It will be more easily found and maybe better appreciated by the people it’s directed at. It’s also something that the brewing company, Guinness, understood as recently as the mid 1970s.

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