The volume of “American Idol” hopefuls every year proves the seductive ease of amplification: Many are willing to be "not good" if promised a reach of millions.
A quick review of most branded content on amplification networks reinforces this as the current state of content marketing, where loud seems better than good. The amplification of content, even when it might turn out to be counterproductive for the marketer, is a much easier spending decision than spending on quality. After all, it seems to answer the core question of content marketers: How do I build and attract an audience?
But there is an alternative to amplification: resonance.
Both approaches can be heard by many at a distance: a cannon amplifies and a bell resonates. In general, amplified content adds to the noise, like a person shouting to be heard at a loud cocktail party. Resonant content thrums inside of us and often quiets the noise around us, like a person tapping a wine glass at a cocktail party.
A Study in Resonance: Venture Capital
The venture capital industry is a perfect microcosm to examine the evolution of content marketing. VCs have a need for branding, since they essentially provide a commodity: money from (mostly) rich, smart, white guys.
Content marketing, in one form or another, is now practically a VC requirement today. Some, like First Round Capital, have gone all in on content marketing, creating beautiful and expensive content destinations provided by freelance journalists.
Whether any of these efforts result in real returns on their content investment is, to my mind, very much an open question: the terms, relationships, and networks the VC’s offer seem more important to entrepreneurs than how well a VC creates or commissions content.
In late 2013 a former Kleiner partner named Aileen Lee took a completely different approach with her new VC firm, Cowboy Ventures.
By my count, Cowboy Ventures only created three blog posts in 2013 (and none so far in 2014). But one of these, written last November, was a thoroughly researched and provocative study of what she called Unicorns.
Lee decided to thoroughly answer a question that wasn’t on everyone’s mind, but perhaps should have been: “If the entire VC industry is really predicated on a model to find the next Facebook, and every entrepreneur is positioning themselves to be the next Facebook, then what do those companies actually look like at the stage when they walk through our doors?”
Lee dubbed these rare finds “Unicorns," recalling that the Unicorn, per James Thurber, is “a mythical beast.”
The idea of Unicorns and the difficulty of identifying them resonated. For a few months at the end of 2013 and into the next year, the VC and startup industry was talking about little else than the pros and cons of hunting Unicorns. The term even made it into one or two of those arguably entertaining VC holiday rap videos.
Not Luck – Resonance
You don’t need to strike a bell particularly hard. You have to think hard about how to build a bell, which ultimately means you need to understand the frequency at which the industry operates, or possibly, leverage someone else who does. This is what Lee and her team got right.
Paid third-party journalists and freelancers rarely understand the frequency part (in the wavelength sense of the word) to resonate effectively in the B2B space. As anyone who has ever been the subject of a B2B news story quickly understands, a trained journalist always commits to a compelling narrative for the reader, but not necessarily to the underlying current of the industry.
Influencers on the other hand, either instinctively or through disciplined experimentation, have usually learned how to find resonance. Part of the reason they are considered influential or authoritative is because they understand right pitch and tone to which their audience will respond.
The impending rise and fall of the Influencer Farm.
In the very near future, we will begin to see many former “content farms” begin to transform themselves into “influencer farms” to help "amplify" branded content. So it sounds like there may be a new distribution channel in play: the “influencer channel."
This approach may wind up a little too nuanced for most brand marketers to work with since they will want, above all, to control the message. Unlike amplification, you can't just put any message through the influencer channel and expect it to be heard.
So resonance is harder. But on the other hand, it usually works much, much better than amplification.
Another example of resonance, this time with tentacles
The right approach is often found serendipitously, when an influencer and/or brand recognize the natural resonance that exists between their audiences. A great recent example is the influencer Ze Frank's hilarious, (and not quite appropriate for all audiences) octopus video, which happens to coincide with the Monterey Aquarium’s new Octopus exhibit.
A brand and an influencer came together because they happened to be operating at exactly the same frequency as their audiences, which was recognizing that cephalopods are fascinating, goofy, and terrifying creatures that get relatively little attention compared to say, sharks. Every aquarium has them, but only one thought to brand them.
Pitch-perfect resonance, now with 3 million views and counting.