Content Rules, Context Governs

Spilt water by NathanelB

Unless you have been avoiding the interwebs for the past several years, or even bookstores where best sellers like “Content Rules” are sold, you probably know that content is important to a conversation. Frankly your parents were the first ones to tell you when they said “Don’t talk unless you have something to say.”But our obsession with content sometimes makes us ignore the importance of context.

Though I agree with my friend’s futurist buddy that tablets are  becoming an integral part of the  landscape, and that the line between large smartphones and small tablets will become even blurrier,  the real challenge businesses and  marketers will face now and in the future is the proliferation of screens in everyone’s life. At dinner the other night, my iPad2 was streaming Netflix while my iPad three was displaying  research material as I typed a blog post on my MacBook Pro. Sitting silent oon the wall was another screen, my TV, dark and silent only because I had chosen to stream to the smaller screen because the content I wanted was limited to that context.

And that brings us,  tires screeching,  to a halt – the content I wanted was limited to a specific context. So  doesn’t context deserve at least as much attention as the content? If I had not had access to that context, I could not consume the content – leaving the message, however well crafted , undelivered.

Determining  the audience for the messages we send will determine to some degree the physical context where we want them to receive it. Different messages work better for different size screens. And different media conveys content differently. If you have ever had an involved Facebook group conversation, you will quickly understand the benefits of making more involved arguments in  the broader context provided by a blog post. Or, perhaps a simple photo on a Tumblr page will make your point more eloquently than framing it in words. Context, obviously, plays a large part in determining how the content is delivered, and the impact the content has on its audience.

Think of content as water. Without context it’s just a spill. In a glass, it’s a refreshment. In a bucket it’s a cleaning agent. In a pool its recreational. In an ocean or a river or canal, its a highway. In a fire hose its a crowd control device or  a life saving tool to extinguish a fire. The object is the same, but its use and impact is determined to a large degree by its context – the container or vehicle of transport.

In the creative world we have another great example of content given meaning by context.  In 1951  comedian Stan Freberg created a recording called “John and Marsha” in which he parodied soap operas by creating an entire story using background music similar to that used on contemporary soap operas and the dialogue consisted of only two words, “John” and Marsha”. The context was created by the tone and timbre of the actor and was used to create  the framework for the story.

It was a comedic success. Two years later, the same concept was applied to a commercial, this visual medium provided new context through animation and visual clues providing the commercial message. This was given additional context by the audience’s familiarity with the original gag.  The content  survives today, at least in part because of its  ability to adapt to other contexts,  but each time, it becomes a different message. Over the years, the content, through different contexts was performed on stage, on video, and every time the context changed, the message of the content changed with it.  In 2010, the sketch was introduced to a new audience in a new context  when it was part of the 4th season premiere of Mad Men. In the last iteration the context included a specific period framework, its use as a background piece, and a smart, almost obscure reference was used to create still another message with the same content. If you search YouTube for “John and Marsha” you will find numerous uses of the content that use their context to create even more versions of the original message.

What have you done with your content? Has it had its message altered by context? Do you modify it in anticipation of varying contexts? No matter what your answers, while Content does rule, context will govern the delivery of the final message. Forget that at your peril.

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