Everyone today is a media company, be it a businessperson, an entrepreneur or a student, says Bharat Anand, the Henry R Byers professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in the US and an expert in digital and corporate strategy. All because we live in a digital world where everyone can interact directly and create and distribute content. In the process of trying to get noticed in the digital world, however, most organizations, from finance to media and education, fall into what Anand says is the “content trap”.
In his new book, The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide To Digital Change, Anand offers an incisive approach for companies that favours “fostering connectivity over focusing exclusively on content”. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
What is the ‘content trap’?
The content trap is a set of seemingly rational behaviours that companies engage in that often turn out to be flawed. First, there’s the tendency to strive to make “the best” product. Second, companies tend to narrow their focus around their core product and try to protect the value of their product at all costs. Third, they track competitors closely, looking for product initiatives that they can then mimic. Rather than leading to success, these behaviours often have exactly the opposite consequences.
All this is extremely relevant because the foremost question confronting companies today—whether in retail, banking, education—is how to navigate digital change.
Is the success of a company, be it media or otherwise, largely dependent on the content it generates?
No. Success increasingly comes from establishing and fostering connections, not content. It comes not from making “the best” content but from creating content that connects people. It comes not from mimicking the product initiatives of your competitors one-by-one, but from recognizing that these choices are often deeply interrelated: Context matters.
Success comes from connecting people, products and choices, rather than focusing on content or product alone.
With trends changing almost every day, it can be difficult for companies to keep up. Any measures you could suggest?
The natural instinct in a period of rapid change is to try to look to the future and predict what technologies will come next. That nearly always fails, as predictions generally turn out to be wrong. Companies would do well to follow a different path.
First, a far more productive way to “keep up” is to focus not on technologies but on customer needs. Rather than track how technologies are changing every day, it pays to have a deep understanding of customers—your customers, how their behaviours are changing, and then to figure out how to craft your digital strategy around these needs. Second, rather than try to predict what the next big thing will be, be prepared to act and harness the opportunity when it arises. Third, less is more: Rather than try to do everything for everyone—a sure-fire recipe for mediocrity—focus on a few things, and do them really well.
Is there any mantra for marketplace traction?
A common challenge facing nearly every company today is how to get their products noticed as product clutter increases. Some lessons are clear. First, simply spending more on marketing doesn’t work. Look for ways to connect people, rather than just making and marketing products. Think about how little money Facebook, Uber and Airbnb have spent on attracting new users during the past decade. The power of networks comes from a simple property: The value of the product to any user increases as more users purchase that product—resulting not in growth, but exponential growth. This isn’t just the difference between “hub-and-spoke” marketing versus social marketing. If you leverage connections and networks, your existing customers in effect become your sales force. Second, piggybacking on familiar products helps. Well-known names, brands, reputation become more important, not less important, as product clutter increases. Third, it pays to differentiate. Me-too strategies throw you into a vicious cycle of being forced to spend more and more on marketing to stand out.