April 20, 2017

Context Collapse, Brands & Content

Why so much content is mediocre and what to do about it.

Context collapse. The idea that the publish box on the internet is terrifyingly broad. With one action we’re sending content to people of a million different interests, intents and types.

Social media technologies collapse multiple audiences into single contexts, making it difficult for people to use the same techniques online that they do to handle multiplicity in face-to-face conversation.


The problem is not lack of context. It is context collapse: an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording. The images, actions, and words captured by the lens at any moment can be transported to anywhere on the planet and preserved (the performer must assume) for all time. The little glass lens becomes the gateway to a blackhole sucking all of time and space – virtually all possible contexts – in upon itself.


This theory of context collapse applies to individual creators but more-so for brands. Their multiplicity of audiences is terrifying for branded content creators, often lost within a dizzying org chart of agencies, internal agencies, clients and departments.

How to spot Context Collapse? Narrative Deficiency.

The right lens to see context collapse is the concept of narrative deficiency from my good friend Brian Dell:

Nothing happened to no one for no reason

When viewed through this lens almost all branded content is nothing more than transient cheap bad marketing.

So how do you escape Context Collapse?

I take all of my new media innovation advice from dead authors, so here’s John Steinbeck:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.


And modern-day-dead-author Joshua Topolsky agrees:

Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media.[…] We’ll have to learn a thousand hard lessons, most of them centered around the idea that if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making it great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone. A lot of people, but not every person.

source: your media business will not be saved

And the internal strategy group of the New York Times found basically the same thing, that context is the key to success:

Our most successful forays into digital journalism […] have depended on distinct visions established by their leaders — visions supported and shaped by the masthead, and enthusiastically shared by the members of the department. […] These departments with clear, widely understood missions remain unusual. Most Times journalists cannot describe the vision or mission of their desks.

source: NYT 2020 report

Said a different way:

Whether your employer is a publisher, a brand, or an agency. If you’re making garbage, help them do better. The good ones will listen to you and incorporate your expertise. In my experience, most of them really do want to do it right. And believe it or not, super engaged communities often want to hear from the brands who serve them. And super engaged brands want to provide communities with things other than just “content”. So if you find yourself writing pablum, narrow the audience to a core group of smart people who care about what the brand has to say. And then convince the brand to say something meaningful to that small, smart audience. Godspeed.

originally a tweetstorm from Kyle Monson

A concise recipe for success

Boiled down into simple terms my advice for content is this:

  • Define a community of interest
  • Hire an editor in chief with a background in interestingness, preferably in that audience
  • Create content directly for, and with, them.
  • Ensure your brand and positioning allow those members of that community to know this is for them

I’ve seen too much content marketing start and end with the medium (let’s do video! let’s do infographics! let’s do interactive!). Instead, the only formats you should need is faces & franchises:

The businesses that stress a storytelling approach that prioritizes delivery through credible, authentic and proximate peer faces vs faceless brands will be more successful. […] Franchises are reignited over and over again through prequels, sequels and “requels.” […] it seems our attention-starved world favors narrative continuity over clutter.[…] As more businesses begin to invest in creating their own content assets, they will also need to embrace a similar long-term approach. Feed fragmentation is real and they will need to adapt by investing in consistent signature content assets.


The key is the editor in chief

The cornerstone of this strategy is bringing someone in to actively fight narrative deficiency, an editor in chief. Where this is done well you see incredible results - and almost any successful content platform on the web can be traced back to a strong point of view driven by a passionate editor in chief. Two key examples:

  • The Intercom blog, run by John Collins, who has a background in journalism from the Irish Times.
  • First Round Capital’s Review run by Camille Ricketts, who has a background in journalism from The Wall Street Journal, VentureBeat and others.

Listen, journalism is not a catch-all recipe for success but perhaps we can learn a little more from the idea of interestingness and community when building content. What have you seen that works?

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: