Back in the Fifties and Sixties, Paris was a hive of intellectuals. They’d sit in underground bars, wine-soaked amid cigarette smoke, and argue among each other for days on end.
Operating in this sphere was a coterie of ragamuffins known as the Situationists. You could call them a group, but they weren’t really. It was more like a loose confederation of drifters and outcasts, all of them unemployed and surviving at the margins.
Arguably, the ‘leader’ of this band of winos and rascals was a rather glum chap named Guy Debord. He spent most of his time thinking and writing about what he called the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, which culminated in a book of the same name.
It’s considered to be his masterpiece. Debord, ever the humble guy, referred to it as the most important book of the 20th century.
The book isn’t held in high regard because of his writing. Debord’s style is beguiling and idiosyncratic. It’s very of its time, meaning a particular post-War French philosophical density that cared little for accessibility.
So given the impenetrability of his prose, you might be surprised to see him mentioned in the context of content strategy. Certainly, you’d do well not to have your content marketing emulate the esoteric musings of a French beatnik.
So why on earth dredge up the work of a dead French philosopher? Because nestled within Debord’s writing is a powerful idea that predicted a central challenge we face as content marketers.
The problem of spectacular content
The intellectual centrepiece of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ – and the moment where Debord comes closest to being easily legible – is this sentence: “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation”.
Think about the reams of content you come across on a daily basis. Your social media timelines are filled with it. How many of those pieces seem to have a beating heart at their centre? How many seem authentic?
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So much of the content we see online these days is spectacular. Not spectacular as in good, but spectacular in the Situationist sense.
When Debord referred to the spectacle or “spectacular”, he was criticising a world where authenticity had been usurped by representation. Or as he put it: “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing”.
We’ve fallen in love with the idea of content. It’s a sort of accepted wisdom. Instinctively, we know that successful marketing often has a content strategy at its heart.
But we forget that words are tools. Amazing, versatile tools, yes – but tools nonetheless.
Great content begins with being
Just creating content won’t just automatically yield results – especially when the content is what’s commonly referred to as ‘me too’ content. That is, writing which, once you remove all the logos and product names, could’ve been written by any of your competitors.
When your messages and value props are interchangeable with your competitors’, you’ll be left with boring, generic and spectacular content.
Internet research and vacuous statistics aren’t the foundation of a winning content strategy.
Instead, writing that makes a reader feel is, in turn, written with feeling. It’s a story written by or emanating from a person who can tap into a deeper understanding of the topic they’re speaking about.
And the good news is this sounds a lot harder than it actually is. Because when the topic is you, your business, and the challenges and problems you solve for clients, then there’s no greater authority on the matter than you.
You get out what you put in
You’re no doubt bombarded by agencies who tell you that they can help your content stand out. It’s an alluring promise: just outsource it and have an external expert carry the content torch.
But, truthfully speaking, it’s often agencies that are driving the tendency towards spectacular content, churning out unoriginal pieces in pursuit of vanity metrics. Clicks and RTs aren’t leads.
Saying that, your instinct isn’t wrong, either. In the battle against spectacular content, expert help from an agency can be an incredibly powerful aid. But even then, the power of the end result emanates from you.
When you hire a content agency, it’s a partnership, not just a service. Even the most talented writer will be unable to mimic the insight you have into your own business and clientele.
The battle against spectacular content begins and ends with you.
The easiest way to move beyond spectacular, me-too content is by sourcing your own industry expertise. The Venn diagram between having a clear idea of what your product is and producing great, rewarding content is a circle.
Guy Debord never got to see the modern internet, he died in 1994. Chances are, being ever the gloomy critic, he would’ve hated it for its frantic, distracted inauthenticity.
Indeed, his ideas have such staying power because he diagnosed a problem that has only become more pronounced. We can see it in the topsy-turvy world of online content: so much doesn’t derive from being.
Instead, apply Debord’s logic to your content. Prize your own unique insight above anything else. And remember, as Debord said: “Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement.”
If you want to create winning, valuable content but you’re not sure where to start, then let us help you get there.
Terry Ehrmann, Flickr on a Creative Commons license.