There is no shortage of jargon in marketing, advertising and branding. In fact, business communication is peppered with terms that have such divergent definitions that they’ve become all but meaningless. In any given client meeting, or on any given brief, words and phrases like “digital”, “web”, “online”, “mobile”, “interactive”, “social media”, “socialCRM”, “digital PR”, “new media” and others get thrown around liberally even when the likelihood is great that the sender and recipient define those terms differently.

Every time a new technology or platform gets introduced into the communication mix we get lured into believing we need a new strategy or approach. We start believing we need to rethink the principles of communication. I think this is a big mistake. This is why…

Marketing, branding and advertising is all, fundamentally, communication. Whether it’s internally or externally focused, business communication and therefore all marketing, branding and advertising can be simplified to a set of 4 building blocks:

Content, delivered through a Channel, to some semblance of Community, with a Commercial objective.

Content, Channel, Community, Commerce.

This model adequately describes everything from a 30 second spot aired on TV to a tweet published from a branded Twitter account, to a billboard on the side of the M1 highway. The only difference is that some channels allow for dialogue with the community that receives the content, whereas others are strictly a broadcast medium. If a channel allows for dialogue, then Conversation (or the ability to converse) becomes critical – a 5th building block and arguably the only “new” one.

Conversation, or at least the need to converse, reminds us that if nothing else, the social era of business has forced companies to acknowledge the individuality and humanity of their staff and customers. In a world where pretty much everything is commoditised and customers have a wealth of choice, companies are finding it harder to differentiate on price and product and are left with only personality as a competitive differentiator. Put simply, in today’s world a brand’s ability to converse – to differentiate – lies in is its ability to scale humanity.

All great marketing, brand and advertising campaigns can be traced back to content that was contextual, relevant, interesting and shareable. Whether we’re remembering the Cremora “It’s not inside, it’s on top” tagline from decades ago or the latest Old Spice “I’m on a horse” viral video of months ago, the essence of the success of those campaigns was truly brilliant content. In most of these instances the channel is all but irrelevant.

Why then, as agencies and clients, do we have an inexplicable channel bias? It seems all the attention and focus of budgets, strategies and ultimately execution revolves around the channel, the platform, the technology! We call ourselves “digital marketing” agencies and “social media” experts and “mobile media” sales people – defining ourselves by the channel. Is it that we haven’t evolved our thinking as quickly as the environment has evolved, or is it that the intrigue of the channel has us focused on the wrong things, or is it simply that where there is mystery, there’s margin, and agencies are happy to capitalise on the hype?

When we focus on the channel, we almost always do so at the expense of content, community and commerce (and conversation).

We assume putting a video on YouTube will inherently make it viral (as if YouTube has some magical power that transforms crappy content into something interesting)… Channel comes before content.

We assume that because there are a billion people on Facebook, having a Facebook page will make us popular and “liked”, as if every user with a Facebook account spends all day looking for branded content to read… Channel comes before community.

We pour millions into a TV ad, not because we know for sure people see the it, like it or actually buy something after viewing it, but rather because the marketing director before us did. And the marketing director before them… Channel comes before commerce. And common sense, in this case.

I’m not saying TV is not a viable channel. I’m saying making an ad because of some legacy budget allocation or a director’s decision in the 80s is not commercially smart. Same goes for that “microsite” (whatever that is), app or Twitter account you’re planning.

Very few of our clients at Cerebra have a content problem. even the most boring brands produce extraordinary quantities of content. The bigger issue is how effectively that content is collected, repurposed and contextualised for communication. So, brands don’t have a content problem, they have a storytelling problem. We are starting to work harder on helping clients effectively collect and package their existing content. And when we do, they win.

We also know that every client has communities. Whether we’re aware of them or not, whether we’ve quantified them or not, every company we work with has communities of existing customers, potential customers, employees, investors, stakeholders, influencers, media, etc. What we don’t do very well is understand what drives those communities, how they function and what they really want. The industry lacks community intelligence – something we all need to work toward fixing.

I believe that when agencies and clients start focusing on creating remarkable content (being great storytellers) and understanding communities (understanding measurement, intelligence, research, insight, data), the channel is the easy part. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that when you have the content and community parts right (and you’ve considered the commercial objective), the communication will work on ANY channel.

And yet, we still have “digital marketing” agencies. Or “social media” specialists. All the focus on the channel, zero on the content or the community.

If I were you, spending hundreds of millions on marketing, branding and advertising, I’d be thinking about holding my communication partners accountable to their understanding and competency in and of content and community, and their ability to show a real commercial result, outcome or benefit on a consistent basis.

Here’s another thought. Perhaps there should only be three kinds of agency partners:

1. Those that specialise in content aggregation, creation and publishing.

2. Those that specialise in “community intelligence” (or research, insights and data).

3. Those that specialise in a channel, or technology, or platform. These will likely be developers, engineers, technicians. Their job is exclusively to build a solid platform (be it a billboard or a website) for the delivery of content.

And then the client’s job is to measure commercial success, and scale conversation.

I think marketing, advertising and branding falls over when specialists in content, community and channel try to eat each other’s cooking. It is only the vary rare agency that has managed to resource for all pillars, and avoid the temptation of establishing departments by channel – i.e. truly achieve the promise of being “full service”.

I challenge you to simplify your business communications to these four (or five when we throw conversation in) pillars, and watch it transform the effectiveness of your campaigns, your relationships with your agencies, their relationships with each other, and the market’s response to your brand.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and comments!