Is Content a Sustainable Competitive Advantage?

A reporter was interviewing me a couple of weeks ago, and he asked if he could "push back" a little on a word that I used. It was a word that, in his mind, was one that we marketers tend to throw around a lot.

He said, "Tell me-what is strategy?" The good news is that I didn't have to come up with a great definition all on my own. Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, has a great answer.

In his 1996 seminal article, "What Is Strategy?" he begins to break it down, saying that a "strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving different sets of activities." Those activities, according to Porter, include serving the few needs of many customers, serving the broad needs of few customers, and serving the broad needs of many customers in a narrow market.

So it was easy for me to answer the reporter's question. But it got me thinking hard about the current nature of what it really means to do strategic content marketing. Is content a sustainable strategic differentiator?

I went back and reread Rita Gunther McGrath's book The End of Competitive Advantage. She vividly illustrates that all competitive advantage is transient-and now, perhaps, more transient than ever before. She then asks, "why hasn't basic strategy practice changed?"

Most executives, even when they realize that competitive advantages are ephemeral, are still using strategy frameworks and tools designed for achieving a sustainable competitive advantage, not for quick exploitation and moving on. The application and strategic nature of content marketing are challenged with this very thinking. We currently think, "How do we change content to fit marketing's purpose?" instead of, "How do we change marketing to fit our content purpose?"

So no, content itself will never be a sustainable competitive advantage or differentiator-because all competitive advantage/differentiation is transient. Instead, we need to change our perspective and understand that we are the competitive advantage. Our ability as a team to be dynamic and fluid and to move in and out of "arenas" (as McGrath calls them) and create temporary advantages will be critical to success.

Here's the real takeaway: We should ask ourselves if we truly believe that compelling, engaging, useful, and dynamic content-driven experiences will ultimately move the business forward. If our answer to that is "yes," then the strategic value is in our ability to repeatedly create the valuable stories and not in where we tell them. This has many implications, which are as follows:

  • Businesses must increasingly stop organizing and scaling new marketing teams based on platforms, technologies, or an inside-looking-out view of the customer journey.
  • Businesses must stop looking at content as a campaign that supports a marketing tactic or initiative, and instead start looking at marketing as a function that increasingly supports the fluid use of content to create and support better customer experiences.
  • Businesses that will succeed with content marketing will be able to constantly reconfigure their efforts and manage a portfolio of content-driven experiences. When a particular experience is no longer advantageous to the business, it will not lean on "that's the way it's always been done" and instead will healthily disengage and dismantle these experiences.

Content is the one thing that must change all the time. Our company's abilities when it comes to content reflect its relevance to the culture in which it lives. We had better get good at creating relevant content, or we risk our communications sounding similar to dialogue from an episode of Deadwood.

This is strategy in the world we live in as content marketers. Change is the standard to which we should strive.   

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