The Future of Content and Media: Talent and Empathy

From mainstream to emerging storytellers, the consistent message around content and media at SXSW 2016 was people—from the talent behind the content, to the people content is meant to reach. While technology platforms and channels were features of the conversations, they took a backseat to human connections.

While panels promised forecasting the future, the answer was that it has no solid end state. Instead, it’s continuing to adapt and flex to where audiences go. Channels and technology will continue to change. Time, usage, and even (or perhaps most importantly) business models will determine which endure, and which give way to others. Staying in front is vital, as is exploring how different channels can work for your brand. But it’s not the strategy.

Proprietary technologies are furthering change, as content, media and publishing companies experiment with platforms and models that can be replicated—and exported. From digital darlings like Vox Media, which introduced Chorus for Advertisers, to mainstays like The Washington Post, which (with the influence of Amazon) introduced Arc, emerging licensed platforms extend the role of content providers and publishers.

Unfortunately, all this change can often mean that brands are chasing consumers, and can result in intrusive strategies to reach people where branded content can’t easily find them, like messaging apps. But channels are the place for connection, not the connection itself.

So, what cuts through? It should be no surprise that it’s simply old-fashioned, high-quality storytelling.

And storytelling is about attracting people, not bombarding them. As one speaker, Jason Sperling eloquently phrased it, great content should be a “magnet, not a mallet.”

The talent of storytelling

With so many tools at our disposal these days—channels, technologies, platforms, data, measurement—the most valuable are the storytellers. Not just copywriters; not just people who understand the medium or the channel. Storytellers. Which means, hire the best storytellers.

Great storytellers understand where a brand’s story is ultimately going—and how daily parts of the telling help it get there. They find the element in the story that most matters to people—and adapt it to the places and platforms where they revel in those stories. They interpret and apply data, rather than just regurgitate it. And they know that a brand’s story is always in different stages of creation. And this takes great talent—an innate ability to extract the most poignant detail and tell it to the heart.

When speaking about Creating the Modern Media Company at SXSW, Jim Bankoff, Chairman and CEO of Vox Media, listed great talent (and the diversity of that talent) as a critical pillar of both success and future-proofing. Great talent yields great quality. When paired with business focus—in Vox’s case, creating vertical brands like The Verge and Eater that tap into deep passions—you get content that people love.

Connection starts with empathy

Brands constantly talk about connection and engagement, but these terms are losing their significance now that random “likes” on social media are termed and measured as connection (or worse, human interaction). People are over-stimulated and over-saturated with bland content. What stands out is at once familiar as it is fresh—it taps into existing demand, but it’s told through a brand’s unique perspective.

At Buzzfeed’s The Future of Media Companies talk at SXSW, CMO/CCO Frank Cooper boiled the challenge down to creating “human connections at scale.” And the solution is empathy: I like or share it because it reflects me, my thinking, or my values; because it says something the people or communities I care about; or it’s made me think again and that says something about me when I share it. People need to see themselves in the content.

Finding new stories is great but ineffective when forced. Finding new ways to tell a story that people connect to is far more powerful—and sustainable. This is where data can help. Empathy that feels authentic is hard when brands are talking to broad sets of demographics. But as audience data becomes more refined, brands can find new interesting points of connection—it’s our values that connect us above any other metrics. This yields stories that are data-informed, not data-driven—a great storyteller can reach inside data for inspiration, and shape all manner of content from there.

And then, it just needs to be really good

A story told well removes any barriers between the teller and the listener. And that takes creative quality. This is especially true in the age of programmatic, in the age of too much data. Without a push on creativity, all efforts, no matter how highly targeted and studied, can fall into a sea of blandness.

SXSW provided more than enough thinking on content and branding, and no one solution. However, the most compelling speakers focused on creative execution: from National Geographic’s Joel Sartore who offered visual-storytelling inspiration, to Jason Sperling who published the first Instagram book, comprised of colorful graphic videos posted over 176 days. It all comes back to talented storytellers, because today’s audiences are constantly raising the bar, expecting content to be beautiful, imaginative, and thoughtful.

The changing media landscape is here to stay, but that very sense of transience is what can help fuel creativity. Great creativity takes time. And thought. And thinking ahead. And talent. It takes slowing down and fine tuning, so you can hurry up. This may take dedication, but it breeds experimentation and demands quality—and that bodes well for the future of storytelling.

Chief Content Officer