Brands think of content as another product to create, but content isn’t a thing. Content is a relationship.
This statement has the whiff of woo woo, but allow me a moment to convince you of its simple truth. Because once you’re convinced, you’ll be free to stop deliberating about what to make, or how to make it, or whether it will go viral, and instead realize this one, simple truth:
All storytelling decisions begin with deciding what kind of relationship you want to have with your audience.
Relationships are based on trust
All relationships are based on trust.
You trust someone when you have confidence in their reasoning, or their feelings, or their abilities. You have that confidence because that someone has exhibited that reasoning or those feelings or those abilities over time.
In other words, you trust someone because their behavior is consistent across weeks, or months, or years.
Trust, you could say, is simply another word for time.
This is, of course, why people get attached to even-handed managers, and companies that meet or exceed analyst expectations, and monthly magazines that always have good articles, etc.
It’s not just that the manager is fair, or that the company is profitable, or the magazine is good. It’s that the manager is fair in every situation, and the company operates efficiently no matter the market, and the magazine always arrives on the first of the month.
It’s the consistency of a thing’s actions over time that builds trust, not the simple fact that the thing exists.
This should tell you something about telling stories: you have to keep telling them if you want anybody to care.
This should also tell you something about relationships: they take a lot of work.
There is no trust without honesty
Trust, of course, requires honesty.
You can’t trust someone if that someone isn’t honest about their reasoning, or their ability, or their intent. Their dishonesty takes away your ability to make good decisions.
This is, of course, why people try to avoid managers who dissemble — because the manager’s lie compels the employee to make poor career choices.
And this is why people try to avoid companies that provide falsified guidance — because the company’s lies compel investors to invest poorly.
And this is why people try to avoid magazines, or branded content, or TV anchors who aren’t forthcoming about why they publish certain articles or promote certain beliefs — because lies, whether by omission or commission, compel the audience to make unwise decisions.
In each case, the liar is lying because they fear a negative response to the truth. They’re afraid that if they tell somebody the truth, that somebody will no longer like them, or love them, or trust them, or whatever it is the liar fears most. They care about themselves, not their audience.
Another way of saying this is that the liar is optimizing for an output by falsifying an input. This can never end well. By lying to his audience, the liar makes himself unable to trust that audience. He can’t trust the audience because the audience believes in what the liar knows to be untrue. That means that the audience becomes a thing to be manipulated — which incentivizes further poor decision-making on both sides.
Anyway, this is the reason to reject all kinds of stupid perfidy, from the deplorable (“eco-conscious” gasoline companies), to the inane (unlabeled-but-paid-for lifestyle porn on Instagram), to the wildly unhealthy (stop posting for the likes, friend — you’re killing yourself).
This should tell you another something about telling stories: you have to begin with how the world really is, not how you wish it to be.
If you’re only optimizing the output, you’re optimizing a lie.
And so this is why a publication’s most valuable asset is their relationship with their readers
A publication isn’t content. A publication is the exploration of an idea.
The Economist, for example, explores classical and economical liberalism. Ben Thompson’s Stratechery explores the business strategy of technology companies. Kottke.org explores the liberal arts of the internet.
Each of these publications explores their ideas through the lens of current events; they are dependable voices that provide context for what’s happening, in their purview, in the world.
These publications have material assets (offices, computers, web sites, whatever), but those assets are simply commodities. The one truly valuable and non-fungible thing that they own is their audience’s trust, which was earned over time.
Their audiences trust that the authors will honestly examine the idea territory they’ve set out to explore. The author gives honest effort (input), the audience gives attention and trust (output).
This is a relationship.
This is two parties (publisher and audience) agreeing that a thing that exists between them (the content) is true.
As it happens, this relationship functions just the same for independent publications as it does for successful content created by brands — from a16z’s podcast, to Y Combinator’s Macro, to Autodesk’s Redshift.
In each case, the storyteller knows that they, the storyteller, aren’t the point of the discourse; the point of the discourse is the idea — which is larger than the storyteller and which never ends.
Make relationships, not things
The decision to create a relationship instead of a thing has real consequences for what you make, who you ask to make it, and how it gets done.
If you want to create a conversation because what you value most about your audience is their insight, then there are appropriate platforms and tools and people to help you do that.
If you’d rather create a teacher-student relationship because your audience needs tutelage, then there are appropriate platforms and tools and people to help you do that, too.
Regardless, the strategy flows from deciding what kind and quality of relationship you want to have.
Which is why it’s disappointing when a brand says “we need three pieces of content!” Yes, but why? You might as well ask me to make you three one-night stands.
Here’s your three one-night stands.
Was it as good for you as it was for me?
Everything works this way
Relationships are based on trust. Trust takes time and honesty. You can’t just create a pile of content and be done with it. You can’t “thing” your way to people trusting you.
Which is to say: the question isn’t what content to create.
The question isn’t how to create that content.
The question is why do you care about the people you’re creating the content for? What makes them special? What kind of relationship do you want to have?
How do you want them to feel?