Content in the online realm

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The nature of content in the online realm

To think about content in the online realm it makes sense to go back to 1964.

Internet history

In 1964, the idea of being online and exposed to hypermedia was the stuff of information theory papers and the fevered dreams of researchers on government projects trying to build working packet networks.

The medium is the message

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan published his book Understanding Media[1] introduced a concept in the title of the first chapter of his book, that would become common cultural currency. This was that ‘The medium is the message’. The expression neatly captures the idea that the communication being used— email, podcast, social media post, documentary film, white paper etc.—will affect how the message is perceived. Even, if the same message is communicated with different media. That is why an article printed on the salmon pink paper of the FT seems to carry more weight literally and figuratively than content in the online realm.

‘The medium is the message’ is often used in the context of media considered influential on society, including forms of media that are thought to have changed how people experience the world. An area that online communication fit neatly into, just in the same way that television and video cassettes would have in the 1980s.  

When we think of content, particularly in the online realm, the medium itself helps dictate our thinking. From a marketers perspective, at least in theory, every action in the online realm is trackable. So marketers think that they can use content in the online realm to take the audience through a curated journey to adoption and beyond.

The marketer will have mapped out paths that customers will receive content on like a hunter baiting a trap. The idea clearly meshes with concepts like the sales funnel. Marketers would be able to track the audience through a journey and prompt them to take the next step through emails and advertising retargeting.

This cajoling might be triggered on customer responses through the power of artificial intelligence, that dynamically adapts to each customer, or a sales rep in a follow-up to conversation. This is would be considered to be part of the marketing function’s digital transformation. 

Digital transformation

If you are reading this article, chances are you’ve read about digital transformation, seen internal presentations, listened to podcasts, been to the webinars and possibly in person conferences about the subject area.

Digital transformation typically offers an efficient technology-centred approach, but consider for a moment if it’s a consumer-centred way? 

Which begs the question: As marketers and creators, what should we be doing for the estimated 95% of the time when the audience isn’t in a frame of mind to move towards adoption? 

The sales funnel

The sales funnel is one of the most enduring ideas in sales and marketing. A recent article by strategist Tom Roach described it as ‘the cockroach of marketing concepts’[2]. It appears in various designs in the smart art function of Microsoft® PowerPoint® – such is its importance in the business world. The importance of the sales funnel is recognised by Mark Ritson, who believes in their use to marshal the thoughts of marketers in terms of periodisation, rather than its literal application[3].

In his article Roach makes the point that the sales funnel started out as the AIDA model. AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) in turn came out of door-to-door personal selling in the late 19th century. It was a way to teach sales people how to navigate buyers to make a purchase in a single conversation on their doorstep. 

The book Bond Salesmanship[4] in 1924 used a ‘funnel’ metaphor with the AIDA model to encourage a consumer to make a purchase. 

One interesting aside by Roach was Bond Salesmanship was about facts being ‘forced down’ the funnel rather than people. The generally accepted use now is to convey customers through, stage by stage. All of which is completely divorced from its original use in a personalised single session. 

When I had been in college the sales funnel was only mentioned in passing in foundational modules on consumer behaviour. The lecturer used it as way of conceptualising how marketing worked as a visual accompaniment to the AIDA model rather than being used in a literal sense. At the time, my lecturer felt that consumers were too post modern in nature to apply it.

The popularity of the funnel seems to have grown again with the rise of advertising technology and marketing automation platforms. Historically enterprise technology companies have relied on personal selling to their business customers. This may have had something to do with the model’s adoption and application in a multi-session customer journey by adtech development teams as their ‘model’. 

A model is handy as a mental framework to simplify the understanding of a concept, but it often falls down in a real-world environment. The sales funnel is no exception: 

  • The perfect customer fallacy. Customers will remember what you’ve told them in the previous stages, in the order that you told it to them. This point is a complete fiction, people often don’t remember what they’ve been told. Which is why a lot of work has been put into consumer memory encoding and revival as a subject area. It is why reach and frequency are important aspects of any paid media plan[5].
  • As designed, the sales funnel has no concept of memory. Is this a product that you’ve bought before? What was your experience like? Are you happy to use it again? Do you actively seek it out as a product that you want to use? 

The reason for both of these limitations is that the sales funnel was originally developed for single session selling opportunities, not the kind of relationship that brands typically have with stakeholders today. 

McKinsey came up with a circular journey that had been called the loyalty loop to allow for customer memory.[6]

McKinsey loyalty loop

James Hankins of Vizer Consulting came up with a conceptual model[7] that better addresses the perfect customer fallacy. Hankins model also implies the role of brand building as well as brand activating content in the customer buying process. 

Hankins' conceptual model
James Hankins

What does all this have to do with content in the online realm?

We know that we have a desired journey for content, that is often designed around the sales funnel. But we also need to build content around that. If the consumer journey is storytelling, then the content around it is more akin to world-building. 

This has been called content continuity by others.[8] Content continuity supports the web of interactions that aren’t a purchase in the James Hankins model. 

The storytelling provides our core content, the content continuity builds around that. Content continuity provides supporting information. 

How do we think about content in the online realm in order to create content continuity? The key to thinking about this content is to think about it in two dimensions. The first dimension is around content themes. What are the content themes that the content journey relies on and what is the content areas that are tangential to these areas? This will vary based on the product, service or campaign. 

The second thing to consider is how this content affects the audience in terms of exposure to the brand, exploration, evaluation and experience. With this in mind consider how your content themes fit into the following six areas that impact exposure, exploration, evaluation and experience. Are there any obvious gaps that need to be plugged? 

20210922 - content in the online realm
The author’s own creation

If you are marketing to a well-understood category with a well-understood idea of what is good, that your product or service fits into then you probably not need to consider market shaping or market attitudes. Otherwise, it makes sense to see how the content themes cover: market authority, market shaping, marketing attitudes, product awareness, product relevant and product proposition / support. 


The tone of content needs to be appropriate to the job that needs to be done. Safety instructions or a list of allergens in the product could do without a touch of levity. However, in other areas it is worthwhile thinking about how emotion could be used appropriately. Research shows that emotional priming content aids long term sales uplift.[5]

Remix, re-edit and reuse

Once you’ve created great content, the next thing to think about is how it can be put to the best use with necessary tweaks, expansions or modifications. A webinar can be turned into video on demand content. A presentation script can be turned into an opinion piece or white paper. 

Think about how it connects with other content. This means connecting content together and treating your digital presence as an ‘embassy’.[9] This embassy approach facilitates audience exploration and evaluation. 

Ignoring the digital dictatorship of the marketing automation black box

All of the processes that we’ve outlined take a human-centred approach, this means that they may not fit in with the algorithmic driven ‘black box’ approach beloved of marketing automation platforms. This means doing content for the right reasons, not just for the right numbers. It takes bravery to ignore the hectoring and dictatorial nature of the ‘black box’, but who should your organisation put its faith in, its marketing staff or a ‘one-size fits all’ algorithm? I would argue that data and metrics should inform, but not dictate an approach. 

You can find similar content to this essay here.

[1] McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Kiribati: New American Library.

[2] Roach, T (September 11, 2021) Why the sales funnel is the cockroach of marketing concepts. United Kingdom: Marketing Week

[3] Ritson, M. (September 18, 2020) ‘Funnel juggling’ is the answer to marketing effectiveness. United Kingdom: Marketing Week

[4] Townsend, W. W. (1924). Bond Salesmanship. United States: H. Holt.

[5] Field, P., Binet, L. (2013). The Long and the Short of It: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies. United Kingdom: Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

[6] Court, D., Mulder, S., Vetvik, O.J. (June 1, 2009) The consumer decision journey. United States: The McKinsey Quarterly

[7] Hankins, J. (February 2, 2021) Forget funnels, here’s a new model for the path to purchase. United Kingdom: Marketing Week

[8] Kuperman, D. (October 8, 2012) The Importance of Content Continuity. United States: The Effective Marketer

[9] Armano, D. (October 1, 2010) Digital Embassies: A Blueprint for Community Engagement. Germany: FutureLab.