Why Rembrandt knows more about monetising content than the Premier League

On consecutive pages of my favourite newspaper there were recently two stories that for me, at least, flagged up the conundrum (wrapped in a contradiction) faced by content owners; both in terms of how they control and how they monitise.

On page 7 of the paper there was a story from the National Gallery in London , which had lifted its ban on photography. Want a selfie with Rembrandt aged 63 – knock yourself out.

The gallery’s reasoning was that it couldn’t distinguish between visitors using their smartphones (and the gallery’s free wifi) to find out a little more about Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, born in the Netherlands in 1606 and whose self portrait at the age of 63 was one of his last works) and those taking a crafty snap to post on Facebook.

Turn to page 8 in the same newspaper and there’s a story about the Premier League warning footy fans not to post smartphone videos of goals online. Obviously they don’t forsee their staff facing a problem telling the difference between the goal posters and someone simply texting a mate: “Our centre forward is a w**ker – get the beers in”. (To be fair, they are also clamping down on goals recorded from televised footage and then posted onlien, as well as developing a range of technologies to spot this type of copyright infringement.)


You can see where the Premier League is coming from. They make billions from selling the rights to such footage. Why should Sky or BT Sport part with ridiculous amounts of money (you can tell I’m not a footbal fan) if fans can share the highlights on Vine for free?

But the National Gallery must face a similar challenge, surely? Copyrighted images of priceless artworks are what keep galleries like the National running. If big business stops buying the rights to such images – “we want to use Rembrandt aged 63 as the cornerstone for a new male grooming ad campaign” – and visitors no longer pick up postcards and posters in the gallery shop, because they’re content with the picture they’ve have on their iPhone 5, the revenue loss is significant… catastrophic.

  • So, which approach is the right one?
  • The answer could be neither.
  • Both are husbanding content in a very traditional way.


The National Gallery made a judgement call based on resource (staff and best use of their time). It’s also a decision that brings it into line with other major galleries, such as the Tate (or, as I would put it, the National’s competitors).

The Premier League has made a decision based on its existing revenue model, relationships with its big spenders and the very human reaction to losing one’s grip on something, which is to grip tighter.

Both stories demonstrate how the ways in which people engage with an experience – a priceless art work, or a vital goal in injury time – have expanded.

The old master selfie and the six second loop of video uploaded to the Vine sharing platform are natural extensions of the National Gallery shop postcard, or the commiserative post-defeat pint.

Where next?

The BIG question is how do, or should, you monetise? On the face of it what you have is more opportunities to make less money.

Somebody recently gave me a copy of The Curve by Nicolas Lovell, a fantastic book that looks to make sense of the rapidly expanding opportunities to publish (and share) things digitally; audiences reluctance to pay anything for them and the need for those who own and control content to make money from it.

Much of his argument focuses on the need to harness the digital content landscape, not as an opportunity to make money (in the first instance) but to build relationships. Not the tweety, creaky relationships that evaporate in an instant but a bridge of two-way dialogue, trust, mutual respect and reward between the creator/curator and audience.

It is from the more robust platform that the process of identifying both what might be paid for at what price and who within this broader audience might pay what for it begins. I know, it’s a complicated sentence. Let’s put it into a bell curve.
  1. Get to know and engage with your audience really, really well.
  2. Look at what you have to sell digitally and how you might find exclusive elements within it worth paying top dollar for.
  3. Find the segments within your broad audience that will pay these top dollars.

It is both very simple and extremely difficult but Lovell has some impressive case studies.

And let’s take a leaf out of Rembrandt’s book. He may not have had a Vine account but he knew a thing or two about building relationships with patrons, which he did extremely successfully in the early part of his career (bar the odd cock up). He also used apprentices to produce lower priced copies and etchings.

What seems to be missing from both the National Gallery and the Premier League approach is serious (plus thoughtful and fresh) consideration of the mass market audience. (Well, you could argue that staff no longer telling gallery visitors to put their phones away removes a small source of irritation from the visitor experience perspective, but I don’t believe that was a major driver).

What it really smacks of is a desperate desire to keep the current model running smoothly. I think Rembrandt would be disappointed.

McKinsey on demystifying social media for executives

McKinsey believe there are two interrelated reasons why social media remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle for many executives, particularly non-marketers.

“The first is its seemingly nebulous nature. It’s no secret that consumers increasingly go online to discuss products and brands, seek advice, and offer guidance. Yet it’s often difficult to see where and how to influence these conversations, which take place across an ever-growing variety of platforms, among diverse and dispersed communities, and may occur either with lightning speed or over the course of months.

“Second, there’s no single measure of social media’s financial impact, and many companies find that it’s difficult to justify devoting significant resources—financial or human—to an activity whose precise effect remains unclear.”

Read more on the the McKinsey Quarterly site

Why things aren’t black and white any more

Picture of hellbore flower with white and red petals
Hellebore plant – all will become clear later in this blog post…

I have a friend who recently had her garden renovated and decided to treat herself to some new garden furniture.

She started by ordering two big parasols off the internet in ‘black’. The only problem was that when they arrived they weren’t black at all, they were a dark grey.

“Ah yes,” said customer services when she rang to complain, “they’re a really, dark grey. Almost black.” “But not black,” said my friend. She sent them back.

Next she ordered some handmade metal furniture. It was expensive but looked beautiful on the website. She wanted black and while the furniture looked black in the photos, the colour was described on the website as “Hellebore”. My friend sent for a sample – just to be sure.

A small metal sample duly arrived. It was certainly very dark but the sample size and the matt paint finish made it difficult to be 100% sure. “Is it black?” she rang and asked the manufacturer. “Yes,” they said. When the furniture duly arrived it was… dark grey. “It’s our version of black,” said the manufacturer.

So, what’s the moral of this tale?

Picture of Hellbore with white petals
“Our particular shade of Hellebore black is quite unusual”

I’m not going to bore you with what happened next in this particular saga of retail ineptitude and arrogance, but from a content perspective, whether grey is the new black and whether you should call it Hellebore speaks to the heart of the content strategy conundrum for me.

“Conundrum,” I hear you say (okay, you’re not saying it but I’m fond of the odd rhetorical device), “Surely the case for content strategy is unequivocal.” Hmmmm.

Don’t get me wrong. Content strategy is the glue that allows its experienced practitioners, and organisations that listen to them, to make sound, cost effective decisions about content as an integral facet of any business or activity. Content is business. Business is content.

Without content in all its forms – from tweet to transaction process, article to image, video to brochure, app to pack shot – you cannot engage with your audience. Without content it’s like juggling with no hands. Without good content it’s like juggling with skipping ropes. It may draw the attention for a few minutes. But who wants to watch someone drop something repeatedly? Put the ropes down. It’s time to get balls.

Content strategy isn’t an easy option. Sometimes it means you have to unpick stuff that you’re been doing a certain way (and successfully) before you can ‘do’ your content properly. It can be like breaking a leg in order to reset it. But many organisations are happy to limp along rather than go through the pain. Personally, I find it very frustrating. Content strategy is black and white. But most companies still want Hellebore.

Bringing the metaphor back into the room…

From a marketing perspective, having a very, very dark shade of grey that’s not just described in your content as “Very, dark grey” or “Slate grey” or even “Almost black” makes a kind of sense. It’s a point of differentiation. It’s adding an extra layer of glamour. It is not particularly helpful, or useful, but if there are other more helpful and factual texts, perhaps some customer reviews and some good photography, this indulgent sub-routine of hyperbole is tolerable.

Back in the days before the interweb, it may not have mattered quite so much. If I went to a shop I could see products with my own eyes. Hellebore be damned, it’s black.

Product brochures and retail catalogues for any halfway decent brand were usually produced with scrupulous attention to colour accuracy. It saved on returns and refunds. It protected the brand from disgruntled consumers.

So, I ask myself, has something changed (or failed to change) now we’re engaging with products and services online? If organisations don’t pay attention to the basics such as product descriptors and colour accuracy, don’t they run the risk of customers ringing up to raise hellebore?

The accuracy (or lack of it) in online colour rendering is one issue. But it speaks to the bigger picture. It means that an organisation or organisations didn’t think about how the colour might render on a computer, laptop, mobile or tablet screen, or how it may vary  if a potential customer decides to run off a hard copy on their printer?

Did anybody think?

The very expensive garden furniture on the website my friend ordered from was pictured in shades of red, pale blue, black(ish), green and white, described respectively as carmine, salvia, hellebore, hosta and aconite.

In their original and horticultural terms aconite and hellebore are plants that come in various colours. Personally, I’d say that aconite is more likely to be perceived as a darker colour. There are slight witchcraft connotations and when you look online it does seem to turn up as a colour descriptor for dark grey or dark blue (although it can be a bright yellow). Hellebore, as a plant, is commonly a white or greenish white (but it can also be pink and even a blood red).

Is it possible that the words used to describe the colours shown in the pictures got mixed up? As the colours aren’t described in common sense terms, would anybody have known to correct them?

This is more than just a rant about Marketing speak. It opens up a whole other area of content issues (that keep content strategists and their clients awake at night… maybe) – such as content labelling, defining real estate  and its purpose, use of copydecks, meta data matching on text and images, using content systems to ensure the right content is put into the right place both online and offline, understanding context, competitor research, word usage, search implications… And I’m thinking of all of this just because an online retailer of sun umbrellas and a manufacturer of expensive garden furniture can’t lower themselves to use the words: ‘dark’ and ‘grey’.

It could also have been addressed by larger samples, accurate descriptions, meta tagging and a more sympathetic customer service. It could have been addressed by a company simply saying: is Hellebore good enough?

Now, here’s the segue…

I’m speaking at CS Forum London this September. The title of my talk is Content doesn’t just happen. And while the colour of garden tables may not be a nuclear issue, it does speak to the fact that businesses are still not thinking about the basics online or understanding how fundamentally catastrophic this disregard is. And they’re certainly not thinking about their customers (in anything more than cash cow terms).

This thinking has to extend far beyond simply being able to ‘write well for the web’ or the production of ‘web-ready’ content. It means learning how to read audiences and then structuring content that ‘fits’ the context of that audience. It touches everything from technology to what your marketers and product / service developers decide to name your latest offering and the colours it comes in.

Maybe Hellebore is the new black. Maybe juggling with skipping ropes is the next big thing. But I very much doubt it.

» Content Strategy Forum 2011 London Sept 5-7





Why content strategy is no miracle cure

Penicillin, central heating, Spanx… could be termed ‘miracle cures’ (okay, so some antibiotics don’t work as well these days, but I’m wrestling with analogies here – cut me some slack). What I mean is that once they’re applied their impact is almost instantaneous and evident. I live in a world which is warmer and where I suffer less strep throat thanks to two of my analogies.

If you want to know more about Spanx, consider why actresses strutting their stuff down the Oscar red carpet never wobble or bulge. Ever.

But content strategy isn’t Spanx. For a start, it isn’t one thing. It is a lot of expertise housed within the brain of a person demonstrating content strategising abilities and which includes “established disciplines – such as communications and editorial planning, marketing, content and author development, with new disciplines such as digital workflow planning and management, auditing and behavioural insight, social media and traffic analysis”.

The preceding bit is within inverted commas because I’m quoting from the content strategy course that CDA runs through emarketeers and where the emphasis is very much on skills development. » Web content strategy training course: Maintain control of content planning for online projects

We can also define CS as a range of solutions, supported by tools and methodologies. CS is Spanx, personal trainers, Botox, dieting, cosmetic surgery, gatric bands, cunningly cut designer gowns,  make up artistry… plus other stuff that Hollywood celebrities will go to the grave without revealing. Miracle cure it isn’t. It takes time. It’s painstaking. It’s more than just contouring underwear.

image shows website in corset going down red carpet while onlooker says "If you set aside the discovery work, data analysis, UX, taxonomy and brand work, the training, the TOV, style guidance, and the content management approach, this website’s transformation has been nothing short of miraculous "

Yet there is an assumption from clients that content strategy might cure content ills in an out of the box way. Just slip the website, say, into its figure-defining support and it can strut its online stuff down the red carpet, ready to pick up an Oscar or two from an adoring user base.

If anything, CS has more in common with a good personal trainer who will figure out why your content is unfit. A good personal trainer will devise diet plans (what goes in) and excercise regimens (outputs). He or she will get to the bottom (so to speak) of your bagel dependency and adapt your programme as you get more fit – or fail to. It is an ongoing and evolving process. The bulk of the work is going on inside.

Okay, where I am headed with all this…

Well, part of me is questioning whether we are in danger of defining CS as Spanx sometimes? Are we guilty of allowing clients to think they can buy (and we can price) this stuff in a box? Do we name it too often as if it were a single thing? Do we appear to promise it as a miracle cure rather than a fitness programme? Take two pairs of Spanx and see me in the morning?

When I run the web content strategy training course I am constantly considering how movers and shakers within orgnisations conduct themselves and get thesmelves and their proposals taken seriously. A Finance Director wouldn’t define is skill set as finance directing. So, if I’m not a content strategist – what am I? Answers on a postcard please…

part of web page from emarkteers site which promotes the courseWeb content strategy training course

There are places left on the July 18 content strategy course in London. » If you’d like to book a place you can do so here

Why the Spanx analogy Anne?

I was at an awards evening in London a little while ago and was in conversation with two fellow content strategists, when the miraculousness of Spanx and ordering them online was revealed to me, forever linking CS and Spanx in my head. You know who you are…