Virtual reality and other content technology innovations can be more powerful in conveying your message than the message itself.
Marketing Marketing Technology

Content Technology: How the Medium Improves the Message

Is content marketing a bubble on the verge of bursting? It’s been suggested that yes, it is. A recent study by TrackMaven finds that the volume of content marketing increased by 78 percent in 2013 and 2014, while engagement decreased by 60 percent.

Why? The sheer volume of content being cranked out is leading to “content shock,” the point at which the mass of content is inconsumable within a reasonable time frame. So how do you, the content marketer, get ahead when there’s just so much out there already, including high-quality content?

Perhaps it’s time to shift gears: Stick with the current form of marketing but up your content technology game. Tell your stories as always, but tell them in new, innovative ways that make your audience say, “That’s insanely cool.” Yes, it’s the old bells-and-whistles strategy, but when done well using the latest technology, with a powerful and original story at its core, it can be very effective.

The Medium Is the Message

Canadian social theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s most famous quote is “The medium is the message.” His reasoning is this: Rather than the message itself being the message, it’s the manner in which that message is delivered—i.e. the medium.

McLuhan often referred to the light bulb as a metaphor for this idea. For instance, we don’t actually see the room we’re in—we only perceive it in the way it’s lit. Its appearance can be easily manipulated by the size, type, location, wattage, color, etc. of the light bulb that illuminates it. So, the light bulb is the medium that manipulates the message (the room).

Got that? Now, expand on that idea by talking about the style and technology of the message delivery. Take Shakespeare’s plays, for instance. They haven’t changed in the four centuries since our immortal bard first put quill to paper. What changes, however, is the conveyance of the play. Consider, for example, the many differences between the presentation of Romeo and Juliet during Elizabethan times at the Globe Theatre and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet starring a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio and a pre-Homeland Claire Danes in 1996. While the original play was largely unchanged in the latter, it was Luhrmann’s uber-artsy modern presentation of the play—in no small way, using guns instead of swords and rival gangs instead of families—that catapulted Shakespearean drama back into the mainstream. Suddenly, Shakespeare was cool again, especially with the kids.

Related: Robin Williams, as teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, also took on different incarnations of Shakespeare’s lines much to the joy of his audience, both in the movie and in the cinema:

See? At its core, it’s still the same old Shakespeare story, but packaged in such a way that it appeals to the intended audience. I mean, why not have Marlon Brando or DiCaprio spout the words? Reverting back to McLuhan’s point—because the medium (Luhrmann, Williams, DiCaprio, et al.) carries and manipulates the message (Shakespeare), the medium becomes the message.

Now apply that to content marketing. Your brand message remains the same; it’s just the way in which it’s delivered that can change or evolve. And the possibilities are even more diverse with the evolution of technology, which increasingly becomes more important in your content marketing strategy.

Why content marketers should study the music technology evolution

Music Makes the People Come Together

Let’s turn to music. Music, like story, is at its very core the same—just a bunch of nice sounds and voices put together, often with rhythm and melodies, as a way to convey emotion. However, like Shakespeare’s soliloquys—in themselves just a collection of words and letters and phrases—the avenues through which music is delivered is constantly changing and evolving. Music technology has come a long way, from percussion instruments 165,000 years ago through flutes some 37,000 years ago, to orchestras during the Beethoven/Mozart years, through Edison’s phonograph in the 19th century, and LPs, eight-tracks, cassettes and CDs in the latter half of last century, then MP3s, the iPod, Grooveshark (R.I.P.), Spotify…the list goes on.

Specifically: While we’ll never enjoy hearing Beethoven himself tickle the ivories, we can hear Beethoven in many different incarnations—even via the electric guitar:

In a nod to Led Zeppelin, the song remains the same. But as tech evolves, the medium changes, and music changes along with it.


They Might Be Giants—or TMBG, as the band is popularly referred to—has been lauded for successfully merging music with computer technology in the 1980s, producing two cutting-edge albums using a 1980s-era Macintosh and MIDI technology for instrumentation.

Effectively, they pulled computer tech out of the nerd’s basement and contributed to the digital music revolution, helping to pave the way for house, techno, electronica, EDM, hip-hop, and more.

TMBG isn’t just known for this one innovation. When bandmates John Flansburgh and John Linnell were caught without the means to continue their live performances after Linnell broke his wrist and Flansburgh’s apartment was burgled, they had to come up with something creative. They recorded their music onto an answering machine and plastered the accompanying phone number all over their neighborhood, encouraging people to call in and listen to their latest tunes. To tackle long-distance concerns, they cheekily added the tagline: “Free if you call from work.”

The result, Dial-A-Song, lasted for 23 years from 1985 to 2008—ironically meeting its demise thanks to the Internet—and was revived again last year with a new phone number and dedicated website.

That’s a smart and innovative use of content technology in music. It always helps to have the talent and quality, but one might wonder how far TMBG would have come if they didn’t resort to such measures.

One might balk at the idea of constantly pushing the envelope and being creative at the expense of quality. In other words, being gimmicky. Being all bells and whistles. Fact is, the argument for high-quality content remains as strong and relevant as ever, but the novelty and innovation of delivery methods may even be equal in importance because it accentuates the content. Yet, as Renato Repetto writes in Performer Magazine, “Our newfound lust for novelty is the driving force behind innovation for innovation’s sake.” Why not channel that lust in your message?

We Have Created Fire

In the spirit of McLuhan’s quote, other musicians have looked at innovative ways to package their music for their fans. Arcade Fire, that little hipster band out of Montreal, continually pushes the envelope. Their music alone may carry that wow factor for many, but what really drives their product home is how they deliver it—for instance, using Google Street View to create a music video based on your childhood neighborhood, and a then-unusual live stream of one of their shows where the audience could even choose their POV of the stage.

This was in 2010, and not only made an impression on music fans but also on computer technology aficionados wowed by the possibilities of HTML5 in this art stream. Yes, HTML5. What is dryly defined by Merriam-Webster as “a markup language usually used to create World Wide Web documents incorporating text, graphics, sound, video, and hyperlinks” was used by one of the world’s biggest musical groups as a vehicle to deliver a song. It sounds trite now but, in the same vein as TMBG, Arcade Fire took something that wasn’t commonly associated with music and turned it into a spectacular medium to deliver their message.

The band then followed up in 2013 with a visually-spectacular, interactive music video that you can manipulate with your smartphone while watching the video on your computer. The results are stunning, and you, as a content marketer, can look at this and imagine the possibilities for your brand.

Arcade Fire

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is the Future

The original idea of content marketing is popularly determined to be John Deere’s The Furrow magazine, which launched in 1895. It’s since flourished into many forms.

And now? 360-degree video is becoming all the rage, with Google’s Jump camera rig or GoPro Odyssey already producing numerous YouTube videos that you can even view on your laptop right now and imagine seeing via a virtual-reality headset.

Additionally, user-generated live streams are a recent phenomenon, as seen in the advent of live stream apps such as Periscope, Blab, or Facebook Live. The quality of live streams is also improving, with GoPro accessories now an option to maximize quality of live-stream video. And taking this route will not break your bank, unlike before.

It’s not all wonderful, however. With new technologies come new challenges. There have been some suggested failures in the attempt to utilize VR technology in delivering content, such as CNN’s much-maligned use of holograms during their coverage of the 2008 U.S.presidential election. CNN’s venture caused ripples but ultimately failed to disrupt, nevertheless, the spirit was there: an innovative attempt at a new way of storytelling.

As Vincent Morisset, one of the brains behind Arcade Fire’s “Just a Reflektor” video, said to Wired: “I think it’s fun to kind of dig into the technology…and open up this box and see how infinite the possibilities are.”

Google Creative Lab’s Aaron Koblin, Morisset’s co-conspirator, adds: “I still love traditional content…and there’s still a lot of it going through the Web. But when you go to YouTube or whatever, you get this static piece of content…I just think there’s so much more now.”

In that vein, you may yet see fresh incarnations of news using the latest in content technology, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Princess Leia-type beam of information. Virtual reality has been used as a powerful tool to deliver news stories that might not have otherwise had the hoped-for impact—for instance, a simulated bombing in a neighborhood in Syria had a far more powerful reaction when viewed via a virtual-reality headset than it would have had via a traditional media stream.

Mammoth Possibilities

This is just the beginning. Instead of considering the daunting challenges of creating a story that surpasses the many others out there, look at these evolved mediums and ask yourself, “How can I leverage this technology in telling a great story to my audience?”

Story, at its heart, is still the same as it was when cavemen entertained their kids around the fire with tales about mammoths and hunting. This likely took on an evolved form when that caveman started adding sound effects—boom, boom, boom—to mimic mammoths coming closer, or physically acting out some of the scenes. Then, maybe, he’ll throw a rock into the fire to create a shower of sparks to accentuate a particularly exciting moment in his tale.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, and with Arcade Fire already utilizing smartphone technology and the imminent 360-degree VR revolution just around the corner in the form of the Oculus Rift and Apple rumored to come on board, content marketing is hardly at death’s door. With the advent of content technology, the art form is still thriving—it’s just the medium that’s changing. Or, actually, evolving. That’s your message for today.

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