If content isn't king, what is?

And how can you turn it into a catchy slogan?

I'm writing this from the third day of the O'Reilly Tools of Change publishing conference, and I'll have a lot to say in the coming weeks about ideas I've had here. I wanted to start with a theme from the opening keynote speeches: whether content is king, and if not, what is.

Monday's first keynote speaker was SirsiDynix VP of Innovation Stephen Abram, who said that "content isn't king—context is." (He also said that "XML senses what device it's on", so he was clearly more interested in catchiness than in technical accuracy.)

The mantra "content is king" has been around for years. As a LexisNexis employee, I heard it mentioned near the beginning of speeches with the regularity of grace at the beginning of a meal at a religious retreat. If I was still employed there, I could look up the first use of the term in the media. An Alta Vista advanced search with a date range included shows a 1994 reference.

A later keynote speaker, author Doug Rushkoff, reminded me of a high-tech Martin Short. He quoted Abrams and said that neither content nor context is king, but that contact is. (If you have any suggestions for what is king, make sure it begins with the letters "cont".) He didn't just mean that maintaining two-way contact with your customers is valuable—an idea first made popular in 1999 by the Cluetrain Manifesto authors—but that the real payoff comes from letting your customers maintain contact with each other. As he put it, "the Internet is interpersonal, not interactive".

I could tie this to Web 2.0 talk of the value of user-generated content, but if one reader of a particular book posted some opinion about one of the characters on that book's discussion list nine weeks ago, her three paragraphs won't sell more copies of that book. More importantly, the sharing of her opinion will give her a sense of participation in a community around the book, along with the readers that preceded and followed her in the on-line conversation. If the number one driver of book sales is recommendations, it's very valuable for publishers to build this sense of participation around a book.

Mr. Diddy

These variations on the theme of "content is king" reminded me of something I recently stumbled across while cleaning up some bookmarks: a keynote speech titled I am an MVNO given by Sean Combs (P/Puff/Diddy/Daddy) to a wireless phone business gathering in 2005. I never was a huge fan of his music; a year after he gave this speech, a New York Times review of his album "Press Play" and Jay-Z's "Kingdom Come" made a clever point: one album showed a businessman acting like a hustler, and the other showed a hustler acting like a businessman. (I own neither album, but Mr. Z's American Gangster is the only album that I've bought as a set of MP3s off of Amazon so far.) Combs is obviously a talented business man, and I was impressed with what he had to say to a roomful of people thinking hard about making money from content.

His words still make sense three years later. And, he has his own variation on the theme of content as king: "People always say that content is king, but there's a lot of content out there and it can't all be king... You want king-kong content". He wasn't just saying that you want really good content. With references to Marshall McLuhan, MTV, and BET, he describes the use of technology to build communities as marketing channels. It's a fresh perspective, certainly not in terms of its age, but in terms of who it comes from, considering his distance from the Stephen Abrams and Doug Rushkoffs of this conference.


Or at the least, make sure it begins with 'c', has 'n' in the third position, and 't' immediately following. That should cover all cases.

Fie! He hasn't been King since the 11th century...