Many different metaphors have been applied to describe content marketing. Some are mechanistic, some animalistic, and others are downright derogatory.
In searching for something apropos, I chose a river.
There’s something powerful and mystical about the life-giving streams of water that snake across our natural world.
Indeed, many cultures consider rivers to be sacred, conducting ritual ceremonies on their banks and beseeching them with prayers.
In this post, I’ll show you how examining some defining characteristics of a river turns out to be a useful mental model for effective content marketing.
Philosophical? Sure. Practical? Hopefully. Let’s see.
The source of a stream—which might later become a river—is known as its headwaters.
In nature, this is an accumulation of water (e.g., snow, ice, lake, bog) from which some flows downhill under the influence of gravity.
For a company, the headwaters of its content river are accumulations of relevant, helpful information specific to a target audience, from which some spills into the public domain under the influence of publication and distribution (most prominently, algorithms).
The glacier-like fundamental accumulations of that content can be framed as the company’s purpose, mission, vision, and differentiation.
Any content worth flowing into the river can be tied back to purpose, mission, vision, and differentiation
I contend that any content worth flowing into the river can be tied back to one or more of these foundational constructs.
A stream that lacks persistent headwaters will dry up and never become a river.
It will be of limited interest and utility, since its flow will be intermittent and unpredictable.
No one is going to show up on the off chance of being able to enjoy the river. They will go to a regularly flowing, useful river somewhere else.
The English word river derives from the Latin, ripa, which means “bank of a river”. In case you’re wondering, the Latin word for river is flumen.
This implies that the banks are at least as important to our understanding and use of a river as the flowing water itself.
A river without banks is a tricky thing. You can’t say for certain where the water will be flowing on any given day, which makes it difficult to construct or grow things around it.
While floods were celebrated in ancient times, bringing fertility to Egypt’s Nile delta and China’s Huang He (Yellow River) valley, they’re a disaster in most other jurisdictions.
And so it is for effective content marketing.
Stay between your banks by producing content that connects to themes of importance to your audience
I talk about “staying in your lane”, meaning producing content that connects to themes of importance to your target audience. For today, let’s make it “stay between your banks”.
People like to put companies and products (and other people) into buckets. In other words, they use convenient labels to understand and categorize what’s on offer.
In business-speak, we call this positioning.
If what you offer can be easily identified as falling into a known category of product, it seems familiar and we are disposed to learn more. If it doesn’t fall into any existing category, we’re not sure what to do with it and we usually switch off.
This is why the earliest automobiles were called horseless carriages. The term defined a new but adjacent category, similar to the familiar category of carriages, just without the horse.
When companies publish material that pushes their content river outside its established banks, they lose the coherency that makes them a familiar and trustworthy source of information.
This can be necessary—for example, when expanding into a new category of products—but should always be carefully tied back to the headwaters of purpose, mission, and vision.
A river will cut a new path from time to time, encroaching onto previously dry land and leaving previously irrigated areas dry. This is a royal pain for anyone who has come to know and depend upon the previous pathway but once they figure out the new course, they will usually adapt.
Most rivers don’t simply flow from their headwaters to the ocean. Smaller tributaries merge to form a larger and larger river along the way.
Similarly, a company’s content river isn’t exclusively derived from internal sources.
User-generated content is some of the most persuasive material you can publish, provided it is unfiltered and honest.
Guest posts allow you to incorporate the views of other influencers in your industry, while simultaneously benefiting from their network—a concept I’ll come back to in a moment.
Other contributions can come from user comments, citations of other people’s ideas, and links to other sites.
The confluence of these tributaries results in aggregated information that is more useful to your audience than your original content alone, and saves them the effort of having to find, evaluate, and compile it for themselves.
Some of your visitors will spend their entire time on one branch of your river—and that’s okay, provided they remain engaged and find whatever information they need.
However, it’s often helpful to provide a map showing the extent of your navigable river. In other words, links and menus that guide visitors sailing in from one tributary to other helpful places along the river.
The value of a river is inextricably linked to the volume of water that flows between its banks.
If the water level is inconsistent, it’s impossible to know whether it can be relied upon as a travel way, source of energy, or means of irrigation.
Conversely, as we already discussed, excessive flow can be destructive, making it risky to construct something based on the river’s typical state.
In content terms, this brings us to cadence and consistency.
Readers and algorithms alike appreciate sources that produce new and interesting content on a regular and predictable basis.
Both are apt to move away from content rivers that repeatedly inundate them with floods of material, just as they will move away from intermittent rivers that regularly disappoint.
It is better to publish content on a steady, consistent basis than in flurries with irregular gaps in between
In other words, it is far better to publish content on a steady, consistent basis than to publish flurries of work—when resources are plentiful, say—with irregular gaps in between.
A modest, predictable, beautiful river will attract more visitors than one that is as likely to be a boring trickle as an impossible to enjoy torrent.
One more important characteristic of flow is its directionality.
Water predictably flows from one end of a river to the other (ignoring the tidal part that might exist where river and sea begin to merge).
Similarly, content should flow from one place to another, taking the reader on a journey.
Can a reader not jump upstream, like salmon?
Yes, they can. But I prefer to think of them leaving the river and returning to start a new downstream voyage, otherwise it’s difficult to imagine arranging the content in a way that makes sense, with detailed material building on that which is more foundational.
Returning to my earlier comment about tapping into other contributors’ networks, I think of this like reaching a fork in the river and following the other branch back upstream.
The content river and its tributaries thus connect communities that would otherwise be distant and potentially even unaware of each other.
Continuing the transportation element of this metaphor, your content should aid audience members in completing their journey, rather than expecting readers to follow your journey.
This is the difference between a content library organized around stages in the buyer’s journey and one that merely says a lot of things from the company’s point of view.
Readers should be transported from a place of relative ignorance to one where they are better informed and better equipped to solve their challenge.
Many times, especially early in their buyer’s journey, this will be an exploration without any greater objective.
Knowing that your content river exists, they will return to it later when they are ready to explore further and again whenever they are ready to progress with a solution.
Remember the importance of consistency and predictability?
Imagine someone coming back to your content river to learn more, only to discover that the subject matter has changed or that there’s nothing new waiting for them.
Or imagine that they travel some distance along the river only to discover a section that they cannot traverse, preventing them from sailing smoothly downstream. This is what happens when there’s a serious gap in your content library.
In both cases, visitors are motivated to abandon your river and seek superior waters elsewhere.
The more relevant and helpful they find your content river, the more significance they will attach to it, the more frequently they will return, the more they will tie their plans to it, and the more often they will recommend it to their friends.
The last characteristic that I want to explore is a river’s ability to reshape the environment through which it flows.
At its most obvious, this is a structural change. Rivers carve gorges and valleys and create fertile land with alluvial deposits downstream.
Over time, a successful content river takes information, adds context and interpretation, and deposits it in new and helpful ways that are beneficial to its audience.
Rivers throughout time have brought people together
Rivers throughout time have also brought people together.
Many of the worlds great cities are located on the banks and intersections of rivers.
People used the river to move goods (and themselves) and chose to live and work along its banks to take advantage of the water in multiple ways.
In this way, the presence of the river transformed human demographics.
Content rivers can have a similar effect, bringing together communities with shared interests, providing a common vocabulary for them to trade ideas, and becoming a place where like-minded people choose to congregate and interact.
Finally, rivers have transformed civilization by driving progress.
Think about the impact of irrigation on agriculture, water wheels on early industrialization, and the river-borne transportation of goods on commerce.
A content river can do this, too.
Thought leadership, expressed through content, can change the way whole sectors of industry understand, compare, select, and implement solutions.
There’s one more element to my metaphor. It’s not a characteristic—hence I ended my list at six—but rather a symptom of how we use the river: Contamination.
Polluted rivers have contributed greatly to environmental and health catastrophes.
Excessive and abusive use, without an appropriate level of respect and care, has turned mystical, powerful, natural realms into toxic, harmful, denatured monsters.
Content rivers can go here, too.
A tsunami of low-quality, uninformative (or even false), misleading content threatens to turn the majestic, influential power of content marketing into something abhorrent and toxic.
With minimal regulation, abuse, and overpopulation, the content river is in danger of becoming so contaminated with rubbish that it’s impossible to benefit from the good that’s also flowing.
As responsible content marketers, it’s our duty to treat the content river with respect, to carefully regulate what we put in, how much we contribute and withdraw, and to ensure the river remains healthy and helpful to those who wish to visit.
I hope this metaphor is useful, somehow, in our collective pursuit of that vision.
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Image credits: Adobe Stock