Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Content Marketing and the Hegelian Dialectic


In the olden days, the watchword was: “Content is King!” Thinking on this now, however, I’m not sure that that it was ever really true.

Certainly, if your site featured lots and lots of stuff that lots and lots of people wanted to read, look at, and/or share, if it was “explorable,” in other words, then it may have, at least for a time, stood shoulder to shoulder with its peers in the interwebs’ pantheon of much-favored destinations.

Still, though like any great house it may have owed its rank and status to the tireless service of its retainers, the site itself was the true lord and master; the content, on the other hand served as knight and page, courtier and courtesan attracting visitors to the gilded halls, making their stay enjoyable, and vanishing like the April snow when the favor of these visitors or the sovereign turned from them.

Which is not to say, of course, that content is unnecessary. On the contrary, the content on your site – and I’m thinking both of information generally (address, phone number, product descriptions, client lists, etc.) as well as articles, stories, reports, white papers, opinion pieces, user reviews, videos, podcasts, and consumable images (i.e., NOT stock photos evanescently embodying your brand’s look and feel), and so on – is your site for all intents and purposes.

The content does all the work, yes, and yet “something else” reaps the benefits and is imminently more important. To understand this dynamic, we must turn to the teachings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and specifically that part in his masterwork, The Phenomenology of Mind, which he devotes to the dialectic of “Lordship and Servitude,” or, in the original German, “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft.” (Sometimes, this is referred to as the “master-slave dialectic.”)

Hegel points out that what the lord loses by abstracting himself from actual, laborious interaction with the physical world – namely, a fundamental grounding in reality – he gains again both in the unselfconscious consumption of this alienated labor and in the satisfaction of determining what will and will not happen by his decree.

Seen from the other side, by his efforts the servant develops the strength and competence on which the lord is absolutely dependent – powers that will in turn serve the servant well in the moment of revolt – but only by allowing his work to be designed and directed by a force external to himself.

It is the privilege of the lord to establish the purpose and goal of all the work performed in his domain and it is in the exercise of this privilege that he becomes kingly. However, this purpose has no material reality in itself; it only acquires and maintains materiality through the substantive work of the servant.

For this reason, when it comes to content marketing I say that “Purpose, not Content, is King,” bearing in mind however that purpose only assumes living form through the content most proper to its eventual realization.

Accordingly, content, in and of itself, has no meaning, no purpose, no authority. You can’t say, for example, whether this or that piece of content, taken in isolation, has any value at all. It doesn’t.

No, the only thing that imbues content with any meaning or equips it with any value is the purpose for which it is deployed. Which is why strategy, conceptual and therefore immaterial in nature, is actually the hardest part of content marketing.

Image Courtesy of postaletrice.

Category: Careering, Marketing Today, Writing

Tagged: , , ,

4 Responses

  1. nice. although the post’s substance begs the question of whether it can in fact be said to exist until there is someone to disagree with it. you say purpose, I prefer the more alliterative context. have a rocking new year.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, TR.

    I agree that nothing on the web exists until someone looks at it – in fact, a website only “exists” when it’s been assembled by someone’s browser – otherwise it’s just a bunch of files on a server (or servers).

    I’ve heard the “context is king” thing, and agree to the extent that I’m a relativist – nothing matters or is meaningful by itself but only in relation to something else. Still, I wanted to emphasize “purpose-driven” marketing since that implies that you have actually put thought and intention into either creating the proper context or in crafting content that will fit foreseeable contexts.

  3. Sandy Gerber says:

    This is true – I agree that content should have purpose. In light of the king analog, I thought of something that might be considered more like modern day politics, where the common people vote for what they want. In this light, I’ve noticed that user directed content is becoming increasingly popular. It sounds so simple but simply asking your audience what they want can (and should) have a big impact on what you produce. So often we want people to be interested in things that they simply are not interested in. But if you can generate demand by asking people what they like (such as voting on a book cover, or asking questions that they want answered in a blog post), then you are likely to engage them better. In this way, you would become the top-voted leader in your industry based on a democratic parallel to your story 🙂

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Sandy.

    I had never thought of the imperious implications of “content is king,” with its sense of “we decree that this is important.” A “democratization” of content in the vein of “give the people what they want” seems to be more prudent and, in fact, also seems to be how Amazon and Netflix are trying to approach their branded content.