Content marketing isn’t promotional; it’s more like art.

Nobody wants to be converted; attempted manipulation and subjugation of the will isn’t very attractive. Conversion isn’t the goal of content marketing; it’s establishing meaningful brand-consumer relationships. So how do we transition from being conversion-driven to genuinely relationship-focused? I think the answer is in the application of relational aesthetics to the fluid framework of the marketing funnel (seen below). The marketing funnel isn’t a systematic process; it’s a conversational framework. There’s a big difference between systematically guiding consumers through a sterile sales process and holistically engaging them through structured, yet fluid layers of individual interactivity. The systematic approach is obsessed with creating conversion while holistic engagement is focused on fostering meaningful brand-consumer relationships. The first one is like taking the SAT, the latter is like participating in a collaborative work of art.

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The relational aesthetic is pretty hot in contemporary art theory, thanks to art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud. Think of aesthetic being defined as “a set of principles underlying and guiding the work.” Margaret Meban distills it well, “Rather than the aesthetic being conceived of as an experience that takes place between an individual viewer [consumer, target audience] and an art object [product, brand], it is conceived as an inter-subjective process in which meaning is derived collectively.” The term “inter-subjective” is key here. The conversation isn’t one-sided. The art object [product, brand] and individual viewer [consumer, target audience] are in a collaborative conversation with each other.

Meban continues, “In conventional aesthetic experience, the subject is prepared to participate in dialogue through an essentially individual and physical experience of ‘liking’… In a dialogical aesthetic, on the other hand, subjectivity is formed through discourse and intersubjective exchange itself. Discourse is not simply a tool to be used to communicate an a priori ‘content’ with other already formed subjects but is itself intended to model subjectivity.” The distinction here is between meaningful engagement and proselytization. Meaningful engagement is typified by active listening aimed at fostering a meaningful connection through words, thoughts, ideas and varying perspectives. With an unoriented audience it requires the listener to hold space for “the other”, modeling subjectivity while providing a conversational framework.

Suzi Gablik writes, “Art [a brand] that is rooted in a ‘listening’ self… suggests a flow-through experience which is not delimited by the self but extends into the community through modes of reciprocal empathy. Because this art [brand] is listener-centered rather than vision-oriented, it cannot be fully realized through the mode of self-expression; it can only come into its own through dialogue, as an open conversation, in which one listens to and includes other voices.” Rather than being promotional, the conversation is collaborative. A brand rooted in a “listening self” provides an architecture of engagement for multiple voices, not just itself, yet its voice is inseparable from the experience.

Oliver Herring’s TASK is a great example of what all of this looks like. Although Herring doesn’t create the content itself, he creates an architecture of interactivity through relational aesthetics. The architecture itself is his work. Even though he isn’t actively speaking, his unique positioning and voice are inseparable from the event. TASK breathes Oliver Herring without requiring him to say anything; he simply provides the framework and invites others to join in the conversation.

TASK is an improvisational event with a simple structure and very few rules. TASK’s open-ended, participatory structure creates almost unlimited opportunities for a group of people to interact with one another and their environment. TASKs’ flow and momentum depend on the tasks written and interpreted by it’s participants. In theory anything becomes possible. The continuous conception and interpretation of tasks is both chaotic and purpose driven. It is a complex, ever shifting environment of people who connect with one another through what is around them. It is also a platform for people to express and test their own ideas in an environment without failure and success (TASK always is what it is) or any other preconceptions of what can or should be done with an idea or a material. People’s tasks become absorbed into other people’s tasks, objects generated from one task are recycled into someone else’s task without issues of ownership or permanence. (http://oliverherringtask.wordpress.com)

This example of implementation is analogous to what structured engagement looks like within the marketing funnel. The event itself is incredibly fluid, but it still has a very discernible framework. Content tailored to flow through the structure of the marketing funnel functions the same way. The relational aesthetic allows for conversations that crystalize brand positioning, focusing on interactions that foster strong relationships between brand and customer. The entire experience is an holistic collaboration and throughout every layer of engagement the brand messages remain inseparable from the interactivity. Content marketing isn’t promotional; it’s more like art.

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