Is Your Content a Disposable Pop Song, or Jazz Masterpiece?

May 2, 2016

You may know me as a heavy metal fan, but recently I’ve been diving into the world of jazz. Revisiting the classics—records that truly changed the musical landscape, like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, ­the best-selling jazz record of all time. Or ground-breaking tracks, such as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Records like that win over new listeners generation after generation, and I wanted to know why. Why, after all, do hit pop tunes, such as “Like a Virgin” or “Never Gonna Give You Up” (Rickroll, anyone?) reach a saturation point where we can no longer listen them without irony (if we can listen at all)? Why does a standard like “Autumn Leaves,” on the other hand, rarely fail to bring pleasure, even though it gets played a million times every day by virtually every musician who ever took up the study of jazz?

The answer, I’ve discovered, lies in musical structure. Pop songs are designed to eventually bore the heck out of you. We listen to and play jazz, by contrast, to stimulate our intellect and our creativity.

To see my point, take a quick look at pop song structure:


Pop songs are played the same way every time because the musicians who play them are following a prescribed composition. Yes, you might hear a song sung differently at a concert, or when it’s covered by a different artist. But basically, it’s played the same way every time.

Jazz structure actually seems simpler, at first glance. It looks like this:


You can equate the Head to the Chorus of a pop song. It’s usually just one page of music. The song starts off with the band playing it together in the standard way: The drummer sets the rhythm, the bass player plays the bass line, the pianist does chord progressions. Maybe the saxophone or the trumpet plays melody.

Then they repeat the same song several times, taking turns as one musician and then another improvises his own unique take on the tune, while fellow players support him with rhythm and chord progressions in response to what he’s doing. (This is called “comping.”) They’re all free to do whatever they want to, as long as they stay within the basic structure of the Head—and as long they allow the soloist to take the lead.

This section of the song can go on for some time, depending on the size of the ensemble and how much fun they’re having. Finally, they return to the Head, playing their prescribed parts and ending the song by putting everyone back on familiar territory.

So you see, a jazz standard is designed to sound different every time it’s played. Creativity and musical dialogue is the point, rather than the emotional maneuvering of a pop ballad or the bouncy mania of a dance tune.

I see a lesson here for content marketers.

Frequently, we hear prescriptive instructions from content marketing pundits along the lines of, “Create content, launch campaign, measure success, refine, repeat.” Sound familiar? This approach often misses the need, at every stage of our work, for a smart, creative, human touch.

Just for fun, let’s see how jazz structure might apply to content marketing strategy.

1.  The Head: Launch your campaign with all guns a-blaze.

Content takes the lead with a rich-media presentation of new research that places your product in a whole new light. PR works to get the attention of media outlets. Social points to the presentation with a few timely updates. Demand Gen sends an email to a list of likely prospects. While the central piece of content aims for off-the-charts impact, each supporting channel plays its standard role.

2.  The Solos: Take turns riffing on the theme.

Content follows up with a blog series exploring applications of the research to real-world scenarios. Then, PR gets your CEO an interview with CNBC to discuss the implications for global business. It goes so well that Social follows up for its own solo, forming a LinkedIn Group where people can discuss the research and share stories about how it applies in various situations. The solos continue with videos, SlideShares, email blasts, and so forth.

As you develop a solo round, go beyond the norm. Aim to expand the audience you started with in the Head, or at least, expand their ideas about the original research. Take some risks, go with the unexpected, and aspire to deeper insights. Maybe you hire a comedian to interview your customers at a trade show. Maybe you kick up your Instagram presence. Maybe you change your industry forever.

It’s vitally important to remember that during solos, you’re still an ensemble cast. In the PR example above, Social might put together a campaign to solicit live customer reactions to the CEO’s interview. Each channel plays a supporting role, and then takes its turn at the lead.

Another thing: Every once in awhile, solos fail completely. That’s allowed. Other members of the ensemble do their best to cover for the soloist and let him exit gracefully. Ideally, you have another solo to fall back on—or at least a wrap-up plan.

3.  The Head: Wrap up the campaign with a clear call to action.

Solos can continue for a long time, depending on what your metrics tell you (and how much fun you’re having). At some point, you’ll know it’s time to move on. Maybe new research has come to light. Maybe the topic has run its course. Before that happens, and while you still have the attention of your audience, you want to bring them back to the reason behind it all: The value of your product.

At this point, the original research takes center stage again, but Demand Gen plays a larger role, following up with the leads generated in all the solos. SEO, for its part, makes sure any potential customers who missed the research the first time around can find it easily later on.

Whether or not you find my jazz obsession a useful trope for thinking about content strategy, I firmly believe one thing: When you approach a marketing campaign as an artistic creation rather than a formulaic concoction, you have a much better chance of standing out from the constant stream of “pop” drivel dominating the content airwaves. And of course, you’re guaranteed to have a whole lot more fun.

Like jazz, Sophisticated Marketing brings together creativity and technology to generate beautiful results. Join the #SophisticatedMKTG movement today, and get great swag and the opportunity to win more prizes, including a library of marketing books!

Photo: .christoph.G.