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Nov 28, 2011 | Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about tools recently, the kind that startups are so famous for making.

There’s been so much talk about brands (and agencies) to behave more like startups. Part of this means making more tools–things that serve as a platform. Things that people sign-up for. Things that people will pay for. Things that scale and aren’t fleeting. Things that enhance your existing products (e.g., Nike+).

Behave like the YC list.

Few brands (and agencies) pull off such an ideology. Making tools is difficult, and it’s certainly not in the DNA of most organizations whose business isn’t already based around programmers.

The alternative to tools is content, also extremely difficult to do well. But at least it’s already in the corporate DNA, specifically a brand’s agency’s DNA.

This cross-roads, tools vs. content, has me thinking a lot about how to use marketing dollars. Make an awesome thing for the Internet? Or stick with the tried and true infographic, video, or blog post?

Robin Sloan, in an article about startups and tools, made an awesome point about this divide:

The reigning model for startups: make a tool and scale it up. The tool’s potential users can be rich (e.g. Salesforce) or they can be numerous (e.g. YouTube) or they can be rich and numerous (e.g. the iPhone) but any way you go, you are always a step removed from the object of attention. You are not the deal, you are not the Lil’ Wayne video, you are not the flirty text message. You are the facilitator, you are the mediator, you are the vessel.

Robin blew my mind with this point about tools: regardless of how awesome your tools are, content is always the top of the long-tail. Robin goes into a few historical points: we revere Photoshop, not Thomas Knoll. Or a Macbook, not Steve Jobs. Content is different; in music, video, and literature, the maker is tied intimately to the audience.

This is exactly how I feel about the awesomely done Nike Basketball videos. Ignoring the fact that they sometimes give me chills, I’ve got a greater connection to the brand than, say, Footlocker’s tool, Sneakerpedia (and yes, I had to research the brand behind Sneakerpedia).

Sneakerpedia will die. Or be recreated over several iterations–perhaps even undergoing the notorious pivot. Nike’s commercials (especially this one) define culture. Tim Carmody sums it up well in a comment on Robin’s article:

Art, on the other hand, doesn’t go away. Well, actually, the vast majority of it goes away almost immediately. But great, memorable art almost never goes away, even as technology and history and society move on, while great, memorable technology almost always does.

So where does this leave the tool vs. content debate?

What if brands made tools for content? Again, Robin threw down a sweet idea:

Think of Pixar, the Great Toolmaker’s side project. They sell movies, not tools, but the movies wouldn’t be possible without the tools that Pixar and Pixar alone possesses. Pixar is a place where brilliant toolmakers work for a tiny user-base: the artists across the hall. That partnership, and the feedback loop between tool and user that it permits, produces jaw-dropping results.

This is such a new idea, so it’s especially exciting to me: make internal tools to create amazing things. Instead of trying to build a massively-scalable tool for a brand’s millions of customers, build tools for a creative purpose (or maybe even better products!), whose users are a small group of 10 employees. The output could be a hell of a lot closer to Tim Carmody’s notion of “art” than the pitiful content coming out of mediocre agencies.

It reminds me of OK Cupid building the internal tools (i.e., databases and regression tools) to create OK Trends. Or AmEx using Percolate (sure, it’s a licensed app) to blog on Open Forum.

Could a few well done internal tools make big companies, like GE or P&G, Lil Wayne’s or Pixars of content?

Tool-based content could be the bridge between bad content (because it’s so easy to make) and great tools (because getting users is so hard to do). Perhaps it’s an opportunity for big brands to stop sucking on the Internet.

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  • This reminds me so much of 37Signals.  They built the tools they wanted to use to facilitate their business.  Then they sold the tools.

  • Thanks for the comment Will. 37Signals definitely embodies this ideology, even though they discarded the creative route in favor of a tool-based business.

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