As someone who crafts digital content for a living, I'm always happy to hear marketers and my clients say that "content is king." But I don't think it's true, or at least not entirely true.
Can content be great without the litmus test of reader engagement? In other words, can I declare content great in isolation, before anyone has read it? These are important, and not merely philosophical, questions about creativity and the meaning of quality. I've spent many a lunch discussing them with other creative types I know.
I judge my own content in isolation (in other word, I make quality evaluations before it ever gets shared or read by anyone else) and as a "shared creation," trying to understand how engaging and shareable it is before it goes out into the wider world. Writers need readers, and the willingness of readers to appreciate, act upon, and share content is part of what makes content "high quality," in my view.
So my simple goal as a content creator is to produce inherently great content that also gets validated by connections with readers and communities. Sharing has the dual role of validating content quality and creating communities around that same content.
Does this mean that I pander to "virality," that my goal is simply to tick the boxes that catalyze social sharing? The answer is a complicated one, but generally "no." First of all, nobody really has a formula for creating viral content. What worked last week, such as the ALS ice bucket challenge, won't work today. Part of what drives virality is doing things differently, working against yesterday's blockbusting success. Secondly, today's readers will recognize pandering and justifiably despise people who behave in an inauthentic way. I've said it a million times, "you need to be your authentic self, and act like a human being." This is especially true for marketing folk and politicians, who are assumed to be inveterate liars.
When I write, I always take my readers into consideration, but I never pander or do anything other than treat my reader as my equals. I know from experience that I have a lot to learn from others, including readers. I am not an all-knowing oracle, nor is my reader. We are in this together, asking questions, seeking to learn, scratching our heads in unison, and sometimes finding our way together in the dark. I firmly believe we are "better together" (sorry, Donald T).
Content can't be great if nobody reads it. The word "great" is a judgement bestowed upon content by another. I can call something I wrote "great," but the word rings hollow unless others read it, gain something from it (useful insights or entertainment or a sense of connection), and perhaps share it. Content can't be locked in a basement, nor can writers inhabit cloistered places or place themselves above others. Writers, like bus drivers, bakers, and candle stick makers, are a part of the community.
Content and connection are inextricably linked. Even if it's a single writer (me) connecting with a single reader (you), we need interaction and community -- and the best content offers that. Content is just a person talking, and great content has the feel of a friendly neighbor sharing news over the back fence.
I can tell a great story over the back fence, but what's the point if a neighbor isn't listening and (hopefully) adding her own take on the topic. Content isn't king if it's talking to itself behind castle walls. The goal of content is to trigger human conversations. We all want to be informed, entertained, to learn things, to share things. The larger the conversation content can catalyze, the better. As for the neighbor in question, she can be across the street or across the world in Sydney, Australia or Quincy, Massachusetts, USA. The geography doesn't matter, but the humanity and need for connection does. We need fewer kings and more friendly neighbors.
I can't tell you how to craft content that becomes viral, because nobody knows. Today's trendy topic is tomorrow's yawn-inducing conversation killer that will have people checking their watches and fleeing from you. Don't be trendy; don't try so hard. That said, showing folks a cute kitten or baby will probably always keep the discussion going, but even kids and cats can get tiring.
I don't think "content is king," but I do think that great content is the first step on a journey to greater connection.