Author: Bharat Anand
Publication Date: 2016

The Content Trap is a mindset that afflicts nearly every organization struggling to confront the problems of getting noticed and getting paid, from media to finance to education, and whether they’re producing stories or designing phones.

“Content businesses everywhere tend to define themselves by their content. This is the trap. The power of content is increasingly overwhelmed by the power of user connections, of which network effects are perhaps the most potent form.”

About Author

Bharat N. Anand 
is the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University, and the Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Professor Anand is an expert in digital strategy, media and entertainment strategy, corporate strategy, and organizational change. His work has examined competition in information goods markets, focusing on two central challenges that firms face in these markets: “getting noticed” amidst the increasing clutter of alternatives available to consumers, and “getting paid” for what they produce.

Focus on content or product and you may prioritize the wrong things. Understand user experience and you’ll see real opportunities for differentiation.

Content Trap has three main expressions

1. First is the obsession with isolated triggers rather than recognizing the conditions that make them spread. This is akin to believing that product features in isolation drive success or failure rather than what causes users to share and connect. This is an error of misplaced focus, a result of confusing cause and effect.

2. Second is the effort to preserve content at all costs—rather than seizing the opportunities around it. This is an error of drawing product boundaries too narrowly.

3. Third is the relentless search for best practices, the belief that there’s one “right approach” to confront digital fires—rather than understanding that the right way to fight fires depends on the context in which they burn. This is an error that mistakes strategy for universal solutions

The Content Trap is both pervasive and insidious

Companies invariably clamor for creative genius and superior quality as the triggers they need. They are advised to focus and singularly specialize on the products they already have. They are told to base their decisions on the best practices of others. Focusing on content—making it better, charging for it, learning from others—is not inherently unreasonable. But miss the role of connections—user, product, or functional ones—and that focus will fail.

The Connection Triad

At the heart of what shapes any digitally touched business today and will for the foreseeable future. Being able to recognize, leverage, and manage connections separates companies that succeed from those that fail.

  • Connections between users,
  • Connections between products, and
  • Connections across an organization’s activities.

User Connections—or, why to focus not on an event’s triggers but on why it spreads

In content worlds, we focus on the actions, tastes, or behaviors of consumers in isolation rather than on what connects them; we focus on making the “best” content rather than on what makes users share; we focus on the creative spark of genius and how to nurture it, or on a particular threat and how to suppress it. But in nearly every case, what’s thought of as a side effect of a product’s success is the real cause.

Product Connections—or, how hurt can actually help

The second version of the Content Trap is to preserve the burning tree at all cost. In digital worlds, it’s focusing on a piece of content that may be destroyed, even if it’s your entire business. But smart strategy requires looking at tomorrow’s benefit rather than today’s hurt. It requires focusing not on the death or disruption of content but on the opportunities that lie beneath it. Many apparent threats can be embraced for large payoffs.

Connections across an organization’s activities.

The third form of the Content Trap comes from assuming that there’s one right way of dealing with fire—fight it, or let it burn. A dominant tendency in content businesses confronting digital worlds is to search for a magic bullet, for the one right approach to preserving value and fighting disruption. “Mimic your competitors,” “learn from others,” “embrace best practices”—virtually all business advice today has drilled these notions into people’s heads.

Superior products are great, but strategies that exploit connections are better.


Product quality, hypertargeting, user personalization, and customization are today’s prescriptions for digital success. And they may be precisely why so many companies find digital transformation hard, misdiagnose threats to their business, and miss opportunities.

These prescriptions tend to lead firms to focus on customers one by one and miss the connections that arise from managing customers as a portfolio. They lead us to believe that content quality is the key to success—when connections are. They lead us to believe that traditional hub-and-spoke marketing still wins—when networks do. They lead us to believe that traditional media is threatened by better and more varied digital content that lures customers in droves—when fixed costs are the real culprit. In each case, they lead us into the Content Trap.

“Focus on your relationships with individual customers one by one, or on the content you produce for each of them, and you’ll miss the secret of success in a connected world. Success comes not just from creating content—it comes from Creating to Connect.”


It’s good not to define product or business boundaries too narrowly. To do this, ask what complements your customers find useful when they buy from you, not just what features they care about in your product alone  Growth and innovation often come not from offering better content, but from offering better and cheaper complements. They come from product connections.

“Price according to where you have a competitive advantage, not just based on rules that make sense for others.”


Many of the ideas of recent years—the blurring of industry boundaries, product convergence, and disruption—are neatly captured in a concept conceived by economists more than a century ago: the concept of a substitute .

A substitute is just the opposite of a complement; it’s any product or service that, when cheaper or more widely available, reduces demand for your core product. On the face of it, it’s a seemingly benign definition of competition. But the reason it’s insidious is that the definition says nothing about what the substitute product is.

Define competition solely from the perspective of your product or content and you’ll focus on a single class of competitors. Define it from the perspective of your customer—in the case of power tools, the one who actually purchases it as a gift—and you’ll see entirely new competitors. Substitutes force you to define competition from the perspective of your customer, rather than from the perspective of the content you offer. That’s why they are terrifying.

Instead of defining your business in terms of the “content” you make, recognize when you’re someone else’s complement. Instead of fighting every fire that comes your way, find the seeds of regrowth amid devastation.

The trap is to focus on individual decisions rather than the sum, to pursue best practices rather than strategy. The trap is missing the functional connections that link individual decisions together and tie them to context.

Functional connections

Functional connections are the third wheel of the Connections Triad. They extend beyond connected users and connected products to the connections between choices themselves. These connections are what create competitive advantage and allow firms to differentiate themselves from so many others trying to do the same thing. They are where successful strategies reside.


“Crafting digital strategy by focusing on your existing customers is often regarded as a recipe for failure. It can lead to organizational myopia, where a focus on existing customers’ needs leads you to overlook what most other customers want. But the distinction between products and customers is often misunderstood in these debates. Reinventing existing products can be hard because architectures are inflexible; creating new products to serve unmet needs of your existing customers is not. And often it’s those customers’ unmet needs that are not just ignored, but present the most valuable opportunities to differentiate on. So, rather than looking far—to “non-customers,” to those at the fringes of the market, to those far away from our own organization—we started by looking close to home.”


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