Relevant vs Interesting

"Freak Bike Accident"
Look at the picture.
Sorry, wasn't necessary to tell you so. You looked anyway.

You probably found it "interesting" enough to not filter it out immediately. You probably had a second look. But at the same time - it's completely irrelevant to you. It could be any other striking image. It doesn't matter, really. It doesn't matter much to me either. But "it does the job". The job of drawing attention to it. To make you read on.

So what is "interesting"? (Why) is it important? Why do planners and advertisers talk about "interestingness" so much? (Assuming planners' talk being a sign of any significance.)


Let's start with "Relevance" first. 
Relevance is probably the number one God of 20th century advertising & brand building. (Number one of the Holy Trinity: Relevance, Differentiation, Credibility.)
What marketers mostly mean by "Relevance" is something like this:
If a notion can influence a person and his purchase decision or product evaluation, then it is "relevant". Say, it's "relevant for product/brand choice". Usually it is very unsubtly asked for in surveys through questions like "When it comes to shaving cream I appreciate ... ". Hate those ones. As if anyone could give a proper answer. Anyway,...

In the course of the late 20th century "relevance for product evaluations and purchase decisions" has been partly complemented by the notion of "relevance in people's lives". This was an attempt to escape parity on product level by connecting products with something important to people using them. Thus, relevance that used to simply "come with" certain product features/qualities, now has become a matter of interpretation and could be modified by advertising without major changes in product qualities. You just told people that Nescafé makes people more social and talkative - thus Nescafé became seemingly more relevant in life just by advertising magic. No new coffee formula, no cocaine supplement inside. Advertising started to tell people why and how things are relevant in their lives. (Later, brands went to far and started talking about life itself and behaved as if they were psychotherapists. Advertising agencies thought the more they talked about "life" the better it would be for the brand advertised. "Life" was probably the most used word in advertising - often accompanied by crude Orwellish imperatives. "Be yourself", "Think different", etc.)

So, two major brand planning techniques were involved in the issue of relevance:
1) identify relevant qualities of a brand/product that would fuel preference for it,
2) create relevance by connecting qualities of a brand/product with people's needs, wants or beliefs - again, in order to fuel preference for it.

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Don't get me wrong - with all that ironic undertone. Relevance still is an important notion. Actually most planners work with it in mind. And, even in distinguished circles of tech savvy people, relevance is still "hot" - when you look into areas like e.g. app development and user experience. You simply need to know what really counts for people and how your brand can help people achieve what's important to them.


Now, let's get to "Interestingness".
You could not sensibly say that coffee's function as a social lubricant ("makes you enjoy conversations") is "interesting"! It is relevant - or "creates" relevance -  in the marketing sense of the word - since it connects the brand and what it does with something valuable in life. But it is not very interesting. Why?

When we look up "interesting" in a dictionary we find two clusters of meaning. One meaning very much resembles "relevance" in the sense of  being personally important or useful. The other one revolves around a state of being mentally consumed by something. It must be this second meaning of interesting - attention being absorbed by something - that "coffee as a social lubricant" is missing.

On the other hand, relevance - it seems - can be a source of interestingness: attention being involuntarily drawn to something that is important. So there is an intersection of relevance and interestingness: things can be both. But lots of interesting things aren't relevant and vice versa.


Let's leave definitions aside and look into emotions. What is your feeling when something is interesting? "Wow, that's interesting!" And what is your feeling when something is relevant? Exactly: "interesting" comes with a surprise. And it translates into curiosity. You want to spend time with it to find out and understand more. Relevance doesn't do that, necessarily. So is relevance "weaker" than interestingness?

Interesting stuff is quite random - anything could be interesting. The less expected - the more interesting. Interesting pieces of content don't need a certain context. "Interestingness" can start at total ignorance. Did you know that Hitler's wife actually survived her suicide attempt in May 1945 and was shot by a compassionate Russian soldier? You didn't. Good. It's not true, either. But it arouses interest, doesn't it? Just like the accident image above. It's an interesting piece of fiction. A "story" - as today's self-proclaimed "storytellers" would call it. The thing is - this kind of interest and interestingness just leads nowhere. And that's the problem.

Interestingness in today's planning debate.
The driving force behind advertisers' interest in interestingness is their declining ability to gain attention for brands in today's media landscape. Content gets produced and shared by people and organisations in amounts and at a speed unimaginable in the 80ies, or 90ies, or 2 years ago, actually. Being interesting is an imperative in a world of scarce attention. So far so good. And true.

The controversy and the slightly biased debate in the planning community (and it's definitely the blogging and the digital planning part of the community and almost noone else) began when planners tried to make Interestingness a New God. Probably not Nr. 1, but Nr. 2, just behind the obscure term "Engagement". Making something a God works like this: Make people believe that it's not an intermediate goal but the final one. And that's exactly what some planners imply: forget being relevant in terms of influencing purchase decisions between brands and start being interesting in order to compete with other content producers. That's the goal. The Goal.

Well, I seriously believe that this is incorrect. There is no evidence that a brand actually can BE "interesting". Neither has anybody shown evidence of a connection between being interesting and selling more products - regardless of positioning, message, product qualities etc. Well, of course noone can show such evidence since there is no measurement of brands "being interesting". People probably wouldn't understand a question like "Do you find this brand interesting?". Brands are not made to be interesting. Content can be interesting. Brands cannot. Unless they are new in the market or represent novel business ideas (which would make them "content" themselves).

Let's take facebook as a brand. It's one of those seldom brands that are "new" and "fascinating" to society. That is why facebook is a topic, i.e. content in other media. Everybody writes about Zuckerberg. He's interesting. But does all this translate into sales or new members? Is it facebook's "interestingness" that drives their success or is it their relevance in terms of the tools they offer? There's certainly some effect of this kind of publicity, but it is marginal, isn't it.

The relation between interesting content and brands has often been described as "Brands as Curators" or even more ambitiously "Brands as Content Producers". While I completely understand that a brand can spend money on curating or producing whatever they want to, I don't quite understand how this spend is finally justified in terms of selling products. A question that is quite looked down upon by many planners today. One that seems to be not very "interesting" to the planning community.
I personally doubt that pure attention sells enough (though it certainly does sell - if  the brand gets remembered correctly or direct sale is being initialized). I also doubt that the stuff that brands actually do produce or curate really does arouse as much attention as would be needed to sell more products.

It seems to me sometimes that planners buy into theories and paradigms not based on those theories ability to sell more products for clients but based on their ability to make the planners think of themselves as "not being in advertising but in something else". It just feels nicer to say "I help brands become interesting and curate cultural content" instead of "I help Boeing sell more Fighter Jets". Maybe "interesting" is a term that we like to be used to describe ourselves?

Anyway, to clear up the mess above, here's my first more or less structured piece of text on this topic:

1) Being interesting is an intermediate goal. It's not the final one. It has been one before the digital age as well.
2) Interesting stuff that actually has relevance in purchase decisions is key. The other interesting stuff is optional.
3) And yes, relevant stuff that is not at all interesting will have problems to gain attention & credit.
But it's still possible to buy attention. It just got a bit more expensive and quite a bit more frustrating. Not impossible.
4) Great products that have inherent intrinsic relevance are interesting enough - and don't need planners to make them interesting ... or relevant.