What the longest bridge in Southeast Asia can teach marketers about content strategy

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This week I travelled with my parents to Penang, Malaysia. In addition to local delicacies like ice kacang and char koay teow, Penang is home to Penang Bridge 2, a 26km engineering marvel connecting the island to the mainland.

Penang's second bridge is the longest in Southeast Asia. The foundations extend 100 metres into the bedrock. Experts say the bridge will stand for 120 years, even if struck by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. 

The bridge is a fine feat of human achievement. But in many ways, it has failed to meet expectations. Drivers don't like to use it. The first Penang Bridge, which is still operational, averages up to 100,000 vehicle crossings daily. Penang Bridge 2 averages just 14,300. 

In short, Malaysia paid $1.5 billion to maintain the status quo.

Is your organisation doing the same with its content strategy? 

Every week I talk to marketers who have spent a fortune developing and executing content strategies. They have little to show for their investment. 

No increases in lead generation. No website traffic spikes. Just wasted time and effort.

What the second Penang Bridge can teach marketers about content strategy

Like Penang Bridge 2, content strategies under deliver for all kinds of reasons. But the two fields have more in common than you might expect. 

Curious? Here's what every marketer can learn about content strategy from Penang Bridge 2. 

Publish content on platforms your target audience uses

In light mid-morning traffic, it took about 20 minutes to reach the bridge from our hotel in George Town, the largest city on the island.

Once on the bridge, we passed only a handful of other cars. It was eerie. 

Our driver explained that two years after construction, Malaysians still prefer to travel over the first bridge, which starts in George Town. 

Even though it’s busier, Penang Bridge 1 is more conveniently located, and thus more popular. No one wants to drive all the way out of town to get to the mainland, especially when there's a perfectly good bridge closer to home. 

The lesson: Changing people’s behaviour is hard. It’s even harder when there’s no clear value proposition. Your target audience won't go out of their way to seek out your content, no matter how good it is. 

Save your energy for producing highly relevant content instead of changing audience habits. If your audience is already on LinkedIn, for example, concentrate your efforts on reaching them there. Don't try and lure them to a platform you like better. 

Map of the two Penang bridges connecting to the mainland

Find out what your target audience actually wants

The fact that Malaysians continue to use the older and more congested first bridge says a lot about Penang Bridge 2’s consultation process. 

I’m not sure if locals were consulted about the second bridge, or to what extent. But many significant factors seem to have been overlooked.

Did engineers ask if residents would be willing to travel on a 26km bridge that added 30-40 minutes to their journey? Did they discuss building a bridge closer to places of interest? Usage statistics suggest otherwise. 

The lesson: Marketers and bridge builders need to understand their users before taking action. Ask your target audience what problems they want to solve. What are their biggest challenges? How can you help? What type of content do they find most useful?

If you’re working with limited resources, dig through your analytics to discover which content resonates. Use statistics like downloads, shares, bounce rates and page views as markers of success.

Expensive isn’t always better

Penang Bridge 2 cost more than a billion dollars. While building a bridge of that size and scale is never going to be cheap, I suspect the chosen design wasn't a mid-range option.

Throwing money at a problem isn’t always the smartest solution. Nor does it guarantee quality or fast delivery. Penang Bridge 2 opened in 2014, well behind schedule. 

The lesson: Instead of assuming that the highest bidder is best-equipped to solve your content strategy woes, assess how their approach delivers value. Fancy and shiny things are only worth investing in if you can prove they will achieve business objectives, too. 

At the same time, you want to avoid the pitfalls that come with working with inexperienced, cheaper strategists. Do your homework. Carefully.  

Identify what’s wrong with your current content strategy before developing a new one

The second Penang Bridge is underused. But that hasn’t stopped the Penang Government making plans for a third bridge or undersea tunnel. 

It is true that Penang needs to plan ahead for increased road use. Two roads on and off the island won’t be enough in coming decades. However, unless the government identifies and resolves the problems with the second bridge, bridge three is also unlikely to meet expectations. 

The lesson: If your current content strategy isn’t getting the results you need, go digging for answers. While you can definitely get a new content strategy developed, figure out why your new one failed first. You’ll know exactly what to avoid, and how to achieve better outcomes next time.

If you want to nerd out, you can watch The National Geographic Channel’s documentary about the bridge’s construction: