This might seem a bit strange coming from someone who is in the business of content marketing, but I don’t really care for the term “content,” not as a description of my written work, anyway. Before I retired my notebook and hung up my press pass, I worked for eight years as a newspaper reporter and editor. As I passed through a string of newsrooms in New York state and here in Massachusetts, I never once heard a colleague refer to what we were crafting as “content.” We wrote “articles,” “stories,” “columns,” and “editorials.” When we were feeling lofty we said we were doing “journalism.” The most pretentious among us called themselves “wordsmiths.” I never did, but I also never denigrated my written output with a word as generic, as flavorless as “content.” Yet, in my new career, I find myself using the term every day. My title at my agency is, in fact, “content manager.”
What’s wrong with the word “content”?
Nothing’s wrong with the word “content.” For online marketers it serves a purpose. There is the Internet and all of the technical pieces that make it work and then there is the stuff that people use the Internet to find. That stuff is content. Given the many different forms that stuff can take—written, video, audio—“content” might be the best all-encompassing word available to describe it. “Content marketing” is the act of attracting people online and getting them to make a purchase, cast a vote, make a donation, or take any other desired action by providing them the stuff—the content—they want.
But as I talk with my team of writers and the consultants at my agency about how we can help our clients create better content—content that will help our clients increase their online profile, attract prospective customers and convert them into actual customers—I wonder if thinking about the written word as merely “content” is counterproductive.
Good writing is not a commodity
As a journalist, there’s a certain thrill you experience when you’re sitting at a coffee shop and see a complete stranger intently reading one of your newspaper articles at a table nearby. I have never written a book, but I imagine published authors feel the same way when they see someone buried in one of their novels sitting across from them on a subway train. This is the moment where the insular act of writing becomes a shared experience; it’s the realization that what you have written is being read by real, living, thinking human beings.
This is my problem with the word “content.” If, as writers, we think of what we do as interchangeable and generic, as just so much backfill for plugging holes on websites and blogs, then we’re forgetting there are actual humans on the other end of our words. Readers comes seeking answers, new ideas, education, news, and entertainment. And when they don’t find what they’re looking for, they move on.
People are the ones who buy things, give things, share things, talk about things. If we want our marketing campaigns to be successful, they must appeal to people. As online writers, we must write for people.
So why are so many of us writing for machines?
Readers are people too
Content marketing has taken off. I saw a statistic yesterday that said a whopping 91 percent of business-to-business marketers use content marketing; 86 percent of business-to-consumer marketers do, as well. But while so many businesses appreciate the value of content in their online marketing campaigns, it strikes me that so few of them seem to be capable of creating good content.
Speaking as a consumer of content as well as a creator, it’s getting annoying how much bad writing is making its way online in the form of content marketing. How many times have you Googled something—how to make a simple home repair, for example, or advice on which brand of running shoes to purchase—only to find yourself awash in a sea of incoherent articles, repetitive blog posts, barely disguised sales pitches, and listicles in which each item is either almost exactly the same thing or has absolutely nothing in common?
The root of the problem, I think, is the failure of marketers, marketing agencies, and writers to think about their content as anything more than fodder to attract search engines. Search for advice on “content optimization” online and you’ll find tons of articles talking about long-tail keywords, internal and external linking, and the appropriate length for blog titles. What you won’t find, however, is a frank discussion of how to create content that readers actually like, that they will enjoy reading, that they will find useful, and that they will act upon. That’s what readers are looking for. I know this because I am one, and you are too.
I think online writers can do better. I think that if we stop thinking about our work as “content” and instead think about each blog post and article as something actual readers will find, and learn from, and enjoy, we will do better.
This is what I will be discussing in this series of weekly blog posts. I will be speaking specifically to writers and those who manage writers. The topic will be how to write more compelling, more informative, and more useful online articles. I intend to talk about the philosophy of online writing as well as the nitty-gritty of sentence structure and style. I invite you to subscribe to this blog by clicking on the button below or come by next Friday for the next article in my content writing series.