I’m getting sick of content marketing. Not as a profession, of course, and certainly not as a way for businesses and other organizations to connect with new customers online. What I’m sick of is being content marketed to. I’m tired of searching for something online—answers to a question, solutions for a problem, or real information that will help me understand what I’m buying before I open up my wallet—only to find results pages dominated by poorly-written, uninformative, confusing, repetitive, or boring content. It makes me feel used; as an Internet user it makes me feel like my problems, my real need for information, are nothing more than opportunities for businesses to exploit for better rankings on Google.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. As content marketing completes its takeover of the online marketing landscape, I think a certain level of content fatigue is going to set in among readers. Tired of reading the same article over and over again with just a few changes, tired of the same clichés, tired of clicking through blandly repackaged sales language, I think Internet users will gravitate toward a higher level of content and, as a result, search engines like Google will make changes to better connect their users to that content. Some of these changes are already underway.
I’ve already written on this blog about my dissatisfaction with the quality of much of the online content writing out there. Last week, I promised specifics, and here they are. As a content manager, I read, write, and edit dozens of blog articles every week. I keep seeing the same hacky writing techniques over and over again, and here I’ve set out to identify them and explain why they drive me crazy:
1. Been There, Read That
Blog articles have a strange tendency to reproduce. As writers are sent out into the wild to create blog articles for their clients, they inevitably find other blog articles on similar topics. Lacking direction from their clients and, perhaps, trying to squeeze in as many completed assignments as they can into their workdays, writers go ahead and “borrow” information from these existing blog articles. Articles beget articles beget articles, and the bad information flows from generation to generation.
While existing online content can be a valuable source of information for writers who are looking to become instant experts in any given topic, beware. Just because it’s online doesn’t make it true. Before you crib those facts you found online, ask yourself:
- Do I actually understand this? Don’t regurgitate facts you can’t comprehend. It’s very likely they’re incorrect or, also possible, written by a writer who was just as confused as you.
- Does this align with my client’s messaging and ideas? If you’re not sure, ask. Send a quick email to your client: “Hey, what do you think of this? This sounds interesting.” Don’t risk putting controversial or incorrect words in your client’s mouth.
- Where does this information come from? Try to track the information you find in other blog posts to better, more authoritative, neutral sources. If one doesn’t exist, then ask yourself why you should trust this particular content creator. If one does exist, reference it and offer your own take (which is actually your client’s take) on the information.
2. “You Keep Using That Word…”
One of the cardinal sins of writing—online or otherwise—is sounding like an idiot, especially when you’re trying to establish your authority as an expert and convince others of the legitimacy of your opinions. This isn’t going to happen if you misuse common phrases or choose your words poorly. It all comes down to knowing what you’re talking about, offering new and interesting ideas and thoughts rather than content for content’s sake.
Here is the opening sentence of a blog article I recently received from one of the writers I work with (slightly altered to protect the “innocent”):
“If the business sector of the medical field grabs your attention, a degree in REDACTED may be the right industry for you.”
The writer of this gem had achieved the highest rating possible on the content writer marketplace where I found him, yet he failed on the first sentence of his article. Read it closely. Is that how most people use the word “sector”? How can a degree be the right industry for me? How can a degree be an industry at all?
I knew what the writer was trying to say, of course, but that’s not good enough for a professional content writer. As I wrote last week, if you want to get paid for your writing, you’re expected to do a better job than your client could do on his or her own. That means using words correctly and re-reading your sentences to make sure they make sense.
My agency works a lot with the HubSpot inbound marketing platform. Consequently, we read a lot of articles on HubSpot’s blog and from other marketing agencies writing about HubSpot. I’ve noticed one word popping up over and over in those articles: Kool-Aid. See for yourself. It creeps me out. This is another case of, “I know what you’re trying to say but…” The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a reference to the Jonestown Massacre, in which more than 900 followers of the cult leader Jim Jones killed themselves by drinking cyanide-laced flavored beverages. It has since become a metaphor for blind obedience.
I like HubSpot software, but I like it because I’ve seen how it can help businesses, how easy it is to use, how the HubSpot team spreads interesting, well thought-out ideas, and so on. That’s hardly blind obedience, and I don’t think blind obedience is something HubSpot wants associated with their brand. So why does Kool-Aid keep turning up in articles praising HubSpot and inbound marketing? Lazy writing and writers who don't understand the words they're using.
This goes back to what I was saying in point one. Just because other people are using a phrase doesn’t mean it’s the best way to say something. As professional writers, we need to create content that’s better and smarter than what everyone else is creating. In the HubSpot example, how about instead of saying you’re drinking the inbound marketing Kool-Aid, say those who are stuck in the SEO era are the ones drinking the Kool-Aid, while you, the HubSpot user, are basing your marketing on rationalism, data, and creativity. Now that’s compelling use of language.
3. Get to the Point
This might be tough for freelance content writers to hear, but here it is: Readers don’t care that you’re being paid by the word. Every blog article doesn’t need to be at least 500 words long. Sometimes—many times—readers just want a straight answer, and it’s ok to give them one. Don’t waste your readers’ time or risk boring and confusing them with circular, elongated writing just to stretch a 300-word blog article past the 400 mark. Get in, be interesting, be informative, answer questions, and get out.
On that point, it’s time to drink my own Kool-Aid. I have more to say on how not to write a blog post, but for that, you’ll have to come back next week. Leave me a comment and let me know what common content writing practices drive you crazy.