The Innovative Marketer's Blog

On Content: Toward a New Theory of Content

Posted by Matthew Cook

(Last week, I promised that this week I would deliver a second part of my series-within-a-series, “How Not to Write a Blog Post.” If you’re waiting with baited breath for that continuation, I’m sad to report, events have come between us. Let that be a lesson to content marketers and writers; if you have something new to say, say it, best laid content calendars be damned.)

In his recent post on our Innovative Market’s Blog, IMR director of client services Max Traylor declared that Judgment Day is upon us. Max didn’t spell out exactly who is passing judgment, so let me: Google has judged your content, and it has been found wanting. Now that Google has encrypted 100 percent of its keyword data from marketers and other prying eyes, Max argues, the old keyword-focused approach to SEO is dead. The new SEO, according to Max, is to “create valuable content that will attract the right buyers to your clients’ websites.”

It was Max’s next question that spurred me to deviate from previous plans for this blog post: “So what is valuable content anyway?” This question should preoccupy anyone involved in content marketing: writers, marketers, business owners. Everything we do depends on being able to create and identify valuable content. Do we really understand what that means?

Pardon me while I dust off my diploma

content theoryAcademics have been arguing over the best way to interpret and ascribe value to content—“texts”—for centuries. Since the middle of the last century or so, this body of diverse and always-evolving scholarship has fallen under the catch-all label of “literary theory.” There are many different schools of literary theory, and while some of the questions they ask are the same, depending on which school they belong to, different theorists have vastly different answers. Formalists, for example, zero in on the text itself, ignoring “outside” influences like culture and the author’s biography. Marxist theorists view literature through a lens of economics and class struggle. Gender theorists, through a lens of gender. Deconstructionists probe the interplay between words and their meaning, rejecting absolute meaning.

(I apologize to my grad school professors for this oversimplified and probably wrong explanation of literary theory. Give me a break; it’s been a while since I struggled through Derrida.)

What does this have to do with content marketing?

In our efforts to answer the question Max posed in his article—“What is valuable content?—we content marketers have been doing a little theory of our own.

At the height of the SEO era, we tended towards formalism. We judged the value of a piece of content based on very specific structural criteria, usually mapped to what we thought search engines like Google would reward with a high ranking: number and frequency of keywords used, incoming and outgoing links, meta tags. As content creators, our work was targeted less at readers and more at the keywords other content creators had overlooked: the so-called “long-tail keywords.” I would argue that this approach was never a good idea, but particularly now that Judgment Day has come and gone, a new theory of content is in order.

Down with formalism; up with readers

Unlike our brethren in the academic realm, who build their theoretical frameworks in a quest for truth, artistic merit, and social justice, our goals as content theorists are much more pragmatic. Our theory of content should be one that will help us grow our businesses and those of our clients. Formalist SEO theory (to coin a term) is inadequate for this purpose because, as it strives to determine the absolute rules of search engine ranking, it ignores the experience of actually reading (or otherwise consuming) a piece of content. But without readers, we can’t grow our businesses. Search engines don’t buy things—not yet, anyway.

a readerIn the 1960s, a school of literary theory called “reader-response criticism” emerged. In contrast to the formalists, to whom the text is paramount, reader-response critics are most interested in the interaction between a text and its audience. For them, a text cannot have meaning until it has been read, “performed” in the mind of the reader. To a reader-response critic, if a tree recites a sonnet in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it may or may not make a noise, but it certainly won’t have meaning.

I believe our new theory of content should be similarly oriented toward the reader, or in marketing terms, the prospect. In content marketing, the value of a piece of content comes from, and only from, the response prospective customers have after reading it (or viewing it or hearing it or experiencing it). Regardless of which keywords a piece of content hits, who links to it, and even how highly ranked it is on Google, if a piece of content informs, entertains, or interests a prospect enough to move him or her toward a closer engagement with a business, the content has value.

Rise of the humans

I don’t know why Google chose to hide its keyword data. In an explanation to Search Engine Land a few weeks ago, one Google representative wrote, “…it’s for our search users.” I hope that’s true. A world where individual searchers can be matched exactly with compelling content that satisfies their search, rather than boring, useless, keyword “optimized” content, is, in my opinion, a better world. And, in the long run, it will be a better world for all content marketers. How much longer do you think we can keep outsmarting the machines (speaking of Judgment Day)?

So how do you create valuable content, content that human readers respond to? The bad news is I don’t think there are many shortcuts. Beyond the usual tips and tricks (readers like numbered lists, readers like pop culture references, readers hate poorly executed academic discussions of literary theory), there’s not much else to say than learning to write well takes patience, hard work, and talent. (That won’t stop me from writing about writing on this blog, of course.)

The good news is, however, that whatever it is that makes good writing good and bad writing bad, it hasn’t changed just because writing has gone online. Writers and editors have been working on this problem since Aristotle. Some of them have gotten pretty good at it. If you want to create better content, read. Read a lot. Read good stuff. And then practice writing. If it’s not working, try to figure out why, and try again. Google might hide its secrets but you have intimate access to the one secret Google will always be trying to crack: the human mind. Somewhere in there, you know what valuable content is.

You’re a human. Your prospects are human. Optimize for yourself.


Topics: Blogging, SEO, Content Marketing