For reasons I can't explain, the content marketing industry is scared to identify as a creative field. We all seem to actively avoid talking loudly and proudly about creativity and quality in our work. Some of us may secretly want to address it, but we're worried what superiors would think -- namely, that we don't care about conversions or growing the business. Meanwhile, others may dislike the act of creating content but are forced to do so in this modern era of marketing. These folks tend to seek shortcuts, use bottom-dollar outsourcing options, or over-optimize everything for cheap or incremental traffic gains.
So instead of addressing ideas like creativity and quality along with smart distribution, we by and large obsess over the marketing part alone. The only attempts to teach better production are the occasional look-books of examples, a pile of lists that state the obvious ("be helpful" or "lead with a story"), and of course, the pithy, tweetable-but-ultimately-meaningless guru statements like, "Inspire your audience to embark on an adventure with you!"
Why aren't we talking tangibly, practically, and frequently about improving our content creation abilities? These are things that can and should be examined, analyzed, discussed, taught, and improved. But a gap exists.
To understand what I mean, just think about the entire content marketing role in four very general stages: planning, production, distribution, and analysis, which then feeds back into your planning, and the cycle continues. Without debating semantics, which are stupid anyway, we can place everything we do into one of those buckets.
Now think about the industry. Almost EVERYONE talks about distribution and analysis, i.e., how to execute your marketing. SOME people talk about planning, which includes the documentation of strategy, editorial calendars, resource allocation, and so forth.
Practically NOBODY talks about production.
(But a 10-gallon-hat tip to Ann Handley and her war against mediocre writing. As a disclaimer, I have no affiliation other than admiration.)
This should all seem at least a little bit weird, no? Isn't content supposed to be, yanno, THE POINT? I don't know about you, but I'm not a huge believer in polishing turds or trying to force dud missiles to fly. And I just don't think that approach works anymore anyway.
It's far better to create well and promote well. Both. Together. Always.
Am I missing something?
Oh, right --
"But that's haaaard!"
The "create well" part is indeed hard, but we're not making it any easier by avoiding it.
After all, it's our proclivity to produce that makes this different from, say, programmatic banner ad buying. And I don't know about you, but I've talked to tons of folks in the industry -- including the now 800 members of Boston Content -- who were initially attracted to the word "content" in content marketing. They like to write and create stuff first, market stuff second. They're masters of the harder part and are now learning the marketing part, which by the way, can be taught more more swiftly than teaching good writing.
But instead of a wonderfully creative field, many of us see colleagues obsessing over shortcuts and exerting tons of energy to game the system, all while asking questions like "How many words should a How-To blog post be?" or "Does humor drive more conversions?"
So if nothing else, we all need more creative support and encouragement. The creatively inclined want an outlet and want to improve, while the creative-averse need a swift kick in the pants. Maybe their mentality works with more rigid, scientific types of advertising and marketing, but when it comes to content marketing, there's also a heavy degree of art.
We need to acknowledge that more.
If We Want to Improve, Where Do We Start?
Again, this isn't about the usual platitudes of "being helpful" or "telling great stories" or "taking risks" -- though all of that is worth accepting too.
No, this is about learning the real nuts and bolts of the creative process. Do we all know what a nut graf is and how and when to write one? Do we know how to manage a team using sprints? What kind of mixer works best for a two-person, face-to-face podcast? Are we adept at creating a pillar project before quickly generating a dozen more related works?
Said more bluntly, do we want to be masters over our own production powers or timid takers-of-shortcuts who will eventually crumble when the Big Kids from journalism show up?
(Trust me, they're coming in more droves given the state of many newspapers and media outlets. And compared to their abilities to produce and tell stories, it's like we're bringing water pistols to a tank fight.)
So, we need to push hard to shift our mentality. I think it starts with removing a small word from our vocabulary too: "just."
As former agency executive Andrew Teman once pointed out to me, our industry likes to say that the key to good modern marketing is to "just create great content." But that's dangerous and wildly short-sighted. What does that actually mean? Who can do that? Have we been trained? Are we all instantly equipped to create awesome stuff that others care about, simply by trying?
(And how many hypothetical, pleading questions do I need to use in one blog post????)
In other words, it's okay to acknowledge that this stuff is hard! We like to talk about it like it's easy. Anyone can blog -- so "just" blog. But if we sell tech solutions in content marketing, this leads to frustrated customers who eventually realize it ISN'T so easy. This in turn leads to higher churn and increased customer acquisition costs, which devalues our businesses on top of it all. I've seen it firsthand. (And lest you think I'm frolicking in the field meditating on creativity too much, let me remind you that I work in VC and plan to launch or work for a startup -- which would be my third -- in the next couple years. I love the business world. We just focus on the wrong stuff sometimes.)
This Matters NOW
One of the conclusions the good folks at Content Marketing Institute drew from their recent B2B research is that the industry is maturing. I'm a huge believer that the next major step forward in this maturation process is to give actual attention and resources to better production powers. Everybody rushed to adopt this stuff (blogging, social, etc.), then rushed to game the systems behind it, then rushed to the next thing (SlideShare, podcasting, etc.), then looked for more ways to game more systems.
Eventually, the only thing remaining, and the only thing that will help us grow an audience and produce better results for our businesses, will be to wind up where we should have started all along: creating better content.
...thanks for reading my rant, and here's to improving our creative skills from this point forward.