There is a push for everyone in business to become content creators. Where once we were struggling to get anyone to write copy, movements like inbound marketing have ushered in a trend where the trivial “how to” article is no longer the exception, but dominant in our news feeds. Today alone, I've read four “best practice” articles on marketing. In each they used the term Maxims, Essential, How To, and a numeral in their title. The copy is usually four to five paragraphs that work more as teaser than a substantive story - resulting in something more akin to yellow journalism - merely a sensational story with a catchy headline whose goal is clicks and lead capture.
There are some really good "maxims or how to" articles out there - but the balance has shifted and now there are far more pretenders offering 7 Reasons for this or 9 Lessons for that. The demand for writing this type of work is so high I'm often tempted to be one of those pretenders myself. When I've stumbled onto a truth or an insight there’s the desire to share it quickly to not only be the first but to also check off a box and satiate the ever hungry content monster. But if it does not meet a need, or has little substance past the tease, it calls into question the value of my effort - or if anyone should trust what I write in the future.
As I criticize this type of work I’m seeing, I empathize with what causes it. Often we're being given aggressive timetables to "generate content" like we're in some salt mine of thought and experience. I know the feeling of being pushed, and I know the look in folks eyes when I push them to the same end. We’ve made this monster - what do we do with it?
Like many vain things in life, words for words sake can be an exercise that does more harm than good - and we need to be careful that in our rush to generate content we’re not generating reasons for our audiences to disbelieve us. The old proverb "better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt" comes to mind. Yes, we need to craft language to connect our own or our clients’ thoughts with that of audiences, but we must also do so in intentional, professional, and measured doses. Plan for the interaction, know the language your audiences speak, work to identify their needs and pain, then systematically write content that addresses that pain. Craft real solutions that demonstrate a path to success, not to just prove you know what their pain is. Too many articles out there are great at pointing out the pain. I liken this to having a paramedic show up only to say "Yep, you're missing a leg. Here are ten reasons you shouldn't lose a leg."
So, here are my 5 Ways to Avoid Creating Junk Content
- Know who you are talking to. Not just their demographics and education level but their language style, vocabulary, and the writers that influence them. In B2B, if I know five to ten examples of an audience type I can extrapolate lookalikes from them. Finding out what they like to read can be as simple as seeing who they follow on Twitter or, to be less of a stalker, just ask them. If your goal is to make content that's meaningful to them, they probably wouldn't mind helping you succeed in that end. Craft an online form, email them a question or two, have a couple of questions ready in your next client or prospect meeting.
- Know what's bothering them. Trade journals, and trade news feeds are great for this. The more you know about their business, their sales model, what the ecosystem of their industry is like, the more likely you'll be able to identify with them and write relevant and meaningful content for them. Nothing will get you more derision than being a poser in one of your client's or prospect's fields. When pretend to know their pain, we make light of their work and put our motivations into question.
- Don't be a tease. Give real information that has value - not just behind a paywall, or lead capture, but craft something honest, something that tells them the time they took to click your link and read your article wasn't a waste or just bait to get their contact information. Yes, use whitepapers or webinars to tempt them to look further - but if all you're writing is an ad there are better places for that. If they can come away after a four minute investment and have a better day, a more meaningful work experience, or having solved a problem they've been struggling with you've proved that you're an ally to their work, and in turn, to them.
- Edit. If you're like me, and a better talker than a writer, find someone who loves the written word to repair your work. Just like not everyone is a designer, not everyone can convey their thoughts cleanly and concisely. Partnering with someone who cares for the English language (or Spanish, German, etc.) like it is precious and worthy of respect helps all involved. I've written and published too many things that I wanted to get out quickly only to realize later that not only did I look like a fool - worse, I confused people and led them to conclusions that were off target. If you've taken the time to research, conceive, and draft - respect the launch of that work with a good once or twice over by someone who can make sure its value is reflected in the final product.
- Selectively distribute. My mom loves me, but she doesn't really care what my thoughts are on integrated marketing campaigns. In the same way, empathize with your audiences and determine if your content is general or targeted. Often there are insights that cross over - but there's always the threat of wasting someone's time. Especially in email distribution - segment your audiences and only put content in front of them that is relevant to their situation. In pull content scenarios, be sure to tag, so that readers can quickly identify if it might be meaningful to them. If you have a marketing automation system - all the better. Use the knowledge you have learned about people to send them only the information that matters. You'll show that you respect their time and have paid attention to what they value.
~ Dave Peterson