Scrabble tiles spelling out content

On May 16, 2009, the U.S. Senate passed and President Obama signed a bill (SB1953686429: Marketing Nomenclature Uniformity Act), which required most advertising agencies and copywriters to rename themselves Content Agencies and Content Writers. This has caused unintended confusion over the years.

For me, the transition was effortless. I simply did a Search and Destroy on my resume, changing the words “copy” and ”senior copywriter” to “content” and “senior content developer” throughout. This was easy, because the title of Copywriter has been obsolete since the days when print advertising all but dropped off the planet (hey, it’s coming back!). Nor had I written anything resembling traditional advertising copy in many years.

I am a writer, and — my inability to spell and limited knowledge of grammar notwithstanding — a formidably well-trained one at that. From that standpoint, I am sufficiently qualified to explain the meaning of content in its marketing context.

What Is Content?

Content is anything written for any marketing purpose. Simple enough? It is almost exactly the same as copywriting as practiced since the inception of the internet, albeit with some subtle differences. (I’m writing about content writing. Designers have their own content issues; enter the infographic.)

Copy was written sized to fit the space available in any medium — print, TV, radio, web banners, billboards, brochures, web pages, etc. — that purported to tell about a company or product (with the pretense that the explanation was crafted to sell you something).

Content serves the exact same purpose of providing explanatory material veiling a sales message, but with some key differences:

  • Content reduces the use of hyperbole by 7 percent and tends to mute the smarmy tone and voice of hucksters selling cutlery on basic cable TV commercials
  • Content tends to drift into a “corporate voice,” characterized by the use of third person, the application of the passive voice to disassociate the company from its products, and the incessant use of the word solutions. This tendency renders much content unreadable.
  • Content incorporates bullets. Lots of bullets. Bullets to allow the reader to determine what information is useful and what information is simply included to make the product appear feature-rich. 

What Is Good Content?

Good content is just good writing. It uses the voice of one person talking conversationally to a single, highly targeted reader, explaining and convincing by force of example and enthusiasm. It always tells a story, because readers are drawn to stories. If the content is highly technical, technical jargon is quickly explained and acronyms spelled out, because the assumption the reader already knows what X or Y means is dubious, but a reminder never hurts.

Great content is information-rich, but not overwhelming. This is a distinction from traditional copywriting, which framed selected points of information. To write good content, a writer needs to understand an industry, its technologies and products in order to engage in a seemingly peer-to-peer conversation. It takes a lot of grinding research to write with that confidence.

Great content has never abandoned the primary characteristic of good copywriting: creativity — the headlines that cajole the reader into actually reading the content, or, since most people only read the headlines, explain the product or point of view just by scanning the headlines.

Visual concepts — the combination of a surprising or incongruous visual with a headline that makes the connection — continue to grab attention and draw a reader into content, because, as always, the objective is to wave content’s arms in the air and get attention.

Engaging — Yes, a white paper can contain humor and lively writing in explaining complicated issues. No, a product brochure does not have to be a catalog of equipment models; it can be about the problems your company can solve for other companies, without showing the latest models. Videos do not have to consist entirely on testimonials and technical animations. Whatever the medium, great content engages.

90 Percent Is Crap (Or Something Like That)

Following Sturgeon’s law, great content is fairly rare: a 10–90% ratio. Content, as understood by too many, is filler. You can see this for yourself: the brochure copy becomes the web copy; the web copy fills the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. White papers and articles draw from the brochure and web copy. Advertising draws from the opening paragraphs of the web pages and brochures, and web banners are a stack of subheads. This is called repurposing. It has the benefits of: 1) being fairly quick to throw together, and 2) making everything your company says is absolutely consistent. The primary disadvantage is that there is no reason to read the content, because too much repurposing equals crap for copy. And once etched in stone, it rarely changes.

Content Is Obligatory. Great Content Is a Strategy.

With much overt agency-aggrandizement, TriComB2B tends to produce great content. Not for the sake of self-indulgent creative, although we create a lot of creative work and take pride in it. No, we need great content for strategic reasons, at an agency where every client strategy is different.

Take the tricky field of demand generation. It’s a discipline with an underpinning of best practices: CRM, marketing automation, and actual, real, bona fide metrics as feedback. Done well, a demand generation program delivers messaging with tools as mechanized and scheduled as a Class 8 truck. But a multi-stage, inbound and outbound communications strategy involves producing content with changing objectives — awareness, consideration, influencer communications and advocacy — all of which require a change in conversations building from the last. Moreover, at each stage, customers are reached by the media options that make sense for their environment.

Every piece of content at every stage of the demand generation process has to be fresh and new: a new chapter in an evolving story that reinforces a growing message without being redundant or overbearing. For the content writer, this can mean finding ways to capture attention, engaging with and conducting one- and two-way communications with numerous approaches. The machinery will distribute the content. But it better be good content.

Based on TriComB2B’s track record, it’s good content. If I were to define what we’re putting in all those buckets, I’d probably call it writing.