A recent post on the marketing news website Clickz re-emphasizes something that proponents of content marketing have been saying for a few years now: That in today’s interconnected, internetworked, social media-centric world, marketers must think differently about the business of marketing.
In essence, writes Stephanie Miller (@stephanieSAM) in this post, marketers must think like publishers, and the organizations they work for must operate more like publishing companies than ever before. (Seems I’ve heard this somewhere before.)
We marketers “are often in a great position to share knowledge with customers and prospects,” Miller writes. “Marketers often have access to a tremendous library of content – scientific, anecdotal, and historical – as well as many creative assets that may be useful or helpful to citizens. Therein lies the opportunity.”
Yes, therein lies the opportunity.
Therein also lies the danger.
Because guess what happens when every organization gets into the publishing business?
You get a lot of poor content.
You end up with a lot of noise to the signal.
We’ve seen this movie before
This is nothing new. We’ve seen this movie before. While there’s much to be heralded about putting sophisticated communications tools and vehicles into the hands of the common folk, the end result is not always better communications.
Remember the desktop publishing revolution? Before the advent of desktop publishing, people who were serious about creating printed materials went to a printing firm for assistance. If they were really serious, they worked with a graphic designer to create quality design and layout even before taking their projects to the printer.
Then desktop publishing came along and took the tools of publishing out of the hands of the experts and into the hands of anyone with a PC or Mac and an inkjet printer. Desktop publishing flourished as PC users everywhere unleashed a torrent of horribly conceived fliers, brochures and newsletters straight off the inkjet and onto the photocopier. No need for any experts. We had this.
(That image comes from a blog post about “truly terrible graphic design.” As Napoleon Dynamite once said, “There’s more where that came from.”)
Then came the web, which amplified the crap-to-quality ratio a zillionfold. Anyone with an Internet connection could create a free site via Geocities. Then along came Blogger and LiveJournal, and suddenly people started blogging. (Some of us still do. The horror!) It gave rise to Vincent Flanders’ web pages that suck website, where you can find examples of horrible, terrible web design and poorly conceived websites, including some from our beloved higher education niche.
Now we have content marketing and the “everyone’s a publisher” mantra. Which means that everyone in marketing is now supposed to be creating content — what we used to call “stories,” “features” and “news” — about their brands. Or they’re using social media in an attempt to newsjack events. (The latest Sept. 11 “commemorations” of that anniversary shows just how tone-deaf marketers can be in their attempts to appear relevant on social media).
The cult of the amateur
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the do-it-yourself ethos. This blog is a DIY project, but I didn’t design the WordPress theme. I picked one from a selection created by people who know a bit about web design and were generous enough to provide some freebee templates for bloggers like me, who are fairly competent at stringing together sentences but are inept at web design.
Also, to add to my DIY cred: I taught myself how to play the guitar, and I played mostly punk rock power chords for a long time. (I was young, and loud, distortion- and fuzz-laden guitar was a good thing to channel faux anger.) But the point of punk rock is to be deliberately amateurish. That’s part of the aesthetic. That’s why Jamie Reid, the artist most famous for his ransom-note style design of Sex Pistols record covers, was a success.
Most of us doing DIY publishing, web design or content creation, however, aren’t out to create deliberately amateurish work (unless you specialize in memes). We’re trying to communicate. Or at least, that’s what we should be trying to do, right?
Also, I knew some basic rules. I knew how to form certain chords, and I understood the 1-4-5 chord progression. So I had parameters. Successful do-it-yourselfers know what rules to follow. Whether you’re remodeling a bathroom, learning an instrument or writing a novel, you first need to know a few basic rules or guidelines.
A couple of years ago, Ron Bronson riffed on a terrific Portlandia skit about everyone becoming DJs. At the time, he was touching on the subject of blog abandonment, which I’d also been talking about. “There are folks who actually believe that we all should have blogs and that it’s a vehicle for communicating that serves us well,” Ron wrote. “But not everyone possess the skills to maintain a blog. Much less the time or interest.”
Can the same be said of marketers and content marketing? Does every brand need content?
I believe every brand does need content. But not all content is worthy of the label “content marketing.” Nor should it be. There will still be a need for the more traditional advertising, at least at some level.
What we’re seeing with all this talk about the importance of content marketing is something Andrew Keen labeled “the cult of the amateur” in his 2007 book of the same name. His “shrewdly argued jeremiad” (as The New York Times review put it) critiques what Keen at the time saw as a growing rise in the amount of dreck passing for valid news, considered opinion and entertainment. For this book, he was criticized as being both elitist and Luddite. But seven years later, as we scroll through our Facebook “news” feeds to see who has taken the latest BuzzFeed quiz or posted the latest adorable mammals from a HuffPost article, I would argue that Keen was on to something. Content has only gone from bad to worse since The Cult of the Amateur came out.
But back to content marketing.
We can learn to become content marketers. We can learn to harness the powerful tools of online communications to create great content. But, just as you wouldn’t hand over the keys to your Ferrari to a 15-year-old kid who doesn’t yet have a learner’s permit, neither should you just turn someone unskilled in content creation loose to be your content marketing guru.
To become true content marketers, we marketers will first need to unlearn the traditional approaches of marketing, then learn or relearn storytelling and journalistic approaches. And then, of course, we’ll need to learn to think like a publisher, not a desktop publisher. There is a difference.