Good writing matters but it isn’t everything
I’ve always felt like I cheated the system. Here I am, the Copy Director at a marketing agency, and I never took a single marketing class. Instead of studying sales funnels (that’s what you do, right?), I earned a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing, spending my higher ed years writing poetry, reading best-selling memoirs and getting lost in Victorian novels (OK, admittedly the “luck” of that last one is relative). I broke onto the marketing scene sometime between when Daniel Pink was advocating for the M.F.A. as the new M.B.A., when Joe Pulizzi was launching Content Marketing World and when people were beginning to recognize storytelling as synonymous with marketing.
It was good timing.
There was a genuine paradigm shift happening and M.F.A.-trained copywriters were sprouting up everywhere. The industry began embracing the logic that it’s easier to teach a good writer how to write a specific way than it is to teach an average writer how to write better (and I couldn’t agree more.) Good – no, exceptional – writing is at the heart of any successful content marketing strategy, but here’s the thing: it isn’t enough. Lackluster writing may be a common reason that content marketing plans fail, but it’s certainly not the only reason. Here are a few tips (some learned the hard way) for the writers turned content marketers out there who are trying to rock the business world.
1. Check your ego (i.e. you don’t matter)
In creative writing workshops, we get a lot of advice about only writing what you know, making your truth universal and even “opening a vein and bleeding on the page,” advice that has been attributed to quite a few famous writers from Hemingway to Nietzsche. Guess what? They don’t want open veins in marketing. You need to create a human connection, yes, and writing from a place of empathy is important. But your personal opinion and knowledge is not. Research the crap out of your subject matter and write with the brand’s objective in mind.
2. Rethink what storytelling means
In fiction and nonfiction, there are so many ways to structure a story to create suspense and heighten emotion. Writers have a diverse toolkit – everything from unreliable narrators to flashbacks and flash forwards to long, winding Virginia Woolf-esque descriptions. These are not the tools you have when you are writing marketing stories. Storytelling in this space is largely about showing how to solve a problem. You should focus on the emotional benefits, but often, those are things like peace of mind and greater efficiency. And, although you should never say never, you should almost always avoid saving big-impact information for later.
3. Cut the virtuoso crap
Like any artist, writers like to flex. It doesn’t happen in the way of a 20-minute guitar solo, but it does feel good to show off a little. You know, to take the reader on an unknown journey through a prolonged metaphor that smacks of truth so hard it stings a little when you finally get there at just the right moment… yeah. But just because you can write a sell sheet entirely in haiku doesn’t mean that you should. Remember your audience, remember your purpose and make sure that every trick you pull is serving both. There is a place for cleverness and creativity, of course, but wield your writerly powers sparingly. The average American reads at an eighth grade level, people are super busy and most are just trying to find accurate information fast.
4. Do technical things like SEO and analytics
Daydreaming, right-brained bohemians like myself like to rely on the absolute truth that we suck at math and computers hate us. Any tech more advanced than a Microsoft Word doc is simply beyond our grasp. There are other people much more suited for all that stuff, right? Wrong. Content marketing is a digitally led movement and if you want to be a part of it, you need to learn a few of the basics. Consider a Google Analytics certification, learn how to optimize your content for search engines and use tools to measure engagement and other performance metrics on social media.
5. No flakes allowed
As artists types, we sometimes wear that identity as an excuse to be – how can I put this gently – lazy dolts whose ability to produce quality work is dependent upon imaginary muses or the fickle energy of the universe. Yes, writer’s block is real. No, it is not an excuse to miss a deadline. Part of a successful content marketing strategy is setting expectations and producing consistent content. If you have a weekly e-newsletter that drops at 9:30 a.m. every Tuesday, you need to fill it with killer content before 9:30 a.m. every Tuesday, muses be damned.
Feeling a little stifled? Here’s the good news, creative writers! That manuscript (screenplay, essay collection, etc.) you’ve been working on in your spare time? It’s actually super important and you should keep plugging away every chance you get. Going wild with all the stuff you’re not supposed to do in your content marketing only helps you develop as a writer on and off the clock. But maybe skip the bleeding part? Sounds messy.
How’s your content marketing plan? If it needs a little love, from both the creative and strategic perspectives, give us a shout!
Check out these related blog posts: