When it comes to Content, many have lost their way

When it comes to Content Marketing, many businesses have lost their way.

This is particularly clear in the marketing vertical — with hundreds of blogs writing ‘content’ for other marketers about how they can market to others in turn.

In many ways it feels like content is becoming a race to the bottom: with companies getting ghostwriters to write minimum word limits about topics that they’ve seen rise to the top elsewhere.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s easy to get sucked into this way of thinking. It’s all too easy to put short-term wins ahead of long-term gains.

There is something disingenuous and banal about this — and something has to give.

The state of play

For the last three years I’ve seen the power of content marketing first hand at Vero.

Since February 2013, Jimmy and I have written weekly on our blog. As a way to attract customers, it’s been huge for us. To this day, around 70% of trial signups have read at least one blog article and, in many cases, discovered Vero reading one of these articles.

Thanks to a raft of factors (reduced costs, lots of early-stage capital, and more) we’re now in a SaaS revolution, with thousands of companies building SaaS services around absolutely everything you can think of. Thanks to the success of content marketing over the last five years, every one of these SaaS companies wants to write a blog and produce ‘great content’.

This has led to a state of fatigue, with countless blogs producing listicles on the same topics and, in many cases, directly using the success of others’ articles as inspiration for their own.

What’s more, having come further than we ever thought we would in the world of content marketing, I have seen first hand that there is a relatively small crew of gifted writers who, in many cases, ghostwrite much of the content that rises to the top.

What good content looks like

This fantastic article by Amy Westervelt (@amywestervelt) highlights a writers’ perspective on the current state of content marketing, and she really nails her message.

Amongst other great points, Amy talks about the race-to-the-bottom that is the current state of content marketing amongst startups, along with the frequency with which ghost-writers are employed, and other wide-spread practices that companies are using to cut corners.

In one part of Amy’s article she talks about professional media publishers (a big part of the content ecosystem) and says:

Maybe we can even get back to a place where media outlets run fewer, better stories, written by journalists who are paid fairly, edited by staff who aren’t being asked to edit an insane amount of copy every day, and read by people who appreciate quality over quantity and are pretty tired of the endless content cycle themselves. Sounds nice, right?

It does sound nice: quality over quantity.

The same is true of many startups, or young companies. For most, there is a race to push out content in higher and higher quantities, often kicking quality to the kerbside.

The companies whose content I love and admire, and whose articles stand the test of time, are more like journals, or old school newspapers, than anything else.

To cite two examples I’m sure nearly everyone reading this will have seen, take 37Signals’ Signal vs. Noise (online since 1999) or John Gruber’s Daring Fireball (still active, since 2002).

The writing from 37Signals and John Gruber are a fine example of content marketing that puts the writing and the reader first. Both are extremely genuine, essentially sharing stories or thoughts based on real-world learnings that their readers actually find interesting.

Both have been active for more than a decade. It’s not flash-in-the-pan sort of content. These are thoughts the writers believe in.

This is what good content looks like.

The fact is: you can’t exactly fake it until you make it.

Even the best can lose their way

At Vero, we want to create a business that lasts a long time, and one that is rooted in our product, not rooted in sales. This means we have to do great marketing.

Marketing that builds trust and rapport, marketing that addresses what our customers see from the moment they first interact with any part of our brand to the moment they become a referrer of Vero, a product they’ve grown to love.

I have first-hand experience of the waves a good content marketing experience can create.

Here’s Vero’s blog growth over time:

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In case you’re wondering, we migrated our blog’s location in August.

Our blog is certainly something we’re proud of, with high profile readers and people we respect regularly emailing us flattering comments about what we write.

Things like “your blog is the only blog I return to and read regularly when it comes to email marketing.”

Yet, earlier this year we started to receive the occasional, far less flattering email from long-time readers. Things like “just so you know…this [article] feels click bait-y and not like solid insights.”

Where there is one person holding a sentiment, experience suggests there are at least ten more. This sort of feedback started us down a path of analysis, answering questions like: what sorts of readers are subscribing? Are customers reading our posts too? Do our readers know what Vero is, and what we stand for?

We found good and we found bad. We found that lots of our readers were squarely in our target market and that they consumed our best content whenever we put it out, yet we also found that there was a lot of noise.

You can’t please everyone, but I’d rather have 1,000 blog readers that voraciously consume and contribute to what we put out, and get value from our insights, than 5,000 that think we’re putting out rubbish. We had begun to lose our own way, missing the mark for our true target audience more and more often.

The feelings behind the comment I shared above weren’t solely directed at the content we were writing as they were the entire user experience. As a small team, we had bitten off more than we could chew, and had prioritised a number of some short term wins over our readers’ overall experience.

Chris (@myeggnoodles) knows what he is talking about.

The above tweet from Chris (@myeggnoodles) shows better than I can explain in words the absolute worst of what I’m talking about here.

As Chris rightly points out, our truly outstanding content was hidden behind a user experience that didn’t inspire confidence or engender trust.

We had put short-term tests ahead of our readers’ experience–we had prioritised getting the content out over making the content great and this left so much to be desired for our readers and, in many cases, for our potential future customers.

We’d begun to slide into the trap of content as a race to the bottom.

When I started writing the Vero blog, it was a way for me to express my thoughts and the visions I have for Vero at scale. When Jimmy first joined it was a place we could share what we learned from our own experiences, and customers’ experiences, at scale.

Yet we’d started to lose sight of this.

It’s impossible to speak face-to-face on a weekly or monthly basis with everyone who is or could be a great Vero customer or a great part of our journey. In between having those individual conversations wherever possible, our blog is a place for the team at Vero to share our ideas on the past, present and future.

We are squarely focused on doing this better than ever.

What the future holds

The above tweet from Chris, although not pleasant, did come as reassurance that we were indeed already on the correct path in identifying what we were doing wasn’t working.

Our research from April and May had already led us to begin a re-design of our blog, along with a committal to the sorts of content we had shared in the past, and truly found interesting.

Practically speaking, we started seeking out customers and companies doing great email marketing and working with them to share their success in useful, pragmatic articles. We’ve also gone back to basics, sharing what we learn and writing pieces on where we see the future of email and customer experience management going.

We now have an internal ban on ‘listicles’ (“The three things about XYZ” style posts).

We migrated our blog to a sub-folder, named /resources, so we can focus on building long-term content that will help trial users, current customers and new readers alike.

We have a new internal style guide and, just last week, we finally launched the new blog design we’ve been working on for a while.

The direction we’re taking aims to highlight what we write, and to ensure we write great sh*t. There’s nothing else to it.

I’m a believer in being brutally honest about the constraints on a situation, and working within those constraints to overcome them.

We want to create a narrative and write content that has readers subscribing because they can genuinely learn, and are genuinely interested in, what we’re doing at Vero, as we always have in the past.

We’re in this for the long haul — we don’t have time to be disingenuous.

I’m looking forward to seeing the mid and long-term results of this re-calibration, and proud of our ability to analyze, learn and push forward on the correct path.

Here’s to the Vero blog, which we fully intend to be talking about another 10 years from now.

Here’s to better content marketing.

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