The Myth Of ‘Content Creation;’ or, Why Your Company’s Social Strategy Sucks, Part 1

As a writer, editor, and consultant, I’ve happened across a rather curious phenomenon while searching for full-time employment. It’s a challenge that has creative directors, COOs, editors, and writers sweating into their MacBook Pros and scribbling profusely on dry-erase boards during dry-mouthed, painful meetings. I’m presented it with each and every time that I enter an interview as a candidate:

1) How can we engage and build our audience?

2) How can we create better content?

The problem seemingly begins here: companies — particularly start-ups — reach a certain level of “audience engagement,” which is usually quantified by web traffic, social media likes/shares, and Facebook engagement (read: shares, reactions, reach etc.) that plateaus… and then stays that way. It’s the start-up equivalent of being in irons, as sailors who’ve sat in the water without wind will understand. Editors, COOs, writers, and social media managers all scramble to explain the sudden screeching halt in momentum, all the while looking for a safe shore that they might be able to swim to before the boat sinks or the captain starts reaching for the cutlass and the lash. Some of the most popular explanations include (and please, stop me if you’ve heard these already)…

  • “Facebook’s algorithm has changed/is blocking us.”
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Facebook is looked at as being as vast and incomprehensible as the universe, with Mark Zuckerberg standing in for The Great and Powerful Oz and only a handful of wizards being able to even begin to understand its depths. If you take a look around Facebook, however, some companies — even ones much younger than yours — don’t have this algorithm problem. The proposed solutions usually involve hiring/firing a social media manager. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

The problem is that Facebook appears to penalize content creators for content that doesn’t perform. If your audience doesn’t like what you’re putting out — if it has no organic reach — then it makes sense that Facebook would show less of it to fewer people. Keep putting out things that people don’t want and the walls close in on you.

“We need more video.”

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Aw, man! If only you had been one of those cool-kid early adopters who had jumped on the latest monetized in-Facebook video offerings. Better late than never, right? So they add more video and nothing happens. Actually, that’s not true: excuses happen. Lots of them. Excuses pair nicely with desperation and defensive justifications.

I’m puzzled by the “but it increases brand awareness” justification for video. Unless Facebook has actually started monetizing video embeds, then the only winner here is… guess who? If you’re trying to drive traffic to your page, you’re not going to do it by stalling people on social media. Unless your only goal is popularity for its own sake, Facebook — like all social media sites — has to serve as a gateway to your site or product.

“We need to diversify and get on Snapchat/Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest…”

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All the big players are doing it: that’s why they’re big players, right? Might want to rethink that. Besides, you have Twitter, don’t you? Why aren’t your 50,000 followers doing anything for you?

If you don’t have a strong, engaging brand voice on something like Twitter, you’re wasting your time. Simply tweeting things out via scheduling apps like Hootsuite isn’t engaging: it’s just spam. As for Snapchat… as an emerging platform, it’s simply not done very well by many companies and is actually done exceptionally poorly by a few players who should know better.

Even so, you can diversify all you want, but if you’re not creating “content” that people want to consume… you’re wasting time and money.

  • “We need better SEO.”
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Keep up this kind of reverse-engineered thinking and you’ll be on the first page when people Google “start-ups that failed.”

Oh, you’re a media start-up? What, you think you’re going to knock CNN off the front page with your crack team of reporters making $20 an hour and aggregating content? You can’t make headlines if you don’t break headlines and, I hate to tell you, SEO isn’t going to do that for you.

I’m sure I’ve caused mini-meltdowns by now and really, I can’t wait to read your comments about this.

  • “We need more content.”
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Makes sense, right? I mean, if you have more content, then you’ll have more stuff for people to engage with. If you can write a million posts a month, you’ll get at least a million page views! Better hire more cheap freelancers. Content farms work… don’t they?

No. They don’t. I’ve dealt with them. They give business, media, and capitalism a bad name.

  • “We need to define our brand and give it a voice.”
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You should have defined your brand before you hired anyone, but here I am sitting in your office trying to figure out how I can help you restart your start-up. As far as giving your brand a voice, that’s absolutely true, but far too many companies err when they think that anyone can give a brand a voice so they farm it out to whoever happens to be handling Hootsuite or Facebook or Tumblr. The result is an increase in sterile, disengaged posts that amount to nothing more than unclicked links.

Those are all problems. But they are not the problem. There are actually two problems.

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The first problem is that no one wants to hear what the problem is. It’s an affront to both entrepreneurial and editorial egos and it is always met with considerable push-back. I get it. Unfortunately, if you want to survive in a space as competitive as the Internet, you’ve gotta learn to recognize when you’re standing in your own way. You’ve got to be able to adapt and quickly.

The second problem — the actual problem — is this:

Your content sucks. That’s why no one is engaging with it.

Just because you like your content doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. Just because it’s elegantly written by a Pulitzer winner doesn’t mean it’s right for your site. Content doesn’t have to be intrinsically bad to suck: it only has to be ineffective. I’ve seen some brilliant content that sucks. Hell, I’ve even written some.

Fortunately for you…

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You have to understand some things.

• Your audience — whether it’s online or in a room full of people you’re pitching to — has its own culture. It has mores. It has social expectations. It has superstitions. It has ideals. It has political beliefs. All of these things may wildly differ from your own. You are not your audience: start a blog for that.

  • “Content Creation” is just a way of saying storytelling. I titled this “The Myth of Content Creation…” for a reason. The best stories are archetypal. There are only so many different kinds of stories and all of them relate to the human condition: foibles, aspirations, desires, fears, love, hate, sex, loneliness. If your “content” doesn’t have a story at its core, then you’re wasting bandwidth and energy. Even if you’re telling stories about stories — as is the case when it comes to writing about television or film — you need to keep that in mind.
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  • Hire unconventional writers. This is completely self-serving, but it’s also entirely true. A writer with a little life experience coupled with a command of language will know a thing or two about audiences. As Thoreau noted, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Find writers who know how to assess and engage an audience; writers who can put aside their personal prejudices and locate truth and beauty in a story.

Aim to understand and not judge your audience. If you’re a journalist, this means checking your ego: the world extends, believe it or not, far past your masthead. You are not the arbiter of truth. At best, you’re aware of the fact that work for an organization with its own agenda and do your best to color in the lines. At worst, you suffer from the illusion that humanity would reach enlightenment if it just learned to see the world through the lens of your byline. If you’re any other kind of writer, same thing. Tell stories that transcend binaries: aim to inspire, not outrage.

Look for the archetypes in your stories. How are you addressing the aspirations, desires, fears, lusts, love, sentiment, and loneliness inherent in the human condition? Good resources for this include Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual a s well as his excellent Status Anxiety. This applies to all varieties of content. Consider the J. Peterman catalog. Consider this short film (I won’t apologize for the clickbaity headline: it worked when I needed it to). Consider this song. Think about this commercial or this singer.

Stop trying to overthink and reverse-engineer the internet: be willing to think organically and intuitively. Take a deep breath: you may not like what I’m about to tell you. Good storytelling beats SEO every time. Nobody shares a video or an article 100 thousand times because they care about how many keywords you convinced a writer to cram into a first sentence.

Ask yourself these questions. Who is our audience? What do they like? What do they hate? What purpose do we serve in their lives? How do we serve it? Who is our competition and what are they doing better than us? And then answer them truthfully.

Finally this: The only weaknesses you should be concerned with are the ones that lie in your strengths.

The first thing I ask any company that hires me to look at their social strategy is, “what are your top performing articles of the last 3 months?”
Fortunately, I do their homework for them because they never have the answer. That’s not treating your business like a business: it’s treating it like a hobby.

What are you doing well? Then do more of it. Stop trying to be everything to everyone. If your top-performing posts are about steakhouses, don’t try to beef up (hahahaha…sorry, couldn’t resist) more stories about local vegan options. Write about more steakhouses. Obvious right? Then why aren’t you doing it?

(A shorter version of this originally appeared as an article on LinkedIn)