I’ve spent a miniscule amount of time in the “content marketing” world. You’ll notice I’m putting that term into very skeptical quotation marks. There’s a reason for that.
I’m not sure there’s such a thing as content marketing.
So what is there?
If you’re even remotely involved in content creation, you’ve probably read a hundred blog posts about content. You’re suffering from a twitch every time you see the word “content” and are starting to have semantic dissociation every time you hear the c-word. You’re not even sure you can use the word in its other, more traditional sense: not so content now, are you?
When you’re in bed at night, you imagine that someone, somewhere, is generating little content pellets to feed to content hamsters, who then poop out delicious content poops for everyone to voraciously consume.
You may even believe that if you type enough words that seem to have some loose association with whatever your business does, you’ll somehow find a goldmine of new eyeballs to consume your delicious content treats. Just keep pounding. The monkeys will surely write a sonnet, given enough time.
There’s a huge problem here. It’s a problem so large that it’s going to cause major disruption in the entire marketing arena as Google refines its absurdly brutal yet wildly intelligent search algorithm. Because if you know anything about content, you know Google Is King. But it seems like very few people are taking this problem — that “content” utterly sucks — seriously.
It all stems from poor word choice. Delightfully ironic, that. Naming this flavor of marketing strategy “content” is a huge mistake.
It’s too vague. It’s misleading. It’s not accurate. It’s foundationally flawed.
It doesn’t bely the truth that’s acknowledged by all of The Content Marketing Institute’s listicles and Neil Patel’s 2,100 word behemoths about becoming a superpowered content guru: you have to actually know what the hell you’re talking about.
Those folks? They do know what they’re talking about! But they seem to miss an element of how to talk about it. Or if you’re inclined to some gentle paranoia, they’re perfectly content with creating a bit of misinformation around their field so they can sustain their dominion in Google’s court a little longer.
So what the hell is this “content,” anyway? That’s a much better question than “how do I make good content” or “how do I rank #1 on Google.”
Which came first: the cup or the drink?
It seems like a lot of people imagine content as the liquid you pour into a cup.
You have your cup (your blog, website, social media feed, YouTube account – pick your flavor) and you fill it up with your delicious content. It is, after all, the contents of your brand. That seems to imply the liquid equals the guts, the interior, the focus, the big meaty center of things: you get enough of it and you’ll fill the cup up and someone who’s thirsty enough will drink it right up.
Write enough 1,800 word blog posts that rocket out into the abyss and your brand will start to take shape, right? Just make actionable, authoritative content and the rest will happen thanks to the incorruptible algorithm. You can hear that ringing in your ears when it’s quiet enough to hear your thoughts. It’s practically tattooed on your eyelids.
The problem? Most content marketers are pouring their contents onto an empty table with absolutely nothing resembling a cup anywhere in sight.
And they’re pouring a lot. The cup will magically appear if they pour long enough! The liquid is what people are really after, not a vessel for the contents!
So what happens?
You spill onto the floor, waste your time and wind up having to do a lot of cleanup work after you’ve poured your heart and soul into making what you thought was content. That’s why “site audits” and “content audits” and “SEO pros” exist. They’ve made a lucrative business out of cleaning up the messes that totally well-meaning people made when they discovered this “new” technique called content.
Here’s the ridiculously simple change in word choice I’ve got for you: content marketing isn’t called the right thing. It should be called knowledge marketing.
“Content marketing” does accurately portray how people consume things: the brands with the best content do actually win in the long term. The best ingredients in the best cup, given time and traffic and some clever optimizations (read: good titles and plain language that solves a problem) do seem to win out.
But that alone doesn’t explain how that “magic” happens. Because it’s not magic at all.
It happens through knowledge.
Journalists have figured this out. They say no more and no less than exactly what they need to say and can genuinely verify. They did content long before a term for this version of advertising had ever been coined, and certainly before copywriters had their decades in the sun.
Legitimate journalists have the most authority, get the most traffic on the biggest topics of the day, do the best work, generally have the easiest time ranking on Google, and they get the majority of those valuable SEO-juiced backlinks...and no one (or at least very few) has the fatal deal-killing suspicion that journalists are selling something.
They’re peddling knowledge, facts and details: they went to the source and got the information. They’re not telegraphing anything or playing some “long game.” It’s in broad daylight: we have the real info. You want the real info. Here’s the cup. Drink up, buttercup.
Content marketers are closer to journalists than they are to storytellers or artists. Which probably isn’t what most content marketers want to hear. After all, isn’t telling a story really at the center of content creation? Aren’t they really skirting around the dirty work of selling something, in a liberal-arts-friendly soft-sale kind of way?
The problem is that you can’t tell a story without knowing what the hell to say.
Your story isn’t worth a mouse’s fart if it’s hollow.
Big, smart, robust companies with reams of data wouldn’t spend money on content marketing if it didn’t have a payoff. They’re not in the business of letting people get paid to play with words.
I’m not here to dispute the effectiveness of content marketing (otherwise I will put myself out of a job).
I’m here to dispute its name and its framing among the (admittedly awesome) people that do this work: if you don’t actually have the knowledge, your content is going to be garbage.
Go ahead. Ask me how I know. I’ve made more cringe-worthy trash about stuff I knew nothing about than any human being should be allowed, and certainly shown more mercy for my foolishness than anyone deserves.
There’s so much bad content you forget that it’s there. But it’s there. Someone wrote it. You’ve just become blind to it.
At a certain point, it’s better to sit on your hands and act like a journalist than it is to start pounding out those 1,800 word dumpster fires that tarnish your image and make you — and the company you’re speaking as — look like burning embers of foolishness floating into the night sky.
So I want to encourage everyone who has even the most remote stake in content to reconsider the way they frame it.
It’s not content you’re selling. It’s not a story you’re telling. It’s not even your brand’s unique image and incredible personality.
It’s knowledge – real, clear, actionable, serious knowledge that stands up to scrutiny and helps your readers – that you’re tasked with creating.
The faster you can learn this lesson, the faster you can start climbing the mountain of knowledge you’ll need to scale before you write a single word.
You can’t generate knowledge, you can only accrue it. You’re just not good enough to make knowledge. Basically, no one is. Not even the smartest scientists and engineers generate knowledge. They discover it.
Lucky for you – knowledge compounds.
Particularly knowledge about how to earn knowledge.
So stop “generating content” and start accruing knowledge. Think more like a journalist than a writer. The words aren’t valuable until they’re tracing the form of something real. Don’t tell a story you made up. Tell the story whose truth you can access.
Trade the platitudes & easy SEO ranking tips for the more difficult task: building the the cup to put on the table.
Once you’ve built the cup of knowledge, you’ll have somewhere to pour your content – and you won’t make such a mess.
You can fill and refill the cup, infinitely. It will outlast the specific brew you’ve engineered for the specific job you’re doing now.
Content marketing isn’t about content.
It’s about building knowledge that can contain and frame the content so it can be consumed.
Once the distraught marketers of the world reframe this problem with the right language, there won’t be so many behemoth posts and content gurus.
Instead, there will be a scaffold to build something that’s less about adhering to King Google’s obtuse & almighty dictums — and more about pleasing people that give a damn about knowledge.