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January 4, 2013

A Question of Creative Content Ethics

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I was going to do another one of those roundup blog posts today. And I cringed at the thought of it, as the past few weeks have been nothing but roundups of 2012 and predictions for 2013. But I was going to do it anyway. And do you know why? Because it’s an easy win.

Paper in a Wastebasket

That was, until I read a brilliant piece this morning by Jonathon Colman on how we can do better with our content. But more on that later.

Yesterday, I shared my 2013 marketing resolutions with you. One of them involved experimenting with new ways of writing and content production that tried to hit the sweet spot in terms of what an audience wants and what we can give them.

Serendipitously, as I was writing this post, senior SEO analyst Bradley Leese walked in and asked a question that made me think: “How do you create content people want to read?”

Wow. Great question.

My first thought was: As a writer, it’s intuitive. You think, either this piece is great or it totally sucks. But that’s just your opinion. So what ends up happening when you’re in the business of marketing content, is that you base the content’s worth on how many people share it and talk about it.

Then I thought about Mashable. Look at how big their captive audience is. They can say “poop on a stick” and it will be shared thousands of times. (No offense to Mashable, as I know they take a journalistic approach to timely and relevant topics). But their brand is their catalyst. So which came first – the content or the brand?

Quality vs. Efficiency – Which Wins in Content?

Ethically, I believe the content producer, not the brand, is responsible for great content. But then there’s the question of schedules, calendars, projects and resources. Who wins then – quality or efficiency?

It’s a vicious cycle, trading originality for visibility and time-savings. Sure, people may be interested in the same old how-to information or a roundup of others’ ideas, but how much does it really make a difference?

Did you know it takes me about 5 hours on average to put together one of my in-depth blog posts? The problem is time. I don’t always have the luxury of spending several hours each time I write a post to research, write, edit, optimize, upload, format, and promote when I have a million other competing deadlines.

But we want to create content we can be proud of and that adds value. And I’m sure many of you out there feel that way, too. However, the output must be within the confines of our limitations – our schedules, timelines and other deliverables.

I was recently inspired by Seth Godin’s blog. His posts are succinct and to the point (like 200 words succint), but also make you think. This week, he had a post about “the drip.” Don’t try to be brilliant all the time, he said, just be brilliant enough to be remembered and make an impact over time.

Here’s an excerpt from that post:

“When you commit to writing regularly, the stakes for each thing you write go down. I spent an hour rereading Gary Larson’s magical collection, and the amazing truth is that not every cartoon he did was brilliant. But enough of them were that he left his mark.”

Even though I have serious internal battles about writing shorter posts (mine usually average 1,500 words), I also vowed 2013 would be the year of experimentation. And after spending some time in Seth Godin’s blog, I was convinced this was a new path I was going to experiment with — more frequent posts with less pressure to try and be brilliant every time a post is created. Yes, that sounds better.

That is, until I read this post by Jonathon Colman that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It stopped me from posting another roundup (which is ironic, because I found it in a roundup). And it brought me right back to the existential crisis I was having about quality versus quantity.

Content marketing is the culprit. We are in the business of vying for visibility and attention through content. Figuring out how to make that content compelling amongst all the noise is the million-dollar question.

And the creative process is not an easy one. I don’t know what giving birth feels like, but I know there’s both pain and joy. And this is what I go through every time I sit down to create content.

See, content creators are not robots. If people want content churned out without any creative process behind it, then perhaps a team like this is more appropriate:

So what’s a content professional to do? I think the balance lies in:

  • What you have time for, and pushing yourself — pushing your skill set and creativity to figure out how to make that time you have for content creation as meaningful as possible to still share useful, valuable and effective ideas — even if it’s not 1,500 words.
  • What your readers (are willing to) have time for, and how to create content that resonates with them in the brief time you have with that person.

What do you think? And how can you help?





9 responses to “A Question of Creative Content Ethics”

  1. Jonathon Colman writes:

    Thanks for the mention, Jessica. I just gotta love being juxtaposed with Seth Godin like that. :)

    I think Seth’s on to something about the natural balance between quality and efficiency. The hard truth is that authentic quality doesn’t scale particularly well. The even harder truth is that even where we find someone who can break that rule (Seth Godin, for example), our response probably shouldn’t be to say something like, “Hey, I can do everything Seth’s doing and… PROFIT$!”

    But it’s pretty hard to resolve to create the highest-possible quality content every time you hit “publish”, too.

    Here’s what I think: don’t commit to being perfect. Instead, commit to your own personal build-measure-learn cycle. Keep on seeing what works and iterating once you get results. You’ll never hit perfection… mostly because it doesn’t exist. And waiting to be perfect keeps your content from getting in the hands and the minds of the people who need it most.

    So just commit to constantly improving your craft. You’l feel good about your constantly improving work and your readers will reward you for your increased effort.

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Jonathon! I loved your ideas in that post. Thanks for putting them out there.

    And isn’t that the goal? Creating content that truly resonates — that makes people want to thank you for adding value to the conversation?

    “Authentic quality doesn’t scale particularly well.” — Truth.

    And while I do agree with your points with improving your craft, I still feel like there is a “good enough” plague that occurs as a direct result of content being a business (the whole quantity versus quality thing).

    This is potentially remedied when you have in-house writers who really understand the subject matter and when you have agencies who truly value research.

    But I guess the culprit is always volume.

    So how do we fix that?

  3. Rank Watch writes:

    “content producer, not the brand, is responsible for great content” – you just pinned it down clearly here. Also, when the content is great, the brand will anyway rise up and gain points!

    Moreover, the excerpts that you have collected from different Authors, adds to the essence of your post, and definitely widens the thinking horizon for creating even better blogs. T

    Experimenting and Variety, both are good. With the competition getting tighter day by day, in SEO, Web Content, Blog posting, even readers demand more. Readers are getting intelligent enough to realize the authenticity of the pieces they they come across; Variety, Diversified writing patterns and styles is the rising need. Your post speaks of your talent of writing creatively and vast experience.

    Good luck!

  4. Reilly writes:

    Great article, Jessica! As a former copy writer for a large home building company, I know what those monkeys from the simpsons clip feel like. It’s a delicate balance, but if one’s budget can afford it, then creating a piece of unique, well-developed content is always the best route, in my opinion.

  5. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hey Rank Watch, I appreciate the kind words and it makes me all warm and fuzzy when my writing starts a discussion like this. I do agree with you, readers are smart and we should respect that. At the same time, there will always be the “sheep” (sorry, it’s true!) who just share content without really assigning value to it.

    -Jessica

  6. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Reilly! I can only imagine what that’s like! Sounds like you broke free. ;) Budget certainly is a factor because time is money (ugh, did I just say that?). I hope as the demand for great content and great writers goes up, there will be a shift in the perception of what it takes to create good content for businesses.

    Thanks for your comment!

    -Jessica

  7. Eric writes:

    Hey Jess (can I call you Jess or do you hate that? Haha.) Great piece! I think about this sort of stuff all the time. One of the ad agencies I worked at for years put me in charge of developing content for several blogs from the ground up. I wrote well researched and content heavy feature pieces at first, and the sites quickly shot up the ranks and brought in a good amount of organic traffic month over month…

    One day, with the rise of social and everyone wanting a quick referral link or two via titter or an external site (ie: my blogs) they became full of half-assed (pardon my French!) thrown together content with a lot of very obvious anchor-text-key-phrase-links in each post. The site traffic quickly dropped, and only got worse as Google updates came about. It was sad to see these blogs, which were my little pet projects, get taken down because (sadly) it is all about quantity over quality for most.

    I guess the point to my sad tale is this: Yes, time is money, but you can’t b.s. the social media audience anymore. Thought-provoking and original content is worth it for the long run, even if it takes the writer a bit longer to produce. Keep up the good work!

  8. Jessica Lee writes:

    Sure — “Jess,” “Jessie” and even “Messica” (I used to have an allergic reaction to cleaning my room as a child … I’ve since grown out of that). Anywho … THANK YOU for sharing your story. It’s very telling when you have hard evidence of the effects of crappy content on a site. Are you still writing kick-ass content?

  9. Eric writes:

    I am, working for an agency and also some freelance. Both instances have me editing copy or creating new work that really shines for the client, because these places actually GET IT, which many agencies still don’t sadly. And “Messica” hah! poor girl!



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