Why a 60-minute article for a tenner isn’t “content marketing”

Content is now a top priority for digital marketers. But keyword-heavy articles at £10 apiece aren't the way forward.

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The content marketing boom is upon us. eMarketer reported on 5th Feb that content has jumped to the top of the priority list for digital marketers for 2013, passing social media on its way down.

As a marketing copywriter specialising in long-form content, I should be jumping up and down with glee. Instead, I’m a bit worried.

What’s mainly worried me is an email I received the other day from PeoplePerHour.com, a website where freelancers can promote their services and bid for projects.

Get your content written,” announced the subject line, so, my professional interest piqued, I opened it. And here pitching his content writing services was Kristian, a UK-based copywriter, web developer and SEO specialist.

It’s worth quoting Kristian’s offer in full:

I will deliver a 300 word article on any subject for any site.

I would also like to mention that I have great feedback on this website. From 103 different reviews I have a 100% feedback score, which is among the highest.

I am a terrific proof-reader. I always check my articles twice to ensure there are no errors. I also pride myself on extensive research often checking and then confirming my initial findings from at least two other sources.

I am English and have lived here since birth. My typing speed is 71 WPM (tested), so my turnaround rate is of exceptional quality.

I am available all the time and will work evenings and weekends if required to get your project completed.”

All I need from the buyer is a list of the keywords they want implemented (no more than eight) and the title of the page.

Also, if there are any additional details you feel are relevant then send them through!

And how much does Kristian charge per 300-word article?

He charges ten pounds.

He charges ten pounds because, he says, he can produce this 300-word article “on any subject, for any site” in an hour.

One hour.

Where does that hour go?

I’d be hard pressed to produce a decent 300-word article in an hour on a subject I know well*. How is Kristian able to write an article on an unfamiliar topic in 60 minutes?

Apart from the practicalities of actually thinking up the right words, when does he immerse himself in the client’s business, products, positioning, markets and competitors? When does he fit in calls with the client’s subject matter experts, to ask for clarification on any points he doesn’t understand? When does he research the target audience, using LinkedIn and other places to track down people who fit the buyer persona, understanding what they’re really like, reading the publications they read, getting to know the language they use and the things that matter to them?

(All this in the name of creating content that gets to the heart of what the buyer is interested in, makes them feel warm towards the brand, and ultimately propels them towards a purchase.)

Maybe he’s doing all that on his own time, only charging the client for the time he spends writing. In which case, no wonder he’s working evenings and weekends to get the job done. Or maybe he’s genuinely cramming the whole job into an hour – in which case the only way I can imagine it working is that he frantically cribs information from Wikipedia and elsewhere, inserts the relevant keywords, and uses his rocket-powered 71wpm typing skills to assemble the result into a decent-enough whole.

Surely the latter approach is the only way he can produce enough articles at £10 a time to make a living. (And I really hope he is making a living.)

Good content writing should take time

I want to sit young Kristian (and his ilk, because the furrow he’s ploughing on PeoplePerHour is by no means lonely) down and tell him he can do so much better. Writing – proper, original, persuasive copywriting, with all the research and planning and curiosity and investigation and imagination that come with it – is a rare and sought-after skill, and one that can command goodly chunks of marketing budgets. But that kind of writing takes time, and thought, and investment; on the part of the client as much as the writer.

But I do wonder if this is what the content marketing boom is actually going to look like. Hundreds of bedroom content assemblers, churning out £10 articles on subjects cribbed from Wikipedia. Haven’t we come away from the bad old days of SEO, now that keyword stuffing is actively penalised and Panda and Penguin are rewarding proper, original, high-quality content?

Where’s the value?

And where’s the value in it for the companies who hire these super-fast typists? How will a £10 article written by a stranger convey their uniqueness, their relevance, their interestingness, their expertise, their desirability? Once the keywords have drawn people to the site (assuming it hasn’t been sent to the bottom of the pile by Google’s algorithm updates), what then? Aren’t these visitors just going to be confronted with a bunch of stuff that’s been culled from elsewhere on the internet?

(Or, as Velocity Partners have rather more succinctly put it, crap.)

I hope not. I want the content marketing boom to be a time of creativity and experimentation, of borrowing ideas and techniques from other walks of life, like data journalism, and film-making, and comic books. I want to find new ways to forge bonds between companies and their customers, and turn marketing literature into actual literature that customers love and companies can be proud of.

Basically, I want companies to get away from all the underhand snake-oil stuff, and make content that’s just…really, really good.

It’ll cost (a lot) more than £10 a time. But it’ll be worth it.

*For the record, this blog post took three hours.

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