Writing vs Content Marketing

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In the book Sick in the Head, a young Jerry Seinfeld is interviewed by an even younger Judd Apatow about the state of stand-up comedy in the 80s. They discuss the difference between comedians who view stand-up as the ultimate goal and comedians who use comedy as a tool to get fame, notoriety, or to get on a sitcom:

“Jerry: Well, they use it as a vehicle, which is fine. You know, you can get seen real easy. But it’s a tough thing to do. It’s a tough thing to put yourself through when it’s not gonna be a career for you. It’s a difficult thing to play at. It’s kind of like catching bullets between your teeth: If you’re gonna do it right, it would be something to learn it and then not make a career out of it.”

I have been thinking a lot about writing as it exists now, specifically writing online for an audience.

I’m a fan of writing. I write because I feel better after I do it. 99% of what I write isn’t seen by anyone but me. I write privately and intimately. I write about my anxieties and my insecurities. Then, after a few thousand words, I might switch gears and write something that I feel like sharing.

A lot of online writing used to be called blogging. Maybe it still is? Blogging, like much of good writing, is a way for a person to filter public topics through the lens of personal experience. It’s often bringing a big issue, such as the news of the day, into your personal diary for processing, then sharing the results with the world. It’s like a journal of your mind, or more specifically, of how your mind is interpreting the world at large. It’s experimental. It’s exploratory. In its highest form, blogging can be literature.

It can also be photoblogging or vlogging, political blogging or travel blogging. It can also be comic strips and Nicolas Cage’s face. Purposeful self-expression, the discovery of our own understanding of the world around us, will always be personally gratifying in a way that few other pursuits are.

Online publishing is the biggest democratic revolution in the printed word since Gutenberg, and we’re probably still living in it’s golden age. But something has shifted. Somewhere, Martin Luther is nailing the theses to the wall. He has seen the indulgences of our industry, the money changing hands for the promise of eternal freedom. We could call it the corporatization of digital writing.

Writing online for personal expression is now secondary to a new purpose. Blogging has evolved into content marketing.

Content marketing is strategic. Content marketing is targeted. Viewing content marketing is like receiving charity from a religious organization- there’s always an ulterior motive, and that motive is conversion.

I’ve been guilty of thinking of my own writing in terms of content marketing, of using phrases like ‘niche audience’ and ‘long-tail keywords’. Looking for a gap in the search results that I can fill. There’s nothing wrong with that, until I step back and realize that I don’t actually care about whatever it is I’m writing.

One question we ask when reading is do they have something to say or do they have something to sell? There’s nothing wrong with having both. Some of my favorite blogs follow all the best practices of content marketing, but are still useful or inspiring every day. We don’t need to see veins cut and blood spilling out on every (web)page.

On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that anyone wants to read Coca-Cola’s blog or that almost one million people follow @pepsi on Instagram. In the words of Seinfeld, who are these people!? We’re in a new era of corporate content creation- whether’s it writing or photography or podcasting- that’s only just begun. The sheer amount of filler that gets published every day is staggering- intimidating, even. And that’s not even the good stuff.

It’s why the writing itself has to be the goal, whether the subject is your inner emotional turmoil or computer programming. Writing for any goal other than to express the ideas will never be as fulfilling.

When asked what he looks for in his creative work, Seinfeld replies:

“Quality. That’s my only real consideration… I don’t want to do a piece of junk. I’m not starving, you know.”

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