Who is to blame for crap content? A blow-by-blow blame list.
In short, everyone.
As a copywriter, I’m not exempt from this blame list (you’ll see I’m/we are right in at #3) and quite rightly so. You see, there’s a tonne of really rubbish content out there and it just keeps on coming. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s so much poor quality stuff making the rounds; it baffles me that people are willing to hang their business hopes on the production of gumf. And even more shocking is that ‘professionals’ are not stepping up to the plate and educating the misled among us.
This isn’t a shaming list, it’s a rundown of the ways that we’ve all been conditioned to treat the production and championing of good content. More than just the Who, this is about the How - what we all do to hurt the creation and existence of healthy words, images, audio and beyond.
So, here we go.
Culprit #1 - Agencies.
A client emails you and wants you to create a website, marketing campaign, whatever, for them. What’s on your task list? Brief befriending, summoning of suitable talents (designers etc), meeting making, research undergoing, the list goes on. But is content management on there anywhere? I know budgets are tight and timelines even tighter but this really is the place where a better content philosophy can be realised.
Under one roof you have a graduating tier of professionals who can wholly embrace both the creative and practical needs of content. And more than just embracing, they can literally make space for prioritising content needs.
Project managers - These guys can make sure that content is secured as a deliverable, as well as planting the seed that review and agility is essential to content. Content goals and messages can change and be realised as the design process moves forward so these managers can make sure ample wiggle room is afforded to the creation/re-creation of effective content.
Budget makers - Factor in content management and strategy. It goes beyond a copywriter fee, although that is a great start. Great content requires time - time to research, plan, create and most importantly review and adapt. If you don’t budget any cash for content makers, you don’t place any value on content itself.
Strategists - Make content a long-term deliverable, not just a project-to-project ‘perhaps’ consideration. Argue a case for implementing a content care program for your clients. This is simply about making sure that content is periodically reviewed and updated to ensure its effectiveness. Make content a consistent concern, applying a strategy of sorts to each and every project.
The whole ‘content first’ approach to design and development is making waves and is generally championed by many agencies out there. But as with all techniques and approaches, it has become some what buzzwordy and half-heartedly accepted. It takes actual effort and reshuffling to embed a ‘content first’ strategy into your way of working but the benefits are crazy good.
Culprit #2 - Designers / developers and such.
The relationship between designers and copywriters isn’t particularly famed. But by the same standards, it isn’t a doomed one either. There’s tonnes of great designers that know they can’t create without a content consideration but we can always do with more allies.
These folks are the real game changers, the people that can fundamentally change the role content plays in everything from UX to visual branding. Designers, demand a content focus on your projects. It’s obviously tough if you’re part of a bigger (copywriter-less) team but you don’t need a writer on hand. Ask the right Qs, questions that demand that those in charge have a real understanding of the principals of messaging, tone, audience needs etc - all the things that matter to content.
Here’s a few tips for weaving some content considerations into your design process;
Understand that UI is not the same as copywriting - UI is a giant step forward in terms of putting content first but it doesn’t take into account the art of copywriting. UI is for all content, from video to images, whereby copywriting is the wordy wizardry that’s all about tone, style and all that jazz. These things are the cornerstone of consistent, effective content. If you see that the content for your project is being created by a client, or even by your fellow agency team members, ask why a copywriter isn’t onboard.
Master tone from the off - It goes without saying that the words and images should both be playing for the same team. However, it rarely does. This is about tone and style - both are content favourites. It’s not just about having the content before you design, which would be ideal, it’s also about having a solid understanding of the big picture messaging that influences everything that follows.
Put the audience first - Preparing killer content is all about understanding an audience. If you have content to play with, you have insight to design with. There’s no such thing as future proofing an experience but having a grasp of content can enable you to make decisions rooted in people and behaviour rather than fads and features.
Culprit #3 - Copywriters.
Yep, we need to take our share of the blame. I’m a copywriter and I hold my hands up. As much as I might not be wholly responsible for shoddy creation, we can all take a hit for not always fighting the good fight when it comes to educating clients on what good content is really all about. Over the years, here’s a few things I’ve learnt/done my best to champion more aggressively.
Be a content strategist as well as content writer - It’s always surprised me just how many copywriters don’t have a good grasp on content strategy as a discipline. To me, this goes hand-in-hand with what I do. I do my best to explain my process and approach to my clients before I write a single word of content in a bid to show they the importance of tone creation, audience research and feedback.
Can I talk to the client direct? - If you’re working freelance for an agency, as I do regularly, it’s common not to meet or talk to the client direct. Don’t settle for it. Some clients may prefer for their design agency to brief/deal with the creatives but at least ask if you can talk with the client direct. You learn a ridiculous amount from a client conversation so don’t always settle for the middleman insight.
Why stay on the sidelines? - I often don’t meet the agency team I’m emailing with about a project. The design can be a mystery until launch, in fact so can the designer! I try to avoid being sidelined and at least attempt to get an invite into the studio for an in-house session. It’s the nature of freelance to be a Skype ID rather than an actual person but if you’re close enough why not offer to work in-house and actually interact with the team while they work. Content can be the last hurdle before launch so get yourself, and your craft, in the door as soon as possible. As a copywriter you have to fight for collaboration.
Culprit #4 - The tech.
There’s a shortage of good content platforms. Whether we’re talking about collecting content, sharing content or even writing content, there’s ample room for improvement. I’d argue that content pros need to get onboard and spearhead the creation of such resources but we don’t all have the tech savvy required. I certainly don’t. Anyway, the lack of great systems and software has made the prioritisation of content a tougher task.
There is a few solid resources out there that save the content day, GatherContent being the cream of the crop, but we need more!
Culprit #5 - Clients.
They want content but do they really care about its quality? To many clients, content is just something that will fill their site. I’d argue it’s not completely their fault that they have such a surface understanding of the importance of content. Clients are not whimpering novices with no idea of what good content is but many don’t have a clue about what goes into creating and preserving quality. It’s our job as professionals to educate them.
It’s a mixture of tough love, artful bargaining and rock solid principles. Here’s a few things to translate to your clients;
Content has a lifespan - Nothing lasts forever. Content needs to be nurtured, reviewed and updated so be sure to explain this from the offset. Audiences, messages and styles change and no one wants to be left behind. Content is relevance so sell it on that concept.
Anyone can write but it doesn’t mean they should - I do believe that quality content can be created by all. That said, there needs to be a greater, big picture understanding of context to be effective. I wouldn’t encourage any client to self-pen all their content but make sure they are involved in the process. Be specific in the info you require from them, explain why you need this. Educate them on how to review content properly and direct them in giving quality feedback. Create a conversation and open culture around the topic of content and you’re doing the discipline a great service.
Don’t undercharge - As a copywriter, I generally stay pretty solid to my rate guns. What I do is valuable so I don’t need to bargain my rate. I know a lot of copywriters that have faced the “I could write it myself so why would I pay that?” line. Don’t work with these folks copywriters. Champion your craft and relevance, part of that means advocating your value.
A concluding thought…
Essentially, us the audience are the biggest culprits. We constantly create, read and share poor content as a habit. How many shitty ads, emails and posts do we read everyday? Loads. I’m not suggesting that you track down the copywriter of that annoying campaign and hurl abuse their way but we can all make the culture that surrounds content a little more pleasant and prominent.