Jim O’Connor is one of the most talented copywriters I know. He has been writing copy for about 20 years and only came across the concept of writing “content” relatively recently. At first he hated the whole idea – he felt it went against the grain of everything he believed about the craft of concise copywriting.
Twelve months later with a successful blog Jim’s feelings are totally reversed. He now realises that, when content is truly valuable and well presented, it’s a really smart way for a business or individual to build their reputation. So, what brought about his conversion? Here’s Jim’s story.
Less has always been more
“Studying for a degree in English Literature gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast different writing styles. I soon developed an admiration for those who could say the most in the fewest words. For instance, “To be or not to be” (the ultimate choice, summed up in 6 words, only one of which has more than two letters), penned by a man who, in the same play, has one of his characters declare that “brevity is the soul of wit”. A near contemporary of his described his career limiting (to use the modern jargon) marriage in the single line “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone”.
When I started in advertising I discovered that great copywriters have the same ability, believing that “less is more”. That’s partly because the medium was “paid for” (press ad, poster tv/radio commercial). You had to fit your communication into a small space or time slot, like it or not. Moreover, you had to grab attention, and the simpler you made your communication the more likely it was to go in, and stick. I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, where they demanded “brutal simplicity of thought”.
The process of writing copy, to my mind, is one of distillation – you boil off everything that is superfluous until you create a highly refined and flammable spirit. This is then ignited in the heart and mind of the reader/viewer by further compression and the spark of an idea (rather like the ignition achieved in an internal combustion engine – described more fully in my post “Great copy- can you torque it?”).
Why content and copy are chalk and cheese
Writing for the web, as digital writers delight in telling us, is different. They’re right – and the difference is that the process is often less demanding!
- With content the writing doesn’t have to be quite so tight. You still have to keep it concise, but because the email, or website, or post, is not in a “paid for” medium like press or TV, you have a little leeway. You can scroll off the bottom of the screen, add more pages, or write a follow up post, without having to find another £5,000, £50,000 or £100,000 to pay for larger spaces or longer commercials.
- With digital writing it’s often the case that more is more. That’s because it’s partially written for search engines. So more keywords per page is good. More posts is good. More pages every month is good. More news items is good. So there’s less of an imperative for brevity.
- If more is more, quantity can become more prized than quality – because google doesn’t read, it just runs algorithms.
- Once quantity is valued more highly than quality, “the words” become a standardised commodity that has a set market price. Hence the term “content” – words are viewed as “filler”. That’s the attitude of most web designers. They create the pages then ask the client or writer to “fill it up” – rather like pulling up at the petrol pump.
- Finally, now that words have been devalued to this extent, the only criteria for selecting a supplier is how quickly and cheaply they can deliver.
This hunger for content, the quantity rather than quality mentality, and the fact that you can find people desperate enough to do the job for the minimum wage has a profound effect. It has created a situation where “content” is often served up swiftly and cheaply by unskilled operatives who cut and paste pre-prepared material scavenged from other sites. The process is as swift and unskilled as assembling a happy meal, and the resulting food for thought is about as appetising, nutritious and satisfying.
Junk content vs valuable content
This is the way I felt about content and copy when I met Sonja Jefferson. She, like a few other marketing people I respected, was passionate about the opportunities offered by content and social media. Because these individuals were obviously very experienced, and certainly didn’t write rubbish, I listened.
Top 3 reasons why people go online – to get information, to be entertained, to socialise – not to be sold to
They showed me research which indicated that the top three reasons people go online is to get information, to be entertained, and to socialise with others. The one thing they didn’t want online was people giving them a hard sell – even when they were shopping. So the smart way to use social media is to create a stream of content that satisfies one or more of those needs, whilst keeping it nice and chatty. Do that and you get people coming to your site on a regular basis.
The key difference between this type of content, and that which I’ve likened to mental junk food, is this. Instead of being written for search engines it provides something that people find useful and enjoyable. This, to use Sonja’s term, is quality content, or valuable content – clearly defined by her and other experts in this excellent post – What makes quality content?
A priceless new medium (it’s worth a fortune, but it’s free!)
As I began to experiment with creating and sharing valuable content it became apparent that it’s not just valuable for the reader – it’s also immensely valuable to the company providing it. Not just because it creates traffic and loyal readers who either spread the word or become customers (often it’s both). But because it gives that company a way to share its knowledge and experience in a manner that just doesn’t work in sales copy. They become a trusted go-to expert in their field and build long term relationships with people they would otherwise never have been able to reach through traditional media. How valuable is that? It’s priceless.
Do it. Now
So, I’m a convert. Writing content that has value for people is something I find immensely satisfying – not least because it’s attracting a string of new clients who now appreciate just how I can help them. It’s easy to be sceptical (I know, I was). But try it for a few months and you’ll be amazed at the results.”
Thanks Jim. I’m delighted, but not surprised that your investment in creating valuable content is getting you such great results your articles are first class. Do have a read of Jim’s blog here: thought-provoking, educational and really funny – Jim O’Connor’s Stories That Sell Blog. And congratulations on your Valuable Content Award too Jim!
- More from Jim’s on the copy vs content debate: Are the words on your website just dancing around their handbags?
- Jim’s post here on Emotion, not logic will get your message across
- What makes quality content?