Five years ago, I “pivoted,” as they say in business. I went from writing feature stories primarily for top 20 news media to writing features stories for Fortune 500 companies as an embedded journalist and content advisor.
Landing a new client typically goes like this: They like my pitch and ask for more info. I send it to ’em. We talk. They like what they hear and think I can grow their audience with a fresh voice.
Over time, however, some of those clients let that voice rot. They actively try to inject it with marketing language, even though they all hire me or my contemporaries to avoid sounding like marketing. Consequently, only one third of content marketing campaigns succeed, according to Forrester. That certainly mirrors my experience.
The reason: “Many brands are so focused on generating sales, they forget to make content that people actually want to see and share with friends,” writes Aaron Taube for Business Insider. “Additionally, making quality content costs time and money, but doesn’t always show immediate results when it comes to sales. As a result, people in charge of content at big companies have trouble convincing their bosses the investment is worth it.”
In other words, my work is sometimes seen as discretionary—a nobel endeavor with long-term benefits, but too slow to satisfy quarterly gains. That or it’s outsourced to green writers on the cheap or auxilary “content departments” within an agency that’s primarily hired to do something else (e.g. advertising or publicity).
Other times, my work is seen as a Trojan horse for marketing.
“Wow, people will actually read this—no purchase necessary!” they excitedly exclaim. “Can you add these fancy superlatives, dilute the more bolder things people will remember this piece by, and then pepper the story with branded product names no one’s ever heard of and make it more one-sided?”
“I’d advise against it.”
“Okay, we’re going to do it anyway because our primary objective is to market these products and services immediately. Can we still use your byline?”
In other words, sometimes my work becomes so scrubbed, warped, and distorted by shortsighted committees, I won’t even sign my name to it (“I’ll still take your money, though!”).
When it comes to voice, language, writing—whatever—there are two schools of thought. You can soft sell your point or hard sell it. I’ve made a career doing the former. Good content marketing requires it, in fact. Without it, your communication ends up being forced, and that’s off putting when trying to objectively influence people.
Whatever it is you’re trying to say, I believe everyone—even for-profit companies—have an interesting story to tell. An ongoing narrative with continuity and story arch. I also believe everyone has business adding their voice to subjects they know well. The trick is admitting what it is you know well, saying “I don’t know” to subjects you don’t know well, and then sharing a consistent message with others in the most sincere (i.e. believable in the information age), engaging, and belabored way.
Otherwise you’ll be overlooked or forgotten.