You’re a Content Marketer, Not a Writer

Most content marketers have a “writer brain.” It’s the part of them that appreciates beautiful, clever writing. It’s instilled in them by years of reading fiction, writing essays, and aspiring to be a professional writer. The “writer brain” helps content marketers in the early part of their career, but, left unchecked, it hinders them in the latter stages.

Writing is a core skill in content marketing, but it’s not the only one. Focusing on writing at the expense of other skills will eventually hamper your growth and place a ceiling on the quality of your content marketing.

I know this from firsthand experience. In order to level up my career, I had to quiet my “writer brain” and shift my identity from writer to content marketer. I had to embrace skills outside of writing and realize that writing is just one part (albeit an important part) of the bigger picture of content marketing.

To move beyond their local maxima, content marketers must come to three realizations.

Every Problem Is Not a Writing Problem

As a less experienced content marketer, I often fell into the trap of assuming that every problem I faced could and should be solved by writing. There’s a name for this bias, the law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

I believed that weak article pitches could be made workable if only I could find the right words. Misguided strategies could be redeemed if I reframed them or used more persuasive language.

But far from solving the underlying problems of each article and strategy, my writing served only to bury those problems deeper and deeper, making them harder to solve. Instead of writing my way out of the hole I had found myself in, I needed to stop thinking as a writer and start thinking as a strategist or an entrepreneur. I was using a hammer to solve problems that required a screwdriver or a chisel.

This is an insidious problem. Clever writing—that is, words and phrases that sound coherent and pleasing—can obscure fatal flaws. Many articles seem coherent at first blush but fall apart upon closer inspection, often because there are deeper problems hidden beneath a veneer of pleasing copy:

  • Weakness of evidence or research. Clever writing can mask a lack of specificity. Weasel words are a telltale sign: words that, at first glance, seem to convey clear meaning but upon closer inspection offer no real substance (think “business outcomes” or “experts believe”).
  • Failure to address the core topic. Like the snake eating its own tail, clever writing usually creates more clever writing. Instead of ensuring that every word serves a single purpose, the continuation of pleasing sentences and paragraphs quickly becomes an objective in its own right. The more you write, the easier it is to befuddle the reader (and yourself) and forget the core purpose of the article.
  • Fundamentally broken ideas. No amount of writing skill can fix a broken idea, be it an angle that doesn’t make sense, a keyword that’s been erroneously labored into the article, or ideas that don’t fit with their intended purpose or readership.

Content marketing requires good writing, but it also requires strategic smarts, deep product and industry knowledge, design intuition, and a solid understanding of the business problem being solved by content.

Often, problems that you’re inclined to view as “writing problems” need to be tackled with a different toolkit, requiring you to throw an idea away or to conduct more research or to create a new strategy—anything, really, apart from adding more words to your draft.

Write for Your Reader, Not Yourself

I was hugely proud of my first article for the Animalz blog. I spent a long time on the idea and even longer writing, using creative language and clever turns of phrase. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraph:

“Successful categories result from identifying a nascent change, a great cresting wave moments before crashing onto the shore, and positioning your company at the water’s edge. You are not the inventor—you are the soothsayer, the harbinger, the vanguard.”

When I debriefed with Jimmy, our-then director of marketing, his feedback was direct: “It’s highfalutin.” With hindsight, it was highfalutin. I had committed the cardinal sin of content marketing: writing for myself and not my target audience.

Even if you enjoy the flow and form of words, the chances are high that your readers won’t share your affinity. They are (probably) not writers or poetry enthusiasts. Even if they are, they’ve come to you for help with a business problem. If they wanted a lesson in narrative structure, they’d visit a different website.

Becoming a great content marketer requires sacrificing (or at least limiting) the part of your brain that chooses words because you enjoy them. Your job is to write in the language best-suited to your reader, and that rarely requires “poetic” or “academic” writing. In practice, that means:

  • Don’t be clever. Clever writing (anything that elicits a coy smile after you’ve written it) is, at best, a distraction from the primary purpose of your article. At worst, it’s actively alienating, an in-joke that your reader doesn’t get.
  • Choose words because your reader understands them. Successful content explains, interests, or persuades your target reader, and every word needs to be chosen with those objectives in mind. You are not your target audience.
  • Explain your topic simply. Your writing should get the reader to their end goal as directly as possible. Usually, that means using the simplest language available. As Gail Marie, our Director of Content, points out, it’s important to “understand what you’re writing about well enough so that you can explain it to a young person.”

Content marketing requires selflessness. The success of your article hinges entirely on how well it serves the intended audience. That means putting aside pet phrases and poetic writing and evaluating every word from the perspective of somebody with radically different experiences and motivations.

Don’t Assume Your Reader Will Read Every Word

Despite knowing the statistics about bounce rates and average time-on-page, my “writer brain” is always convinced that this article will buck the trend—that my audience will, for once, read it end-to-end. They’ll appreciate the carefully crafted structure and the seamless flow between ideas.

Part of this expectation comes from the sunk cost of writing. When we’ve poured hours into a draft, it feels only fair that the reader appreciate the effort. In reality, all that matters is how useful the end result is to the reader. Another part comes from the world of offline content. We all know that online content is fundamentally different than offline content, but it’s still easy for unhelpful expectations to bleed across to blog content.

It’s worth reiterating: content marketing is radically different from every other form of writing. Books provide a useful point of comparison:

  • Readers buy books; content marketing is free.
  • Books are usually consumed in isolation, relatively free from distraction; online content competes with a dozen other open tabs.
  • Books are allowed to deliver value gradually over days of reading; online content is expected to deliver immediate value.

Every passing day sets a new world record for the number of published blog posts and competing ideas. As content marketers, we need to use every tool at our disposal to prompt and nudge the reader through our article and impart our key ideas:

  • BLUF your ideas. Surface your key takeaways as early and often as possible: share them in the introduction, elaborate in the article headers, and reiterate in the conclusion.
  • Break up your text. Replace walls-of-text with short paragraphs; be generous in your use of H2s and H3s; include lists, bullet points, and checklists; and highlight key ideas with bold or italicized text.
  • Pair writing with illustration. Screenshots, GIFs, flow diagrams, and illustrations can often replace thousands of words of copy and improve clarity in the process (and that goes double for topics—like “product design process”—that are inherently visual).

Many content marketers come from backgrounds in literature or creative writing, and while many of the skills and expectations they create are useful in content marketing, many more become a hindrance. Online content needs to be written with online consumption in mind. Blogs and newsletters have their own expectations, quirks, and idiosyncrasies that great content marketers embrace.

Writing Well Will Only Get You So Far

All great content marketers are good writers, but not all great writers are good content marketers. Writing is a crucial, vital, totally necessary skill in content marketing—but it’s one of many important skills. Spending too much time fixated on the art of writing and the beauty of your prose can actually worsen the business impact of your content.

The best content marketers know when to write and when to stop writing. They’re able to put personal preference aside and write entirely for others. They know how to embrace the “skimmable” quality of online content and structure their writing in a way that delivers immediate value.