Write for People First, Robots Second

I have a complicated relationship with rules.

As a teenager, I studied the popular girls academically, as through an anthropologist's eyes. Kelly straightens her hair four days a week and only wears a ponytail once. Christina mostly wears Abercrombie and Aeropostale. They all wear capri pants. Some are on the volleyball team, some are cheerleaders.

I took these rules as hard guidelines. Wear this, do my hair like that, walk this way, don't say those things. Smile at the right time, join the right teams, and like a puff of dandelion seeds, if I just stand close enough, some of that popularity will float my way.

I did that for six years, and for six years I remained invisible.

Ironically, any time I got the chance to talk to one of these popular girls, I froze, because I was so preoccupied with following all of the rules that I was too exhausted to speak honestly, or offer anything of value.

All of this rule-following made me push down my own true identity so deeply that I couldn't let even a glimmer of it show for fear of being ridiculed. Would saying that I like showtunes make me seem like a weirdo? Would talking about the novel I was working on make me seem like a loser? Would they like my sense of humor, or would they just stare?

They probably thought I was dull. And of course they did, because I was. A replica is dull.

Content Marketing, and Why I'm Now on a Mission to Kill the Rules

Rule-following is a big thing in our data-driven world. And the marketing industry, like every industry, has its own set of "rules" that -- when applied judiciously -- can turn out some good results.

But rule-following as a substitute for self-expression is every bit as harmful to a person as it is to a brand or business. Ever heard of a content farm? They follow all of the "rules." It's also reams of cheap content, flung anonymously from an underpaid writer's fingertips, and the final result is as throwaway as a dollar-store toy.

You'd be better off burning that money to keep warm.

Here's another, less harsh, example: the listicle. "Listicle" is a portmanteau for "list" and "article," and these pieces often suggest a number of steps, tips, or tricks to employ to achieve a certain result. I've written these. See: "One Copywriting Trick to Dramatically Boost B2B Blog Post Engagement."

Several years back, content marketers noticed that these types of headlines seemed to outperform other types. Odd numbers seemed to do better than even numbers. More than 5, less than 25, probably. And so listicles started popping up everywhere.

But now, the internet has become so saturated with these types of posts that a listicle-style headline alone isn't enough to grab anyone's attention anymore. The content within the article has to present something unique, it has to have some undercurrent of authenticity, or it's just another wannabe in a sea of wannabes.

Some Deep Questions to Ask Yourself

Think about your own content for a moment: are you chasing the same keywords as your competitors? Is your content a regurgitation of what they wrote, but just with different images and a more recent publication date?

Now, ask yourself this. If you outrank your competitor for a specific keyword today, but your brand messaging isn't consistent and inspiring, is your business going to win months or years from now?

I firmly believe it won't.

Truth is, unless you have millions of dollars, you just can't publish mediocre content on the saturated web and expect to rank high in search results. (And if you are a multi-million dollar business and you're only publishing mediocre content, why? And also, want help with that? Message me.)

Center Your Strategy on People First

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Algorithms change. That seems to be today's hit song in the internet marketing world, but probably because it's true. The way people search for content online changes. Social media sharing, SEO tools and processes, marketing apps, they all change.

So why put any of these things at the center of your content marketing strategy?

If your entire strategy, or your entire business model, focuses on mastery of today's "rules," you'll be in trouble when the old rules and tools inevitably phase out.

"Wear the world as a loose garment," is a quote oft attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. I'd say the same applies to marketing: "wear the latest marketing best practices like a loose garment."

And if, by contrast, you cling tightly to anything in your marketing, have it be people.

Focus on People

Every time I sit down to write a blog post, I first imagine the face of my reader. Often, it's the face of a client I've worked with, because these people represent my readership and target audience. I know them, and writing to them is much easier than writing to a void.

I think, what can I tell this person in order to inspire him or her?

What can I share about myself to strengthen the bridge between our two worlds?

Can I make him laugh, or at least smile?

Can I change her mind, or cause her to consider something in a new light?

If I only approached my own content (or the content I write for my clients) from a perspective of ranking for search results, what would I have to sacrifice in order to meet those criteria?

Sometimes it's something benign, like the title of an H2 header.  I can live with that.

But other times, it might be something fundamental, like the length of my sentences, my title, or my very choice of words. In these cases, rule-following isn't worth the price.

Loosen up about rules. Give authenticity a try.

After all, no one can outrank you for "you."