The Legend of John Henry Versus the Steam-Powered Content Machine

John Henry was a steel drivin’ man, digging tunnels in the mountains in West Virginia. He was the best there was. He would rear back with his hammer until it touched his heels, and drive steel spikes into the rock with one mighty blow, so the holes could be filled with dynamite, and the tunnels could be dug out. No one could work as fast or as well as John Henry.

One day, the big bad bossman told John Henry that he was going to be replaced by a steam driver, a monster machine that could outwork any man. John Henry told the boss that no machine could beat him, and he would die with a hammer in his hand.

John Henry statue

The John Henry statue in Talcott, WV.

A race was set up between the two, man versus machine. The steam driver drilling holes into the rock, and John Henry hammer-slamming spikes home. The two combatants went at it so hard and so long, no one knew who was going to win that day.

Once the whistle blew and the time ended, not only had John Henry won the battle, the machine overheated and exploded from all the effort. A few seconds later, John Henry’s heart gave out, and he died, still gripping his mighty hammer.

While John Henry proved he was the better man, progress never stops. The machine was fixed, and the workers were still replaced in the end.

The Machines Are Still Coming

A couple years ago, I wrote about how the content shock will flood the Internet with cheap, poorly-written content, which will make it harder for good content marketers to get their stuff actually read.

Except now it’s worse.

While writers have only had to worry about competition from other humans, now it’s computers that are able to write. And if anyone is going to be creating the content shock, it’s going to be machines that can turn out articles in seconds and minutes, not hours.

This is what worries me. Not the poor writers who blob together a few sentences that would barely pass high school English. But the machines that can actually do an acceptable job of it.

I worry about companies like Automated Insights or Narrative Science, creators of software programs that can automate writing. Automated stories like Narrative Science’s stories for Forbes about earnings previews of publicly traded companies. Or Automated Insight’s mechanically generated stories for fantasy sports leagues. All output is based on algorithms and formulas, and is built on the principles that made Mail Merge so cool in the 1990s.

Just dump in the data, hit the button, and the algorithms will select language from a vast dictionary of phrases based on differences in scores. Once you’re done, you have a fact-based article about how one team fared against the other, how this quarter’s results are better than last quarter’s, or what your web analytics actually mean month over month.

Now, a new piece of software, Articoolo, can take a few keywords, scour the Internet for other articles about that topic, and create one that gives you the gist of what else is being said on the Internet. It’s not great writing, but it’s “good enough.”

Not only is it mechanical and soulless, it still falls into that “mediocre” category that people have come to accept. They accept it because we’ve been conditioned to by all the crappy writing that’s come before it from people who don’t give a shit about the quality of their work.

The Machines Are Improving

The content created by computers now is much better than what was being plopped out just a few years ago. And it’s getting better, which is worse for human writers. In 2012, Kris Hammond, CTO and co-founder of Narrative Science, told The Atlantic that it’s “theoretically possible for the platform to author short stories,” although The Atlantic author believes it will never match the soul and emotion of a human-generated story.

(Does it matter? By all accounts, 50 Shades of Grey was poorly-written, but still earned nearly $100 million in 2013. So much for the soul and emotion of human writing.)

Combining a slackening of acceptable standards with an improvement in robot writing, and this is where most of the content flood will come from in the next five years. Hammond once told Wired magazine that 90% of the content on the Internet will be generated by automated writers by 2027.

While I worry that it means fewer humans will be writing content, Hammond says that’s not the case. Instead, it will be because the machines are generating more and more articles than ever before.

And that’s where Schaefer’s content shock is going to come from.

The John Henrys of the written word are facing the new-fangled steam drivers, and it’s about to get ugly. As decision makers lower their expectations about what’s good writing, that means they’re more willing to accept bad writing, or not-quite-human writing. It means that people will blindly accept writing that wouldn’t have passed muster 50 years ago, but is considered “good enough for who it’s for.”

I hope it doesn’t mean we’re going to die with a pen in our hands.

Photo credit: Gene1138 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Five Best Blogging Service Providers in Indianapolis

It’s a great exercise in humility and a test of your ego to answer the question, “who are the five best blogging service providers,” and being told you can’t name yourself.

(Of course, anyone from Indiana would know better than to name themselves. Hoosiers are a humble people, after all.)

But who would I name as good content marketing/blogging service providers? After all, I should know this community and industry fairly well.

As I thought about the question, I thought back to my friendships that I’ve established over the years, and the people I’ve shared ideas, projects, and even clients with. And these are the five people and companies I would pick as five of the best blogging companies in central Indiana (in no particular order).

  • Metonymy Media: President Ryan Brock has made it a mission to hire only creative writing graduates, which is good, since creative writing as a professional pursuit is difficult. But it also makes Metonymy great story tellers. If we do face an impending content shock, then the storytellers are going to be the ones who win. He’s also managed to grow Metonymy into a sizable agency with several professional writers, and taught the city of Indianapolis what “metonymy” actually means. Ryan is also the founder of Indy WordLab, a writers’ meetup I attend nearly every month.
  • Lindsay Manfredi plays guitar

    Lindsay Manfredi. Seriously, how can you not be impressed by someone who has her own band?

  • Raidious: CEO Taulbee Jackson and I wrote The Owned Media Doctrine together last year, and I ended up learning a lot from him about content marketing on the enterprise level. They treat their content marketing efforts like a newsroom focusing on each day’s stories, being able to provide content to clients within hours, not days. Raidious also ran the Social Media Command Center for Super Bowl XLVI, a practice that every Super Bowl has adopted since then, and will continue to do so.
  • Lindsay Manfredi: She was one of the first bloggers I met when I started in this business, and I’ve learned a lot from watching her work. She was also willing to give advice when I needed it, and I’ve even referred a couple clients to her. Plus I love her energetic writing style — it matches her in person energy and the energy she brings to the stage when she’s playing live music around the city.
  • Digital Relevance: I’ve known Jeremy Dearringer since Digital Relevance was Slingshot SEO, and the company was just three guys doing SEO work for corporate clients. They’ve suffered under Google’s different algorithm changes, but have managed to pivot and become a content company that does SEO. They’re still one of the biggest tech employers in the city, and I’ve known several people who have worked at Digital Relevance (and Slingshot) at one time or another. If anyone knows SEO better in the Midwest, I haven’t met them.
  • Jackie Bledsoe: I first met Jackie during the Branding Yourself book launch in 2010, and have helped him as he learned about blogging and the professional copywriting life. He has parlayed his hard work into becoming one of the premier bloggers on fatherhood and family, writing for several family-related websites and publications, interviewing several celebrities, launching a podcast for couples, and is even working on an educational series that may turn into a book and speaking tour.

Those are the five people who I look to for my own inspiration and ideas of what I should be doing in running my own business. I try to learn from their creativity, their storytelling, work ethic, attention to technology, and energy. Hopefully I’ve been able to take something from the best of each of them and incorporate it into how I work.

There’s No “Best Time to Blog”

I’ll tell you now, you can ignore all of those articles that tell you when you should publish a blog post, send an email, or publish a tweet.

There is no best time to do any of those things.

That’s false thinking for a number of reasons:

  • The articles are usually based on a single case study of one company, usually themselves. “We saw a 40% increase in open rates by sending our email newsletter at 8:37 am on the third Tuesday of every month.”
  • It doesn’t take into account the quality of the content. Great content gets read, shitty gets ignored. You could scientifically determine the exact pinpoint moment to publish your post, but if it sucks, no one will read it.
  • Even if this actually did work, it’s a floating target. If an article says Monday mornings are the best time to send e-newsletters, everyone will start sending theirs on Monday mornings, which will drive down everyone’s willingness to read them. Then someone will find they have good luck on Wednesday nights, which will drive everyone to send theirs on Wednesday nights.

The best time to send email newsletters is whatever works for you. The best time to post Twitter messages is whenever you feel like it. The best time to blog is any time.

But the big secret is to make it interesting, valuable, and well-written. Without that, no one will care.

Blogs are like DVRs

A blog post is not like live television. You don’t schedule a blog post because everyone is going to flock to it at that exact moment. A blog post is more like the show you DVRed. Better yet, it’s more like Netflix.

You record a show so you can watch it later. I’ve got DVRed shows that are 5 months old (last episode of 30 Rock anyone?), and I only watch them when I have time. I’ve got even older shows on Netflix. They’re there when I need them, and I can happily discover new ones.

While a lot of your blog traffic is going to come from that immediate discovery when you promote your posts via social media, don’t forget the search engine traffic and the readers who clicked on a “similar post” link at the bottom of your page. I’ve got several blog posts that get more traffic weeks after the publication date than I got on the day I hit “Publish.”

Screenshot of Google Analytics about my Malcolm Gladwell article.

One of my favorite rants against “Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours to be an expert,” because that’s not what he said. Click the image for a closer look.

For example, one of my more popular blog posts, What Malcolm Gladwell REALLY Said About The 10,000 Hour Rule only received 79 views the first day I published it. As of today, it’s been viewed 24,694 times, but it was published on March 15, 2012 at 9:00 am.

So either 9:00 am is an absolutely terrible time to publish a post, or the thing really started picking up steam three months later when it hit the top 5 on Google for “10,000 hour rule.”

I think it’s the latter. I wrote something that managed to get some decent attention, and it wasn’t because of the time of day, or the day of the week, or whether I was wearing a big yellow hat. The time of day had nothing to do with the success of the blog post. It was the subject matter and the quality of the writing.

The myth of the ideal publishing time is just that: a myth. It’s either always changing, only works for a few people, or does not consider the context and quality. You need to pay attention to whether your content is well-written, well-produced, and is interesting to your readers. If it’s not, nothing else is going to save you.

Special hat tip to Scott Stratten and Alison Kramer’s Unmarketing Podcast for the idea.

Embrace Google Hummingbird, “Keywords Not Provided” for Better Content Marketing

If Google’s new Hummingbird algorithm doesn’t force you to be a better writer, nothing will.

The new evolution from the Panda/Penguin updates, combined with Google’s practice of no longer providing keyword data, are going to leave content marketers in the dark.

I couldn’t be happier.

HummingbirdBefore Panda and Penguin, SEO professionals used all kinds of tricks, both sneaky and legitimate, to game the system. Panda eliminated “thin” content — too-short blog posts, posts that contained 20 words and then took you to another page — and Penguin eliminated a lot of backlinking strategies.

Hummingbird is going one step further. According to TechCrunch,

(it) allows Google to more quickly parse full questions (as opposed to parsing searches word-by-word), and to identify and rank answers to those questions from the content they’ve indexed.

In other words, Google is no longer looking for results that match the collection of words you put into the search bar, they can identify the question, identify the intent behind the question, and find the best possible results.

Hummingbird is geared toward, and has been shaped by, mobile and voice search. People open their Google Maps or Google Search on their smartphones and speak their search as a question. Or they get on Google on their tablet or laptop and type in their question:

  • How do I delete my Twitter account?
  • How do I ask a girl out?
  • How do I get a passport?

“But, how do we know which keywords to write about?”

How Do I on GoogleYou don’t. You just write about the things that you think people want to know about.

You can figure that out by looking at your page visits and seeing which pages have the most visits, and then writing about those topics some more.

You can figure that out by searching in your email archives for the phrase “how do I.” Repost the answers you sent.

You can figure that out by writing about leading stories and trending news in your industry. (Read David Meerman Scott’s Newsjacking to find out how to get ahead of the competition in these instances.)

You can figure it out by paying close attention to the things you sell and the problems they solve.

You don’t need keywords to figure out what people are looking for. You need to look at your readers’ behavior, figure out why they came to your site, and respond to the things they want.

(Of course, you could just call up a few of your customers and ask them too.)

But most importantly, you need to quit trying to game the system by dinking around with keywords and just start writing real content that people want to read.


Photo credit: AnnCam (Flickr, Creative Commons)

There Is No ‘Future Of Content Marketing’

There is no Next Big Thing in content marketing.

I was asked about that at a talk this week. “What’s the future of content marketing?”

I told them, “Nothing is going to change. There will be no dramatic developments, or exciting new technology that will change what content marketing actually is.

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona Typewriter

Even on this thing, I can still create content. The only thing that’s changed is that my laptop is not as noisy.

“Content marketing is just marketing. It’s persuading people with words, images, and sounds.

“What major changes can you make with that?”

Oh sure, I’ll grant you that developing a written language was pretty major, because we could finally write our oral traditions and stories down on papyrus, like the Sumerian version of Epic of Gilgamesh in 2000 BC, making it one of the first examples of early literature. But even marketing goes back nearly that far, when Egyptians used to put sales messages on papyrus.

Then in 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, and we could produce books more quickly and cheaply, instead of carving pages out of blocks or wood, or copying them by hand. Advertising was done with town criers and posters containing images and not words, since citizens couldn’t read.

In 1978, at age 14, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai invented email, and in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, launching the world’s first web server on a NeXT Computer, a company founded by Steve Jobs. With that, we could share words, and later, images and sounds, with the entire world, and then spam the bejeezus out of it.

The next big switch was the advent of smart mobile phones, but even that’s not a major change. It’s the Internet on your phone. It’s Tim Berners-Lee’s invention miniaturized.

We’ve created websites, blogs, Tumblr, and Twitter. Flickr, Picasa, and Instagram. YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, and Vine. Streaming audio, Internet radio, and podcasts. We get it all on our desktops, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. We create amazing new layouts, like Starbucks’ Instagram feed, the I Hear Of Sherlock Everywhere Flipboard magazine, or the Tuneage tumblog.

It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t create anything new. With all new technological developments and all the different ways to use these tools, there is one constant: we’re sharing good writing, interesting images, and pleasant sounds.

You can change the tools, you can invent new tools, you can come up with new technology. You can invent a 6-word microblog. You can create a 3-second video app. You can build a website that’s filled with nothing but selfies and kitty pictures. (It’s called Facebook.)

But even 10, 20, or 100 years later, people will still want and share good writing, interesting images, and pleasant sounds.

The Owned Media Doctrine coverThere will be no major change in the content marketing world, because the need for good content has not changed in 4,000 years. The good writers always rise to the top, the good artists are always seen (even if it is decades after they died).

The only thing that will change about content marketing is the name. Someone will come up with some new name, and that will be it. In fact, that’s already happened; now we’re calling it Owned Media (affiliate link).

I don’t care what happens to the web. We could get it on our glasses. We could have it beamed directly to our brains. We could shut it off tomorrow. We will still need people to create the stuff that goes into the machine so we can read it, watch it, and listen to it.

So if you’re wondering what you should do to jump on the next wave of content marketing, forget it. Don’t try to capture the next wave. Focus instead on being a good writer, photographer, videographer, or sound producer. That will outlive every technological change for the next 4,000 years.

Everything is NOT Content

We’re tossing “content” around a little too easily these days. It’s becoming another vague generic word like “stuff” or “crap.”

Not the adjective meaning fairly happy, but rather “items held within a larger container,” as the stuff in a book or a blog.

The Moz (formerly SEOMoz) is cheapening the word by telling us “Everything is content!”

Except it’s not.

In his latest blog post on The Moz Blog, “Why Local Businesses Don’t Need Big Budgets for Their Content Marketing, author Matthew Barby says, “Content is:”

  • the staff within your business.
  • the design of your shop/office.
  • your products and services.
  • the menus on your tables.
  • your company values.
  • your customers.


As sick to death I am of the phrase “content is king,” I’ll tattoo that on my ass before I ever agree that “content is everything,” or even any of those things Barby named.

It is not, as Barby says, cupcakes, staff uniforms, foam art in your latte, or the barista’s smile as she hands over your cupcake and arty latte.

Unless you’re a writer, artist, videographer, photographer, podcaster, or musician, the stuff you do isn’t content either. And if you are, you probably don’t want to cheapen your work by calling it that.

Real creators it stories, art, videos, photos, podcasts, and music.

Most Things Are Not Content

Old Ovaltine magazine ad — Now THIS is content!

From the early days of “paper content marketing.” Or as those poor fools from the 30s called it, “advertising.”

Do you know what content is? Words, images, and sounds. Stories, pictures, movies, podcasts, and music.

Do you know what it isn’t? Everything else. Everything other thing in the world that are not words, images, and sounds.

If I can’t read it, watch it, look at it, or listen to it, it’s not content.

If I can eat it, it’s not content. If it’s a person and his or her clothes, it’s not content. If it’s the squishy feeling we all get from maximizing our company’s potential to provide mission-critical customer satisfaction, it’s not content.

Using the word this way will eventually just cheapen the word and make it as useful and nebulous as “stuff.” I’m certainly not going to coin the phrase stuff marketing.

The word usually refers to material contained within another item — contents of a thermos, a book (hence the term Table of Contents), a speech. It has expanded to include video, audio, and photos, but that’s as far as I think people need to take it.

I’ll agree that the staff, their uniform, and latte foam art are features and reasons to like that business. But to call them “content” cheapens both them and the tenets of content marketing.

Do You Know What We Used To Call Content Marketing?

I blame the Content Marketing movement for starting this. They’re the ones who started calling “persuading people with information” content marketing.

Before then, we just called it marketing.

It was just a thing we did. It was brochures and trade shows. It was TV commercials and newspaper ads and CD-ROMs. It was corporate videos and scripts for radio commercials. Then one day, when I was as old as Kurt Cobain when he died, we started using this Internet thingy, and my company was the first in our industry to have a website.

The other companies laughed at us for getting suckered into this fad, until we started kicking their asses and taking away sales worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then they scrambled fast to catch up.

Do you know what we called doing marketing on the Internet back then?


And do you know what we called the text and the photos on our web pages?

Text and photos.

But we didn’t call customer service, uniforms, or any of that other stuff “marketing,” because it wasn’t. Our accountant wasn’t marketing. Our shipping coordinator wasn’t marketing. Our warehouse guy wasn’t marketing.

We certainly never would have called them content.

But now the latest jargony buzzword is Content Marketing, because we produce stuff to be consumed; Internet Marketing, because it’s marketing on the Internet; Digital Marketing, because it’s now happening via mobile apps and not just the Internet; and, urp. . . urp. . . barf.

Honestly, I don’t care if you debate the subtle nuances of calling it Digital versus Internet Marketing to 10 decimal places. It doesn’t matter. Because it’s still just marketing. It’s not special marketing. It’s not some new brand of marketing that no one has ever done before.

It’s still just persuasive words, pretty pictures, and pleasing sounds.

So can we just skip the happiness-and-rainbows fancy jargon, and stick with the areas we can control that actually persuade people to buy our, uh, stuff?

Because no one is going to walk into a content shop and ask the contentista for a half-caff content with light foam, and a chocolate content with extra sprinkles.

That would be stupid.

Stop Using These Business Jargon Terms. You Sound Pretentious.

Some of the smartest people I know can be quite obtuse when it comes to language. Not because they use small words to express small ideas. No, rather they use really big, useless words to express small ideas.

“We create a frictionless user onboarding experience.”

Whenever you say “frictionless user onboarding,” a kitten dies.

GAAH! I just want to punch somebody in the neck when I see that. And I see it a lot.

(Update: Sean Molin pointed out that this particular gem was not created by 500px, but rather by Dan Leveille of Quora, who is not affiliated with 500 px.)

In fact, when I Googled the words “frictionless user onboarding process,” there were 112,000 results. In other words, 112,000 people thought this was a perfectly acceptable phrase to use.

As opposed to “Signing up is easy.”

Here are five other words you need to stop saying, because they make you sound like a pretentious snot.

  1. Leverage. It’s not a verb, it’s a noun. “Leverage” has become the 21st century’s “utilize,” with many of the same results: people hate it. Try an experiment the next time you want to say “leverage”: say “use” instead. “We are going to leverage use our customer database for a direct mail campaign.” Did it change the meaning? Of course not. So quit it.
  2. On a going forward basis. Seriously? The phrase “going forward” wasn’t bad enough? You had to go make it worse by adding three more words to it? Come on, man! The word you want is “later” or “from now on.” As in “we’ll start locking the door from now on.” Now, you’ve taken a two word turd of a phrase and added three more words, to mean exactly the same thing. But with more words.
  3. Brand. Yeah, yeah, I’m the personal branding guy. So why is this on the list? Because people are using it to mean “company.” They say “brand” instead of “company,” because apparently that’s what all the cool kids say. When did this happen? It used to be that “branding” referred to marketing collateral, logo, corporate colors, that kind of thing. It became, as Kyle Lacy and I mentioned in Branding Yourself “an emotional response people have to a company and logo, or a person and their reputation.” It should not be the company itself. It may be two more syllables, but go back to saying “company.” The other thing makes you sound vapid.
  4. Learner/Learnings. I was talking with a teacher one time, and she used the phrase “our learners.” “What are learners? I asked. She said “the students.” Then why don’t you call them students? I asked. “Because they’re learning and we’re educating. They’re learners and we’re educators.” Why can’t you call them students and teachers? “Well, it means the same thing.” If it means the same thing, then why can’t you just say the old thing? She didn’t have a good answer to that, and the conversation did not improve from there. Needless to say, I was not the first parent my daughter’s teacher wanted to talk to on Parent-Teacher night. And if I ever hear anyone use the word “learnings,” we are going to have a similar awkward conversation. It’s not “learnings,” it’s “lessons” or “material” or “information.” Learnings is not a noun.
  5. Frictionless. I already mentioned it, but I hate this word so much, I wanted to repeat it. (Hey, if any of this article hits home, you’re already used to people repeating things needlessly, so this won’t take up too much of your time.) Nothing is frictionless. Nothing, except the black Haggunenon ship from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And if you didn’t get that, then this joke wasn’t frictionless either. Say “easy,” “simple,” or “not that hard.”

The point of jargon is to make hard words easier to understand and say. But with the exception of substituting the three-syllable “company” with the single syllable “brand,” none of these jargony terms make life easier. If anything, they make it more difficult.

Although they give everyone else something to make fun of you for.

I think we’re supposed to call that “humorate” now.