Content, Without the Marketing

Beethoven’s Vision (1882) by Rudolf Hausleithner (Austrian, 1840–1918)/Artvee

I’ve kept my studio Wonder Shuttle mostly dormant for the past four months, as I got into the groove of a full-time editorial director assignment at WorkOS. Some more notable projects include launching a podcast, setting up the editorial calendar and hiring a technical editor, and editing and publishing (and even co-writing some) blog posts. Still, I’ve had inbound requests to do business. Like a CEO said to me, “Broad minded editors who are able to articulate ideas in a clear and compelling manner are hard to find!”

These editors aren’t actually that difficult to find. Rather, CEOs, marketing directors, and product leaders are looking in the wrong places for these editors, because they’re starting out having been shown the wrong map for what they want to do. 

ROI is Meaningless without Vision

In the several years I’ve worked with software companies, I’ve participated as an independent freelance writer, an in-house editor-in-chief, and eventually as an editorial director. The least successful of these come with the intention of “content marketing.” The clients are fixated on “ROI,” a concept that can’t be detached from content marketing because—well, that’s the whole point of marketing. 

The most effective projects might start from a recognition that writing and content can work for the business, and eventually grow into something much bigger. A savvy editor knows how to make a business case for their work. They are also cognizant that the business case is just that—the art of editing and creating a vision is much more important. If you’re too fixated on ROI, you’re sending the wrong signals to all the best people you can recruit. 

Sometimes, this happens literally. I asked one of the best editors I know about what kind of work I could refer her for. Branding, documentation, and writing coaching or ghostwriting were acceptable. When the words “content marketing” came up, she all but said,  “Absolutely not.”

Even if you don’t do all your homework, just a brief look at the most aspirational forms of writing in software will show that the visionaries and decision makers do not consider what they do as content marketing. Basecamp’s founders wouldn’t consider the things they write as content. Neither would Andreessen Horowitz, Stripe, WeTransfer, or Cloudflare. 

Instead, each of their publications or “media properties”—terms much more preferable to content marketing—are an essential part of the business and brand. The ambition is, clearly, much higher. (See Wennsmacher in Protocol, or just look at Stripe Press’s website.) 

The best businesses expect ROI from their media properties the same way they expect ROI from their user and developer experiences, website design, and product. Yes, they need the product to make money. Yes, they need a great experience in order to star the bottoms-up motion to get their first customers and eventually sell to enterprises. Yes, they conduct TAM analyses to figure out their customers and product roadmaps. 

Though no, I can tell you from behind the scenes, they are not demanding that every single developer experience decision comes with an expectation of ROI. “Fish Fridays” will not develop the brand that your business wants. 

Content Isn’t Marketing, It’s Strategy

I’m parroting what Axios’s editors wrote about Andreessen Horowitz’s media play, with the intention of signal boosting it. With product-market fit, word of mouth marketing can and should grow, though even that will start to peak at some point. Even if it works, paid and performance marketing will see rising costs and diminished results. Content is really the only play here. If you don’t believe it, that’s all well and good, just prepare to pay a lot more for it in the future—or to explain to your investors that you’re losing to your competitors because you couldn’t figure out how to make content work.

Unfortunately, most companies realize this too late. They start to notice it when no one is sticking around to read their blog posts. When nobody is interested in sharing it. When the SEO edit sucks the life out of each piece.

There is a time and place for content marketing, demand generation, and sales support. 

That is not what any of the aforementioned companies do, though. If you want to build a brand like theirs by writing and producing media, you will also need to think more like a media property and less like a content marketing operation. You’ll build something that’s more like a publication, a resource center, or an industry journal.

Once you adopt this posture, and set a grander vision for your media property (or however you organize your writing), you’ll find that the editors—and creators, producers, and authors—are not so hard to find. Neither are audiences or readers. At some point, once you’ve promoted your work enough, they might even approach you. If it hasn’t already, I’m sure that some new marketese will emerge for this type of thinking. None of that matters, though.

The best content marketing looks more like Yeezy, Pokémon, and Goop. In other words, it’s a core part of the business and product, and it’s not at all what most conventional content marketing looks like today.

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