Rethinking Content Marketing Incentives to Improve the Internet

Image: Pepi Stojanovski/Unsplash

“To make marketing that doesn’t suck.”

I can’t tell if this phrase had imprinted itself into my mind, or if it was an original thought — if there is such a thing — when I was thinking about the future of my business. Then again, this sort of thing is what content marketers do best. We tell ourselves that we’re not doing marketing, that we’re better than “traditional” kinds of marketing. As if, “to make marketing that doesn’t suck” was an aspirational goal. Well, in a field that most people hate, at least it’s an honest one.

The opening phrase comes up often in this article, where the journalist portrays a struggling writer investigating a content marketing conference. The truth is, it’s much easier to become a content marketer than a journalist. You can provide for yourself. You don’t have to write three articles a day at some content farm. I had the pleasure of doing that for a few months as a staff writer, and my writing literally turned into crap. Plus, I’m glad I didn’t turn into a self-righteous struggling writer, like the author portrays in this fun article where he investigates a content marketing conference. An excerpt:

“The S.W. considers that the void Handley speaks of is in part the result of journalism’s collapse. In the absence of stories told by humans to communicate about being human, companies tell people stories about being consumers. Readers consume the information made available to them in this way because they are unable to turn off the human impulse to understand the world.”

That’s a gut punch. And to be fair, if he were in content marketing (I wouldn’t wish it upon him), he might’ve gone into all of the garbage out there that’s written for search algorithms, or to promote products in the most obvious ways. But at the end of the day, I haven’t seen a content marketing piece read like Bret, Unbroken. (Then again, to be fair, I haven’t seen any journalist write an article like Bret, Unbroken, in a while.) There’s merit to aiming lower.

It starts with exploring the possibility of aligning content marketing incentives with the greater good of the internet. We’re figuring it out. There are content marketing publications that do really good work, because content marketing presents some advantages:

Allocate big budgets to cover untold stories

This is something that Glitch’s Glimmer and WeTransfer’s WePresent excel at. They talk to actual journalists and commission them to do actual investigations and stories. Check out this piece. Or this piece.

Promote a mission that benefits a larger audience

There are companies that build brand images (e.g., cute mascots like the Telus animals, etc.), and then there are companies that are on actual missions. Patagonia is on a mission — their brand reflects that. Kickstarter is on a mission, The Creative Independent reflects that.

I guess it’s really up to people to decide if a mission is improving the world vs. just selling more stuff. I still probably wouldn’t buy Patagonia clothes ( this video killed it for me), but I bought the book and I’d pay for more. I have some of the catalogs at home. I want to see the environment on our home planet survive and thrive. I think it’d be better for everyone if it did.

Similarly, everyone “can” use Kickstarter, and it’s at least another alternative to funding projects. Granted, you can argue about how “accessible” it really is to people, but it offers another option, and I think that’s good. The Creative Independent is all about promoting creativity and art, and I think the Internet is a much better place for that.

Lastly, think about Stripe increasing the GDP of the Internet, and Shopify teaching ecommerce. Teaching/promoting entrepreneurship. Sure, one can argue that the current system has forced a lot of people to become entrepreneurs. I haven’t done the work to have an opinion on that, but my point is, give me an alternative. Until you do that, whether you’re going to become an entrepreneur either by choice or by necessity, you might as well do it well.

Teach people how to get better at their work

This is basically making better trade publications. It’s OK — improving work means improving 40+ hours of your life, which is nice — but not everyone actually cares about getting better at their work. For many it’s just their job. So, I get it.

I hope that in the future, we in the business of content marketing conceive of and develop a greater belief in more of these types of incentives. The business metrics obviously need to align here, but I think that any person that understands brands also understands how the Internet works. People don’t care where the content comes from, as long as it’s high quality, and the bar for quality sinks lower every day.

Making good content will make people believe you also take making your product or service seriously. And that will draw customers and team members. It can be as simple as proving that, “making case studies” for it to convince the marketing managers, brand managers, etc. Maybe I’m being optimistic here — I know the machine has crushed many an aspiring editor’s dream.

It’s time we all tried to step up from trying “to make marketing that doesn’t suck” to something more audacious. After all, the best way to make your business and brand better is to make the Internet better for someone.

Originally published at on April 21, 2020.

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’

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