Content: A Vessel Waiting to be Filled

To be good at content marketing you need to be creative. Those of us in the biz love beautiful design, technical innovation, and catchy wordsmithing. Which is why we get frustrated when we run into a problem that resists creative solutions.

I and many other content marketing pros have a particularly awkward pet peeve: we can’t stand the word content, even though all our service to clients revolves around it.

Content has no content

Content is a studiously dry word. It does an adequate job capturing the full range of what someone might encounter online: pictures, words, videos, animations, you name it. But it does the job without a hint of style.

I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of other industries struggling with the same problem: a shoemaker who can’t stand the word “laces,” or a software engineer who fidgets when someone says “code.” Maybe there’s a bookseller out there who prefers to think of herself as a seller of “bound paper products,” or a tire dealer who likes to brag about selling “traction rubbers.”

I doubt it.

The trouble with “content” is it has no content of its own. It’s crudely basic, just a notch above “things” or “stuff” in the pantheon of generalities. In an ironic twist, it’s an empty vessel that only begins to have meaning by filing it up with something specific: content needs content to matter.

The profit and usefulness of a void

But emptiness is also an opportunity.

The potential of empty things has long given philosophers grist for their mill. Plato credits Socrates with saying, “I know that I know nothing,” which can be interpreted as a celebration of a certain kind of empty-headedness. G.W.F. Hegel built an entire philosophical system on the productive power of negativity, with lasting consequences for western thought. 

Lao Tzu’s reflections on emptiness offer a useful way to think about content. The Tao Te Ching points out that a teapot and a room are both only what they are because of the emptiness at their center: “profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.”

Sounds like content to me! Profitable because the stuff content really is—a great article, impactful images, or engaging video—gives visitors the value they’re after. Useful because the word “content” is perfectly neutral, capable of standing in for just about anything we need it to.

Why so much empty content?

Despite my misgivings about the term, the bottom line is that content can be a very good thing. 

I say “can be” because, too often, it’s not.

The online world has just a few centers of gravity. Google is undeniably the largest. An entire industry has grown up around the almighty Google ranking algorithm. Many marketing firms anchor their strategies in search engine optimization, or SEO, rather than focusing first on ensuring their content means something to its readers. 

For evidence of SEO in action look no further than recipe sites. Ever Googled a question like, “How long to microwave an artichoke?” and had to wade through a thousand words about everything but the answer you’re looking for? A focus on SEO will result in a page that waxes on about the health benefits of the artichoke, its place in mythology, and the author’s fond and almost certainly fictional memories of grandma’s mastery of microwaved artichoke dip.

(It’s about 11 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke.)

Focusing on SEO can be like filling up your plate with nothing but bread rolls at Thanksgiving. Do you want content like that?

You might. There’s no denying that for some businesses, focusing on SEO is the right approach. The more consumer-oriented a company is, the more important SEO becomes. If being the top hit on Google brings a 10x multiplier to your sales, by all means, do whatever it takes to get there. That’s why so many recipe sites are competing to have the longest, most keyword-laden posts around.

Filling up content with the good stuff

Red Mallard’s approach focuses first on the human audience. Clients come to us because they want their content to enhance existing relationships and build trust with new acquaintances. They want to express their brand with strong, professional writing and exceptional design—the stuff Google can’t see, but people want to read. We get there by following a few steps that might get left out by an agency focused solely on SEO:

  • Passionate focus on people.
  • Obsessive attention to the craft of effective communication.
  • Sensitivity to the client’s evolving business needs.
  • Creativity geared toward engagement.

That’s not to say SEO doesn’t matter. Every business that invests in its online presence should have at least a pinch of SEO in the mix. The world of SEO is full of low-hanging fruit, like making good use of headers and taking advantage of WordPress tools to populate a page’s metadata. Just by focusing on the topics that are important to customers, a business can stumble into keywords and phrases that have a measurable impact on rankings.

O is for Optimization

A haphazard approach to SEO isn’t enough, even for businesses that don’t care about it. One client has told us they don’t particularly want customers to come to them solely from a Google search. They are a boutique accounting firm with a narrow target demographic. Their content goals are almost exclusively focused on high-value pieces intended to enhance the word-of-mouth marketing they’ve always relied on.

Growing a strategy organically from the business’s core goals leaves the client and the creative team in complete control of content direction. They needn’t worry about common SEO considerations like how difficult it will be to rank for a particular phrase. Although the simplest SEO steps can be taken when the content goes live, they are an afterthought.

Few businesses are as indifferent to SEO as our accountant friends. Most clients we serve would like to improve their search engine rankings. Most firms that historically have relied on referrals wouldn’t mind if prospects found them on Google. For these clients, SEO plays a more central role in shaping our content strategy. 

SEO optimization redundancy tips ideas 

I confess: building strategies around SEO feels unnatural to me. The more machine-oriented a strategy becomes, the stranger the phrasing gets. That’s because it’s very hard to rank for common terms, which have been fought over for years by businesses with deep pockets. An insurance broker who wants to rank for “casualty” has a long, expensive road ahead just to achieve that one goal. 

Instead, an SEO analysis might determine that the big fish have left some crumbs in their wake. Maybe the phrase “cheap car fire policy” could score rankings fairly quickly. The question then becomes how to incorporate such weird wording into the content in a natural way. 

A site that’s put all its eggs into the SEO basket can be spotted almost instantly. Such sites have strange headings, endless repetition of a particular keyword, and phrasings that are idiomatic only within the context of a Google search bar (see the heading above for an example). 

I try to strike a balance in my content strategies. Of course, the client’s expectations are the most important weight on the scale. If rankings are crucial to a marketing strategy, rankings must be the focus. But even then, I like to give at least a bit of weight to the voices of my writing teachers. I want our clients to be represented by content people want to read.

Harness the power of content with Red Mallard

I guess I’ve talked myself into liking “content” a bit more than I did at the start of this article. It turns out there’s a lot to discover in an empty term, which is a good thing. 

Care to explore what content can do for your business? Red Mallard would love to be your content partner. Reach us through our site, or by emailing me at alex.bennett@redmallard.com. We’re looking forward to serving you.

Related Posts

Make a picture. It’ll last longer.

Blogs! What are they good for? Absolutely everything.

Time for a Content Marketing Refresh

Welcome to the flock.

Thanks for getting in touch with us! We’ll be back at you very soon.