Merriam-Webster's Gleefully Geeky Content Strategy Is Pure Content Marketing Inspiration
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Merriam-Webster’s Gleefully Geeky Content Strategy Is Pure Content Marketing Inspiration

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This is an unapologetic love letter to one of my favorite sources of content marketing inspiration.

Merriam-Webster—yes, that Merriam-Webster, the dictionary that adorned your childhood desk and is probably even now gathering dust in your parents’ basement—gets me. Some people identify with the brands that make the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, or the coffee shops they frequent. I, dear reader, identify with a dictionary publisher.

To understand my love, you first need to know that I was the sort of kid who would open the dictionary to random pages just to see what I could find. (This practice led to a healthy vocabulary but some misconceptions about pronunciation; to this day, in my head I pronounce the word “melancholy” as “muh-LANK-uh-lee.”) It would surprise not one of my elementary school teachers that I ended up majoring in linguistics and now spend my days playing with words.

Merriam-Webster's Gleefully Geeky Content Marketing Strategy Is Pure Content Marketing Inspiration

Image attribution: Ben White

Why this dictionary over any other? Because Merriam-Webster’s content marketing is amazing. For a professional word nerd like me, their content feels as precisely and perfectly curated as a playlist crafted for you by your best friend.

Beyond being the perfect rabbit hole to fall down when I’m, ahem, procrastinating, they’ve taught me a thing or two about content strategy. (In case my boss is reading: I think that means it counts as productive procrastination.)

Know Your Consumer

I have no inside knowledge of Merriam-Webster’s content strategy, but I’d hazard a guess that their personas include two primary digital users: the casual visitor, who stumbles across an unfamiliar word online and turns to a recognized name, and the language professional, a habitual visitor—writer, editor, or academic—who relies upon Merriam-Webster to unpack the nuances of usage that permeate her professional work. The latter is the subscription buyer (and therefore revenue generator), so she’s also, dare I say, the one who gets the most love.

Since the employees of Merriam-Webster undoubtedly fall into the same category as the language professional, they have an unparalleled view into what makes them (or rather, us) tick. I’m sure they’re tracking search trends and plotting keyword strategies like the rest of us, but they also have the luxury to ask themselves what they want. What kinds of content do they long to consume, but can’t find? What topics can they not help but click on?

Love Your Legacy, Don’t Worship It

Noah Webster (the Webster of Merriam-Webster) is a degree of separation from the Founding Fathers. He came of age during the Revolutionary War, fought in Connecticut’s militia, and was a prominent political writer at the time of the Continental Congress, advocating for the adoption of the Constitution. He later became a state representative, an education reformer, an abolitionist, and one of the founders of Amherst College in western Massachusetts.

When he published the dictionary that gave rise to the Merriam-Webster brand, 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language, it was as much a work of scholarship as it was a declaration of patriotism. It made the case that American English, rather than a bastard deviant of British English, was a respectable version of the English language in its own right.

Noah Webster

Image attribution: Samuel Morse via Wikimedia Commons

All this is to say: The legacy of Merriam-Webster, even more than many historical brands, is deep and storied. They could trade on that legacy to keep their brand afloat—but they don’t.

References to their history do crop up (a prominent “Since 1828” appears by their logo much of the time), but they are far from stuck in the past. Instead, they’ve embraced the change to digital publishing (heck, they even have an app), built a delightfully nerdy social presence, and even lent their expertise to the Judge John Hodgman podcast on the immortal question: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Poor Noah Webster would be scratching his head in befuddlement.

Merriam-Webster proves that having a history doesn’t mean being shackled to that history. Even the most historic of brands in the stodgiest of industries can have fun.

Mix High and Low

At TrackMaven’s Spark conference earlier this year, Jean Ellen Cowgill, president of Atlantic Media Strategies, explained that what makes the Atlantic’s stories pop is a play upon expectations of high-brow and low-brow content. They give important, serious topics a decidedly irreverent, pop-culture treatment, and then flip the script with highly academic takes on silly or bizarre topics.

Merriam-Webster got the memo. You’ll find academic explorations of that gawd-awful millennial speech tic, the introductory “which” (low-brow topic, high-brow treatment), alongside goofy videos about whether “decimate” is synonymous with “destroy” (high-brow topic, low-brow treatment).

Please do watch this video: It’s how I learned the fact that “pumpernickel” originally meant “fart goblin.”

Setting aside how I get my etymological kicks (what, just me?), I hypothesize that what’s so wonderful about juxtaposing the high-brow with the low is that it feeds both sides of our inner selves. We’re gratified by the appeal to our intelligence and our appreciation of high culture, while we simultaneously get the same rush of guilty satisfaction we feel when binge-watching E! News. It’s the truffle fries of content.

Newsjack Judiciously

Ah, the ubiquitous newsjack. Done well, it’s smart, topical, and eminently shareable. Done poorly, it’s cringeworthy at best and downright offensive at worst.

Merriam-Webster nails the newsjacking game by considering their place within the information ecosystem and tailoring their content to it. Knowing that consumers of news content will turn to the dictionary when they come across an unfamiliar word, they go one better by creating content that provides additional fun-to-know information beyond the dictionary entry: Why the word is trending, where it came from, and other notable recent uses.

What Merriam-Webster gets right that so many others get wrong is a clear-eyed understanding of the organic intersection between their brand and the news du jour. They look at how current events might influence interactions with their brand, then mine that surprisingly rich area for content inspiration.

Use Data for Inspiration

There’s a pernicious myth to which I take serious umbrage that we’re all either “language people” or “math people.” (Want to really get me riled up? Let’s start talking about just how young we sort ourselves into these categories.) Once again, Merriam-Webster has my back: Since turning to digital publishing, they’ve amassed treasure troves of user data that they use to glean insights about how the words we search for reflect the zeitgeist.

Data-driven storytelling is a staple of Merriam-Webster’s content. I love their trending words feature, but my particular favorite is their behind-the-scenes look at their annual Word of the Year, where they combine straight data analysis with a dash of creative interpretation for a unique point of view on the year in review.

There you have it: the nerdiest, most wonderful source of content marketing inspiration a girl could ask for. If this gig at Skyword doesn’t work out, you know whose door I’ll be knocking on. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a Game of Thrones vocabulary quiz, courtesy of my content heroes.

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Featured image attribution: saebaryo

Rachel Haberman is a consummate word nerd with a lifelong fascination with all things language. She holds a BA in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Wellesley College. Before joining Skyword, Rachel managed content marketing for an international development and strategy consulting firm. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two cats named after physicists.

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