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Marketing Content Strategy

What the History of Copywriting Teaches Us About Content Marketing Today

7 Minute Read

Businesses are no strangers to friendly rivalry. From IT and your web development team, to sales and marketing, to HR and that person from the third floor who really likes giving hugs, we’ve largely become settled with the idea that within our places of work there might always be just a slight tension that pulls each department along to do better than before. But there is perhaps no rivalry more heated than that between advertising and content marketing.

Though they use many of the same tools—copywriting, design, creativity—and have largely the same ends, content marketers and advertisers might have the greatest difference in opinion of any related professionals. But why?

Where most business rivalry comes out of one department stepping on the toes of another to impede work, the contention between advertising and content marketing seems more ideological. In fact, many marketing campaigns incorporate both tools in support of each other, even as the marketers supporting the effort go home to write blogs about the manipulative and costly nature of ads or the slow response time of content.

Maybe it’s time that someone extended an olive branch. Maybe there’s something for content marketers to learn from the long tradition of advertising that’s laid the foundation of the marketplace we operate in today. In the same way, perhaps there’s something advertisers can take away from content creators in a world of disabled cookies and ad blockers that are constantly trying to push them out of the user experience.

Speaking with Giants

Before Seth Godin was doing speaking tours or Gary Vaynerchuk was flooding your LinkedIn feed with videos, the head honchos of the advertising business wrote books. Their quotable lines would be re-hashed in marketing blogs for decades to come—this entry very much included.

Diving back into the knowledge of the early and mid-1900s, content marketers are greeted with a different world: The non-digital world meant less feedback on campaigns, slower campaign and production cycles, and something of a Wild West in best practices that resulted in wildly ranging successes and failures. But still, a few people were able to make it out alive and on top, and were good enough to share some ideas with marketers like you and me. Here’s what they have to say.

Image of a notebook and pens on a desk

Image attribution: Markus Spiske

Concision Isn’t Just for Ad Copy

One of the key differences between advertising and content marketing is the length of the material involved. Where ads try to grab people in the illusive seven-second human attention span, content marketers like to think they can earn their audience’s attention with informative, well-constructed content. Ad copy is just intrusive and manipulative, while content is supposedly informative and holistic.

Ad man George Lois had a different perspective. Famous for his work promoting and designing for Esquire, Lois believed that concision in copy wasn’t just about being snappy for the sake of being snappy. He believed that the better thought-out an idea was, the shorter it could be expressed—that truly big ideas came in small sentences.

“If a client takes ten minutes to tells me about his business, then it’s not a big idea.”

In many ways, this is actually an idea much older than the ad work of the ’50s and ’60s. Writer Blaise Pascal shared a similar sentiment centuries before when he famously apologized in a letter, saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” But sadly, content marketers seem to fall back on formulae when it comes to being concise. Listicles are perhaps the biggest perpetrator in this regard, offering readers a familiar format that, in return for speed, often sacrifices substance.

But concision for content creators can look different.

You can shorten or vary the length of sentences for dramatic effect. You can put white space and paragraphs to work breaking up the page to give your readers a break. For those who want to be particularly strict about cutting language, you can use a tool like Hemingway App to reduce your linguistic footprint.

Just because content tends to be a little lengthier than ad copy doesn’t mean you’re inherently offering something more valuable. Taking the time to “write a shorter letter” in your content can keep your audience engaged and keep your information all the more relevant.

Empathy Pays: Manipulation Doesn’t

Advertising gets a rep for being impersonal and untrustworthy at times, and content marketers like to think we’re above that. But out of the other side of marketer’s mouths we have an industry that birthed the term “clickbait” and that more than happily guides people to articles, videos, and email newsletters only to slap them with a sales pitch or lead gen form in the most inauthentic ways.

The venerable grandfather of ad copy, David Ogilvy, was actually quite the opponent of inauthentic content. “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read,” he would say. “You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

Defense of our audience is something many marketers have lost in our approach. In the process of thinking competitively about what people want to interact with, we fall into the trap of trying to “grab” our audience, rather than welcome them along or protect them. Think through your own marketing funnel: Does it nurture and encourage users to reach out to you, or does it bait and switch visitors into passing through gates to reach content they thought would be freely available? Both approaches can work, but the latter is more likely to leave a stale taste in your visitor’s mouth.

If you don’t know where to start in making your content more “authentic” in a way that’s more meaningful than the buzzword, Ogilvy has plenty of other ideas for you. But one of the most powerful is to find a way to interject personally as a content creator into your work:

“I have a theory that the best ads come from personal experience. Some of the good ones I have done have really come out of the real experience of my life, and somehow this has come over as true and valid and persuasive.”

Impressions Aren’t Data

Well, technically impressions can be data, but your impressions aren’t.

Content marketers like to think that because we build out fuller experiences for audiences, we inherently have some greater understanding or source of knowledge that advertisers must not. But in this assumption, marketers can make one of the gravest mistakes possible: creating content for yourself, rather than for your users.

But back in the early heydays of advertising, there wasn’t room for assumption. Advertising campaigns were costly, slow, logistical nightmares that couldn’t risk gambles. They had to be thought out and targeted from the very beginning. In this regard, advertisers quickly gained a reputation for cutting to the quick about what their customers really wanted. But contrary to what Mad Men would have you believe, this wasn’t accomplished over glasses of bourbon and some pseudo-sage conversation. It was accomplished through market research.

Claude C. Hopkins isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of famous ad men, but in many ways, he’s the father of modern marketing practice. Nearly ninety years ago in 1932 he published his seminal work, Scientific Advertising, in which he makes a simple statement: “Advertising, once a gamble, has thus become, under able direction, one of the safest business ventures.”

If data has been at the heart of good advertising since the ’30s, then it certainly has room at the center of content marketing efforts in a day and age where data has become more readily accessible than ever before. Don’t base your copywriting on what you believe your audience wants. Base it on what they tell you they want. It’s a simple idea that is too easily overlooked by eager content creators.

Image of a man's hand writing in a notebook

Image attribution: Brodie Vissers

Seeing Past the Rivalry

I’m not suggesting we end the rivalry between marketers and advertisers. Healthy competition keeps both teams on their toes. Perhaps even more essentially, it’s not likely such competition is ever going to disappear as long as both teams vie for bigger cuts of the same marketing budget.

But even while advertising may look dramatically different today than it did in the mid-twentieth century, some of its older wisdom still rings very true for content creators today. You can be quick with your audience’s time without sacrificing quality of content. Empathy and trust with your audience will always account for more than leads and clicks. Data, at the end of the day, is impartial when it comes to actually understanding what your audience needs. Give your content marketing teams the space necessary to experiment and grow comfortable with these ideas, and you might soon find new respect for some of the traditions of advertising copy.

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Featured image attribution: Bonnie Kittle

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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