For obvious reasons, the Internet is mum on just how widespread ghostwritten content is—but the sheer explosion of content over the last decade suggests the answer is “very.” It’s hard to imagine that all the executives and founders bylining op-eds and blog posts have the time, never mind the writing talent, to deliver that much content. Ghostwriting, on its face, is the natural solution for meeting this demand.
The pressure to produce content under an executive byline, however, can make it easy to justify cutting corners (not to mention costs) with an unqualified and under-resourced ghostwriter. Before marketers turn to ghostwriting as the automatic answer, it’s worth an honest look at the pros and cons—and whether it’s really a strategic solution or a default response. Only then can we argue for the resources it takes to produce high-quality ghostwritten content.
Image attribution: Bethany Legg
Let’s start with the good.
The most obvious benefit of ghostwriting, that it saves time-strapped executives from dedicating hours they don’t have to writing, isn’t the actually main reason to advocate for it. Rather, the main reason to work with a ghostwriter is for their specialized skills in written communication.
Many intelligent, highly successful people are excellent communicators—in every medium but the written word. Without experience producing long-form written content (no, college term papers don’t count), it’s unsurprising that an unpracticed writer will produce unpolished writing, no matter how strong the ideas behind it. A talented ghostwriter can put structure and clarity around someone else’s ideas and convey them to their best advantage.
What’s more, a good ghostwriter can bring in an objective viewpoint, identifying jargon and other corporate-isms that even in-house marketers, too familiar with their own brand, have ceased to notice.
Unsurprisingly, the right talent will cost you. Depending on the industry, a skilled ghostwriter will charge 20 to 50 percent more than the going rate for comparable bylined work. Beyond the additional work involved in mimicking someone else’s voice, ghostwriters must also be compensated for the lack of byline, which otherwise would help build their writing portfolios and secure future work.
And herein begins the ugly. The demand for content has commoditized it, giving rise to a market for cut-rate content for those unwilling to make a real investment. Former ghostwriter Aimee Millwood illustrates the issue vividly in a TechCrunch op-ed:
“Rather than building valuable content by hiring writers who were experts in their fields to contribute intelligent, well-researched pieces, or asking writers to help better organize thought leaders’ ideas into eloquent articles, companies paid people like me to write content in subjects we had no expertise in.
“At one point, I was hired to work for almost a dozen startups, writing thought leadership articles that were published by CEOs whose work I knew nothing about, or creating guest blog posts for big publications on topics I had no more knowledge in than a degree from ‘Google It’ Academy.”
Image attribution: Nik MacMillan
My own experience ghostwriting lacks the drama of Millwood’s, but it brings up similar issues.
Fresh out of college, I was part of a decidedly under-resourced marketing team at a strategy consulting firm, producing content on behalf of our managing directors. From a content strategy perspective, surrendering my byline made sense—our prospects wanted advice from seasoned thought leaders, not a recent college grad with zero consulting experience (but solid research skills and a library full of HBR back issues).
My lack of experience wasn’t the real problem, however; my lack of access to the consultants in whose name I was writing was. I would typically create content in isolation, then shop around for someone to claim the byline, rarely involving a managing director in the creative process until the very end.
The illogic of that workflow is blindingly clear in hindsight, and with it the very real reputational risk that we were conveniently ignoring. But the bigger issue is that by not soliciting their input, I was skating into questionable ethical territory. I was not (nor am I now) an expert in business strategy, but I was presenting my own research and recommendations as though they came with the authority of twenty-plus years’ consulting experience.
For ghostwritten content to deliver real value (and, for that matter, to transcend potential ethical issues), ghostwriters and subject matter experts need to approach content creation not as a transactional relationship but as a collaboration. This approach is comparatively time- and resource-intensive, requiring in-depth interviews, multiple rounds of review, and ample background material for writers to draw from. A quick fix for the busy executive this is not.
In other publishing fields where ghostwriting is a better-established practice, a collaborative process is assumed. (Of course that politician didn’t actually write her autobiography—but you never once doubted that she provided the source material!) High-volume pulp fiction writers offer perhaps the best example: Master of the airplane novel James Patterson is known for providing story outlines to co-writers who then turn his original ideas into actual work product in the style of his previous novels, which is then published under Patterson’s name. Turn up your nose at their literary merit if you must, but there is no denying that the James Patterson imprimatur means more than just a marketable byline—and brands should be following suit.
Image attribution: Christin Hume
There’s an unspoken question underlying this entire conversation: What is the value of a byline? For the reader, a byline can be a subtle mark of quality (“This person stands behind this viewpoint enough to put their name on it”) and an opportunity to feel a personal connection with a brand. For the author, it can be a license to introduce their personal narrative, showcase their unique point of view, and build their name recognition and authority as an expert.
But the value of a byline for the brand is only relevant insofar as those benefits to the reader and the author support strategic marketing goals. Does building up the authority of an individual person also build up the brand? Is the content more trustworthy if it is delivered by this specific person? These are both strong reasons for an executive byline—and if they aren’t in a position to write it themselves, for engaging a ghostwriter.
Context also plays a role. On a third-party platform, like LinkedIn Pulse, the identity of the writer is what’s connecting the content back to the brand. On an owned channel, like an on-domain content hub, expert content will build the brand’s authority regardless of who authors it.
It’s also important to note that there are ways to showcase expertise that don’t require an executive byline, from Q&As led by a dedicated content creator to cherry-picked quotes that highlight executives as subject matter experts. Going back to my first marketing job, either of these approaches would have met our goal of showcasing our consulting talent without demanding a degree of executive investment we weren’t able to secure. For that matter, companies seeking to highlight the technical expertise of their workforce in a niche subject might consider soliciting content directly from the experts themselves, then investing in skilled editorial support to fine-tune their writing.
Good ghostwritten content—that is to say, content developed collaboratively between an expert in a specific subject and an expert in the written word—succeeds when we approach it with purpose beyond saving valuable executive time. It’s true that it requires less time and effort on the part of the subject matter expert than it would to create the content themselves, but getting it right means making an investment, for both parties involved.
If that commitment doesn’t seem reasonable, it may be a sign that that executive byline is of less strategic importance than you originally thought. That doesn’t mean abandoning the content all together, just exploring alternative means of accomplishing the same goals.
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Featured image attribution: Stanley Dai