First, a confession, I’m new to content marketing, and my background is in journalism. When I started reading up on how to write content, I couldn’t help but notice that the general pool of articles that dish out advice on writing content seem to be based on certain assumptions.

These are:

  1. Only your target audience matters
  2. They have an attention span of a five-year-old
  3. Therefore, all content should be made easily digestible
  4. And what usually works is content marketers writing about their experiences – in first person.

I’ll tackle this immediately:

Writing in first person? Again?
Instead, sample this:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her.”

Two of Virginia Woolf’s most memorable lines, and then some great classics of English literature have been written in third person.

Now, about the target audience: Copywriter Joanna Wiebe, in a post about whether or not to use expletives in content writing, said: “Our goal should be to write for 20-30% who ‘are most likely to convert’ and are happier for it.” She reasoned that her audience was less than 50 years old and didn’t mind the swearing.

So the goal of content marketing is that I target you, you read my post, are sold on my product, and we are all happy.

Um yep, basically.

Multiply that “yes” with however many content marketers you know — what if all of them are thinking the same thing? What that implies is that we are ready to simplify for the benefit of the 20% target audience, while excluding the 80% readers. The target gets flooded with information that is easily digestible, but then isn’t it also easily forgettable?

And if your 20% can’t differentiate between your writing and someone else’s, you don’t even have the remaining 80% to fall back on.

So should we care?

This is how one of Wiebe’s readers responded to her post:

“To me, commerce is all about credibility, and profanity seems to me rarely to enhance it. My view from the Baby Boomer cheap seats.”

I wish he would write more often.

One can’t help but ask: Was content marketing always this way?

John Deere’s magazine for farmers, The Furrow, is the oft-cited first example of content marketing. Deere did not sell tractors to farmers through his magazine; he sold them ideas on agriculture. And the more extensive and in-depth these were, the more it established Deere as an authority on the subject.

As surprising as it may sound, the most recent issue of the magazine carries a photo essay on the experience of Japanese-American farmers who were interned in camps during WWII.

This goes to show that, along with catering to Deere’s “converts”, the editors at The Furrow probably consider it important to contribute to the broader narrative on agriculture – and they don’t see a contradiction there.

Now let’s talk about attention span and digestibility: A survey by Dejan Marketing, reported in this post, found that the main reasons why many people don’t finish reading an article is that they are “impatient for answers”, they find that the text is too long, or that it’s a difficult read.

“The goal is to reduce cognitive strain when you approach content,” was another advise given by a marketer in his comment to this post.

On the other hand, you have the 1913 Michelin Guide to the British Isles.

After giving exhaustive instructions on how to get from York to Kendal, it gets straight to the point:

“We would remind our clients that Rubber does not last an indefinite time, like steel, for example, but, on the contrary, that its destruction is inevitable sooner or later, and depends upon causes external & internal as yet very little understood.”

Somehow this seems like an apt repartee to content marketers who go on talking about their target audience as if they were a bunch of spoiled kids who have to be pampered with sugar-coated content and eye-popping visuals — if we are to hold their attention.

Michelin, at least in 1913, would have none of it.

There is honesty in such writing that admits to limitations, mentions the possibility of obsolescence and reminds its target audience of the lack of possibilities – all ideas that are unfairly shelved in content writing these days.

Why is this the case?

David Ogilvy’s manual “The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker” may explain the dilemma that content marketers are faced with.

On the one hand, he gives no-nonsense advice to marketers: “…bear this in mind, that the more you know about cookery, the more you will enjoy your own meals.”

Some pages later, we find this gem: “Like motor cars, women, hats and houses, cookers sell on their look…”

And my personal favorite this:

“All men pray for peace below stairs & a house which runs on oiled wheels; the Aga goes to the heart of the problem.”

What one sees here is a contradictory view of the prospect. On the one hand, her skills are appreciated, and on the other, she is treated with condescension.

Perhaps this contradiction is also fundamental to content writing: We want to be genuine and interested in what the target audience wants, yet at the end of the day, our job is to push for a close. Under these circumstances, how genuine can our content really be?

Perhaps it is the very purpose of content marketing then that limits it; perhaps it’s the fear that if I say X, Y, or Z, I’ll lose my audience.

Ultimately then, if your product or your customer is at the center of your writing, then what gets left out is your voice and, perhaps, genuine writing itself.