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Only words? The role of quality content in digital marketing

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on wooden floor - crushed paper by photosteve101, on Flickr

Content writing can be a tough sell. Give a client a few lines of coding to deal with and they’ll practically hurl money at you to make it go away, but ask them to make room in their budget for some top-quality copy and they’re likely to become a little more reticent. The reason for this is that while the expertise needed to build a website, implement SEO processes or design some eye-catching imagery is self-evident, pretty much anyone can throw a few sentences together. So if everyone can write, surely anyone can write, right?

Wrong. Writing strong, consistent, fully-researched copy takes time, and if it’s being delegated to a non-professional who has several other jobs on his plate – or farmed out to a low-cost freelancer – the standard is unlikely to be as high as it could be. You can have the fastest, most beautifully designed website in your field, but if the copy isn’t engaging, authoritative and intelligently implemented, then the chances are your website isn’t going to reach its full potential for conversion, brand management or SEO. It isn’t an afterthought – it’s absolutely central to everything you’re likely to be trying to achieve when you approach a digital marketing agency, and if yours isn’t talking to you about content, you should be asking why.

When I joined twentysix three years ago I was the agency’s first and only copy writer. Many of our content needs were served by external copy writing agencies. These companies definitely serve a purpose, but due to the relatively low profit margin they run on, there’s an element of ‘churning it out’. I once applied for a leading content writing agency where the writers were expected to produce 6-8 pieces of work per day, writing at a rate of roughly 45 minutes per article. When you’re paying a writer to produce high volumes of writing for low cost, it isn’t worth their while to take the time to research or finesse the work; all you’re paying for are words. You’d be rightly suspicious if a web designer offered to build your website for a pittance, and you should apply the same critical thinking to hiring a content writer.

These days we take a more structured approach to content strategy. When we start working with a new client we conduct a comprehensive content audit of their website to identify what each element is trying to communicate and how effectively they’re doing so. The factors we look for include tone of voice, spelling and grammar (obvious, but it really is remarkable how many professional sites are littered with typos and poor sentence construction), consistency and clarity. If we’re working with a commercial client who caters to a variety of customer types we can also help to create specific ‘scenarios’ to ensure a clear and fluid user journey in every instance.

We also assign a dedicated content writer to each client. This writer will attend meetings and engage directly with the client in order to build a strong working relationship and optimum engagement with the brand. This means understanding the client’s products, their target audience and their core values – all of which is reflected in accurate, authoritative copy.

If copy requires a great deal of technical or legal detail, it may be better produced at least partially in-house, but a professional copywriter can still collaborate with the in-house writer to ensure that it’s user friendly and reads well. It’s my experience that approaching a complex subject matter from a lay perspective often helps to cut through technical jargon and make your copy more readable. There’s nothing more likely to turn a potential customer off than ploughing through paragraph after paragraph of dense, impenetrable shop-talk.

Well-written copy isn’t just a point of professional pride – it’s increasingly becoming central to SEO practices. It used to be the case that keyword optimisation was enough to see your site near the top of the Google rankings, but since the 2011 ‘Panda’ update, Google has been far more weighted towards actual user experience. Key elements in how your website will rank will now include original content, a low bounce rate, effective social media integration and easy navigation – all of which is directly tied to a good content strategy. If the majority of your copy is being dashed off by a harassed marketing manager on his lunch break, it’s high time you reconsidered your approach.

John Lucas is the content manager at twentysix.

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