Why Content Marketing Makes Me Sad (Then Happy, Then Sad, Like a Crazy Person)

The other day, I was catching up with an entrepreneur I admire over coffee. In my opinion, this guy is far smarter than me, so when he speaks, I listen.

"Jay," he said. (Made sense at that point. I was on board.) "Jay, you write a lot about content marketing, and some of it is pretty critical of the industry. But have you ever explained why you do that?"

"All the time," I bristled. "I wrote an explainer post for my blog when I launched it, and I talk about the same bigger trends across all my work. I definitely explain myself to others."

"No, I mean, have you ever explained why YOU get frustrated with content marketing? Not why everyone ELSE should see things a certain way, but why YOU see them that way?"

I was stumped. I'd never thought about it that way, and I had no answer to give my friend. 

So, being of insane mind and increasingly non-athletic body, I told him I'd write a post about it someday. (Then I realized that Someday never ends up being a real day, so I moved up my deadline to today. Again -- insane mind.)

Without further, crazy ado, my attempt to answer his question:

Why Content Marketing Makes Me Sad, Then Happy, Then Sad, Then Happy ...

As anyone who interacts with me for at least 10 seconds learns, I'm Italian. That means, when I was brought into this world, I swore a sacred oath to honor my ancestors by bringing everything in life back to two things: family and food. (It's true. In an Italian family, a baby's milestones are smiling, then laughing, then making sauce, then crawling.)

It's hard to describe just how sentimental most Italians get when they think about their family in the kitchen: the comically large spread of food on the table serving as "light snacks" (antipasto); the flow of good red wine; the impassioned dialogue reaching the volume output of 30 people, all created by a group of five. It's a truly special place, and it's underscored by the desire to lovingly create delicious meals to make others happy.

Nothing in life gives me as much sheer pleasure as cooking with and/or for my friends and family.

But writing comes damn close.

For me, writing feels exactly the same as cooking in an Italian family kitchen. You create things with care and celebrate the process of doing it, all because you're excited to reach that moment when you serve something to others that makes them happy.

In my life, I've written for fun since I was probably 12. Across my academic career, I found outlets to pursue writing more and more over time. I launched a handful of sports blogs (all of which are still live online -- dare you to find them!). I wrote for school papers and literary magazines. I interned at multiple print publications (imagine that), including the country's oldest, recurring daily, The Hartford Courant. And I interned for ESPN in a comm/PR capacity. Professionally, I continue to write and create things constantly.

All the while, I did it because I friggin' loved it. Still do. That's what landed me in content marketing. If writing and creating things stopped being a part of marketing, I would leave marketing. Content is what drew me in, and content is what keeps me here.

After years of trying to write for a living, to have been given an opportunity to do so makes me feel so incredibly grateful and constantly excited.

And THAT is why I get frustrated. Often, the industry takes something for which I'm truly grateful and cheapens it or obsesses over the wrong thing. They treat it like a chore to be optimized, rather than something to actually master. It occasionally feels ... hollow. It can remove the pleasure and excitement that drew me to this in the first place such that I need to remind myself how lucky I am to do this.

Rather than creating content that's inherently worthy of time and action, some corporations prefer to game that system. They want you to "click-to-tweet," but they don't create things that are genuinely tweet-worthy. They want engagement and readership and subscription -- all things that really great storytelling and writing and design and audio and video can create. But they'd prefer not to commit to the latter and somehow manufacture the former. Or so it seems in some cases.

That idea of forcing it rather than doing something genuine reminds me of an episode of Arrested Development wherein Gob Bluth demands of his employees: "Everybody dance now!" And when no one does, he just leans into it even harder: "Everybody dance! NOW!"

Too often, in content marketing, if you can't make it, fake it. But I'll be eternally grateful that I have a job that lets me learn how to actually make it -- whether that "it" is an article, a podcast, a video, a graphic. Anything. I just love being in this kitchen and cooking for others.

In the last month alone, I got to create all of those things while getting paid and appreciated for doing so. Are you serious?! That's my JOB?! HOW LUCKY ARE WE?! 

I keep waiting for someone to wake up and say, hold on, why are we paying him to do this?

So, yes, mine might be an idealistic way of viewing the world, but that doesn't make it wrong. Ideals are good things. They push us in the right direction. 

Prior to entering content marketing, I felt drained by my day jobs. I felt like I had zero creative impulses day in and day out. When I finally started content, I was like a kid careening though a field, arms out, air-planing around screaming, "YYYYYYEAAHHHHHH!!!"

But when I see how the industry often operates, my sprint slows, and my arms come down. The little kid in me wanted to yank on their sleeves. "Hey, psst, hey. You're doing this wrong! Look where we are! Look what we get to do! ISN'T THIS AWESOME?!"

So, no, I don't get frustrated because people are doing marketing the "wrong way," per se. I get frustrated because the wrong way takes the joy out of what should be amazing, rewarding work to do. And I selfishly want everyone to recognize how freaking lucky we are just to be doing this for a living.

To my friend who'd asked this question: I hope you found your answer. To everyone else: If you're not already, I hope you'll join me in trying to preserve and defend this enthusiasm when it comes to our work. We may not all be given the chance to do our best work, but we can at very least bring the right mentality to our jobs every day.

And if you need a soundtrack to get you going, I know just the one:


Posted on April 28, 2015 .