Content marketers convene in Boston to rid the world of bad content, get under your skin, and scavenge the rotting bones of journalism
The assignment is to go up to Boston to cover the third annual Content Marketing Conference, a sold-out, $1,250/ticket, four-day powwow for 300 marketing professionals flown in from San Fran and Toronto and other prosperous North American cities. They will sleep at the conference hotel in $349/night rooms with swanky waterfront views. The Struggling Writer is picked up at the train station by a taxi and deposited at the corner of a dingy half-block. The taxi departs hastily. The S.W. finds the entrance to the Airbnb rental, a narrow building adorned in uninspired graffiti.
The Content Marketing Conference takes place in a wing of the Westin Hotel. The spectacular, light-filled lobby is abuzz with men and women ages 20s to 50s in biz attire tapping on laptops, while others quickly wheel compact travel luggage over polished marble. A long escalator to the second floor is decorated with decals of male and female Superheroes soaring through space: neon-green faces, neon-green capes. Spandex-enhanced anatomies accompany motivational implorings such as “Rid the World of Bad Content.”
The S.W. is here because the roaring fire that was 20th-century nonfiction magazine literature has been hosed down to wet coals. In this new 21st-century post-literature era, the techniques and tools of the journalism trade have been plundered by scavenger industries, which rightly foresaw profit opportunities in what has been called branded content, native advertising, or content marketing, which agglomerates techniques used to build characters, create narrative arcs, and establish tones of voice that once served as conduits for nonfiction writers attempting to intimately mind-meld with readers. While journalism continues to struggle, burgled storytelling devices are being leveraged at scale by content-marketing agencies and branding studios that publish content stories to satisfy shareholder expectations. One industry analysis estimates that the content-marketing business will be worth $215 billion in 2017. The Struggling Writer is here to see them count the money.
In the hallway of the exhibit hall, the S.W. eats the provided boxed lunch with Ketan: Indian, male, 30s. Ketan studied advertising in India as an undergrad and communications in grad school at Emerson and is now the primary content-marketing writer for the North American operations of a multibillion-dollar manufacturer of credit-card terminals. There are a few others on his team, but there are advantages to a single mind tasked w/overseeing all of the brand’s content. It allows him to create a cohesive brand voice and point of view across his employer’s websites, sell sheets, and text library.
Ketan is skinny, calm, and polite, with parted black hair that reaches past his ears. The S.W. remarks that he’s been surprised by the quality of the content he’s been reading. Ketan says a book he returns to often is a collection of passages from renowned authors like Orwell broken down into techniques to study. “It’s important to keep learning,” he says between sips from a can of Sprite. “Because you can always become a better writer.”
With many attendees using Tuesday as a travel day, it’s not until Wednesday morning that the conference kicks into in full swing. Including the speakers and comped tickets, attendance is near 400. Energy is high. The guests feast on a spread of sliced tropical fruits and egg sandwiches. Starbucks coffee is set up at buffet tables in the middle of the exhibit hall. Default male clothing is Banana Republic chinos, tucked-in button-down shirts, brown leather shoes. Females wear knee-length dresses and sweaters against the hotel’s chilly air conditioning. The guests shake hands, smile, exchange business cards. They all look rested from a night of sleep in soundproof rooms behind blackout curtains. One woman remembers another from last year’s conference in Las Vegas; they hug jocundly and agree this year is much better in Boston. It’s 96 percent white +/- 3 percent.
A little before 8 a.m., the guests make their way into the main auditorium for the opening ceremony. The house lights are dimmed, the space undulates with moody purple and green lights emanating from the stage. The house photographer is a nervous white male, 20s, who darts around the room. He wears khakis and a white oxford shirt. His flash splashes brightly onto a group posing together, their red lipsticks freshly imprinted on the white coffee cups in their hands.
On the stage, 3-foot-tall CMC letters glow the bright Superhero-neon green. Pop music blasts out of massive black speakers. Females shimmy their shoulders as they move into rows. Males head-nod “what’s up,” exchange fist bumps. Plastic cases on the chair seats contain hagiographic baseball cards for each Superhero speaker. Their faces are in Superhero green, Superhero names and Superpowers are on the back. The Digital Dynamo and Killer Content Girl both fight against a common enemy, Captain Crappy Content.
A white male, half-bald, 50s, comes on stage wearing a black CMC T-shirt underneath a lime-green sport coat. He wears dark jeans and black patent-leather sneakers that reflect the moody purple stage lights. His name is Byron White. He wants to tell a story.
Up early one morning after finishing yoga, Byron White was driving to his office when he came upon a white utility van’s elegant brand identity of three words: “Design. Build. Repeat.” Blown away, White visited the van’s website. It belonged to a local carpenter; the carpenter had his own story on the website; the carpenter’s destiny was sealed at the young age of 2 at his grandmother’s house when he played w/ tools hammering nails into a piece of scrap wood. White quotes the website content story: “ ‘Everyone knew I would be a carpenter…’ ” White, exuberant: “This is unbelievable. This is truly remarkable. This guy has nailed content marketing.”
Behind the S.W., a woman groans at the obviousness of the pun, but White does not seem to notice he’s made it. White emailed the carpenter re: wanting to use this platonic ideal of content marketing at his upcoming content-marketing conference. What did the carpenter say? White builds it up. White cribs Steve Jobs doing a product reveal. Finally, White flashes a screenshot of the carpenter’s reply onto the giant screens hung over the stage. Reflexively obedient, some in the crowd go, “Wow.”
Carpenter’s email: “Flattered really. Thanks so much. Where’s the keynote? How can I be of help?”
White goes into moral-of-the-story mode: “His words back to me reflected his brand. His simplicity in the world.” White draws it out like someone who has recently adopted simplicity in the world as a personal mantra. “And I think we need to do exactly that in content marketing, to strip it down. That’s my message today.”...MUCH MORE
Perhaps sensing that his gut punch did not land quite as anticipated, White anxiously speeds through matters of conference business, WiFi password “Superhero,” etc. White’s motion is sharklike, back and forth across the stage. The conference is an advertisement/brand extension of the company he owns here in Boston called WriterAccess. The concept began as a graphic-arts staffing firm, where sales reps took graphic-designer portfolios out to companies for hire, long before those portfolios could be shared online. He tells the crowd that to create the portfolios he bought a $25,000 printer, which, with the candor of a patient in a therapist’s office, he says led to his first divorce. “My new wife was not real happy with that purchase on the credit card, but it turned out to be a real winner!” He then cashed out the winner, sold the staffing agency, and doubled down on the idea of making money as the middleman b/w creatives looking for work and the companies who would hire them. Like a grandparent showing children photos in his wallet, he flips through slides on the giant screens documenting the wild success of WriterAccess, an online platform where writers are paid as low as two pennies a word to create content marketing for corporate websites, email blasts, product launches.
Fifteen-thousand WriterAccess writers have created content for 25,000 clients over seven years. Earning $7 million in annual revenue, 95 million words were transferred through WriterAccess in 2016. The industry with the second-largest growth on the platform is Spirituality, to which White asides, “Really? OK, whatever. The writers will take the work.”...
HT: Arts & Letters Daily
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