5 Things I’ve ‘Unlearnt’ Now I Work in Content Marketing

Leonid_Pasternak_001This week I read this brilliant article by Shannon Johnson at Hubspot: “7 Unglamorous, Unpopular Truths About Content Marketing.”

Although the whole article is informative and interesting, it was number 3/three (you’ll get why I wrote both in a minute) on her list that really tickled my fancy- “You can forget almost everything you learned about writing in college.”

At school, writing was always my strongest natural ability. I was in top-set English, but not far off the bottom ones for maths. I could write you a story well enough, but could get you into a bigger mess with numbers than a Spanish economist if you were to ask me to get mathematical.

Naturally then, I went to study journalism at university. My dream job back then was to be a reporter on a local newspaper. So three years studying journalism, taking raw writing skills and reigning them in, you’d think it would set you up for any potential future career with writing involved?

Wrong. Ok no, that’s too far. It definitely helped. But Shannon was spot on in her article, you really do have to ‘unlearn’ a few things that are drilled into you by ex-hack tutors.

The article got me thinking and I’ve come up with 5/five (again, you’ll get this in a minute) things that I’ve definitely had to leave behind in my beer-sodden, warzone-resembling student house:

1. You must use perfect grammar every timeGuernsey_Grammar_School

As Shannon said, it’s ok to break some of the rules. The biggest rule that I’ve come to accept breaking is the number rule i.e. when to write a number or the word.

Writing numbers between one and nine have to be written like, well, how I’ve just written them- as words. Once you hit 10 that’s when you start using the digits.

Have you seen how many number listed blog posts and articles there are on the internet these days!? Even the title of this post sticks two fingers up to this rule! The point is, numbers grab people’s attention. List post headlines and titles work better with them.

My blog title, for example, is more likely to gain your attention as your scanning your Twitter feed than if I had wrote the word ‘five.’ If that’s what will make your content sticky, then take your grammar hat off!

2. You must know how to write in the style of a broadsheet

Yes, some content has different styles. So a blog post will be different to an ebook, for example.

However, even ebooks need to have the b******t taken out. Everything that you write online has to be short, sharp and to the point. Waffling is a huge turn off. As soon as you make your stories and writing too complex, you’ve lost your time-precious audience. I’ve heard stories of ex-journalists who have 30-40 years experience on myself struggling to write online copy because it’s a completely different style to what they’ve previously known.

The point is, if you can’t write in a more ‘tabloid-style’ (short paragraphs, short sentences etc.), you’ll struggle.

3. It’s all good once your editor gives it the thumbs up

Head in HandsGood. God. No.

If you did work on a paper and your editor (after going through subs) says yes to your work, then it’s off to the printing press.

Great, so your content manager at your agency likes it, has proofed it and says it’s fine. That’s only half the job. It’s then got to go onto the client!

Depending on what they’re like to deal with, they’ll find a hole in your work that both your content manager and yourself, full-time, professional writers, could not. They’ll not know what they want, exactly, they just know that they don’t want what you’ve sent to them!

The truth is, it’s a lot harder to get the initial inspiration that you penned to become the finished product.

4. Working on a newspaper, you’re guaranteed to get readers

Ok, so that would all depend on your headline, intro and also the distribution of your publication, but you know what I mean? Your paper will be bought and your article, more than likely, read.

On the internet, you have to earn it. Your content is just a robin in a content marketing tree full of eagles. Not only does it have to be good to get noticed, but you’ll also need to have a strong social presence behind you.

That process of building your brand’s social media standing from scratch will take time. Identifying influencers, interacting and all that jazz is hard work. But only then does your content ever stand a chance of being read by more than your mate and a robot in Taiwan ready to soil it with one of those awful spam comments.

5. You’re just a writer1034031447_edea115848

When you go digital, this is just a tiny facet of your everyday job. But personally, I’ve come to accept this as a good thing.

You need to know what Analytics is saying with regards to previous content before coming up with new ideas. You need to liaise with other departments to find out what customers are having problems with and whether or not you can help produce content for them. You also need to understand what different goals every individual item you write and produce has and how you’re going to achieve them.

The online marketing arena changes so quickly that you’re always having to learn new stuff. And that’s great.

Are you an online writer that can get on board with this? What things have you had to ‘unlearn’? Let me know!



My experience of jobseekers allowance

The 28th February 2014 was possibly one of the most disheartening days of my life.

At the end of that month and beginning of March this year, I went on jobseekers allowance for the first time. Without hyperbole, that initial day to apply for JSA and sign on was one of the most soul-destroying days I’ve ever known.

Walking through those doors, I was greeted by two bouncers (a sad indictment on our society that people working there need this type of support), before being made to wait my turn and prove that I was actively looking for work.

Unfortunately my employer dispensed of my services and I was entitled to just one weeks worth of notice. Two weeks passed and I was lucky enough to get three interviews lined up straight away and all within my field of expertise (digital copywriting). However, I was turned down for all of them and the money in my bank was drying up…quickly.

I’d been out of work for two months in early 2012 but had refused to sign on; the thought of doing so filled me with dread. Unlike that time, however, I now had rent, bills, insurance and repayments on a car to pay for- it was my only option.

But why was I ashamed? That’s exactly what JSA is there for! To help out those people that genuinely need it. Since leaving university I’ve been self employed and held two permanent positions. I pay national insurance and income tax, the very deductibles that contribute to the government’s welfare support.

Yet it was still something I really didn’t want to do. And why was I so against signing on back in 2012? I would have been more than entitled to it then, too.

The 3 main things I learnt on JSA

The problem is how it’s perceived

Admittedly, my perception of JSA was negative from the beginning. In my mind (and looking back now, it was incredibly short-sighted and naive of me), only scroungers and benefit cheats claim JSA. The one positive to come from this whole experience is that my outlook of it has completely changed; there are genuinely people claiming that don’t want to be on it, but need it and are more than entitled to it.

So where has the stereotype come from?

Ultimately, it has come from the media. At some point you must have come across a news article in one of the papers that, when painting a picture of someone, reads something like this:

“26-year-old Mr X, who claims jobseekers allowance…”

Before you would read anymore, hand on heart, what are you thinking? It’s negative. And the media reinforces this stereotype. Why do they even need to write it?

Of course, the media will include it in stories about benefit cheats. In the UK in 2012/13 £3.5 billion was paid out to people who claimed either JSA or other benefits when they shouldn’t have been entitled to them. It’s a real problem in this country.

Unfortunately, if you’re on JSA you’re tarred with the same brush in some people’s minds. You could have single-handedly paid enough tax to compensate for Jimmy Carr in the last five years, but some will still think “scrounger” when they hear “I’m on JSA.”

(I would like to stress at this point that my friends and family were not like this! They were unbelievably supportive throughout this whole experience).


JSA is the victim of negative stereotyping whilst being flawed. Image thanks to http://thebackbencher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Job-Centre-Plus.jpg


It’s too easy for cheats to play the system

Quite how anyone would not want to work is beyond me. Two days of endless applying and sat in the living room was tedious. Yet there are people out there who choose to do this.

As Ian, my ‘job coach’ at the centre in Altrincham, told me: “People get stuck in a comfort zone. They may initially agree to look after a friend or relative’s children whilst they’re off, and something like that then becomes a barrier to employment; their excuse.”

What shocked me is just how easy it is for these people to manipulate the system. To claim JSA, you have to attend the jobcentre once a fortnight (weekly if you’re under 25). You then have to present an online diary or workbook of things like:

– What jobs you’ve applied for

– Which websites you’ve been looking at

– Any work you’ve done to your CV

When you initially sign up, a list of actions like these are drawn up and you agree to do them. So for example, you may agree to look at three particular job websites each day.

However, as long as you put down “I went on this website, found nothing” or “I sent my CV off speculatively to a media company in Oldham” that’s good enough in their book. It gets ticked off, you go on your way and your money goes into the bank.

That, I’m afraid, is just far too easy for people that want to play the system. You should have to bring email confirmations of applications with you, or contact details for a person you’ve spoke to at a company for checks to be made.

No support once you’ve found a job

Fortunately, after four weeks out of work and a total of six interviews, I was offered a job. The relief was immense. The delight was enormous. I’ve been at my new place just over a week and I’m already thoroughly enjoying it!

Once you’ve found work, you need to report it to the jobcentre straight away. This is definitely a good thing, but why stop the income support at that moment?

I had to wait a week before my first day in the job. After starting, my first pay day was/is still a fortnight away. And even then it’s only half a month’s worth of money.

Just because I’ve found a job, my bills are still there! Only this time I’m not sat in the house saving the money I don’t have. I’m commuting 40 miles a day and need fuel to get to work.

Simple it may be, but why doesn’t the jobcentre ascertain with your employer when your first pay day is expected to be and agree to keep paying you until your first cheque comes in? At a later stage, they could then ask for it back? At the moment, for those first few weeks once you start a job, you’re being punished for being in work!

In conclusion…

Being on JSA is definitely an experience that I’ll never forget and one that I do not wish to repeat in a hurry.

But I feel that the way it’s perceived needs to change. To help with that, it needs to be harder for those that cheat the system. And to help those hard workers that genuinely need JSA, more things need to be put in place to support the ones that don’t actually want to be on it.

Have you ever been on JSA? What are your views?

Why does corporate have to mean bad content?

So the headline is a fairly polite way in.

More impolitely, why do so many large, corporate, B2B businesses have such utterly crap content on their websites?

And why is it a given? I was speaking to someone this week who, when looking at such a website, said of the content: “…ah well you can tell that they’re a big corporate, their content is all jargony and uses lots of complex words.” Why does this have to be?

We should no longer have to assume that corporate means pages of drivel, particularly in today’s age of content marketing. To be honest, has there ever been a time when it has been wanted?

Surely you must know what I mean? Garbage like this:

“…we provide a cohesive IT consulting strategy which will enable you to gain a competitive advantage, increased business agility and maximised IT consulting efficiency.”


“…we deliver best-fit solutions by leveraging a portfolio of public cloud, private cloud, dedicated servers.”

Best-fit? Leveraging a portfolio?

Now what is important to understand at this point is that each type of business should have different styles of content. So your small digital agency may well have a quirkier, light-hearted tone to that of a multinational IT firm. The latter will want less conversational and more professional.

But cutting out the buzzwords doesn’t make you any less professional. “Crikey this company has a sentence that’s just six words long and not one of them is ‘synergy’ or ‘best-of-breed!’ Let’s not do business with these bunch of mavericks.”

Relax, it’s not going to happen.

Yes, your target reader is a managing director of a fellow corporate rather than a marketing manager of a small SME. But the need for waffle doesn’t increase the higher up the career pyramid you go.

And how many of your managing directors have time to read lots of content, anyway? With more of us using smartphones and tablets to browse on-the-go, what are they going to take more notice of? Your paragraphs of guff or your competitors’ short, sharp and to-the-point copy?

Let’s take the first example above. What’s wrong with:

“…our IT consulting services are designed to be efficient. And increased efficiency will give you a competitive edge.”

It’s shorter, it’s snappier and is sure as hell a lot easier to read. But does it really do a worse job of defining the company’s services and their benefits? Is it really any less professional?

With the second example above, how about:

“Our solutions include:

  • Public cloud
  • Private cloud
  • Dedicated servers

They can be used individually or in combination, whichever is best for your business.”

Visually, breaking up your copy with bullets makes it much more digestible, whilst also catering for those that may be scanning your ‘about us’ page on an iPad in the morning commute. And note the use of the word “your.” Not only is the above still clearly detailing the products that the company offers, it’s also bringing it back to the reader; it is talking directly to them.

Make it easy for your readers. Be open. Be direct. Drop the buzzwords, get to the point and write as if you’re writing for a human being, not a robot. You won’t lose any of your professional image and you might just strike a chord with an MD who has just waded through four websites worth of tripe before coming across your well written, concise copy.

Right I’m off to leverage some tea using my state-of-the-art Chinese culinary production implement…(I’m going to make a stir-fry using my wok).

Are you sick of seeing rubbish on corporate sites? What’s the worst examples you’ve come across?