Don’t Call Me a Copywriter – I Write Content

CSwainLogo 2

The first thing I do after walking into the restaurant and into the room reserved for the networking meeting is wave to the attending waitress and order a beer. Then I turn to the greeter who signs me in with a warm smile and gives me my pre-printed nametag, conveniently swinging on a lanyard – Colleen Swain, Content Writer. I’m relieved about the lanyard because I don’t like fumbling with pinning the nametag on my jacket, or worrying about pinning it wrong. Is it the right or left side? I can never remember. Centering it in the middle works for me.

I’m a leftie, but I say I’m ambidextrous – sort of. When I was little, my mom insisted that I eat with my right hand. She’d say, “I won’t have you banging elbows with people at the table.” I navigate my computer mouse with my right hand, too. It just feels right. (no pun intended) Other than that, I’m very much left-handed. So, the networking etiquette of remembering which side to wear a nametag can be a problem.

It takes a while for me to warm up at these networking events. The beer helps. I take a modest sip and scan the room looking for a familiar face, but remembering names of people I’ve met before  is another problem. Thank goodness for those nametags.

What Do You Do?

A woman, perhaps in her fifties, walks up to me. We haven’t met before. I can’t help feeling a little awkward staring at her chest to read her name and what she does for a living, even though she’s staring at my chest too. And then this happens:

“A content writer, eh?” So you’re a copywriter?” An image of Peggy Olson in a scene from “Mad Men” pitching a concept for selling lipstick flashes before me.

I run my tongue over my teeth, smile, and say, “Well, not exactly.”

Then I try to explain what I do.

“I’ve written ads, but my expertise is focused more on writing content that will help a business promote their brand online as well as in print.”

“Oh,” she says. She gives me a blank look. “So, what do you mean by ‘content’?

That’s when I realize that maybe to her the term “content” means stuff contained in something, like the percentage of hops in my beer.

The Internet Changes Everything

I flash back to the mid 90s, before computers changed how we work. I can see myself typing an inter-office memo using an IBM electric typewriter, making copies on a Xerox copier and then walking around the office to manually deliver them to each employee, (no e-mail). I’d archive the original in a three-ring binder stored with other binders dated by year in a jammed-full file cabinet. What a waste of paper, space, and time back then!

Then I flash forward to 2000. By then, my boss, the communications director, was pressuring the CEO to invest in building a website. “It’s the future we can’t afford to ignore,” he said. It was a hard sell. We got the go-ahead, but we had no idea how to do it. We were a department of marketing wordsmiths – not techies. This new language of web code was way over our heads. We had no choice but to succumb to the mercy of programmers – and they had no concept of marketing whatsoever.

It was a learn-as-you-go strategy, if you can call it that. We ended up with hundreds of web pages crammed with hard-to-read copy.

We had to fix it.

That’s about when I attended my first seminar on website writing and was tasked to bring back what I learned to the marketing team. It was called “How to Write Killer Content” with Gerry McGovern, offered by Marketing Profs, a leading educational training resource for marketers.

That may have been the first time I heard the term “content” in relation to writing for the Web. And, I realize, this may be the first time my new acquaintance – her nametag says “Accountant” – has met someone who writes it.

As Simon Dumenco, columnist for Advertising Age, put it, “I remember when people first started referring to ‘content.’ The term really gained currency circa Web 1.0 – during that moment when coders gained the upper-hand, and creative types, backed into a corner, felt compelled to defensively declare things like ‘Content is King’ … When I was a kid, nobody talked about words and pictures as ‘content.’” (Yup! I remember.)

At the seminar, I also remember noticing a young woman sitting in the back of the room. She was on the Marketing Profs team and she was monitoring McGovern’s presentation. I don’t know what her title was then but Ann Handley has built herself a reputation in the marketing world as a top digital marketer and writer. She is now their Chief Content Officer. Way to go!

And I am a content writer. But even at my last full-time job, just a few years back, that wasn’t my title. It was “Copywriter,” though I wasn’t writing ads. My job was to help the SEO Manager get our company website ranked on the first page of Google. (Hmmm. My accountant friend definitely won’t know what SEO means.) That was just about the time when Google wised up to the bad practices of SEO (search engine optimization) that used link-building trickery and poor-quality, keyword-stuffed writing spitted out by writers working for content mills. I never bought into it.

Unfortunately, now that I’m freelance, I’m still competing with lower-paid content-mill writers, though all signals point to the demise of content mills. The trend – finally – is to produce quality content that delivers value. Thank you Google. “Content is King” after all.

Gerry McGovern said as much in the Introduction of his book, Killer Web Content, “The Web runs on content. It is its hidden asset, its gold. Yet for so long it has been treated like coal – a low-grade, low-cost commodity best published in bulk… I have always taken a content first, technology second approach…the best website creators know that it’s the content that counts now.” Yes! And this was before Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes were made to ensure quality content on the Web.

Ann Handley, in her book, Everybody Writes, stated, “Writing matters more now, not less. Our online words are our emissaries: They tell our customers who we are…and that means you have to put a new value on an often-overlooked skill…how to write, and how to tell a true story well.”

What Is Content?

So what do I mean by content? I tell my “numbers” lady that it’s everything she finds online to read, listen to or watch – packaged in different ways – from flash ads to YouTube videos to articles she finds when searching for info on anything that may interest her, like the latest tax codes. It’s also print stuff, such as junk mail, or the brochure she picks up at her doctor’s office.

I love to write – always have. And, yes, I’ve worked as a copywriter in the past, but the term “content writer” better describes what I do now.

“I get it,” she says, as we walk together to the buffet table to fill our plates with appetizers, “So, if I ever want a website for my business, you can write it for me?”

“Absolutely. And anything else you may need to market your accounting business.”

We join a table of other attendees and sit down to make new contacts.

And then we come to the portion of the meeting when each person in the room stands up, introduces themselves and gives a very brief (under one minute) “elevator speech’ about what they do.

Just when I decide which hand to hold my fork – it’s always a conscious decision and sometimes it’s my left (sorry Mom!) – it’s my turn.

“Hi, I’m Colleen Swain. I’m a content writer. In essence, I’m a brand storyteller. I help businesses, from startups to national corporations, build awareness about their brand by crafting clear, concise content for their web and print communications that is original, engaging, optimized, and shared.”

 

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A Memory of a Long Ago Summer Stays with Me Still

Zinnias and Polished Shoes

It’s odd how a taste, a smell or an action can stir the senses into recalling a memory. The zinnias in my garden have that effect on me, as does biting into a peach or rubbing shoe polish into old leather. All these things make me think of another summer, when I was a little girl, with my grandfather.

My grandparents lived in Ottawa, Ontario. We visited them every summer for two weeks. It was the only time my Canadian mom got to see them. I remember how she’d cry in the car each time we left to go back home. She’d cry until we crossed over the border back into New York State and then she’d stay quiet throughout the 10-hour ride home to Connecticut.

That summer, for whatever reason, my parents decided to let me stay with my grandparents until it was time for school. They would come back for me at the end of August. Maybe it was to give me my first experience away from home. Maybe it was to give my mom another visit. I don’t know the reason why. I was never told. I was nine years old.Garden Zinnias

On this summer day, as I cut zinnias for a fresh bouquet, I can actually see myself walking hand-in-hand with my grandfather. Our walks were ours alone.

He was a cobbler with his own shoe repair shop. I thought that was pretty special. It became a ritual for me to meet him there at the end of the day to share his walk back home. I did this all by myself. I walked one block down Second Avenue, then took a left onto Bank Street and walked two blocks more until I reached a storefront with a large plate glass window. Looking in I could see him standing behind a worktable, a dark apron covering a blue work shirt with sleeves rolled up showing sinewy arms. His hands were large and his fingers were long, with fingertips stained black from his work.

Polished Shoes and ZinniasI’d open the door and breathe deep the smell of leather and shoe polish that filled the small room tinged with cold fluorescent light. Behind my grandfather were shelves from floor to ceiling filled with neat rows of shoes and boots in all sizes and colors, made to look new again.

My grandfather was tall. He would look down at me, his blue eyes peering over the edge of silver-framed glasses. A smile would soften his angular face and, in a low voice he would say my name with a hint of an accent. “Kalinka. Is it time already?” (The nickname he called me, which was a variation of my name, is Russian and means “red juniper berry.”)

He would wipe his hands on his apron and then take if off and carefully hang it on a peg in the corner of the room. Next to the apron was a metal circle of keys. He’d take them down and prepare to lock up. He didn’t say much but that was fine. I was content to just sit there on a stool by the customer counter and watch him as he put his work “to bed.”

After locking up, we would always stop at the fruit stand outside the small grocery store next door to his shop. Peaches were in season then. He’d let me select enough to fill a yellow mesh bag. He’d weigh the bag and then pull out some coin from his pocket and help me count out the exact amount to pay the grocer. (It was my grandfather who taught me how to count change. He always said to start with the quarters.) Then he would cradle the bag in the crook of one arm, take my hand, so small, in his big one, and we’d start our walk home.

Zinnias in the GardenSometimes we’d walk a different route from the one I’d taken, through a park that had several large circular flowerbeds full of zinnias in different sizes, shapes and in brilliant colors – the flowers that were in bloom that time of year. I loved to run around the perimeters until I got dizzy. My grandfather would quietly laugh – his voice was always soft and low – as he watched me. “Come Kalinka, it’s getting late. Your Nanny and our supper are waiting for us.”Zinnias and Peaches on the Kitchen Windowsill

Then we would continue on our way with me trying in vain to match my steps with his long, slow stride. We would always make it home just in time – 6 o’clock – for supper.

Afterwards, we would sit together in green wicker chairs on the long veranda of my grandparents’ house until it got dark, listening to the quieting city – eating peaches.

As I arrange my fresh-cut flowers this serene summer day, I can almost hear the sound of his voice. “Kalinka, will you be coming to meet me at the shop tomorrow? ”

“Yes, Bompa. (My name for him.) And let’s go to the park again. I want to see the zinnias.”

It is a satisfying memory, so sweet in its simplicity. Why it has stuck with me all these years, I don’t know. It represents but one small fraction of the whole of me, recalled every time I taste a peach, sniff polished leather, or pick zinnias from my garden.

To this day, I love that he called me “Kalinka.”

Zinnias Shu Crop

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Have I Lost Optimism After Sandy Hook?

Sandy Hook Elementary SchoolUpdated 12/14/14

I have a new mantra. It’s a quote from the writer Joseph Conrad who said, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” It has become my reality check, my call to action to get over this feeling of inertia that has stood in my way like a cement wall, blocking me from writing in this space for – I can’t believe it – over a year.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why there’s a space of absence on this blog. I could simply start from here. Why would I want to call attention to the very thing I tell my clients they should never do if they want to have a credible online brand image?

It’s because I’m compelled to do it – to be honest with myself – and I realize now that for me to creatively move on I have to do what I’ve avoided doing – write about why. So here goes:

Shock

I stopped writing in this space the day 20 first-graders and six educators were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It wasn’t a conscious thing to stop. It’s just that what happened here, where I live, was so horrendous, so shocking, that I, like everyone else, was shattered. Work for clients was a distraction – but I simply didn’t have the ambition to write here.

Sadness

It’s still so hard to believe it happened in Newtown, yet there are reminders everywhere. Ribbons of green and white – the Sandy Hook School colors – still drape mailboxes, signposts, trees and utility poles. Sometimes bunches of bright balloons mark the roadsides to honor a single-digit birthday for one of the 20 children. Often they are left drifting for weeks. It seems no one has the heart to remove them.

Every day, in my neighborhood, I drive by the houses of two of the families. I don’t know them, but I see their homes and sense their loss, and cry for them at the oddest moments. It’s not the same living here.

Disbelief

And it’s all so close. My son and daughter went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Though it was over 20 years ago, it seems like yesterday – the familiarity of it all.

It was a great school for my kids. They loved their principal and still remember all their teachers’ names. The friends they made there are still among their closest – and the parents of those friends are among ours. Wasn’t it a blink ago that the school mascot, the Jolly Green Giant, was smudging their noses with a thumbprint of green paint at the annual school fair?

Back then I was an active PTA parent. I was responsible for booking cultural arts programs to enhance the school’s curricula. It was very important to Principal Ron Vitarelli, himself a jazz guitarist, to instill a life-long appreciation for the arts in young children. As a creative, I was very proud of what I was doing for the school. My husband, a graphic artist, designed the posters announcing when theatre groups, dance ensembles, artists, musicians or writers were coming to visit. They were on display in the cafetorium for years.

It’s odd how you remember things, like when I was talking to a longtime Sandy Hook parent-friend about how our kids, now grown and on creative career paths, loved those programs. The memory triggered a vision of the posters hanging on the walls and I dreamily said, “I wonder if they’re still there.” As soon as I said it I felt the air suck right out of me. I flashed back and saw the school – its hallways, the offices and classrooms. I knew the layout of the building as well as the shooter did. Of course the posters are gone. The school is gone. Nothing is as it was.

Despair

Last winter I was reading a story in The Newtown Bee, our local paper, about a writer and an illustrator who collaborated months after the shootings to create a new children’s book. The illustrator, Steven Kellogg, had lived in Sandy Hook for 35 years and, like my family, has strong ties to the Sandy Hook community. Kellogg is renown here for his whimsical Newtown-influenced children’s book illustrations and his story-telling art demonstrations.

I read that the collaboration began after Kellogg had reached out to his friend, award-winning children’s author Patricia MacLachlan, and told her, “I think I have lost the optimism to do what I do.”

Kellogg and MacLaghlan helped each other work out their separate grief by creating “Snowflakes Fall,” a beautifully written and illustrated book in honor of the children. Kellogg said his illustrations for the book became his “celebration of the kind of childhood we provided our family in Sandy Hook.”

The story stuck with me. I thought about what Kellogg said about losing optimism after the shootings. Is that it? Have I lost optimism?

Anger

A general definition of “optimism” is a hopefulness that good things will happen. But I feel anger, given what I know about gun-industry politics, after each and every needless shooting that has happened since Sandy Hook. I guess the one good thing, (if you can call it that) coming out of our tragedy, is that more people are waking up to our society’s gun violence culture and are taking action to do something to achieve some measure of positive cultural change to help save innocent lives. It’s complicated. Am I hopeful? Not really.

And then I think about the idyllic innocence my children had growing up here in Sandy Hook – the carefree magic of childhood that Kellogg alluded to – and I am so angry to think that the shootings have compromised “that kind of childhood.” It will take years to know just how much.

Strength

What I do know is that collectively we are a strong and resilient community. The resolve of its citizens to not allow this horrific tragedy define Newtown – is inspiring.

I also understand that the cliché “life goes on” is profoundly true. I get that. In the midst of Newtown’s push to move on, we’ve all had personal stuff happen to us, too – births, milestones, illness and death. Good times, bad times, happy and sad. Grief is complex – but so is life.

Face It Quote Joseph Contrad

Facing It

Which is why, I must get back to doing for myself the very thing I love to do – write.

It’s time to face this inertia – to break down that cement wall and allow it to crumble away. “That’s the way to get through. Face it.” I know I can do it.

As for optimism – I’m working on it.

Update – December 14, 2014

It’s been two years since the Sandy Hook school shooting. The trauma has not faded, but instead invades our town like a storm cloud, darkening our holiday preparations. Today we can’t help but remember. Today is a sad day. That will never change.

Oddly for me,  Steven Kellogg, who has unkowingly helped me get back to my personal writing,  has once again influenced my sense of optimism with another article in The Newtown Bee. He wrote about why he felt it necessary to revise and re-illustrate one of his stories written 35 years ago, Pinkerton Behaves, about a Great Dane pup. The story included an illustration of a burglar with a gun. Kellogg wrote:

” In creating the burglar back in mid-1970s, I had patterned him after the stereotyped caricature of comic book bad guys I remembered from my childhood, and I portrayed him wielding an oversized pistol.”

“As time passed, the prevalence of domestic gun violence became a growing national concern, and the inclusion of that menacing gun elicited objections and protests from adult readers who were sharing the book with children in their lives. In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the alarming statistics of gun violence (with more than 80 school shootings having occurred in the country since December 14, 2012), I recognized that my thinking had changed and the book must change.”

To mark the 35th anniversary of Pinkerton Behaves, Kellogg removed the gun.

“I was motivated by the conviction that caring citizens must try to reprogram their society for the safety and well-being of everyone, and authors and illustrators have an obligation to create the highest quality literature and art in order to enrich the lives of children.”

Things have changed since Sandy Hook. I’m thinking that maybe there is a reason for optimism. As we close out another year, perhaps this quote  from Alfred Lord Tennyson may inspire:

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'”

What Does Organic Mean to You?

 

Locally Grown Organic Produce

Mason’s Market, Monroe, CT

I don’t believe it. According to a recent health study, my choice to eat organic foods isn’t necessarily keeping me healthier. I may not even be getting more vitamins and minerals – just paying more for the organic label.

Organic Makes Sense to Me

That’s okay. I think eating organic is worth a few extra pennies. Besides, according to a Stanford University Center for Health Policy article, researchers admitted that they used a confusing collection of data that didn’t provide a “comprehensive synthesis of the evidence that included both benefits and harms.” There weren’t even any “long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food . . .” Studies ranged from two days to two years.

However, they did say that “people should aim for healthier diets overall.” That’s a view I can agree with since I write a lot about chronic health conditions and disability.

So, I’m going to continue to optimize my health by eating a high-quality diet of fresh produce not exposed to pesticides, and foods not processed with chemicals, growth hormones or antibiotics. Eating “organic” just makes sense to me.

Web Content That’s Organic Makes Sense, Too

Interestingly, the term “organic” has become the buzzword for high-quality Web content, too.  The useful, real kind that’s relevant to our search for information – the valuable stuff we expect to find on the Internet. Content that is original, engaging, optimized and shared because it’s interesting or important.

I’ve always been dubious about the keyword-stuffing content frenzy that was dominating search engine optimization (SEO) practices for far too long. The competition to get to the top in search results produced a lot of really bad dribble on the Internet.

That’s why I’m not surprised that the smart people behind Google and the other search engines got wise to competitive “black hat” SEO tactics. ”Tricking” search engines into rewarding Web sites with higher rankings in search results was bound to backfire.

In fact, I could never understand why businesses thought that keyword stuffing their Web content or buying links to their Web sites would build credibility and customers if there was no real content value to keep them there. It wasn’t natural.

I’m really into natural. So, I don’t care about Stanford’s health policy study. I’m sticking to nutritional values I believe will optimize my health.

As for writing organic Web content, I always have. Clear, concise, original content that is engaging and delivers value just naturally makes sense to me.

Need a content writer?  Contact me and let’s team up.

The Personal Side of Social

Checking In

Have you ever been to a speed-networking event? It’s where you get to pitch your business in 90 seconds, exchange business cards, and hope to score some clients. It’s the real-life version of what engaging in social media is all about – building relationships, only doing it face to face.

The keyword is “networking.” But, in a span of a few short years, the way we do that has profoundly changed how we interact with one another. The Internet and the innovation of ever-changing technology is giving us amazing tools for sharing information. It has quickly redefined what it means to be “social.”  And it’s mind-blowing.

Do I Really Know You?

My favorite social media tool is Twitter. I admit it’s been fun building up my “Twitterverse” of interesting people to follow. In fact, their familiarity in my newsfeed makes me feel like I know them personally. Realistically, I don’t know most of them.

And in spite of all this social-media “connectedness,” I sense a feeling of isolation too. After all, it’s not like we’re all hanging out together at the local pub. We’re simply individuals busily spinning within the frenzy of our virtual worlds trying to get noticed.

Making Connections Real

Which brings me back to real-life connections and a speed-networking event I recently went to hosted by my local Chamber of Commerce.  It was my first one, by the way, and it was intense.

There were about 70 people there. It was mathematically organized to give each of us 90 seconds to deliver our elevator speech to different tables of ten.  It was kind of like playing the game “Musical Chairs. ” Since I’m not mathematical, I was impressed by its cleverness. And, in spite of the butterflies twittering around in my stomach in the hours leading up to the event, it turned out to be lots of fun.

The After-Networking Followup

A few days later, I got an e-mail from one of the attendees who wanted to meet with me to learn more about what I do. I thought, sure, maybe a new client.

I met Byron Campbell, co-owner of Firelight Media Group, a digital media agency, at a local Starbucks. I brought my portfolio. He gave me a business media kit and a nifty notepad and pen branded with the company logo. Old-time marketing tools, for sure. He’s been in business for over 25 years, after all. (Social media tools have been around for less than 10!)

As I filled him in on my business background and expertise as a content writer, he jotted down names of people he thought could use my services, which he later e-mailed to me.

All in all, we shared a delightful hour of conversation worth far more to me than a re-tweet on Twitter.

It turns out, his intention for the meeting was simply to make a personal connection with me and to maybe send some business my way. He was also expanding his sources for business leads. After all, if I get a client who needs content for a new Web site, that client may also be looking for help in putting together a product video. You never know. But I sure do hope I can pay it forward some day.

What resonated with me the most from meeting Byron was his effort to reach out. He shared the personal side of social. And it was great.

What about you? What are you doing to bring in more clients for your business?

Photos courtesy of Robert Cargill at Cargill Photography.

Need a content writer?  Contact me and let’s team up.

How Well Can You Tell Your Story?

Update September 2014*  What has changed since I wrote this post in 2012? Only that writing clear, concise, compelling and engaging quality content, and finding good content writers to do it, is more important than ever before  . . .Summers on the Lake

How Well Can You Tell Your Story?

Some people have a gift for storytelling. My husband is like that. He still delights our grown kids with stories about his summers on a New Hampshire lake that could easily challenge the best Bill Bryson “Thunderbolt Kid” memoirs. Except for one thing: my husband can’t write the way he talks. Writing slows him down, and he doesn’t have the patience to do it well. His passion is in the telling, not in the writing. And that’s okay.

Writing is not for everyone. And yet, many of us are forced into it.  The game-changer is the information-driven Internet. It’s changed how we do business. And the pressure’s on.

To Be in Business Today You Need to Provide Quality Content

However, you don’t have to wear the content writer hat on top of all the other hats you wear to run your business. Actually, do you really have the time? Unless you paid attention in English class, perhaps it would be better to direct your passion towards operating your business instead of writing about it. As top marketers know, you have options.

More Marketers Outsourcing for Content

2014 Update: A 2012 survey put together by Brandpoint and the Content Marketing Institute revealed that 70 percent of savvy marketers were planning to use outside sources for creating content that year.  And what they wanted most of all was “engaging and creative storytelling (44 percent); custom content (39 percent), and professional-level writing (34 percent).”

Digital Content Marketing Survey

Source: Brandpoint and Content Marketing Institute

And now? The trend for quality content is more important than ever. According to Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI) latest B2B and B2C content marketing surveys, more businesses are producing content, more are feeling pressured into creating quality content that engages, more want to be better at telling their brand’s story, and more are outsourcing content creation to get it done  . . .

 What B2B and B2C Marketers Say about Content Marketing - Source CMI

Clearly, writing concise, compelling  content is key to effective brand storytelling.

Quality Content Builds Brand Credibility

How many times have you landed on a website that didn’t deliver what you expected? Maybe the content was poorly organized or it just didn’t make sense. There are too many of these sites hanging out on the Internet, and search engines don’t like them. In fact, Google penalizes websites for poor-quality content. Google’s latest Panda 4.1 algorithm is making sure of that, according to Marketing Land’s in-depth analyses of how Panda 4.1 is impacting business websites. Google wants to maintain credibility too.

Poor content is not just online. How about getting a print brochure in the mail that’s full of grammar mistakes? Do-it-yourself marketing looks like it. Unprofessional. That’s a sure way to lose credibility and customers.

Is Your Message Consistent with Your Brand?

No matter how good your product or service might be, nobody is going to spend time trying to decipher your Web site. No one is going to trust in your business if you hand out shoddy print materials. And, as far as social media is concerned, there’s no point in trying to get “likes” on Facebook or followers on Twitter if your message isn’t clear and consistent with your business brand.

Content Drives Business

Quality content should be at the heart of everything you do to promote your business. There are no shortcuts if you want to stand out as a go-to business. That’s just the way it is.

So, what do you think? How well can you tell your brand’s story? More importantly, how well can you write it?

For more on how marketers are using quality content to drive business, check out CMI’s latest B2B and B2C Content Marketing surveys:

B2B Enterprise Marketing: 2014 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends – North America

B2C Content Marketing 2015: Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America

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