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.”