Confessions Of A (Former) Content Farmer

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A decade ago I was one of those stereotypically indecisive college kids, switching majors three times, and never having a clear idea of what the heck I was going to do with my life. (At the time I was working every Friday and Saturday night as a busboy/barback at an Irish pub, but I figured I’d probably need to find something a bit more lucrative after graduation if I ever hoped to pay down my student loan debt.)

I did have this vague notion that writing could somehow be a part of whatever I ended up doing. My favorite part of school was writing research papers — diving deep into a topic, uncovering bits of knowledge that were hidden away in libraries and the far reaches of the internet, and then weaving all the pieces together.

So after college I applied for every writing job I could find, and wrote stories for sites like the soon-to-be-defunct Examiner.com in order to build up my portfolio. Eventually I landed a freelance gig with a massive media company/content farm, which offered me all the 500-word articles I could write at $15 a pop.

Here’s how it worked: I (along with thousands of other freelancers) would log into an online portal where I could choose from a long list of article titles. Once I had an article in my queue, I’d have a week to write it, otherwise it would return to the pool and other writers could grab it. When I completed an article, I’d submit it to an editor, who would either accept it straight away (cha-ching) or send it back with a list of suggested changes.

The topics I wrote about were ridiculously diverse. One day it’d be “The Best Wiffle Ball Bats,” the next day it’d be “Intel Pentium 1 Specs,” and the day after that it’d be “When to Prune Elm Trees” (answer: once every three years, preferably in the spring, in case you were curious).

This brings me to my first confession:

Confession #1: I wrote about topics that I knew absolutely nothing about.

While I may have impressed you with my knowledge of elm tree pruning best practices, let me be clear: I am not an arborist, and never in my life have I pruned an elm tree, or any tree for that matter.

Of course, being ignorant of a topic isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. After all, that’s why, as writers, we do research before we write — so we can become less ignorant and not sound like complete morons.

But when you combine my first confession with the ones to follow, you’ll see how topic ignorance can become a much bigger issue.

Confession #2: I used to focus exclusively on quantity, not quality.

Since the content farm I was writing for paid peanuts on a per-article basis, the only way I could make (somewhat) decent money was to write as many articles as possible.

During my heyday as a content farmer, I averaged around 6 to 7 articles per day. I think 9 in one day was my all-time record. After two years of keeping up this chaotic pace, I ultimately yielded the farm more than 2 thousand (terrible) articles.

So you see, I wasn’t just writing about stuff I knew nothing about, I was also doing the bare minimum of research — and writing as quickly as possible — to optimize for quantity.

From a writer’s perspective, burnout is a real issue when you’re operating like this. And needless to say, the quality of your writing suffers big time.

But as you’ll learn with my next confession …

Content farms don’t really give a shit about quality.

Confession #3 (my final confession): I was really writing for search engines, not humans.

The whole point of the content farm model — where you have as many writers as possible, writing as many articles as possible, on as many topics as possible — is to drive as much traffic as possible. You’re casting this huge net, and you don’t really care what you’re catching so long as your numbers go up and to the right. And that means SEO value ends up trumping delivering actual value to readers.

Yes, content farms have editors to ensure a bare minimum of quality. But those editors are also there to enforce rigid format requirements (e.g., a post must be exactly X paragraphs long, because that’s what’s worked best in the past) and to make sure you’ve included target keywords for appeasing the search engine gods.

To reiterate, content farms don’t care about humans and the experience they have reading articles, they only care about the numbers. And as a writer, it’s hard to give a damn about what you’re writing when your primary objective isn’t to produce something that people will actually enjoy reading.

A Better Way

Lots of companies and the writers they employ are still stuck in the content farm mindset. And I understand why: When you’re beholden to hitting specific traffic goals and lead generation goals each month, taking the time to dive deeper on a topic, or to get that extra interview that will take your article from “meh” to awesome, just isn’t an option.

That’s why at Drift we’ve decided to approach content a bit differently. Here’s how we do it:

1. We don’t focus on keywords, we focus on topics. The difference might sound slight, but it’s important. Instead of starting with the question, “What keywords get the most traffic?” and writing articles based on those keywords, we start with the question, “What topics will our audience find the most interesting/helpful?

2. We don’t publish frequently (just one or two posts per week), and our editorial calendar is flexible. That way we can always give important topics the in-depth attention they deserve. And if we need to wait a couple extra days so we can nab that perfect interview, we wait.

3. We measure the success of articles based on qualitative feedback as well as quantitative data. For us, positive comments, tweets, and emails from actual humans are more important than the hard numbers. That being said, views are still important to us as a way to see if an article is getting traction. (But since all of our content is ungated, we don’t rely on converting a certain percentage of those views to hit monthly lead generation goals.)

To all of you fellow writers and content creators out there, let me tell you: this approach feels so much better. More authentic. More personal. More human.

And while I can hear all the executives out there collectively thinking, “Yeah, that’s great, Erik, but we don’t care about your goddamn feelings,” think about it this way: Would you rather have folks at your company creating content that they are invested in, and feel good about, or would you prefer that they just robotically churn it out?

Remember, every piece of content that your company produces is a representation of your brand. So at some point, you have to choose. Do you want your brand to be associated with mass-produced, factory-farmed content? Or do you want to have a brand that’s known for its organic, delicious, best-in-class content?

The choice is yours.

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