Let me connect a few dots. I’ll start with content marketing, and end up with entry-level minimum wage trusted advisors being advertised on Monster.com.
Always Be Publishing
The idea is simple enough; instead of talking about yourself, start a conversation. Don’t pitch yourself; instead, “Create a story that looks and feels like a real news story.” The article promises, “The more you share with others and the more often you invite others to participate and converse with you, the more likely your content will be shared.”
Fine, but note that if everyone followed this advice, we’d be inundated with posts on LinkedIn, Quora, Facebook et al, with everyone positioning themselves as a discussion-leading expert, whose objective is to drive more and more traffic, until we drown in traffic.
Oh wait, that’s pretty much what’s happening.
There are two problems with this carpet-bombing approach to content.
First, it is desensitizing. The pharmaceutical industry embarked on something like this for a decade or two, called “reach and frequency.” It meant blitzing doctors’ offices with come-hither wink-nod ex-cheerleader reps whose job it was to perform a canned script, get the doctors to sign a statement, and then leave them free drug samples.
I’m sure content-marketers would insist that this is not a valid analogy, but it’s not all that invalid either. The carpet-bombing of message is common to both. Just as with kids’ advertising on TV, the mind numbs after a while, and all that remains is the dull lizard-brain throbbing at the ghost of the memory of meaning.
The other problem with the “always be publishing” mantra is that it inevitably degrades quality. I remember during the “empowerment” craze, someone pointed out that if you empowered stupid people, you’d get powerful stupidity. And unless you believe all content is created equal, this brings up the same conundrum.
The Word Formerly Know as Content
“Content” has become a word whose connotation has become content-neutral. Here’s what I mean by that. Once upon a time, it was an epithet to say, “He’s all sizzle, but no content,” “that was zero-content consulting,” or, “the cover looked great, but the content didn’t live up to the promise.”
Nowadays, “content” too often means nothing more than the bits and bytes that take up space under a headline. (I want to take a moment to note an important exception, Valuable Content, whose very title insists on a value judgment; kudos to them. But they are all too rare).
All too common is SuperSpun Articles, from Jonathan Leger, who promises:
“Never write another article again! Generate thousands of highly unique [sic] top-quality articles at the push of a button!” …We GUARANTEE that no two generated articles will EVER have more than 25% duplicated content (usually far less than that). The odds are one in ten million that two articles will be 20% the same…”
He can do this because he’s generated “spinner” software that looks up synonyms and the like and generates nearly infinite variations on “content,” all of which are “unique” in the search engine optimization game driven by Google. And we have come to refer to this as “content.”
In this world, even the old line about a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years and writing Shakespeare is no longer funny! Because the “point” of “content” is no longer literature, or even meaning – content has become the pink slime of words.
The point of “content” is to push our reptilian buttons, increase our SEO ratings, and raise our Klout scores.
I can live with art for art’s sake having been lost; even education for education’s sake. But when meaning for the sake of meaning is lost, I don’t know what to do.
What do words mean when words aren’t intended to have meaning?
Pink Slime Trusted Advisor
Here’s the other dot to connect (the first one was Always Be Publishing).
Exhibit 1. A Monster.com ad for Michigan Farm Bureau Insurance headlined Trusted Advisor / Insurance Agent. The ad says,
- “We have over 400 trusted advisors across Michigan who markets [sic] the products and services we offer.”
Exhibit 2. Trusted Advisor Account Service Management Sr. Advisor for Dell SecureWorks. Here is the first of seven “job responsibilities:”
- Proactively monitor support distribution lists/customer service ticket delegations for potential escalated issues with customer accounts in order to curb potential dissatisfaction issues which may include responding to customer “how to” questions; Update customer delegate Helpdesk, Trending, and Incident tickets requesting update and closure
- Knowledge requirements include MOAM1, LIAM1, and DCAM1
When Maister, Galford and I wrote The Trusted Advisor in 2000, we started by saying, “While none of us begin our career as a trusted advisor, that is the status to which most of us aspire.”
At the time, it seemed an unremarkable comment. Imagine our astonishment if someone had told us, “Hey, in only 12 years, there will be over 400 trusted advisors in just one insurance company – and in their Michigan operations alone!” Not to mention they’d be required to know MOAM1.
Words in a Meaningless Environment
Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be afraid of. I happen to believe that if we are subjected to a campaign of verbal carpet-bombing and told it’s marketing, and that if all of us are taught that the road to success is to always be publishing more content than our neighbors, then there are certain predictable outcomes:
- Words will progress asymptotically toward meaninglessness
- “Content” will become the verbal equivalent of beige, no longer requiring a qualifying adjective
- Writing will become mechanized
Oh wait, we already established that’s what happening.
4. The abuses of language outlined above will cross over. In addition to losing connotative meaning, they will cause us to lose denotative meaning. We will no longer be able to tell a trusted advisor from a transactional subject matter expert.
That means the first exhibit in our book, which portrayed a 4-step progression from subject matter expert to trusted advisor, will be rendered not just meaningless, but incomprehensible to many.
Apparently that’s already happened to the people who write employment ads.