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The Content Conundrum: Everyone Wants Quality, but Nobody Wants to Pay

179228598If demand were the barometer for market value, you would think high-quality content and the talent to produce it would be worth its weight in gold. But until recently, content has been viewed as a bargain-basement business, with a lot of companies simply unwilling to pay much for the stuff they put on their websites.

That's changing, however. as companies have discovered that cheap content is often lousy content, and lousy content doesn't accomplish anything. In other words, you get what you pay for, and companies increasingly are seeking out smart material with strong storytelling.

Content prices also are going up as a function of greater demand. Corporations have developed a big appetite for material to stoke the content marketing machine and win the hearts and minds of customers. By loading up their websites with commentary, instructional how-to guides, even entertaining blog chatter, companies hawking everything from diapers to enterprise software are hoping to forge connections that will eventually lead to sales.

There are simply more companies looking for material, and the market is becoming more competitive.

Supply and Demand

Consider thse statistics regarding demand for content:

* 27 million pieces of content are shared every day. (AOL and Nielsen.)

* 91% of B2B marketers leverage some form of content marketing while 86% of B2C marketers partake in the practice. (Content Marketing Institute.)

* 78% of consumers believe that organizations providing custom content are interested in building good relationships, and 90% of consumers find custom content useful. (TMG Custom Media.)

* 80% of business decision makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement. (Content Marketing Institute.)

* Interesting content is one of the top three reasons people connect with brands on social media. (Content+)

Budgets Are Growing

Potential customers don't want to read things that look and feel like traditional advertisements. Salesy bullet points on features and functions are out. What's in is providing a narrative that speaks to a particular pain point or serves up some relevant how-to advice. Do that, and presto—you've convinced someone to take note of your particular product or service.

Companies are so in love with the power of content that they claim to be opening up their pocketbooks to make it happen. According to the Custom Content Council, 68% of CMOs planned to increase their content marketing budgets in 2012.

The B2B Content Marketing: 2012 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report, done in partnership with MarketingProfs and Content Marketing Institute, found that businesses overall were devoting about 25% of their marketing budgets on developing and distributing good content.

Most have no choice but to pony up since they admit they're not really proficient at creating high-quality content. The Content Marketing Institute found that only 32% of B2C marketers considered themselves effective at content marketing, leading a significant number (62%) to outsource their content marketing needs, according to Mashable.

Even with outsourcing, though, cultivating a steady stream of top-notch content is fraught with difficulties, companies say. They lament that it's hard to find reliable and experienced freelance talent, and they worry that with such fast-growing demand, they won't be able to keep pace with a consistent content flow.

Setting the Bar Low

But here's where things get sticky, even downright contradictory. While companies claim high-quality content and freelance writing talent is central to their content strategies, there's an alarming disconnect between what they say and what they do.

Despite all the rah-rah talk about the importance of quality content, a 2013 survey on content marketing by BusinessBolts revealed some pretty alarming trends around the effort smaller businesses are willing to make to ensure they get content that is up to snuff.

An alarming 62% of respondents said they spent less than $100 a month on their content needs. The so-called high-earning companies spent more, with a third doling out between $100 and $500 a month and 14% spending $1,000 to $5,000 monthly.

Equally concerning was the time devoted to pulling all this great content together. Some 43% spent between one and five hours weekly on content development, while 17% devoted between six to 10 hours weekly.

Having made a reasonably good living creating content for more than 25 years, I can tell you that the time and dollar commitments these companies are talking about are way out of whack. Any seasoned professional will tell you that it takes time to look into a topic and interview a couple of actual human beings, let alone sit down and turn that research into anything that isn't complete drivel.

Long-time journalists wonder why the bar on high-quality content has dropped so far. "Content does not necessarily equate to good writing," says Tam Harbert, a long-time technology journalist and chair of the Freelance Committee of the National Press Club, where they have an upcoming panel planned to discuss this very topic. "Depending on how you think about it, content is really nothing more than filling up empty space."

This from another old journalist pal trying to adjust to the new realities of freelance writing, where it's getting tougher and tougher to eke out a living: "It's incredibly depressing to see the work we do become so devalued," he laments. "Nobody cares. Content is content is content."

Things Are Changing

Of course, not everyone sees it that way, especially the companies that have carved out a business of being intermediaries and matching companies in need of content with what they tout is fairly priced, high-quality talent. 

Companies like Demand Media, Skyword, and Contently differ in their approach but they all deliver platforms that let businesses collaborate with content creators to tell stories, build a brand, and connect with customers.

MaryAnne Flynn, vice president of content services at Skyword, admits that content was pretty much considered a commodity when the company first started three years ago. At the time, she said most of Skyword's customers were looking for cheap Search Engine Optimization (SEO) copy that would drive traffic to their site and they didn't care much about quality or the pedigree of the writers.

"They weren't looking for established writers. They were looking for enthusiasts about a topic more than expertise, and they definitely weren't looking for journalists," Flynn says. They also weren't willing to pay more than $10 or $20 for a post and everything was calibrated on web traffic.

That started to change about a year ago when companies recognized that prospective customers do a whole lot of research before going to a website. Thus the real requirement is for higher quality content that educates. And content plays a role far earlier in the buying process.

That has changed the quality of writers Skyword courts, Flynn says, and more importantly, it has changed what their clients are willing to pay for content. "We work with a different caliber of writer than we did three years ago," she says. "Many of our early writers didn't have writing skills or any subject matter expertise."

Steve Harden, director of marketing for the Contentverse ECM brand at Computhink, says he's learned the lesson of doing content on the cheap the hard way. "I've spent more man hours reading proposals, negotiating with people, reading their articles, editing their articles, and still not getting what I need," he says. "Now, we've made the decision to spend more money on our content and that didn't come lightly. But you get what you pay for."

Once upon a time, people used to say that "content is king." Maybe the world is once again willing to assign a premium to high-quality work. As a longtime freelance writer with a specialty in business and technology, that would be music to my ears. 

Photo: ThinkStock

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