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Content Marketing and Successful Polar Exploration
Or How Coding Can Make Your Writing Better
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What's the Connection?
Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Ragan Communications Social Media Conference in Orlando, FL, where I heard Carolyn Shelby (@cshel), Director of Digital Strategy at 435 Communications, give a fantastic talk on SEO for social media and content marketing professionals. In addition to some simple, code-free tips for social media folks, the presentation also talked a lot about how difficult it is for content marketers and SEO people to work together. To put it simply, these two groups have a fundamental conflict because the former is interested in writing for human beings while the latter is writing for machines. I started to wonder what these teams could do to make reaching their mutual goal faster and easier - and this got me thinking about one of my personal heroes, the early 20th century polar explorer Roald Amundsen.
I know that sounds weird, but let me explain. I believe that Amundsen's success - the first navigation of the Northwest Passage, the first successful expedition to the South Pole - can be attributed to the fact that he was the first modern explorer that was both the ship captain and the expedition leader.
You see, during the golden age of exploration, the person who led the expedition was not the same person as the one in charge of the ship. The expedition leader was the public face of the expedition and was responsible for crafting a narrative that generated both public and private investment in the team. The captain, on the other hand, was responsible for the technical details of navigation, safety and ship management.
Because the captain and expedition leader were taking completely different approaches to the same goal, conflicts naturally arose between them - and this is essentially the same dynamic that exists between content marketers and SEO people. Though they both share the same goal, the former is a creative while the latter is a technician.
What made Amundsen so successful was his drive to understand both the creative and technical sides of his work. Yet just like most expedition leaders felt there was no use in learning to navigate a ship, many creative professionals - even those who work in social media or develop online content - feel that they shouldn't (or can't) learn to code.
Here are three ways I think Amundsen would approach this problem.
1. More Knowledge Makes a Team More Cohesive
Imagine, for a moment, that your content people didn't know anything about legal. Every press release they sent for review - every blog post, every tweet - was written with no understanding of its potential legal implications. If you think working with legal is a difficult now, imagine how much worse it would be like this!
If that sounds bizarre to you, then content marketers with no knowledge of how SEO works should as well. Remember, just like a captain and an expedition leader, an SEO person and a content person look at the same goal completely differently. Writing that looks great to a computer sometimes sounds terrible to people, and vice versa. If content marketers took the time to learn a little bit about the SEO team's work it would make both teams' work a lot easier. That's why teams that develop any type of content that's going online - i.e., almost everything - should learn to code at least a little bit.
If Amundsen was able to tackle ocean navigation to reach his goal, it should be within our ability to learn a little code. With online educational resources like Codecademy, Treehouse and Coursera now available, it's easier than ever for us content people to learn the basics. Unfortunately for the SEO people, learning to write compelling content remains as stubbornly difficult as ever.
2. Good Code Compliments Good Writing
Learning a little code does more than just make working with SEO easier - it can make your finished product better.At the Social Media Conference, I saw a fantastic presentation by Shel Holtz (@shelholtz) about image-driven storytelling. The power of digital technology has enabled us to tell stories with more than just words - we can now integrate text, video, images and more into content that's more compelling than each piece is by itself. Just like an expedition team, a well-organized whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Take a look at the New York Times' Snow Fall, or the BBC's Arms Wide Open. In addition to great stories, they also have images, video and interactive content. Notice how they all work together seamlessly, even on mobile devices. Try resizing your browser window and see how the content reacts. What makes this user experience so fantastic? Great code. As these and hundreds of other pieces prove, content that uses code to build multimedia experiences is much compelling than text alone.
Just like the examples above, this blog post uses interactive features to hold the reader's attention and reduce the TL;DR factor. Even though the features of this post are relatively simple in comparison to those in Snow Fall, we still think they do a lot to hold the reader's attention!
3. HAVING MULTIPLE SKILLSETS MAKES YOU MORE CREATIVE
One could argue that learning to personally write a bit of code isn't actually worth the time, given that there are so many contractors out there who can already do it much better. But Amundsen's success counters that as well: there was no shortage of captains for hire in his day, yet none of them were able to achieve what he did.
When you're working with a team to produce online content - even if you're not writing a line of code yourself - having a personal working knowledge of how your work will be displayed and presented to the user can actually help make you more creative. A little cross-disciplinary knowledge often expands one's idea of what's possible in one's own work - just think of all the innovators who stumbled upon their great ideas while doing something completely unrelated.
Amundsen didn't navigate his own ship, and most people don't write their own code. But Amundsen did speak his navigator's language (though likely not as expertly as the navigator himself), and could meaningfully contribute to a conversation with him about his work. More importantly, a little understanding of the importance and mechanics of navigation would have helped Amundsen approach the high-level problems his expedition faced (and for which he was ultimately responsible) more knowledgeably and creatively.
Amundsen didn't achieve his goals because he was tougher or luckier than those who came before. He did it by being the first to combine the creative vision of an expedition leader with the technical expertise of a captain. Content marketers who do the same might not reach the South Pole, but they will make their work a lot more efficient and effective.
Zach Pearson is an account executive at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_p_pearson