The real price of cheap content

by Tom Albrighton 22 November 2010 Digital and social, Popular, SEO

In an earlier post, I analysed Nublue’s survey of copywriting resources, arguing that freelance copywriters delivered a superior service to content mills – in the areas that really matter.

For me, the key criterion was quality of output – not speed, website design or even cost. In this post, I’d like to revisit the concept of quality copywriting and explain why the whole scope of the Nublue test was so misguided – and what it tells us about the way people see blogging and online content generally.

True value

The key problem with the Nublue survey was that it only reflected the perspective of the client, not the target audience.

So, you think your new blog post is a cracker. It was easy to order, it arrived quickly and it was cheap. That’s great! I’m really happy for you. But the true test of quality is how your content fares out there on the web, and what benefit it brings you as a result. Only when it’s realised business benefit can you truly say it was quality content. Otherwise, your assessment of quality is just a personal judgement.

It may be going cheap, but will it ever bring you golden eggs?

The quality of a blog post has three dimensions.

  • Commercial. What value will your post offer to customers? Will it help them make or research a purchase? Can it function as a landing page, guiding first-time visitors to the ‘business end’ of your site? And, whether they buy or not, will they form a positive impression?
  • Reputation. Is this post truly unique? Is it going to build up your authority, credibility or standing in your niche? Does it differentiate you from competitors? Is it something you’d want prospective employees, partners or investors to read – and judge you on?
  • Search and social. Is the post going to be commented, liked, tweeted and linked to? Is it going to be something you can push to social networks again and again, perhaps for many months? Is it going to get links and responses on other, reputable blogs?

If your posts aren’t valuable in these ways, why are you putting time, effort and cash into something that won’t bring you any benefit? Even if the content itself only costs a tenner, you still have to plan it, commission it, publish it, host it. Is it really worth it?

What’s the point?

‘Write me a post about IE9.’

‘Write me ten web pages about Irish whiskey.’

‘Rework this competitor’s content and make it unique so I can use it on my site.’

I get a lot of requests along these lines, and I always want to ask the same question: ‘Why?’

If it’s a blog post, what benefit will you really get from hastily written, internet-scraped, inaccurate or downright boring content? As noted above, no one will link to it, or like it, or comment on it, or (in all probability) even read it. It will just sit there, unloved and disregarded, making your blog look like a digital backwater. What’s more, there are hundreds of sites out there doing much the same thing; you’re aligning yourself with your competitors rather than differentiating. So what’s the point?

For SEO, the logic of cheap content is dubious at best. Even supposing you can get a ranking with your blatant spam (which gets harder by the day anyway), why should visitors stay on a site with average content? What impression will they form? How can such a site hope to convert traffic into sales?

For corporate web pages, the whole philosophy of ‘filling up’ the site with content as quickly or cheaply as possible is utterly misguided. As when buying a suit, a car or a meal, it’s about spending as much as you can afford to get the best possible result – scrimping and saving is just selling yourself short. And when you start thinking about hard performance factors like conversion rate, the idea of ‘cheap and cheerful’ makes even less sense.

The time factor is important too. While you spend months building a pointlessly derivative blog, or spamming the article sites with uninformative rubbish, your competitors are taking the quality route – building up such an advantage in terms of content, backlinks and SEO profile that you’ll simply never be able to overtake them. When success takes time, it’s best to start doing the right things right now.

Aim above adequacy

The depressing pursuit of ‘adequate content at best cost’, perfectly encapsulated by the Nublue exercise, misses the whole point of blogging – and online content creation in general.

Your aim should not be to create ‘me too’ content that achieves a passable standard of quality, but to make an exceptional and lasting mark on the internet with something that brings genuine, new value to the table.

But how do you get this wonderful stuff?

Choose better titles

Well, the first step is to stop posting dull, sheepishly topical briefs like ‘Review Internet Explorer 9’ to content mills and expecting anything good to come of it. A blog post can only be as good as the idea behind it.

Instead, try striking up a relationship with a copywriter who can come up with ideas that thousands of other people haven’t already covered. (Do I need to add that such a relationship can’t really be conducted via the web interface of a content mill?)

When you work with a professional writer regularly, they come to know your business very well. That puts them in the ideal position to consider how the expertise, knowledge and opinion you already have within your organisation could be turned into killer blog content.

What’s more, as you work together, you’ll become more alert and attuned to the blog ideas floating across your desk every day. Believe me, they’re there – but you won’t perceive them until you break free of the ‘get it done, get it cheap’ mindset.

Get better content

Having got a nice title together, make sure you honour it with some decent writing. Again, I don’t recommend going to a content mill, since you’ve got no control over who takes on your assignment, nor can you enter into a dialogue with them, nor is there any real mechanism for having your content revised or improved – which is the only path to quality.

Moreover, since they’re paid by the word, content-mill writers have zero incentive to add something extra in terms of research, snappy phrasing, humour, original opinion, different perspectives or anything else that might lift your post above the sea of mediocrity. So even the best writer, should you be lucky enough to get one, has no motivation to do the very things you want done.

It’s a crucial point, and one that content mills would rather their clients didn’t think about too deeply about. But there’s no way round it. The more time and effort goes into your post, the more likely it is to deliver lasting value to your business. There are no short cuts, no discounts, no quick and easy way. However, it does get easier the more you do it – provided you do it the right way in the first place.

Put quality over quantity

Finally, learn to put quality over quantity. Carefully considered content beats cheapo spam every time.

Some content mills crow over the fact that the typical freelance copywriter costs ‘ten times as much’ as their service, while glossing over the quality implications. For me, it’s very simple: while your cost per word is higher with a ‘real’ copywriter, your content is going to deliver far more benefit, however you measure it (backlinks, reputation, readership). Proper copywriters deliver far more bang for your buck.

Do they deliver ten times as much benefit, to justify their price? Well, as I’ve argued above, derivative and low-quality blog posts deliver little or no benefit at all, when you take all the factors into account. So a good blog post could be infinitely superior to a poor one.

To put it in the language of accounting, working with a copywriter makes content into an asset that delivers a return, rather than an overhead to be resented and minimised. Seen in this light, it’s easy to see why investing in it is worthwhile.

Start making sense

‘Best price’ offers, like the poor, will always be with us. In every sector, in every professional discipline, there will always be suppliers who opt for a value proposition based on the lowest price. And there will always be customers for them, too – people who see price as the overriding factor in every purchase, as well as those who lack the time or insight to analyse costs and benefits in a more balanced, reasoned way.

But when it comes to copywriting, there’s no getting away from it – the benefits from content-mill writing are small, and shrinking fast. That cheap content you’re buying could turn out to be very expensive indeed.

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