Here's the content of my talk at Travelblogcamp - delivered to a boisterous room of travel writers, bloggers, PRs and tour cos on the evening of Tuesday 6th November.
What does back to basics mean?
I thought long and hard about this. I decided for me it means putting aside the bright glittery things that the internet throws at us and remembering what really matters. Sure technology marches onwards – but you know what? People are still people. They still have similar desires when it comes to choosing a holiday. They still need similar information much of the time.
Apparently there’s some kind of big election going on this evening. Something to do with the next leader of the free world (apparently). And back to basics has a bit of a campaigning edge to it doesn’t it. It could almost be a conservative party slogan.
So, ladies and gents – I give you my Back to Basics content manifesto. Like I say, it’s at heart all about trying to ignore the frilly bullshit of the net and focus on important stuff. Stuff that’s about people, not machines.
Like any good manifesto it has a bunch of bullet points - unlike most manifestos there will probably be a few swear words.
1) Great content isn’t regulated by Google
I hate the way Google has become this all-knowing arbiter of what’s best. We are so lazy – it’s so damn easy to click the first search result Google (or Bing for that matter) comes back with. You know what – I’ll let you into a little secret. Google is still gameable. Big companies spend zillions on SEO because despite all the pandas and penguins you can still game the algorithm. And frankly – it just isn’t that good anyway. So… people… once in a while make yourself go to page 6. Don’t let Google dictate what is or isn’t good. And if you find something that’s good there… on page 6. Promote it… talk about it. Tell your friends and colleagues to read it. Go on - G+ it if you really must.
2) Great content should not be at the behest of advertisers
If your business model relies solely on advertising, then the ad guys will rule the roost and sure as day follows night the content you publish will be compromised. They just want your content to sell stuff for them. People don’t as a rule like being sold to very much. I read a great interview in the Times magazine with Lewis Hamilton a while back. There was sentence in there about how Lewis was wearing a particular brand of watch (Tag if you want to know). It was totally unsubtle. So much so that I’m sure the writer did it on purpose. Lewis Hamilton is of course sponsored by them. I hate that shit. It is so demeaning to the reader. Are we – any of us – that easy to influence? (PR people – next time you insist on some kind of lunatically obvious product placement… ask yourself what the point is. And if it’s just to keep your client happy have the guts to tell then they are wrong.)
3) Great content should not be free
I hate the way content online is free. It distorts the market. How can we as consumers tell what’s good and what’s not if there is no price attached to anything? It’s the most basic of mechanisms in consumer society. And the smart arses who came up with the idea of short circuiting it did us all a massive disservice. By ‘good’ I don’t just mean how well written something is, but how trustworthy and believable. Friends – if you are enjoying ‘free’ content or ‘free’ social networks – firstly it might well not be any good. Secondly you are paying for it – far more subtle and dubious ways. YOU are the content. Your every move is being watched so that you can be sold stuff. The sophistication of this technology is getting better and better – but it has hardly started. I don’t like that one little bit. If you want a great book to put on your Christmas present list I cannot recommend The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From Youby Eli Pariser highly enough. If you want to really see where the free model will end up… read it and be as concerned as I am. Don’t worry – there’s a link to the book on my blog – right now.
4) Great content is all about the reader
I work for a search and social media agency iCrossing part time – mainly because I got bored of the lousy money on offer for travel writing. One thing that I have been amazed by is the number of big brand companies that you ask ‘who is your customer’ and they don’t have a clue. The old model of creating search term driven fluff to reel people in and try and sell them stuff has made many larger travel brands totally lazy. They just spent cash gaming Google to get them at the top of search results and sat back. Just pour as many people in the top of the funnel and enough will book to keep you in business. It’s leading to a superabundance of cheap crap on the internet. Great content by contrast is written with a reader in mind. Do you know who yours are? If you take the time to create content that's properly focussed on your reader, they will come back. There's this old marketing maxim called the 80/20 rule. 20 % of your customers account for 80% of your business. Instead of just chucking as many people through the front door of your website as possible - try developing long term relationships with that 20% - they'll keep coming back if you give them reason to.
5) Great content takes time to create
One of the things that defines quality is uniqueness. And writing something unique takes time and research and consideration. It’s a craft. As readers we need to get better at spotting that kind of really great stuff and promoting it. And as content creators we need to stand up to whoever pays the bill and tell them how much it will cost and why they should make the investment. Sure it’s easy to say and hard to do – but the recent changes in the algorithm have produced this sudden obsession with content. In some ways that’s a good thing – at least it has made people think about content seriously. But it’s still all too often all about churning out mediocre content as fast as possible for SEO purposes. Insist on giving them better content and make them pay. It’s about quality not quantity. If you’ve banged something out in half an hour without doing any research first – take it from me – it’s crap.
6) Great content is about detail
Writing really good travel journalism is in my opinion about spotting the little things that people miss and surfacing them in smart and concise ways. Often it’s about taking the time to stop and look and listen and smell and taste. Moments of quiet on busy trips are often hard to come by – but they are gold dust. A vital part of listening is asking the right kinds of questions of the right kinds of people. Really good travel journalism is often about telling stories – other peoples’ stories. Learning to seek out those hidden gems of interest or local wisdom and finding entertaining and engaging ways to communicate them takes time and focus. It’s a craft and it’s something you can get better at even if you’ve done it for a decade or more.
7) Great content is collaborative
Remember editors? The role of the editor has been forgotten in the online world of self-published blogs. Editors can be arrogant people – but they tend to be where they are for a reason. The people in editorial positions at national magazines and newspapers and book publishers have an instinct for their readers that has taken years to develop. Importantly they are people (not an algorithm). They choose what to publish and what not to publish for all sorts of reasons. Some very subtle – often quite human. Content – proper content – is about real communication. And that suggests a relationship. Relationships are quirky, fun, frustrating things – but they are all about being human. I don’t want a machine dictating what I should read. I want a real person. Editors don’t just add coherence and relevance – they also ensure quality control. I’m sorry. Maybe kids in their 20s don’t care about decent sentence construction and grammar. But I do. That’s not about being pedantic. It’s about the craft of writing – things like rhythm, assonance, alliteration, metaphors and similes.
What do you think?