Content, value, and reward: Age-​old worker debates

On 21 January, Gerry McGovern published a piece titled If Content is King, Why Are Content Professionals Paid So Little? at CMSWire. McGovern argued that the value isn’t in the content but in the channel. However, McGovern’s argument is limiting and flawed on a number of fronts, and can’t go by without response.

Now, all things being equal, McGovern’s premise is about content professionals being paid; yet he closes with the notion of making money directly from content: From me, as a writer, to you, as a consumer. Content professionals most often work business-​to-​business. The business-​to-​consumer content professional is a rare beast indeed. His argument is not as strong because he lost his content professional to business framework somewhere along the way.

Content to consumer is way too small a field, when we are considering the almighty ‘content creation’ machine. I know first-​hand the dangers of failing to monetise a content platform online. And it was solely because the business model wasn’t right. If we had created a freemium model, we would have been ahead of the game by about four years, and probably millionaires right now. Those holding that money would have showered us in it if we hadn’t been so close to the trees that we failed to identify alternative models.

Alternative models and innovative thinking is at the core of this response to McGovern’s piece.

Valuing content is not a new issue

The deeper issue that McGovern fails to acknowledge, is the same issue that plagues writers, artists, musicians, editors, and publishers. It’s the self-​same issue that editors have been fighting (at least in Australia) ever since I have been involved in the industry — and that’s been since the late 90s. It was an issue long before me, and will be long after I am dead. It’s a long-​standing issue.

The digital platform doesn’t change the nature of the problem.

McGovern argues that the issue is that the content doesn’t have value to a thing further up the chain. Sure, I’d agree if I didn’t examine things properly. Or, if I didn’t have a model for the valuation of content creation.

The deeper issue is that those in control of the money don’t understand how to value content; is it an asset? Or is it an expense? If it’s an expense, then content professionals will always be paid poorly. If it’s an asset, then those who create the items of value will themselves have higher value, too.

But first, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of this. Valuing ‘content’ is enormously difficult because it centres on the use of words.

Content has no value because everybody has words… right?

Everybody uses words. All the time. You can write; I can write; that 10-​year-​old kid over there can write. Everybody in a Western country (nearly) goes to school and learns to communicate in writing. Even if the average reading age is 10 years old, they can still read and write.

The phrase I said most to writers when I was working as an editor was this: If you can speak the language, you know its grammar. You just don’t know the names of the parts.

How, then, do you put a price on a skill that (from an ignorant perspective) everybody has? Music and art are different, because those skills are out of the ordinary. Linking skills (as McGovern promotes) are out of the ordinary, and require strategic thought. SEO skills are out of the ordinary.

Words? Now, damn, everybody has them. Where’s the value in paying for it? Nobody cares if you have the ability to structure a well-​reasoned, persuasive argument based on a classical rhetorical structure. It’s still writing words.

The truth is that great content is more than just words

McGovern writes:

On the web you don’t start with the content. You don’t write it and hope they will come. Rather, you figure out where customers are going and what they want to do when they get there. Then you write for the search and the task that drives that search.

This is called taking a meta perspective and writing with the macro view in mind. If you call yourself a content professional, then you already know this back-​story. You don’t write anything without understanding the audience’s experience, the audience’s goals and the problems they need solved. You also understand the business’s goals, where the business wants the audience to travel, and you fully grasp the ultimate map of what feeds achievement of a task.

This is not just for the web. This is writing theory personified. Purpose, audience, and use are all factors that should be taken into consideration with all written content, regardless of format.

If a content professional doesn’t know this stuff, then they can’t consider themselves a professional.

However, this is adjunct to the argument. Central to McGovern’s argument is that content allows people to do things; therefore the things have value, not the content that is the vehicle.

But arguing that you need to prove your value, find the channel, link to other things, is a flawed proposal because what we are trying to understand is the real issue that businesses don’t know how to account for the vehicle. McGovern’s proposal that the end-​user doesn’t want to pay for content is not why content professionals are lowly paid. The point is that businesses don’t want to pay for content creation and don’t know how to give it a dollar figure.

Perhaps this is why we find unskilled interns, or recent grads, managing these things? Food for thought.

The challenge with content is to realign the financial model

McGovern indicates that content itself has no value; it’s everything else around it that has value. He says:

Content is not where the value lies. It is the channel to the value, the enabler of the value. Very little value resides in content itself but on the next link of the chain, lots of value resides.

Content itself is valuable, because without it working for you, you will not convert your customers, have conversations with your customers, or even align your online activity with your business strategy. This is where we come to a realignment and re-​envisioning of the financial model.

The challenge in the 21st century is to find a business model that understands, supports, and values the input that content has; and, by extension, those professionals who drive it.

It’s not a new concept. This has been written about for at least three years. No doubt it has been around for a lot longer. Joe Pulizzi commented in 2011 that content for marketing should be viewed as an ‘asset’.

Pulizzi at the time wrote the very truthful comment that ‘we are all publishers’ and that businesses need to think about content as though they are exactly that. He says:

In our soon-​to-​be-​released content marketing study, six of 10 marketing professionals are increasing their investment in content marketing (less than 5% are decreasing investment).

For that reason alone, we need to think differently about acquiring content assets.

Yes, you are not acquiring content expenses.

Game on.

More recently (in fact, on the same day that McGovern’s piece was published), Tom Albrighton published a very detailed analysis of content as an ‘asset’. Content strategists are more aligned with accountants than they’d like to imagine.

Albrighton argues that pieces of content in and of themselves acquire greater value because of the place that content has in your business. He writes:

Suppose your business publishes an online ‘how-​to’ guide on lawnmower maintenance. Your guide has lasting relevance and, with minor updates, can stay online indefinitely. It proves popular, is shared widely and soon ranks highly for popular search terms like ‘how to mend a lawnmower’. As a result, it attracts web traffic and builds trust in your brand, giving you an edge over competitors. If some of that traffic or goodwill converts to sales, you are realising ongoing economic benefit from a resource that you control – in other words, your content is an asset rather than an expense.

To McGovern, this can be simplified down to ‘links’ and proving value to other channels. It’s an oversimplification because the notion of linking and channels can’t give us a value on ‘brand trust’ or ‘competitive edge’. All that McGovern’s model does is value the sales at the end of it.

Instead, Albrighton presents a method by which the value of the content itself can be measured and registered as an asset to your business. It’s well worth a read, I recommend it, if for no other reason than it’s good brain food. You can spend time with it here.

If you consider that content is an asset, then McGovern’s argument is nullified. Content in and of itself does have value; it can be considered an asset; and the cost of creation is therefore factored in. Further consideration tells us that the creators of that content (the content professionals) provide a significant value-​adding service to a business, and ought to be recompensed appropriately.

McGovern’s statement that “Call it ironical that in a world that runs on content those who create it are not valued. Call it unfair, call it what you want. It’s reality”, is really not productive for anybody. Businesses and content professionals need innovation and creative thinking in this area more than we need to suck it up and rely on out-​dated models of valuation.

How do you value content, in your business? Is it an expense? Or is it an asset?

Drop us a comment below and let us know whether you have even considered it.

2 thoughts on “Content, value, and reward: Age-​old worker debates

  1. I completely agree with your argument. You have to know how to measure the success of your content, this way showing the ROI to clients is very simple. I find people don’t want to spend money on any services until you show them that the ROI will be significant. In terms of content, social media, SEO, etc most people don’t know how to measure results and this is the biggest problem. If you can prove you can do the job AND measure results they will pay you anything!

    1. Hi Claire, thanks for your comment. Yes, you’re right. Additionally, I think that the need for content isn’t going to diminish, but what we will see is a greater economic squeeze. The case for good economic models is going to become even more important. Not only will content professionals like you have to prove & measure, but also talk about the actual economics. Well, that’s my theory anyway 😉

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