3 Things Content Marketing Can Learn from Poetry

Content marketers bring with them a slew of past-life writing experiences that inform their work. One of my colleagues on the CM team here at Oneupweb, for instance, hails from journalism. The titles he comes up with are often witty and always attention-grabbing, and he rarely wastes words. My own background is in poetry, and in the spirit of bringing our past lives to bear on our current ones, here are three things content marketing can learn from the po-biz.

1: Every Word Counts

Most poets labor over finding just the right word. Which makes sense, because if you’re writing a 10- or 15-line poem, it’s not like there are words to spare. You better make sure each one of them is the absolute right choice for the space—if you’re not spending time working this out, you’re either doing it wrong or you’re unfairly lucky.

Consider the difference between “dim” and “crepuscular”. The former lacks the shape of the latter—it lacks the shape it takes in your mouth as your tongue wrestles it into exhalation, and the shape it takes in the mind as it manifests the mysterious. Dim, like the dusk it describes, is knowable. But something crepuscular is decidedly unknowable, and hence more tinged with the secrecy of night-yet-not-night and of poetry. Language is full of these derelict and dreamless amplifications, these pining philters. Why not take advantage?

In terms of content marketing, the obvious application is for title tags and meta descriptions, where you’re constricted by a character limit. You need to make sure you work in the right keywords while crafting an informative and engaging title that will facilitate a higher CTR. But you should be cognizant of this principle in everything you write.

Let’s say you’re working on a landing page. You write some banner ad copy that promises “a comprehensive guide to SEO.” But then, when users arrive on your landing page, you’re actually offering them an e-book. This is not splitting hairs—guide implies brevity. Maybe your audience has the time to read a guide, but not an e-book. You may think you’re using a synonym, or you may like the way “guide” looks with your banner ad design. But what you’re actually doing is confusing the user, something that leads to what Fishkin & Co. call “friction”, and therefore also to fewer conversions.

2: It’s Not What It Means, It’s What It Does

Most of postmodern poetry has officially severed ties with meaning, in the traditional sense. But this is not to say that anything goes. Rather, we’re not content to furnish readers with an easy, one-off takeaway. Poetry can do much more than that, and so should content marketing.

Here is Bill Knott’s “Minor Poem,” in its entirety:

The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead

The “meaning” of this poem is straightforward—it offers instructions for what to do when confronted with a particular situation. But it’s what this poem does that gives it its power. It calls up memory, whether that’s the memory of someone close to you or the lingering heartbreak of a recent news story. If you’re a parent of young children, it instills fear. It elicits a mood that is equal parts pain and solace. And it is an exercise in futility, because the “action”, the proper response, is only a pretend one. An in-depth discussion of this poem isn’t suitable for this post, but the idea is that it evokes any number of feelings, depending on the reader, and that is its meaning.

How does this apply to content marketing? Take advantage of emotional appeals, for one. If your articles, videos, and blog posts can evoke a distinct emotion, you’re already ahead of the game. Big brands have this down to a science: Coca-Cola is selling happiness. Corona is selling relaxation. The list goes on and on.

Also on the “to-do” list of content marketing is to successfully drive customers to complete a specific action. More often than not, the key to this is simplicity and clarity. Consider this screenshot from the homepage of Warby Parker, makers of uber-trendy eyewear:

warby parker

Warby Parker needs only five words and three numbers to communicate this pretty enticing offer. And after reading it, you can easily imagine taking your five different pairs for a test drive at the office or at the bar while you’re flirting over a cocktail. The call-to-action, like the description, is impeccably clear, and there’s no overly sales-y language impeding your customer’s path to conversion. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a bonus emotional appeal: you buy one, we’ll give one to a person in need. Warby Parker makes doing good easy and fashionable.

3: Be Who You Are

As a poet, you think the hardest thing is finding your voice. Then once you find it (if you do), you discover that you’re quite wrong. The hardest thing is actually staying true to that voice. It can be enormously tempting to try to write out of your comfort level, especially if you want to get published in a particular journal or certain styles seem to be the current darlings. But the best poets are exactly who they are.

There are a few out there who would pass what I call the “bus test.” Imagine you board the bus and head to the back. On the floor in front of the empty seat next to you is a piece of paper, and on that paper is a never-before-seen poem. No author, no publication information, just a poem and its title. If you can read that poem and know who wrote it, they’ve passed the bus test. I can think of four who would ace it: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and Jorie Graham. (I know there are more, but that’s a discussion for a different arena.)

As a content marketer, then, whether you’re writing for yourself, your agency, or a client, you need to think about passing the bus test. Own who you are. ThinkGeek, an apparel, toys, and collectible seller, does this very well. Here is the picture and description of their Giant Solar Balloon:

balloon pic

description of balloon

The description offers a perfect example of owning your identity: “We’re geeks. We wear black a lot. Even in the summer. It makes us highly emissive. Not permissive.”

Of course self-proclaimed geeks would use the word “emissive.” And of course they would then go on to explain that, no, they didn’t mean “permissive.” They offer a product designed to showcase emissivity—that’s how geeky they are. Other standouts include “you will be suitably impressed” and “Otherwise you will be 50 ft. of sad.” The description as a whole is smart and quirky-funny, two hallmark personality traits of your favorite geek.

You can bet your boots that a large part of ThinkGeek’s success is the identity they’ve created and adhere to. They know who they are, they know their audience will like it, and they write as only they can.

How do you own who you are? What’s your strategy for making every word count? Let us know!

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