Crap content, and an idea for ending it

I do this thing called content marketing for a living. And while I have a strong set of content marketing beliefs, sometimes I forget them. Sometimes I create content because I’m pressured to. I then give that content a seductive title because that’s the only way it will ever get exposure.

For the purpose of this article, when I say “content,” I’m referring to articles you read online. Yes, like the kind you’re reading now, but more specifically like the kind you might see on BuzzFeed. Such as:

  • 13 Signs You’re Definitely Dying Right Now
  • 17 Things Writers Want Their Partners To Know
  • 106 Of The Most Important TV Deaths Of 2015
  • 18 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do In San Diego

You’ve seen headlines like these before (these are real titles) and you’ve clicked on them. And before studying marketing and understanding the side-effects of reading crap content, I clicked on them too. Their absurdity piques your interest, and for a moment you’re led to believe that the writer may actually have the answer.

But I assure you they don’t.

Writers of these articles are often hired hands getting paid squat or nothing at all. They sit in front of a computer all day, thinking of ways to get noticed and to get you to click. These writers, and the institutions that employ them, take sick advantage of Internet publishing’s non-laws and its non-existent code of ethics.

I should know. I used to be one of these writers for Elite Daily. And even though I tried to offer value beyond “must-have,” “why you need” and “best of” lists, I was ultimately supporting an institution that makes minds feeble and cheapens the potential of the most brilliant development of our time – the Internet.

Rest assured: Crap content is not an isolated problem. Bad publishing traits that made entertainment publishers like BuzzFeed and Elite Daily famous are invading spaces that were once wholesome. This includes the B2B publishing space, journalism space, even the original entertainment publishing space that once offered real laughs. (Unfortunately, the latter now have to compete with “easy” giffy content.)

I have been silent about the topic of crap content for a while, but after coming across a Facebook post by my friend, I suddenly became inspired to direct it.

Facebook post that eludes to people people being pawns to content marketing

My friend here is onto something. To the untrained eye she is questioning something rather simple – the idea of needing to be inspired to travel. But there is a deeper meaning to her concern. Without knowing it, she is actually questioning the state of content and acknowledging its downward spiral.

Now, in this post, I don’t want to get too much into why crap content exists. Rather, I want to focus on what crap content is, what impact it has on everything, and how we can end it. But off the top of my head, here are some reasons why crap content exists:

  • Internet publishers need ad impressions. The more content put out, the more ads seen, the more money made. You are the victim of their profit.
  • Internet publishers employ content writers and put them under deadlines. So writers create what’s easy rather than what’s important and thought-provoking.

In all of these cases, content strictly becomes a business asset rather than a good investment of time for the reader. In-depth thought is not required by the writer, making it a waste of time for the reader. And as writers (if you are one), our mission is to challenge, provoke thought, and inspire action.

Crap content doesn’t do this.

What Is Crap Content?

When I first began writing this post in my emotional, enraged state, I was compelled to call crap content anything with a number in its title. Simply because 8 times out of 10, sexy number content is either inherently crap or over-promising and -exaggerated. But calling crap content anything with a number its title would be very, very foolish.

While I’m often tempted to call all list posts clickbait crap, there have been posts with numbers that have provoked my thought. This post in particular by Content Marketing Institute inspired me to think creatively about content marketing. (Check out my reply in the comment section.)

This all goes to say that identifying crap content isn’t easy.

To help make it easier, I’ve put together some key indicators of crap content below. Ideally, these indicators will serve as a starting point for my crap content browser widget idea. This widget will create consequences for people and companies that publish crap content.

Crap Content Indicators

The more of these indicators that apply, the more likely the content is crap. This is an early working list, mainly to get the conversation around crap content started. Let me know what you consider crap content here.

Assuming Title

Example: 13 Fails That Will Make You Glad Today’s A Brand-New Day

Editors and writers of crap content tell us how we feel, what we do, what we think about, and who we are in titles. It’s a psychological trick that makes us click. Take a look at these titles. They all have something in common. They assume we’ve done something and will act/think a certain way after reading the article.

From the title, we’re led to believe we’ll find the answer. But we often don’t. We’re left feeling empty and are robbed of precious time. While titles are incredibly important, they should never be allowed to manipulate our emotions.

Vague Title

Example: 106 Memorable TV Deaths in 2015

Vague titles indicate a degree of thoughtlessness. The content behind the title is often so general that it ceases to be useful. It’s information overload.

Working from the example: How about a title/topic more specific like Lead Female Characters Killed Off in 2015 TV Shows. Now there’s content that could be useful to someone. Perhaps to a female acting student writing a paper on the subject or preparing for her first death on film.

Not Written by Expert

Example: 13 Simple Little Things To Try If You’re Having Trouble Sleeping

What we don’t do enough as Internet readers is investigate authors of articles before reading them. Online, it’s easy to assume that information from one person is of the same quality as another. We digest information from everyday people the same way we digest it from experts who deeply understand a topic and can offer real value. (The author of the example article is not a doctor or expert on sleep.)

How We Can End It

We can do a lot, but here’s an idea that’s more scalable than just “doing our best” to avoid crap content: We should make a browser widget that lets us – those who consume content and are affected by it – help inspire writers and institutions to develop content that’s worthy of our limited time in life.

The browser widget would allow us to mark content as IS CRAP or IS NOT CRAP, or something to that effect.

Based on the upvotes and downvotes, the browser widget would tell us if the website is a crap content publisher. Obviously there would be a lot of opinions on what is and what’s not crap. And obviously some people are offended by certain topics while others are passionate about them. So there would need to be a way to address this.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Release to content marketers initially. It could be a good thing for other professionals to use too, but I am not deeply familiar with other professional groups. As a content marketer, I know the majority of my fellow content marketers are honest peeps and motivated to make content better. It’s what we talk about and write about every day!
  • Have users of the browser widget take an oath. The user of the browser widget would have to check a box along the lines of “I solemnly swear I am marking this content as crap because it meets at least 3 crap content indicators. I AM NOT marking this content as crap based on my opinions and personal beliefs.”

As you can see, my ideas are very raw. I don’t have a solid game plan yet, but would love to create one. This is an important issue that will, in some way, determine the fate of the Internet. We can make a difference, and we can help people make better use of their time online.

First, we need to really think about crap content indicators. Then we need to develop something that is very intuitive that inspires people to help end crap content (the browser widget). We need to educate everyone – not just the Internet publishing industry – about why content quality is important, and how what we read affects our wellbeing.

If you’re a content marketer or web programmer inspired by great content, let me know if you want to collaborate. This could be a great thing, not just for our industry, but for the world.