Content marketing: What you get when you don't pay writers
In February 2016, Stephen Hull, the editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post UK was asked in a radio interview why he doesn’t pay his writers. Here’s what he said.
I love this question, because I’m proud to say that what we do is that we have 13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers… we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.
Here’s why that statement is, frankly, disingenuous bollocks.
Nothing, repeat nothing, on the Huffington Post UK is real, authentic, unforced, unpaid for or something to be proud of. Instead, the site is entirely populated by ‘content’, by which I mean not-even-thinly-veiled adverts, churned out by ‘writerpreneurs’ paid pennies per word to whore some company’s puff around the internet. HuffPo? Puff of Ho’s, more like.
I'm not saying 95% of the stuff paid journalists produce isn't PR-sourced churnalism. But at least most paid journalists are compelled by professional pride to make some effort to draw the reader in. In contrast, everything on Huffington Post UK has the whiff of a marketing department whose annual budget is determined by the level of 'brand exposure' it achieves (as opposed to something concrete like, y'know, sales).
Here’s a random selection of this branded ‘content’, accessed on the afternoon of 5 April 2016. I didn’t have to go searching for this stuff, by the way - it’s entirely representative of the site. Names have been changed to protect those guilty of crimes against copy.
The first piece I stumbled upon was An entrepreneur’s day in the life by Terry Crudsucker. Here's the first paragraph of this wearisome piece (second half of most sentences redacted to spare you having to wade through every word of the corporate boilerplate sandwiched between the burblings about his hugely varied working day).
One of the best things about being an entrepreneur is the huge variety in what constitutes a typical working day. My brand, Terry Crudsucker, is an international fashion label blah blah blah. Our garments are built to last and we're leading a new trend towards blah blah blah. Most notably, we designed The 30 Year Sweatshirt blah blah blah. In short, we're an e-commerce brand with customers on six continents, and the effect this has on my working day is that blah blah blah.
There follow 776 more words of solipsistic drivel which, surprisingly, have elicited precisely zero 'conversations'/comments.
Next, I had the good fortune to happen upon Mapping the Online World by Roger Halfwit, Chief Executive Officer, Nananet. This piece opens with four paragraphs of tiresome facts-and-figures splurge, presented in the manner of an introduction to a pre-undergraduate essay on ‘The history and importance of the internet’.
If you can get through that, you’re rewarded with the following, cleverly segued bit of under-the-radar brand marketing:
Back on Planet Earth, we at Nananet have been looking for a way to visualise global internet use. The result is our map of the online world, an atlas redrawn according to the number of registrations within each country's internet domain -- whether .uk for the UK, .de for Germany, .cn for China, and so on.
The words ‘map of the online world’, by the way, linked to a jpeg of an infographic. So the piece is, effectively, a piece of content plugging a piece of content. Feck me if that's not the very definition of content marketing eating itself.
A few clicks and I was rewarded with A history of the Easter Egg. This piece largely comprised another infographic, this time heavy on the Cadbury's purple and preceded by copy generated by an author who lacked sufficient dignity to avoid the use of the words egg-spected and egg-cited.
On the subject of that author, here’s how she describes herself:
Hello! I'm a 24 year old food and lifestyle journalist, currently working on Homemade, a collaboration between The Huffington Post and Sainsbury's.
Hello! I’m paid* by Sainsbury’s!
*Paid in this context being 'exposure' equity and the occasional Taste-the-Difference press kit.
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What do you think? Am I being unnecessarily harsh on these writers? Or am I right to be angry?