Have we lost patience with learning about technical topics? Or are we just so inundated with nonsensical “content” that there just aren't enough hours in the day?
A respected colleague recently encouraged me to add infographics to my company’s content marketing. She told me that hers have resulted in many “viral” social re-shares. Granted, the notion of content “going viral” is like porn to marketers. But it got me thinking about the original point to producing content.
When I started out as a technical writer, my goal was to educate as many people as I could. My value at the time, I reckoned, was being able to explain technical concepts in terms that non-technical readers could understand. But it seems that too much so-called educational content produced today is designed to serve the marketer who produces it more than the reader who is supposed to learn from it.
A history of tech learning
Remember the computer science degree? It was something you could get when you enrolled at a university and studied things like FORTRAN and COBOL. In those days, technology education was an investment. “Learn FORTRAN and COBOL now and you’ll be set for life,” an instructor once told me.
For those who lacked the stomachs or funds for degree programs, the tech world became a breeding ground for technical books. Thousands of them weighted the shelves of bookstores long gone now. Some so thick that the topic was obsolete by the time you read half way through. Then, there was the Kernighan and Ritchie “C” Manual that seemed, I don’t know, 10 pages long, but still required a year to fully understand.
I confess, the majority of my technical education came from these books. I loved them.
I can recall one unemployed summer spending nearly every day poolside at my gym in sunny West Hollywood, California, just reading. One of my poolside buddies saw the cover of a book I was buried in and asked, “What’s ‘LIPS’ about?” I explained to him that it was “LISP” not “LIPS,” and it was a computer programming language. While early Madonna blared from our shared Sony Walkman, he innocently asked if LISP was going to help me get a job.
As interest in technology grew, tech enthusiasts formed social “special interest groups,” some of which became so famous, they’re credited today with molding the path that Tech took. Monthly meetings attracted scores of unwashed visionaries who would argue about protocols or other such things -- in person, if you can imagine.
Soon thereafter, the marketing departments of technology firms realized they had captive audiences in these meetings. They started showing up, offering demos, brochures and self-serving promotional reports they liked to call white papers. Looking back, this was really the start of content marketing as we know it today. It was also arguably the start of “educational” materials intended to serve author more than audience.
For those who lacked the patience to read a full white paper, there came the blog post. Short and to the point, the blog post offered the reader’s digest version of a topic, and it so helpfully linked to the book or white paper you should have read in the first place. They were, in fact, content about content.
And for those for whom reading itself required too many brain cells, the webinar was invented. The explosive popularity of the webinar spoke volumes about our willingness to learn about tech: We wanted to learn everything we could, so long as someone else did all the work while we sat back and watched.
Unfortunately, webinars must be scheduled. Worse, they require signups, and virtually no one has time for that, what with Facebook and all. The 3-minute YouTube overview was the answer. “How-to” videos provided us with a “just in time” approach to our technical educations, as if life itself had become an open-book test.
Then, just when you thought that we couldn't possibly get any more fast-food about our technical educations, along comes the infographic.
We’re dumb as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore
Today, there are many educational resources available for people who want to learn about technology. Even better, many of them are free. But let’s face it, we’re not getting any smarter. In fact, I dare say we’re more confused than ever.
There is simply too much content in the world. And the vast majority of it simply isn't worthwhile because it was designed not to educate you, but to get your email address or to get you to click on a button to generate website traffic.
And what have we really learned from all these keyword-stuffed materials?
Well, we all know that we need Big Data, though we have no idea what Big Data is or does, or where to buy it. And we know that “content is king,” because people use that phrase in blogs so much that it must be true. And we know that SEO is important, yet we’re confused by why Word still doesn't include an SEO menu.
The truth is that we are not learning; we are helping marketers build lists. And even though I’m a marketer myself, this bothers me because at the core of who I am as a marketer is a technical educator. It bothers me when I see people read fluff in order to acquire PhDs in buzzwords. And it infuriates me when marketers who lack even the most primitive understanding of a topic write this fluff in the first place.
It also really bothers me that the “5 things” documents I write garner more attention than the documents I write that don’t have numbers in their titles.
Case in point, I recently authored a white paper for my employer. The initial goal was to outline the 10 technologies most important for enterprise-class digital asset management. And that’s exactly what the document does. It just took me 45 pages to explain it all to a level that I thought was worthy of my readers’ time.
Since its release, several readers have commented that the word “checklist” in the document’s title suggests one page, maybe two -- certainly not 45. But had I called it “The Enterprise DAM Technology Overview” or “A Study in Enterprise DAM Technology Requirements,” it wouldn't be getting half the number of downloads it’s getting now.
In essence, I’m tricking readers by giving them more than they think they’re getting, just to increase downloads.
What happens when the infographic becomes just too much effort for us?
Title image courtesy of Suzanne Tucker (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: To read one of David's numberless articles, see Marketing Automation vs. You