That may seem an odd headline for someone who sells digital marketing alongside writing for the internet, but stay with me. I’ve just spent an hour or so reading through my 22-year-old copy of ‘Searching for Robert Johnson‘, a fairly short book by Peter Guralnick about the legendary early blues musician who was supposed to have gone to the crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil to have become so talented, and who was then murdered at an early age, passing into myth and legend for songs like ‘Hellhound on my Trail‘.
Having been blessed with an obsession for music and reading in a just pre-internet age, I’m a big fan of all the Peter Guralnick books I’ve read and owned – he’s covered the history of the blues, soul, and country, as well as works about Sam Cooke, Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley (The Presley ones are the only ones I haven’t read). There’s a pretty good list on Amazon, and as a music writer I’ve read, re-read, and long admired, I wondered what he was doing at the moment – and thanks to Google, found some invaluable quotes on what makes his music writing so brilliant, especially when he writes with more succinct clarity than the likes of Lester Bangs, for example. And they explain why I believe that optimisation for SEO, tailoring content for social media etc all comes second to creating something really brilliant in the first place.
They’re from InsideVandy.com, Vanderbilt University’s student news website:
‘I started writing about music when I was probably about 20, and I started writing purely to tell – I was writing fiction, short stories novels, I still write fiction – but the nonfiction, I just wrote solely to tell people about this music that I thought was so great, it was almost entirely the blues, and I did it at a time when there were almost no outlets where you could even put down the name Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, James Brown, it was such a thrill. I wrote these things telling people how great they were. It wasn’t for money, there was no money; it was just to tell people.
I’ve never written a single piece about anybody or anything that I haven’t chosen myself and hasn’t been out of my admiration for their work. It would be inconceivable for me to write something about a subject that I wasn’t totally invested in.
There have been growing debates about the need for PR and Marketing in technology – the suggestion is that by building something amazing, you remove the need for promotion, which I think is mistaken and disingenuous. A great product should be your focus as it makes Marketing, PR, Advertising etc all easier and ways to boost the natural interest.
And by the same token, SEO, targetting social media etc are all extremely useful, but they boost interest, links etc to great content and writing.
You can argue that plenty of truly great works have never achieved mainstream success, but that’s down to a number of factors, including marketing, timing, and luck. But those great works continue to endure, even if it’s in a small way.
Meanwhile there’s plenty of crap that has become amazingly popular due to well-oiled publicity efforts, but it’s always tended to result in fleeting success at best, despite the work and effort that’s gone into promotion.
And particularly if you’re trying to build a business around content, or by utilising content, it’s better to get a smaller number of truly passionate and evangelistic people who are likely to part with their money or attention on a longterm basis, than to hit a huge number of people who just pass through and move onto something else in seconds.
That’s why I suggest forgetting about SEO and marketing when you first start writing something. If not, you’ll spend hours or days in fear as you build up the worries about putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. And when you finally do, it’s likely to appear faked when you’re shoehorning in keywords and sticking on an irrelevant linkbait headline. Far better to create something incredibly powerful and optimise with a light touch. It’s why the need for copy editors and sub editors remains, but that need evolves into editors skilled in marketing and search engine optimisation alongside more traditional skills.
And it’s why I’m still enjoying, and recommending, music from the 1930s and books written about it which I first enjoyed as a pre-teen.