There are lots of discussions among writers and marketers right now about whether AI content creation tools will replace writers, and how it will transform the profession of content marketing. AI will replace certain types of writing work that happens today. And it will most definitely change content marketing. In this post, I’ll share some specifics about how I think the current AI wave will play out over the next five to ten years, and what marketers (and writers!) should be thinking about in order to get ready for it.
The good news for professionals working in this space is that eventually, I believe these tools will actually create more work, and thus more demand, for certain types of writing skills. The bad news (depending on how you look at it) is that there will be less demand for writers who mostly provide low-cost, generic content creation services, especially those that work mostly for marketers who are trying to rank for high-volume keywords using blog posts and web pages. Those types of writers will need to change up their skill set and adapt to this new reality if they want to remain viable in the market.
However, when we think about how this will affect society at large, and the average person searching for information online, AI writing tools should eventually lead to a better experience for all of us. Every marketer, and every writer, should keep that bigger picture in mind. And in fact, that’s one reason I’m excited about the potential of this particular category of AI tools. We all deserve a better online experience than the one we have today! The good news is that we’re in the midst of a shift right now. Writers and marketers will have a big role to play in making this transition happen.
Search Morphs Into Information Retrieval
Isn’t it odd that we’ve talked so much, for so long, about “search” (the process) instead of what the end user of a search engine actually wants, which is simply to get information? Purveyors of search tools took their eye off the ball long ago and seemed to forget about the real value that search tools enabled: getting access to information. In fairness, Google made some progress toward enabling faster information retrieval with Snippets, a condensed version of the information people seek, but they likely had to think about cannibalizing their core search product, so they didn’t make an immediate leap toward giving users deeper, more concise answers immediately. OpenAI is bringing users a step closer to their true desired experience, forcing an acceleration along a path that was already inevitable.
Most people don’t actually enjoy searching. That is just a means to an end. What people want is answers, information, and ultimately, insights. Cluttering up people’s experiences with more and more ads only made it harder for users to get the value they want. You don’t grow markets or customers bases in the long term by giving end users less value, or by putting more barriers in between them and the value they seek. That’s actually a recipe for someone else to come along and disrupt you. But by putting the focus more squarely on the true value, the answers, and minimizing the pain of having to search for stuff, information retrieval becomes easier. Taking away pain, adding pleasure. A classic formula for winning in any market.
What most people find exciting about ChatGPT is precisely that they don’t have to use the old process that became the default for information retrieval (search), with all of that annoying reading, clicking, thinking involved (all of that “pain” — yes, we humans are quite spoiled). Instead, users can retrieve information much faster, and in a way that is easier. They can simply state what they want, and get information back immediately, often with helpful caveats. It saves us all a few steps along the way — we don’t have to waste time clicking around or get pulled away from our original purpose by seeing ads (yet). We can refine our request for information more rapidly, and so on. Far fewer barriers cluttering up our experience, and the pleasure factor is much higher for certain types of queries.
Keywords Will Become Harder to Rank For
But as we put some of these new AI tools into the hands of more marketers, and content creation becomes easier, everyone is likely to go wild trying to rank for keywords (especially high-volume ones). In the past, you’d have to pay a human writer to come up with a blog post on a topic that would allow you to rank for a keyword. Now, you can skip that step entirely. What this means is that more and more marketers, especially those that didn’t have the budgets to pay lots of writers, can suddenly move into “content gone wild” mode and build out a ton of content quickly. You can practically hear the elated yells, “Finally!” of many of those marketers who’ve always wanted to do with more content marketing, but simply couldn’t due to lack of resources.
These tools help level the playing field, in many ways. Democratizing access to content creation can be a good thing. More and more marketers will actually be able to do what they’ve been trained to do with content marketing over the years. It’s a strategy that still works! You can still rank for keywords of course, and yes, even if you use AI writing tools. Google doesn’t penalize their output, contrary to popular belief, so long as it’s content that humans find valuable. But yes, keywords are going to get more and more competitive now that content is easier to create than ever. So on the one hand, we should be happy that AI tools might help open up access to content creation (and thus marketing) a bit more, making this methodology more accessible to more marketers, especially those at small and medium-sized businesses that help fuel economies around the world.
On the other hand, those marketers who are already good at content marketing and SEO are going to need to take their game up a few notches, because things are about to get far more competitive.
Less Traffic on Known Keywords, But More Keywords to Rank For
What’s interesting in all of this is that there will be less traffic on current keywords. This is a trend that many marketers are already seeing. What’s happening right now is that search volumes for certain keywords are stagnating or even shrinking, because as people get answers to their search queries, they’re going deeper, and searching for that next layer of information.
However, this isn’t because of less traffic on the internet overall. This is because of two main things: 1) people are searching in new places (communities, different channels, new tools, including ChatGPT) and 2) people are searching for different keywords. In other words, the number of keywords marketers need to rank for to capture any traffic continues to grow. Traffic is still available at high volumes; it’s simply being routed toward both a larger number of channels and even within those channels, it’s being split into more refined keywords than ever before.
Back in 2017, Google affirmed that 15% of the queries it saw every day were net new, ones it had never seen before. With more and more people still coming online in many parts of the world, the percentage and raw volume of net new search queries has likely only increased since that time. But even if it has only stayed the same, recent data from Google showed it received 8.5 billion queries per day. This means there are likely 1.3 billion net new search queries happening per day around the world. Yet, every content marketer is stuck in the past to an extent, just looking for keywords for which there is already a known and specific volume.
The problem? Those are the same “known” keywords everyone else is trying to rank for too! Content marketing is therefore not going away as a good strategy for marketers to capture traffic, but as search gets better, the best results will need to be more and more targeted, and marketers are going to need to think more and more outside of the box, not just defaulting to “what people have searched for in the past” but creating content around “what people are going to be searching for” that has an unknown volume attached to it for now. For now. There will be risks, but there will be rewards, for the marketers who are able to shift their thinking in this way, and align their content marketing efforts with future search queries versus merely past ones that anyone with access to Google Analytics, Moz or Semrush can figure out.
This is where I see many marketers failing to connect the dots. They think, “My traffic is decreasing. Organic is no longer a good channel. I’d better put more into paid.” As a short-term strategy, perhaps that will be viable. And yes, marketers need to diversify and not be overly dependent on any single channel. But in the long term, content on the internet will keep sprawling, and you don’t want your competitors capturing more than their fair share of what’s available. Take your eye of the ball, and competitors will swoop in and beat you at your content game, especially if you don’t change things up and focus more on where things are headed than where they have been.
Content Marketers Will Put Way More Focus on the Long Tail
Smart marketers who want to keep organic traffic levels high will intensify their focus on the long tail. They’ll need to upgrade their playbooks to keep pace with the rising tide of content combined with the increased specialization of search. If you’re a marketer, ask yourself, is the amount of content you’re adding to your blog adding up to 15% of net new content per day? If not, then you’re simply not aligned with the pace of net new search queries in Google, so there’s no wonder why you’ll see your traffic declining overall. And yes, it’s true that not all of those net new queries are going to be things you want to rank for, but assume that even 5% of them are. Is your blog content changing by 5% each day? Most content marketers aren’t doing this or even thinking in this way. Using AI tools can help them accelerate their pace, and they’ll have to grasp onto such tools if they want to counter-attack the declines they’ll keep seeing in search volume.
Obviously, search and traffic are more complex than this. You want to constantly rank higher for the keywords you already target, while adding more. But if you take your eye off the ball on the rapidly growing denominator, you’re likely to see all of your keywords decline, because your content footprint as a percentage of the market you’re targeting might not be growing at the underlying pace of search volumes themselves. The marathon you thought you were running at a steady pace just got longer and harder. So don’t assume you can run the same way anymore.
AI Writing Tools Will Accelerate Creation of All Types of Content
What will happen as AI tools become more commonly seen in the hands of marketers? The most capable marketers will eventually rise to the top, empowered with such tools. Unfortunately, these tools will accelerate creation of all types of content. And by that, I mean poor quality as well as high quality. Prepare for the internet to become populated with a lot of garbage content (as if it already weren’t) that isn’t actually that helpful to anyone, especially in the early days.
The job of search engine algorithms is to weed out the fluff and serve up the best of the best. But it’s getting harder and harder for human users to discern what’s what online. This is one reason why people have been moving certain targeted queries away from generic online search engines and into spaces like social media, or searching for answers and information (and products) in other channels. Search isn’t sufficient to get them the answers they want and need, in many cases. And it may get even harder!
However, I am hopeful about the power of AI tools to actually accelerate the velocity at which we can create high-value content too. The most competent marketers will embrace these types of tools, using AI as one of their best weapons to focus on creating high-quality content to stand out.
Content Quality Will Trump Everything Else
While quantity definitely matters in terms of having a big enough content footprint to be found online, what ultimately matters to end users is quality. Provide something truly helpful and truly valuable to your users, and they’ll share it across many channels, link to it, and it will likely rank higher and higher, if search algorithms are doing what they’re supposed to do.
Ironically, the end goal here, providing something of high quality to your customers, users and prospects, often gets lost by content marketers in the race to merely rank for keywords. We all know it, and we’ve all seen it play out. You’re searching for something, find what looks like a promising result, click on an article, and can clearly tell it was written by someone who has zero passion for the topic and who lacks any in-depth knowledge. It was written by a human (for now), but lacks any real zest or zing. No provocative thoughts, no passionate advocacy, no strong perspective, totally devoid of flavor. Boring! Humans don’t just want to “retrieve information” after all; that’s just our baseline requirement. To take it to the next level, we want to be entertained and engaged along the way. That’s the differentiator marketers need to remember.
Well guess what! AI writing tools are about to make that “Boring!” experience even more commonplace online than it already was. This is because many marketers will at first use these tools in ways that are not very nuanced or complex, to merely target a keyword in an uninspired way, with no human creativity in the mix. However, as time goes on, people will get even more tired of that “genre” of bland, generic content than they already are. And here is where content quality will become an even greater focus for marketers, after everyone finally wakes up and recovers from the generic content hangover. That’s when marketers and writers will start using these AI tools to truly gain some leverage, pointing them in the direction of quality, refinement, and improvement.
Journalists and Creatives Will Have a Major Edge
As quality content rises to the top and differentiates itself from the bland ocean of generic stuff out there, I think the very best human writers will have a major advantage. Their writing will be sharp, witty, creative. It will stand out almost glaringly amidst the plethora of blog posts that sound like they were written by Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek or perhaps only slightly better, by Sheldon Cooper.
I believe many of the same skills that the world’s best journalists have will be in greater and greater demand. Journalists are some of the best writers out there. They weave in interesting commentary and compelling anecdotes, do deep research, and yet present a clear viewpoint, in a concise manner, for a mainstream audience (usually on a tight deadline too). This combination of skills is hugely important, and demand for these types of professionals will only grow as marketers compete for the highest quality content.
Likewise, creatives will have a major edge here too. People who think in offbeat, out-of-the-box ways. Folks who invent new words, new concepts, new ideas. It’s going to take creativity to stand out from the crowd, generate totally net new ideas, and create content that captures people’s attention.
Content Enrichment (as a Paid Service) Will Grow
Marketers have made a lot of investments over the years in building up their content libraries. They’ll need to decide whether it makes sense to create net new content, or whether they should enrich current content. Think of content enrichment as “blog post optimization” except on steroids. Optimization can take you quite a ways — adding more authoritative links, appending new sections and rewriting them to rank for specific keywords, and so on. But content enrichment will be next-level optimization. Basically, taking a critical look at any piece of content, and asking, “How do I make this 10x better?” Small changes won’t be enough, and marketers will need to actually overhaul a lot of what they’ve created, or simply recreate it.
As a result, writers today who currently do blog post optimization work will get a lot more requests to do deeper enrichment of content that already targets keywords, for which marketers can’t afford to lose current traffic, but needs to rank higher and higher, due to greater competition from more competitors in the growing content universe. Also, blog post optimization will be a non-negotiable along the way. Instead of a step that gets skipped, marketers will double down on making sure optimization happens, and will ideally incorporate AI tools. (Sample AI writing tool prompt we’ll see a lot more in the future: “Rewrite this blog post to improve the Flesch-Kincaid readability score while retaining all hyperlinks and anchor text.”)
How Online Content Stands to Get Better
A few other trends I can see happening as a result of the growing importance of content enrichment:
- The Rise of the Niche Expert. More marketers will seek writers with deep expertise in the topic areas where they want to publish. It won’t be sufficient for them to hire a generic “content writer” who can research a topic superficially and publish an article just to rank for a keyword. Instead, experts who already have deep knowledge in a topic will be in high demand. This won’t be precisely in the same way influencer marketing works today. Marketers will care less about how many followers a person has, and more about their depth of knowledge on a topic, because this is what will make a given piece of content stand out for them.
- Research Skills Will Grow in Importance. As content marketers seek to make their content stand out online, they’ll rely more and more on content that goes deeper into topics, meaning that writers with research skills will be in high demand. Those writers who don’t already have deep knowledge o a niche topic will need to quickly be able to identify those who do, find out what those folks are saying, and weave those narratives into their content.
- Multi-Media Will Matter More than Ever. People like to consume information in many formats, and written text is important, but it’s not enough. While AI writing tools will help content marketers with writing, there’s much more to the story than just text. Text is an optimal basis format, but the add-ons of imagery and visuals are often what make a richer, more compelling experience. It’s possible that a lot of marketers will get fixated with the text side of AI writing tools, which is critical to get right, but let’s not sidestep the importance of other formats to create a fuller content picture that people love to consume.
In all of this, cross-channel penetration will matter more than ever too. Those niche experts? They’re in niche channels where your brand will need to have a presence, even if just to find them and get them to work for you. Those research tasks, they’ll be carried out in places you want your brand to be too. Multi-media? That’s what will help you reach more channels, making sure you link your readers to the accompanying community where the topic is being discussed in more depth, or the video on TikTok or YouTube where they can watch a conversation on this topic unfold, or a link to the PDF with the full data report that your niche expert conducted research to produce. See how they all connect?
It won’t be easy, but it will be important to carry your brand through across these threads and make sure you’re present in the most important channels where your customers happen to be. Content creation will get easier in some ways, but that won’t be enough. Content dissemination will be a major focus for marketers, to get their content into the right channels and in front of the right audiences. That’s going to continue to be a challenge as channels keep multiplying. And many companies are not great at coming with systematic ways to categorize these channels and rank them in importance in order to come up with clear strategies to use them wisely, especially as they proliferate.
Brand Voice Will Be a Major Differentiator
As marketers seek to stand out, tone of voice is going to matter more and more. Another one of my pet peeves lately, along with bland, uninspired writing that sounds like it came from any random humanoid, is when brands dilute their voice. And oh baby, brands are out there diluting their voice every single day, making their customers disappointed that there is a lot of sizzle with no steak to back it up. People are attracted to a brand because of its personality, and voice is a big part of that. When customers get lured into a relationship with a brand, only to find it isn’t what they expected, there is a feeling of disappointment that that initial attraction factor isn’t consistent, and doesn’t stay with them throughout the entire experience.
How does this play out? Sometimes, a brand has a powerful, strong, unique and special voice in their marketing, for example. Naturally, this is where most companies invest the most in their brand voice. But because they fail to cascade that voice into other areas, such as their product UI, their brand voice gets diluted in different parts of the experience. It’s the equivalent of hearing a song played by one of the world’s best symphonies, and hearing the same muffled song later while you’re in the elevator of your hotel, in Muzak form, wishing your ears wouldn’t have to suffer.
This is because content creators are varied. The people in charge of the content that customers consume in different parts of any given experience have different backgrounds, different ages, different goals, different levels of writing skill, different tools, and so on. Ideally, a customer would hear the same voice throughout their entire experience. Now that’s a differentiator. But it’s a very uncommon one, and it can be a truly “unfair advantage” for any company that is able to take a style guide, truly train people on it, operationalize it, and work it into their communications at every touchpoint. Every. Single. Touchpoint.
For companies with a product-led growth motion, this phenomenon can actually play out in the opposite way. The very strong brand voice might exist on the product side, and a company’s marketing might have a very different voice entirely. That’s more common in B2B scenarios, where the users are often different people than the buyers are, especially in enterprise settings, and having diverse brand voices at different parts of the experience could be slightly more justified, but I’d still argue that you want a consistent brand voice throughout your customer’s experience, if you can get there.
Less Content, More Meaning
One of the trends I’m hoping will play out as “information retrieval” gets easier, search tools get better, and content marketing gets more competitive, is that people will focus less on content and far more on meaning. While I’ve been a content marketer at various points in my career, I’ve actually never loved the term “content marketing.” Why? Because to me, content is something you put somewhere. It’s something that occupies a place, or fills a space. It’s valuable for the sake of being there. But beyond that, does it really have much value to anyone?
Content doesn’t change peoples lives.
Ideas do. Concepts do. Insights do.
Content does not.
I’ve been told sometimes people enjoy “the content” I “produce” on this blog, but whenever I hear that sort of phrasing, I wince a little. It makes me wonder if I’m truly delivering anything useful to readers as I hope to, or if I’m being likened to some sort of mass production factory that shoots “pieces of content” out into the internet universe at random.
As someone who shares things in writing with others, I don’t actually view myself as someone who “produces content.” I deliver an idea, a piece of advice, or a way of thinking about a topic that I hope might be novel, in a genuine effort to help. The whole point of writing (and communication in general) is to share thoughts with others, so that we can add value and enrich lives, to move things forward in some way. That’s how writers know we’re helping others. Because the information, the ideas, the examples, the concepts we put out there– those things, and not “the content,” are what actually have the potential to change lives and help with progress.
But when I put my content marketing hat on… okay, I get it. Marketers need to reach large numbers of people, grow audience, and so on. Content marketing is a method of making that happen at scale. But marketers need to craft meaningful experiences too. So, as content explodes out there online, one trend that I hope we’ll start seeing more and more of is less of what I view as “writing for the sake of content marketing,” and more marketing that is actually helpful to customers, and brings renewed meaning to their lives and their work. Who doesn’t want more of that?
After all, search algorithms are supposedly designed to surface the content that will be most valuable to humans and help us solve a problem. So, if we keep that higher-level goal in mind in our marketing and writing efforts, this type of “content” (if we must call it that) is the type that should rise to the top anyway.
The Best Marketers Will Improve Content with Audience Feedback
I think the marketers who are the best at operationalizing this concept of “marketing with meaning” and building it directly into their day-to-day processes will rank higher and higher, capture more share of audience, and succeed in the long run. And to get a leg up on search algorithms, they should try to start capturing this type of qualitative data from their audiences directly and proactively, instead of waiting for the results of search algorithms to tell them whether their content is any good. Marketers have become waaaaaay too dependent on search engine rankings to tell them this, which only creates distance between them and their customers in the end.
How can marketers get closer to knowing the value of their content even before Google does? Pretty simple. By getting better at asking users how they would rate the content, and even how they could make it better. Forward-thinking marketers will start asking, “Was this article helpful?” and “How could we make it better?” and really listening to, and incorporating the feedback from users throughout their content production processes, so they can improve the quality more and more, and on a more continual and agile basis.
High-Level Takeaways on AI and Impact on Content and Writing
To summarize the key thoughts in this post:
- The predominant path of information retrieval (search) is being disrupted for certain types of search queries
- Long-tail and niche content have always been important, but now will be of even greater importance than ever before
- The best marketers will create content not only using trailing indicators (search volume for a given keyword) but using leading indicators of what content their target audience will be searching for in the future, giving them an advantage to “get ahead” of traffic volume from net new search queries
- Content marketers who want to capture audience will need to focus on quality, enrichment, and delivering true value (meaning) in order to play ball in this new reality
- Marketers who adopt AI tools will have an advantage, so long as they keep their focus on quality and not merely quantity alone (although that will still matter too)
- The best writers will be in even greater demand, and will be differentiated by subject matter expertise, creative style, research skills, and ultimately, by the value they can bring to readers
- Instead of waiting around for algorithms to tell them whether their content is any good, the best marketers will lean into other data sources, especially customer and audience feedback, to ensure the content they’re creating is actually valuable and helpful to people
At the end of the day, AI tools are going to change how we write, and how we do marketing. It’s up to us to channel how, and at what pace, it happens. Marketers and writers everywhere, let’s seize the moment to channel things in the direction of providing a better experience for our customers and audiences. If we follow that path, and seek to deliver something of value out there in the world that ultimately helps people, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.