ChatGPT Sounds the Death Knell For Content Marketing (But Not For the Reason You Think)

Changes are, you’ve heard of DALL-E or tools like it. DALL-E and the others will generate a unique image given a text prompt. The cover image for this article is one that I’ve generated for: “Starbucks at night by a motorway”, because I’m writing this in a Starbucks, at night, by a motorway.

What you might be able to hear more about is a sibling tool to DALL-E called “ChatGPT”. This tool generates blocks of text from similarly short prompts. It’s ChatGPT that we’re going to be looking at in this article.

Both of these types of tools that generate content split the world into two types of people — a) those people who are worried about these tools taking their jobs, and b) those people who are excited about using these tools to do their job.

What I’m interested in though is looking at ChatGPT through the lens of a problem that we all experience at the moment: most of the content on Google is crap, and I don’t think tools like ChatGPT is going to help one bit.

In fairness, Google knows about the issue with most of the content being crap, and we can see this through the “ August 2022 Helpful Content Update “. Google periodically does large strategy changes in how it sifts content for users, and we’re going to talk about this and this update as we go.

How to market a (B2B) business

Imagine you are a B2B business — i.e. one that sells your services to other businesses. At some point, you have to find some customers, and there are broadly two ways you can do this. The easiest place to start is to have someone refer business into you. They need to know you and what you sell, and they act by helping someone you don’t know yet to “discover” you. They also do some qualification for you — i.e. some trust comes along with that recommendation.

The problem with “referral marketing” is that it doesn’t scale. In order to grow your B2B business you need to do some marketing. You have to be discoverable, and once you have been discovered, you need to be similar qualifiable.

Back in the day, way back when there was a website called “Yahoo!”, which didn’t behave how Yahoo! today does. It used to be a directory — if you had a website, you had to apply to be listed in the directory. They then later added a spider that would go and find your website, which would be indexed and searchable, i.e. a search engine.

Then we have something of a footnote in that someone took the search engine and made it much better, and called it AltaVista. And then two other people took AltaVista and made it much, much better and called it Google. Google then proceeds to decide that it wants to “organize the world’s information” and we know where that story is currently. Google also has a competitor called Bing, that for the rest of this article I’m going to conveniently ignore. (I’m also going to conveniently ignore DuckDuckGo and other specialist engines.)

If you’re looking to market your B2B business, or rather if you’re going to close a sale in your B2B business and you are not using referral marketing, Google is going to be triangulated into that process somewhere. Some part of effectively every single commercial business-to-business sales activity — in the western world at least — involves Google in some way.

To flip that idea on its head, if you want to sell anything to another business, part of your strategy has to involve having something on the web that Google can discover. And it this factor that is the genesis of crap content.

It’s been accepted wisdom for many years now that in order to close B2B sales, you have to be creating value for your customers much earlier on in the sales cycle. This is called “content marketing” — you create content, typically for B2B this is written content and can be blogs, social media posts (usually LinkedIn), or books, or articles, but increasingly we’re seeing more video content. Regardless, what you as the marketer is looking to do is bottle some of the “secret sauce” that your business sells in the form of content that customers can discover. From there, when the customer finds and reads the content, they’ll both a) discover you, and b) build trust and hence qualify you in as a good fit for their problem.

Now that I’ve told you what content marketing is (and you may well know), let me ask a new friend a question “what is B2B content marketing?” They said:

“B2B content marketing is a marketing strategy that involves creating and sharing content, such as blog posts, videos, and social media posts, with the aim of attracting and engaging a specific business audience. The goal of B2B content marketing is to educate and inform the target audience about a company’s products or services, with the ultimate aim of driving profitable customer action. It is often used by businesses to build trust and establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry.”

That paragraph was written by ChatGPT. It took about two seconds to generate. It took me a few minutes to write my version, and to be honest I went back and edited mine having seen its output…

Why content is now crap

Setting aside ChatGPT for a second, here’s the problem with content marketing — there is only so much best practice to go around.

Keep imagining that you, Alice, run a B2B marketing agency. Let’s say that out in the ether Bob runs a small IT support business that wants to “level up” his marketing. You have to get Bob to find you, and trust you enough to start a conversation.

A content marketing strategy says that you need to educate that business how you do B2B marketing. You write a blog post to do this, so you sit down and write something like:

“An IT support business can use a variety of marketing strategies to attract and retain customers. Some effective marketing strategies for an IT support business include:

* Content marketing: Creating and sharing educational and informative content, such as blog posts and videos, can help establish the business as a thought leader in the IT industry and build trust with potential customers.

* Search engine optimization (SEO): Optimizing the business’s website and online content for search engines can help increase its visibility on search engine results pages and attract more organic traffic.

* Social media marketing: Using social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, to share content and engage with potential customers can help the business reach a wider audience and build relationships with potential clients.

* Email marketing: Sending targeted and personalized emails to potential and existing customers can help the business stay top of mind and drive more sales.

* Referral marketing: Encouraging existing customers to refer the business to their colleagues and contacts can help the business gain new customers and build a positive reputation in the industry.

Amazing! That’s really helpful content, so you put it up on your website and now Bob can find you. The problem here is that, as mentioned, there’s only so much best practice to go around. It’s not just you writing this content, everyone is, and everyone looks like the same because without genuine insights, where’s the originality? You have thousands of businesses creating the same content on the same topic.

This is why all the content on Google is crap — it’s all the same because anyone selling anything has to produce exactly the same content and put it online. Now when Bob is at his computer searching for best ways to market his IT support business, he finds thousands of pages that rehash the same idea. You can try this for yourself by Googling for this topic — the results are disappointingly repetitive.

How GPT works

I’ll let you into a secret, although you may have guessed by now — the bullet list above on how to market an IT support business was generated by ChatGPT.

What Google has managed to get very good at over the past 20+ years is in interpreting intent. When you search Google for something, it has to take a plain sentence and work how what it was you’re looking for, and which pages likely contain the information you want. It’s then down to you to look at each page in turn, reading and processing the information with the hope of finding the actual answer you need.

What ChatGPT does is exactly the same, apart from the last bit. What you get when you “search” on ChatGPT is that it will “imagine” the most typical pages that match your search intent and summarise for you what’s on those pages that it’s imagined. You are saved from having to bother with the work of sifting through a set of candidate pages and summarising the overarching meaning for yourself, which you still have to do with Google.

This sounds a bit mad, and I have oversimplified it, but roughly what ChatGPT is doing is giving you some text that statistically is likely to represent the consensus view on whatever topic you ask it to comment on.

As generally speaking “consensus = best practice”, there’s an alignment when using it to generating marketing content. You are likely to get content out that just happens to represent best practice in whatever topic are you’re writing about.

The major issue with ChatGPT is that it is about to ruin content forever, and Google knows this, hence the need for the “helpful content update”.

Junk marketing

Let’s imagine that Bob decides he wants to post on Twitter every day. So he goes to ChatGPT and types in “write me 5 tweets on why SMEs need backup”. He gets this back:

Great, he does that four more times for four more topics and he’s got all his tweets for a month. A job that would have taken hours to do manually now takes 60 seconds.

BUT EVERYONE ELSE DOES EXACTLY THE SAME THING.

And because they’re all using the same underlying model, the content is all identical.

Now, overnight, content marketing is effectively spam.

To illustrate, here’s the output for the prompt: “Write me a cold outreach email to sell my IT support business to accountants”:

“Dear [Accountant],

As a fellow [industry professional/business owner], I understand the importance of reliable and efficient technology for your business. That’s why I wanted to reach out and introduce you to [Your Business], a [IT support/consulting] company that specializes in helping [accounting/finance] firms like yours.

We have a team of experienced and certified technicians who can provide [tailored solutions/onsite support/24/7 assistance] to help your business run smoothly and efficiently. Our services include [list services], and we pride ourselves on providing [exceptional customer service/affordable rates/fast response times].

As a special offer for new clients, we are currently offering [discount/free trial/complimentary consultation].

I would love the opportunity to discuss how we can support your business and help you achieve your technology goals. Please let me know if you’re interested in learning more. I would be happy to schedule a call at your convenience.

Best regards, [Your Name] [Your Business]

It’s not wrong. That is a cold outreach email to sell IT support to accountants. But there’s not much more I can say about it than that. It’s not insightful, unique, or interesting. It just “is”.

Wither Google

The Helpful Update content is designed to get out in front of this flood of content. Although ChatGPT is new, the underlying model on which it is based — GPT-3 — is not. What ChatGPT does it make it substantially more accessible for anyone to use.

The Helpful Content update has a few facets, but the key one is that it has to “feature expertise”. The principle here is that anything that GPT-3 (and its related sibling language processing models) “knows” is now “obvious” — i.e. if it’s something you could learn by typing a question into ChatGPT or a related tool, it’s not going to get indexed. That sort of content will be junked — all Google will do is put their own summary on the search results page and keep you on the site.

For example, I use content marketing in my business. I’ve had to write a little over 2,200 words here to talk about ChatGPT and content marketing, but it’s a unique thought. (ChatGPT did contribute some of it, of course). I could have written an article just by asking ChatGPT to describe itself and job done.

ChatGPT is a great front end to a very competent natural language model, and realistically I think we will see outputs from this sort of model finding their way directly into Google because the risk of competition is too great to ignore (even though the functions are very different). But if you work in marketing, your job is safe. Don’t worry.

Mind you, if you run a content marketing agency, get ready for some disruption!

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Matthew Reynolds

I work with IT customers and their suppliers to resolve disputes before litigation. Part of that is helping IT leaders get better at buying IT systems.