18 June 2024

Will humans or bots win the content wars?

| The European |

Julie Lock of HubSpot unpacks the challenges marketing departments face in generating consistent and incisive copy, and looks at whether AI is the answer 

Whether artificial intelligence or humans is best for creating content and driving engagement is a timely question to be pondering as a marketing leader, given that AI is disrupting so many industries. And it’s now entered into my sector: a year ago, a person in our marketing team, who was early on in their career, said: “Julie, I’ve used this AI tool to create this content. What do you think?” Now, my first thought was, this could be great, but digging deeper into the questions, I gained some valuable lessons.

I’d been recruited to build a marketing team to support HubSpot’s growth aspirations in the UK and Irish markets. I had previously worked in established blue chip companies during my career, including small, medium and large marketing teams. In economic downturns, we had been asked to do more with less, then in the “boom periods”, had the opportunity to do much more with the same amount of people!

A particular aspect that has always been a challenge is scaling, regardless of the macroeconomic conditions and the size of the team. Yet, one thing has remained: I always felt there was so much more my teams could do to support the growth objectives of the companies I worked for. However, my teams have always reached capacity pretty quickly, and while marketing automation helped, it’s never been the solution.

Understanding the artificial in AI 

On average, it takes four hours to write a post. Then, there are freelancers and agencies we all employ to help with the scale issue, although they are in short supply. This is not helped by the skills gap across many roles within the UK and Irish markets. This challenge, coupled with the fact that it is tough to create content that stands out from the crowd, means the best writers are hard to come by. Ensuring consistent content and tone to improve your SEO ranking is a tough game for any marketing team.

When you look at the market you are putting your content into, you often ask yourself “how can we compete?” It is estimated that there are 572 million blogs in the world and seven million blog posts are published per day. More specifically, 3,000-plus word articles achieve better results. That’s why I thought machines could help with my problem!

So, with these things in my mind, I thought to myself, could AI help with capacity constraints and the problems I’d encountered finding a reasonably priced copywriter that could write in our tone of voice and fast.

When using AI to draft copy, I found the quality of the writing to be good, the structure, message, grammar and spelling were spot on, but something was missing, it just didn’t connect with me. I thought it lacked humour, and didn’t have a personality. The magic ingredient was missing. You could say it’s the sparkle or the gold that creates emotional resonance and creative impact. But what AI produced was a clinical piece; it came across like code, greetString = “Welcome”;.

The copywriting greats 

It got me thinking who are the “copywriting greats” – past and present – and do we need these people to teach AI. If these people could speak with the machines, I wonder how they would go about creating a piece with emotional connection.

Known for his iconic campaigns such as the Man in the Hathaway Shirt, Schweppes, Rolls-Royce, and Puerto Rico, David Ogilvy is an advertising legend. Then there’s Mary Wells Lawrence who was behind iconic campaigns such as Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz”, Ford’s “Quality is Job One” and “I Love New York.”

Ogilvy believed in the power of copy, specifically long-form copy. He argued that those who are willing to read lengthy copy are deeply interested in the product. Additionally, he recognised the significance of headlines, an aspect that is still relevant today. What’s more, it is possible that his personal experience with the products contributed to the magic of his campaigns.

Ogilvy’s dedication to research was a key factor in his success. While Mary loved to disrupt the status quo and that was part of her secret ingredient to success. For Ogilvy, although machines today could assist us in research and improve the output of our campaigns, recreating the human element of both Ogilvy and Mary’s talent is the harder part.

If we move forward to the digital pioneers of the modern day, there’s Arianna Huffington. The Huffington Post owner built her business from a current affairs commentary blog to a media empire. Selling it for $315m in 2011. Her content is connected, and it clearly rocked. Yet the gold in this copy is not something you can easily describe to a bot. 

Even if we could humanise AI-generated content somehow, we need the time and resources to promote it. I recently tried another experiment following the explosion of TikTok and the importance of video content. I set the AI a challenge, seeing if the technology could turn my copy for a customer case study into video content. This was an epic failure. It just isn’t ready. It is not sophisticated enough yet. If only the brains of the aforementioned pioneers could have taught those bots, maybe my first experience would have been better. Although that’s not the point of AI, it learns.

Let’s hope AI starts to find some sparkle soon then this marketer scale problem will disappear and we’ll all be even more efficient and effective. Because ultimately, it’s not a content war, I believe machines need humans, and humans need machines. 

About the Author

Julie Lock is Marketing Director at HubSpot, UK and Ireland, and has held senior positions at some of the world’s most prominent companies, including Microsoft and Vodafone. 

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