I hate using the C-word. You know, “content.” If you look (you should look!), you won’t see that word anywhere on Third Bridge’s main site. “Content” is so generic, as in “the contents of a box,” which is really all our various big and little screens are: boxes with smaller boxes in them, filled with content. Bland, generic, insipid, boring, treacly, craven, cynical content. Blech.
For the purposes of this piece, though, I’m going to break my own rules and use the C-word, but I have a good reason: This piece is about producing an insanely large volume of discreet media objects day after day after day, with a level of precision that rivals NASA’s. We’re intentionally not going to talk about the nature of the media objects—their value, what they’re meant to express. Rather, we’re going to treat them as generic items (think: widgets), and we’re going to discuss their creation at a very abstract level, and so the word “content” will serve our purposes just fine here.
And again: large volume. Think hundreds of pieces a week, written by a global team of writers, for multiple territories. Think Lucy at the conveyor belt with the chocolates. Think “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by the composer Paul Dukas, when things are getting super gnarly and the machine’s grinding and whirring and huffing and puffing and just about to blow a gasket—but lo! It is a well-designed machine and therefore up to the task.
And mind you, the machine isn’t churning out just any old pile of goods. Who do we look like, the hoverboard guys? No sir. You could eat off the factory floors of TBC, metaphorically speaking. We’re making classy stuff here, for clients who demand such excellence, not to mention discretion—who do we make this great content for? It really doesn’t matter: As mentioned, we’re going to deal more in conceptual terms here. It’s the scale of this system, its complexity, its absurdity, that I will attempt to make interesting, like someone describing the enormity of Mt. Reiner to a blind person.
Now, why would I want to do this? I want to do this because I know way too much about doing it. It’s knowledge I did not consciously seek out. I sort of absorbed it osmotically, over a career that has mainly involved the careful construction of English language sentences. But in the same sense that your flag decal won’t get you into heaven, as John Prine sang, neither will your short story collection pay your rent. And so I have learned to thrive at the intersection of these two activities: building clipper ships in bottles out of toothpicks (a.k.a. writing), and designing systems for producing massive amounts of content. But enough about me.
Here are the things you should keep in mind when constructing your Content Machine.
Does the Content Need to be Good?
You laugh, but think long and hard about this one, because it’s entirely possible the answer is “No”. Think of all the websites for which the answer is “No”. Ask Google a “How To…” question and you will surely land on one. Ditto any questions you might have regarding any subject whatsoever: physical health, dating advice, interior decorating—you name it. Bad content is the norm. You can start a site and begin producing it very quickly using writing outsourced affordably to a business whose job it is to produce cheap, SEO-optimized words that more or less conform to basic English usage. If you can pile up enough of this content and attract traffic to it by gaming various systems (e.g. search, social), then you’ll have ad inventory you can sell to companies who themselves are gaming various systems. It’s all very cold and calculated and depressing (“arbitrage” is part of the lexicon of this world’s jargon). But point is, if your goal in life is to make money while polluting our shared intellectual space, then you have no need for good content. Like watching The Big Bang Theory and driving a Hummer, making bad content is your right as a human.
We do not do this at Third Bridge. Call us crazy, but we decided when we started this company that we’d make it our business to make good content, written not just by “experts,” because on the internet everyone is one of those, but by people whose expertise was such that they’d had bylines in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Guardian, etc.
Creating good content is way harder than creating bad content, especially at scale. Robots, or people who think like robots, can be programmed to create bad content, such are its easy rules and strictures. To create good content, you need lively, active, fissile minds. To attract such minds, you need an airtight process, compelling subjects, and clients who know the difference between premium and pap. And to keep such minds around, you need a commensurate level of talent minding each piece of the machine, which brings us to the next question…
Do You Need Great Editors?
If you answered “No” to the first question, then you can skip this one. But if you actually want to create exceptional copy, then you need great editors. Great editors see copy the way Neo sees the code in The Matrix—the underlying structures, the little inefficiencies. Great editors tighten and smooth and ultimately intensify a writer’s thinking without changing it. It’s a rare skill, and difficult to appreciate, especially if you answered No to the first question, in which case why are you even still reading?
Great editors are equally if not more important than great writers, especially if you’re in the not unlikely position of having multiple content operations dealing in multiple subjects that you yourself may or may not be expert in (let’s say, hypothetically, that you run a content consultancy whose clients range from digital music services to spider (a.k.a. SPDR) funds (also—“spider funds”!? scary!)). Not only will great editors find and attract the great writers we’ve already decided you need, but they’ll ensure those writers speak with the subject matter expertise your clients demand, because they themselves have it at the highest level.
So then, we’ve decided that you’re going to need great writers and great editors. But guess what? Their talents will be squandered if you don’t have a workflow that allows each person in the production chain to do their job to the best of their ability. This is easy enough when you have multiple weeks to assign, write, edit, and ultimately deliver a piece of copy to a client. But what if you only have four days? And what if instead of one piece it’s 200? This, friends, is where your CMS comes in.
Where Your CMS Comes In
When I was a boy growing up in rural Iowa helping my daddy shuck corn to the sounds of Hank Williams—wait, strike that. When I was boy growing up on the shores of Huntington Beach to the sounds of Reel Big Fish, I always dreamed of one day building my own CMS. Indeed, some kids wanted to be renowned skater-artists, others famous rock stars. Me? I dreamt of database rows filled with cell after cell of metadata attributes, each more brilliant than the next…
So yeah, you’ll need a CMS, a.k.a. Content Management System. This can be as grandiose or as simple as your needs require, and commensurately expensive. Never underestimate the amount you can get done with Google Docs, which is, if you know what you’re doing, a free, off-the-shelf CMS for projects up to a certain size. If you need to move up from there, then you’ve graduated from DIY to OMG, as there are hundreds of options for CMS products. The first question to ask is always, Build or Buy? The former may take you longer and may cost more, but you’ll own the IP. There are lots of off-the-shelf solutions for the latter, but your options for customization may be limited. The list of pros and cons is pretty long, but this is one of the most important components of your operation. Devote more than just one happy hour to figuring it out. (That’s how you know it’s important.)
At TBC, we built our own CMS, DIY, with our IQs, FYI (please kill me). Our CMS has all the features we need—various approval matrices for copy; support for localization; report generation, etc. It’ll even make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Since we built it ourselves, it means it’s easy to tweak and customize. Also since we built it ourselves, it means we need to fix it ourselves when it breaks, but I’ll take that option over having to file a ticket and set your watch to some farflung customer support office any day of the week.
Also, at the end of the day, as mentioned above, we own the IP. That may or may not amount to much, but like anything else in life, if you build it yourself you feel a greater sense of ownership, responsibility, and ultimately pride. That’s why we all do this, right? We want to be proud of the work we do, of our contribution to the content game. And how could you feel pride if you make bad content with a mediocre team using crappy tools? How could you even sleep at night? What’s that, you say—you sleep in satin pajamas on a bed of $100 bills? Huh. Well, I guess that’s fine. Good for you. I still like my content machine better.
Garrett Kamps is a co-founder of Third Bridge Creative. He also writes things for other people on occasion. Follow him here @gkamps. And follow TBC at @thirdbridge415 for all the latest news and updates.