An ocean of ink has already been spilled about ChatGPT for marketing content on both sides — depending on who you’re talking to, it is either the second coming of the Internet or a technology parlor trick that will never acquire the humanity we need in a trusted advisor. Firebrand Labs is working today on best practices for generative AI and describing how it will shake up digital marketing.
But writers across the globe are still puzzled. Are our skills still worth the paychecks we receive, or has the Terminator finally come for our copywriting jobs? A recent Forrester report said that 10% of Fortune 500 enterprises will generate content with AI tools, and they are investing in more AI-supported digital content technologies.
What it’s really like to talk to ChatGPT about writing
A recent chat with our friend ChatGPT left me convinced that we human writers can still contribute something valuable that falls outside of ChatGPT’s current understanding.
Talking with ChatGPT felt a bit like talking with the instructor of a certification class I once took to become an emergency medical technician (EMT). If I ever asked a question in class that deviated from rote learning or went outside the bounds of an EMT’s assigned protocol, I was sternly redirected back — “do it by the book” is the mantra of EMTs. Those who don’t often end up killing patients, so freelancers and improvisers are not welcome in the medical field despite what you see on TV shows about them.
But that’s exactly what we want in a writer. We want content that doesn’t just check the keyword boxes — we want it to sing, to catch a reader’s eyes with flair, word choice and uniqueness.
ChatGPT for marketing content will find its niche
ChatGPT’s writing could be great at short-form marketing copy, or even editing and reframing copy for a new audience or format. But narrative or persuasive writing hits or misses on uniqueness, style or unexpected turns (not words in an order that is statistically likely). So that format may not be in its wheelhouse this year. As a tool that will save human writers from some of the more mundane tasks of our industry, freeing them to do even better narrative writing, ChatGPT works really well.
In our discussion, ChatGPT knew all the right answers for what good writing is (“clarity, coherence, conciseness”) but was still full of bromides and tautologies when I challenged it on the nuances (“A good way to avoid clichés is to be aware of them”).
Right after that sound advice, ChatGPT started a requested blog post with, “In today’s fast-paced business world…” Let’s keep working on it, my polite AI friend.
But ChatGPT’s writing shortcomings do bring up some important questions:
How do you develop more versatility and flair in your core writing team? They might be skilled at filling in a brief or writing from a content template, but can they reach ChatGPT’s definition of flair? Are they writers who “use creative metaphors, wordplay, or unexpected turns of phrase to convey a message”? Can they “use humor or wit to keep the reader engaged,” perhaps also using “descriptive language that transports the reader to a different place or time?”
Those are a few of the ingredients in the soup, but ultimately not the stirring of the pot that turns into a good read. Try instituting these four best practices as a regular part of your writing team’s process.
1. Start with a good (but short) creative brief — even if it’s just for internal use
This is a basic but often skipped step when time is short. Standard practice is to use creative briefs for more complex projects or campaigns that might have multiple components for design, content marketing assets and PR efforts. But we might skip the step for a simple blog post, byline or web page text. A long brief could be creating more planning work than necessary – if you’re on a tight deadline the temptation is to dismiss it as a distraction. But this doesn’t have to be yet another Google doc or a flurry of five emails. Keep the brief as a few lines in a tool you already use, like Slack or Asana. A short brief might have just five fields: Title, Audience, Voice, Notes from Sources or Clients, and Calls-to-action.
2. Pretend it’s print – follow the “two sets of eyes” rule
Those of us willing to date ourselves by admitting a job in “print” (what was that again?) remember the two sets of eyes rule. It’s based on the simple proposition that any writing turns out better when two people other than the writer have looked at it. It sounds simple, but more often than not content is not making a lot of stops on the editing line.
3. Occasionally try line editing over Zoom between a junior and senior writer
Again, this may seem “old school,” but writing coaching can’t really happen through Google doc comments and asynchronous interactions. Junior writers sometimes need to literally see the thought process manifest into sentences from a senior writer. It isn’t practical for every piece of writing, but doing it once a month can bring junior writers’ skills up several notches.
4. Spend enough time identifying the best voice for each piece
I find voice to be pretty subjective — one woman’s “conversational” is another man’s “artifice.” One client’s “informative” is another client’s “snoozefest.” Develop your writers’ ability to mimic any other piece that a client identifies as the right voice. Then that writer can find a way to make that voice her own (see ChatGPT’s definition of “flair”).
The bottom line for content marketing best practices
What you’ll notice is every best practice involves a human conversation, not an AI being peppered with finely crafted prompts and generating output. I have no doubt that generative AI writing coaches and assistants like Jasper and others will eventually do a decent job of creating high-volume marketing content. For short bits of content or headlines designed for clicks and conversions, the ChatGPT writing will be fine. Writers will be thankful to outsource the mechanical and repetitive content tasks to the bots — but beautiful writing is still in the realm of the human.
Josh Green is a content creator and media strategist with a penchant for storytelling and evidence-based campaigns. Prior to Firebrand, Josh worked as a Communications Director at tech startups and a large healthcare company, as well as a media spokesperson for the 2020 Census, journalist, op-ed writer, editor, and political scientist.