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Ghostwritten Content Brings Unseen Risk

June 19, 2018 - Content Marketing, influencer content marketing, Practitioner Marketing - ,
By: Chris Riley

Ghostwriting is a fairly common practice for content, and it is seemingly an easy way to satisfy the hunger of an aggressive content runway. But at Fixate, we have a strong opinion about ghostwriting—DON’T. Ghostwriting is not sustainable in the best-case scenario, and in the worst-case scenario, it’s a serious liability.

Definition

Leave it to content pros to make something very simple more complex. There are actually three types of content:

Authored: Published and bylined by the original author.

Non-Authored: Published and bylined by the company (or no specific author).

Ghostwritten: Published and bylined by an individual who is not the author

The reason we have to point this out is because non-authored is often confused with ghostwritten. Non-authored content is very useful, and a healthy content marketing practice. In this post, we are specifically talking about content where the original author is not known to the reader, and the person who appears to be the author is actually someone else.

Why people do it

Here are some of the top reasons people use ghostwritten content:

  1. Perceived as less expensive.
  2. Fear of outside voices.
  3. Seen as an easy way to fill a content runway.

All of these benefits are rooted in the wrong motive. They are about helping you, not the readers of your blog. Because none of these benefits relate to better content and more credibility, they all affect your blog’s odds of survival. Even though the benefits may help you, they are misleading.

  1. The direct cost of ghostwritten content is generally far less expensive per post than practitioner-created content. However, the pieces generally require more review, and they are more often discarded and never published. Both hard costs. (Then there is the soft cost, which we will discuss in the next section.)
  2. If you sell to a technical audience, outside voices are exactly what you need, because these individuals want to get value from their peers. If they read content on your blog that is authored by your company or team, they immediately know it’s biased, and will read it with that frame of mind, making practitioner content marketing more valuable.
  3. Because ghost content usually requires more internal effort per piece, it does not usually end up being the hard-and-fast solution to filling a content backlog. Ghostwriters generally do not have the experience nor the willingness to make sure the content gets published. So they are driven to do only the bare minimum. Another aspect of ghostwriting to consider is that the bylined author needs to review the post with a fine-tooth comb—which, if done correctly, means they are using nearly as much effort as it would take to write it themselves. With practitioner content marketing, however, getting published is a key aspect of the entire model.

It burns!

So now you see why ghostwritten content is not as it seems. But here is where things can, in truth, get scary. There is actually a huge liability that comes with ghostwriting. And interestingly, the risk increases with the quality of content—so the higher the quality of ghostwritten content, the greater chance it’s going to cause a lot of trouble.

  1. Bylined author gets caught: Once, at a tradeshow talk, I witnessed firsthand a speaker being asked about a blog post they never wrote. I suspect this is rare, but it is seriously damaging to the speaker’s reputation. More often, what happens is a comment to a post with a follow-up question that the bylined author can’t answer. And the ghostwriter usually can’t either, or is unwilling. Comments are a gold mine for SEO, and not responding to them is a mistake. I have also witnessed a bylined author being held accountable for inaccuracies—I assume because they only partially reviewed the post. (This can actually lead to legal trouble.)
  2. Company gets caught: When your bylined author is caught, the whole company is caught, and immediately all the content the company puts out has little to no value. This is hard to come back from.

Besides the reputation fallout, there are other tactical risks. As mentioned above, ghostwriters are not on the hook for the content that gets published, and because they generally are paid less, they tend to do the least amount possible to get the job done. That is how they keep their margins. They write fast, it’s sloppy, and they don’t have much concern for the output. The common things that we see from blog mills and ghostwriters are:

  1. Plagiarism. This might not be of others’ content. Very often, it’s of the ghostwriter’s own content. It’s easy to copy and paste paragraphs of ghost content that has already been written.
  2. Soft plagiarism. Almost by design, the ghostwriter will take existing published content on a topic and morph it into their own. It’s not technically plagiarism of text, but of concept.
  3. They have a limit as far as the depth of type of content. They usually can only create the type of content we call “strategi-tactical.” If they can’t Google it, they can’t create it. They don’t have enough experience or knowledge to create code-level content, and they can’t formulate strategy that is not already published. But what they can do is get enough strategy and technical info on the Web to put it all together. This content performs well on LinkedIn, but is not great for SEO or broader campaigns.
  4. Technical inaccuracies. If you are willing to ghostwrite, you need volume to make money. Because of this, ghostwriters are likely not practitioners. So the content is probably only as accurate as a Google search to find the answer.

Practitioners take pride in their content, and they want to see their name on the Web. That right away is a self-policing mechanism to avoid the above points.

There is that ONE place

There is one place, and only one place where I have seen ghostwriting + practitioner content marketing work (which is not a strong case for it, by any means). But I would be doing an injustice not to point it out.

The area where ghost content can be useful (but only if it’s produced by practitioners and not blog mills) is for the blogs of professional services companies and executives. Companies that do technical consulting have to show real-world knowledge of their architects, but their architects always have to be billable to stay in business. The way this model works best is through an experienced practitioner, a peer to those architects, who has access to project information and content from architects that he or she builds on with technical blog posts published as the company’s architects. That means you are paying practitioner content marketing rates. A lot of the same risks exist, but because a practitioner is producing the content, and the quality is higher, the risk is often worth it because professional services companies that don’t allow bench time need it.

Business executives also need to be seen as an authority in their space. While they could carve out the time to create content, the result often does not look good if they manage to do so. Executive content tends to focus on strategy, trends, etc. Therefore, by finding a high-value writer that understands the market better then the executive, compelling content can be created. There is a big risk here that the executive won’t have his or her own voice, and will be called out. But the benefit often outweighs the risk in this case. (And the nature of the content is not technical enough to be as damaging.)

The takeaway

Perceived cost savings, fear of outside voices, and easy content volume are the wrong motivators to maintain a good content marketing strategy. (Not to mention that they are also misleading.) For these reasons, we believe there is no place for ghostwriting unless your ultimate goal is clickbait content.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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