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Is Text Dead?

The Role of Text in Digital Marketing

As audio and video take up more and more of our time and attention, it’s worth asking whether anyone reads anymore. And if people are reading less, what does that mean for all the stuff we’re writing today? Will anyone ever read it?

Doubting the importance of writing isn’t exactly new. It’s been doubted before and yet, writing remains important. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t begin to think a bit differently about what we write, how we write, what we can expect from our writing, and what we can expect from readers. Things are changing.

In this episode of Expert Marketing Matters, Chris and Mark discuss the changing landscape of text-based media, explore how search engines continue to evolve how they prioritize different media and connect searchers to content, and make some recommendations for how marketers can best leverage their current understanding of text in the digital age…

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Chris Butler: Welcome to Expert Marketing Matters. I’m Chris Butler.

Mark O’Brien: And I’m Mark O’Brien.

Chris Butler: It’s just the two of us again.

Mark O’Brien: Again. Lauren will be back next time.

Chris Butler: Yeah, it’s getting lonely here in the podcasting room. As per usual Mark, this one begins, this conversation we have begins with something that happened offline, so to speak, although, well anyway. You emailed an article that you found the other day.

Mark O’Brien: Over the weekend, yeah.

Chris Butler: That basically said text is dead. It’s interesting, this theme is running all over the place. We’ve discussed it a bit on the podcast. I’m seeing more and more people talking about it online. What does that mean to you? Text is dead.

Mark O’Brien: Well, I have to say, it’s an intimidating concept. I’ll be honest about that because what we’ve observed over the past 20 years is that text is not dead and it is the media for marketing, right, and because again, what we’ve seen works is not competing on price, not competing on timing, not competing on size, but competing on knowledge.
And so, it’s all been about sharing knowledge and how do you do that most effectively. The index able word has been a very, very big part of that, and because of that, we’ve built our business around that. That’s what we do, really the heart of it. So, the reason I read, it was a New York Times article, and … No, it was from the Atlantic, I think.

Chris Butler: I think it was the Atlantic.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and sent it out just because I feel like it’s definitely a very forward leaning concept, but we’ve gotta get our heads around it now, so that we can continue to do what we’ve always done, which is morph to reality.

Chris Butler: Yes.

Mark O’Brien: So, we’ll do it. We’ll be what we need to be in order to be relevant.

Chris Butler: Yep.

Mark O’Brien: And to provide real value, but that’s gonna look different in three years than it does today.

Chris Butler: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, text is dead is a great editorial headline because it grabs the attention of many people who are interested in text, either being alive or being dead.

Mark O’Brien: And mind you, it was a written article about the death of text, which we all read.

Chris Butler: That’s quite clever actually. It hadn’t occurred to me to point that out, but it’s true. Of course, we could quibble with that, as people who, I mean you studied writing in college. You and I both, and I think this is a shared value among everyone in Newfangled. We all love the written word. We consume it and the bottom line is, text is basically the structure of language. It’s the container for language, and language is the container for meaning. Text will not go away because picture, and this is just a philosophical thing, pictures can not represent meaning the same way that text does. If it could, then we would never have invented text because text is the evolution of pictogram, and the problem is that anyone looks at an image and it can be interpreted a million different ways and you need all kinds of other context if you want to actually get down to the intent of the author.
Where as text is supposed to alleviate that concern. It’s suppose to get you to meaning and harder and faster meaning quicker. So, I don’t see text going anywhere. I think that what this article is actually saying, and I think all articles of the text is dead variety right now, what they’re really saying is reading is dead.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, right, and that’s different.

Chris Butler: It’s different, but it’s actually something that I think there’s a point there.

Mark O’Brien: There’s a point there. There’s a point there for sure and as soon as I hear you say that, my instant reaction is, well, I love to read, but the truth is, of the past even six books I’ve consumed over the past six weeks, one I actually read.

Chris Butler: One you actually looked at words.

Mark O’Brien: Five I listened to.

Chris Butler: Correct, yeah. And if reading is dead, then writing as we tend to think of it could also be dead. Now again, by dead we don’t mean dead and buried forever more gone. Especially in this context, we’re talking about marketing, we’re talking about content marketing. When someone says, okay reading is dead, what that means to me is people are reading less than they used to and perhaps there’s a more expedient way of them getting to the knowledge you’re trying share with them than reading words on a page or a screen. And one should be able to say, or agree with that without any fear.

Mark O’Brien: You know what strikes me, as we were saying this, this is how it goes, we have these conversations and ideas pop up and then that changes the course of things. We’ve been transcribing a lot. I’ve completely interrupted you because I wanna get this idea out so we don’t forget it.

Chris Butler: No, please do.

Mark O’Brien: And so, what we’ve been doing is we do this, we have the podcast and we have webinars and we in turn transcribe those things. Incidentally we found that those transcriptions don’t generate a fraction of the organic inbound traffic as an actual originally written article does, which is interesting. So, Google is seeing the difference between transcription and in intentionally written article, so that’s interesting.

Chris Butler: Yeah, and there’s probably some really clear metadata reasons for that, like we never do H2’s in a transcription. It’s just a big ass dump of text, but Google knows what a transcription is. Name, colon, [crosstalk 00:05:50]. They know the difference.

Mark O’Brien: And they’re not as interested in that. So, we’ve been doing that, but what we really should be doing is the experience I’ve had now with all these audio books. It not like I just started listening to audio books, but it just so happens that almost all of them I listened to since the year started have been all books exhumed in audio books. We should do that with our content, like this white paper is coming out. I should record myself reading that white paper.

Chris Butler: Oh yeah, that’s interesting.

Mark O’Brien: You know what I mean? We should do it the opposite way. All of our written content should be available through audio.

Chris Butler: Yeah, you know it’s funny. David Baker did that, I don’t know, six years ago.

Mark O’Brien: Did he?

Chris Butler: He experimented with it. He didn’t continue it.

Mark O’Brien: Of course he didn’t.

Chris Butler: Before the podcast, he was writing a couple blog posts and then he read them, kind of like … And he was calling it a podcast experiment, but what you’re talking about is the reverse order. It felt a little stiff because I think he was just experimenting with it, but I think there is something to that.

Mark O’Brien: We should do that.

Chris Butler: Yeah, why not.

Mark O’Brien: That’s really interesting.

Chris Butler: The technology today available to somebody who would like to speak their content marketing it’s pretty there.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, it’s totally there.

Chris Butler: Yeah, I mean even, I don’t know when, I think it might have been almost approaching six years ago, when I did a webinar for Blair Enns, for Win Without Pitching, it was on actually the future of content marketing. I used my Dragon Dictation headset to record the webinar live, but in parallel was recording it through Dragon, and it transcribed it live, and when I got that transcription back, I had to make very few edits to it, very, very few. And that’s amazing, it was 45 minutes of spoken content.

Mark O’Brien: It was 7,000 words.

Chris Butler: Or, you know me, I tend to [crosstalk 00:07:25], and that’s amazing because that plus a recording could be an incredible double dose of content. The only reason we’re transcribing, and this is sad but true, is for Google. It’s for robots. We want robots to see that text and therefore continue to estimate the authority of on certain subjects, so that when people search for them, they get them, but you’re right. That the actual organic traffic to that type of content is vastly lower than anything else.

Mark O’Brien: The best way to do this, jumping right to the solution here, would be, thinking about this white paper for example, if I could read off a teleprompter, do all three. Have a video of me just presenting this material word for word, but it would require a teleprompter.

Chris Butler: It’s funny that you say this because you’re actually describing the major difference between our public speaking styles because when you do a talk, you, for the most part, prepare your thoughts and your talking points, but that’s about as far as you go and then you get up there and do it.

Mark O’Brien: [inaudible 00:08:32] improvisation.

Chris Butler: Depending on the context, I’ll do that for certain things, but for other context, what I have done is I’ve actually written the talk-

Mark O’Brien: Right, I’ve never once done that.

Chris Butler: This is the process, it’s ridiculous, but it’s worked of me. I will write the talk, knowing that as I write that I’m writing it in the way that I would speak it because that’s different. Then I read it. I make edits based on what I can actually say what I don’t and how much time I have available to myself, and I go back and forth, probably six or seven times between writing it and reading it aloud, to the point where what is written is exactly what I wanna say, and then I memorize that, which is not that much of a leap past that because I’ve already been there.

Mark O’Brien: Because you’ve already gone through it so many times, yeah.

Chris Butler: Right, and that process of back and forth between writing and speaking it gets to the point of it’s pretty true. Now, a lot of people in the public speaking space would poo poo that idea. They would think that, that’s contrary to the spirit of public speaking. I actually think that’s completely false and my case in point would be any really good standup comedian-

Mark O’Brien: Oh, yeah, they got their script nailed.

Chris Butler: Everything that you think is improvised, every funny laugh, where you think, oh they’re kind of like breaking the third wall, it’s all written, all of it. I know that he’s like in a lot of trouble right now, but Louis CK is the king of this. You watch his standup and you think that he’s sort of just off the cuff doing stuff and sometimes it seems like he veers off course. No, no, no, that’s all written exactly word for word.
The whole point is are you creating an experience that somebody’s getting value from and knowledge from. And so, in this space I think that there’s a whole lot of room to allow this idea that, okay maybe reading is dead, to evolve the content marketing experience.

Speaker 1: You’re listening to Expert Marketing Matters. A podcast about generating ideal new business opportunities by creating and nurturing digital marketing systems and habits that have a measurable impact on your bottom line. This podcast is brought to you by Newfangled. A digital marketing consultancy focused on empowering experts to do better digital marketing. You can learn more about Newfangled’s digital marketing method at

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, writing is, this is great. Back to the original point. Maybe not text is dead, but reading is dead, and that’s okay. The consumption of knowledge is not dead.

Chris Butler: That’s right.

Mark O’Brien: And the interest in learning is not dead. In fact, you could argue for a bit of a [inaudible 00:11:24] with people having access to much information, and that’s really custom tailored to their interests through a wide variety of media. It’s never been easier to learn.

Chris Butler: We have a true embarrassment of riches, when it come to things that you could spend your time listening to, watching, reading, whatever. It’s amazing, and this is why people are excited about podcasting right now, and not because it suddenly dawned on them that the technology’s interesting. I mean podcasting’s been around for a decade and before that we just called it radio. The only difference is, it’s a distribution engine, but people are excited about it because it’s aggregated in its interest. Enough people are doing it and people are saying, oh wow, this form allows me new creative opportunities.
And so, podcasting has gotten really interesting in the last couple of years, suddenly. Before it was just like, oh it’s people’s voice on [crosstalk 00:12:11]

Mark O’Brien: … Use it as a medium.

Chris Butler: Right, and people finding space for it. The thing from a marketer’s standpoint that I’m really excited about, when it comes to podcasting, is that it allows me to reach somebody when I otherwise would not. No one’s gonna read my blog post or my white paper in their car on the way to work or at the gym or while walking their dog in the afternoon or in the morning, but they might listen to our podcast. In fact, they probably will.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. We found out that they do.

Chris Butler: Nine times out of 10, when I go to the gym, that’s like an hour, a solid hour, I’m listening to a podcast almost every single time.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and when I mow the lawn, I listen to podcasts, and I’m so receptive in that time. It like, because I’m mowing the lawn, I’ve got my headphones on and I made this point in the white paper, I’m not at work, I’m not about to run to a meeting, I’m not getting three emails, I’m not gonna call. I’m out there mowing the lawn, I’m doing really kind of nothing, but and so my mind is able to work and listen and focus and the amount of penetrability that’s available then is really incredible. Especially with headphones on, you’re like this voice is in your head literally.

Chris Butler: You are describing something psychologically and cognitively that is really important for people to understand. When you sit somebody down in front of a page or a screen, and there’s a column of text in front of them. The focus that they have to draw upon in their own brain to extract meaning from that is actually pretty profound because they have to shut off a certain aspect of their brain willfully, and they need to be enabled to do that by your text, which makes writing quite hard.
However, when somebody is doing something else, like walking down a path in the woods or mowing a lawn or riding a bike or driving a car, the certain portion of their brain, which otherwise they’d have to willfully turn off is already occupied. And so, the focus that you get out of them that you want is much more seamless, muck more lacking in resistance.
We actually did this, I don’t know if you remember this. A bunch of years ago, we did an exercise in one of our staff retreats, where just to prove this point out, we had the staff follow a map that was predetermined for an hour long walk, and the exercise they had was to come up with a business idea in clusters. And then, when we all got back, present the business idea and the marketing angle for it. Just as a way to get around this thinking. But the whole idea of the walk was to disable this, and to draw out a different kind of active thinking.

Mark O’Brien: Back to that book, Rest, and it’s funny, so Chris gave me this book Rest. I got it in my email, that Chris had bought the Kindle version of the book, which is how I read books. I don’t read many physical books or really any at all. And I got it, and it looked great, and so, what I then did, is I went and bought it in Audible.

Chris Butler: I should have bought you the double.

Mark O’Brien: Because I knew I had a trip coming up and I was gonna listen to it, but one of the many great points it makes is that walking, like high performers take walks. High performers nap, they take walks, they do their best work in the morning, they work about four hours a day on their craft. They have other very serious outside interest that they deeply pursue and become quite extraordinary at, outside of their primary field of knowledge, and all so interesting things, but they walk. They have great thought. Things come to them during the walks because, yeah, that portion of the brain is engaged in the act of walking, which somehow frees up.

Chris Butler: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing about the brain, but it also means that you need to be careful about how much information you take in. I mean, I would imagine that a walk like that is gonna be a bit more profitable if it’s not one where you have earbuds in every single time.

Mark O’Brien: Well right, that’s the thing, are you gonna … That gets back to this whole idea of consumption of information. We’re now crowding every corner of our lives with input and spending very little time on reflection.

Chris Butler: It’s amazing, so Deep Work, which we read last year, and had mentioned numerous times on this podcast, and now Rest by Alex Pang. They’re an interesting accompaniment, these two books together, because one talks about how to rearrange your professional working life, such that you’re binging more focus to the work that you’re doing and not being distracted by trivial stuff that will not matter an aggregate it later. And then, Rest is a really good way of tending to the time outside of that, so that again, it brings back more value to the working time. Both of them are really interesting because what they’re really trying to get you to do is reduce distraction.
And yet, it’s funny in our culture now, the more time we free up, the more discretionary time we have, the more we immediately fill it with some distraction.

Mark O’Brien: It’s never been easier.

Chris Butler: It’s never been easier, but text is really a critical bedrock of our culture, and otherwise, content marketing would be meaningless. I think that we’ve been sort of circling this theme for a couple of years now, of the degree to which this experience, the one you and I are having right now, should be either an ancillary component of our content marketing or a fundamental central primary driving force of it.

Mark O’Brien: As it is.

Chris Butler: And it’s become that. When we were working on a shared piece of content recently, I said to you, man I haven’t written in a long time. That used to be my primary experience, but I actually enjoy this more because it’s more fluid, we get even more value out of it. The amount of feedback we’re getting is beyond what we ever got.

Mark O’Brien: It’s because people are listening to it [inaudible 00:17:38] other pockets. I’d say yeah, back to the beginning, text as a delivery mechanism isn’t as critical as it used to be. That’s for sure. We can say that. That’s a sober statement, but what will never go away, as far as I can tell, is collecting one’s thoughts and communicating those thoughts effectively, which often times is gonna involve writing probably at some point. Now, the ultimate media that those thoughts are transferred through, who knows what it might be, but the collection, documentation of thoughts has got to happen one way or another.
I do think that people will do that through writing, maybe not primarily, but at least partially for a very, very, very long time, for centuries.

Chris Butler: Well, and so long as there are people who we need to work with at some point in the future, who might have a disability. It’s another thing to keep in mind, but as profoundly interesting and useful and effective as this particular media is, that we’re working on right now, we’re gonna have clients in the future who are deaf, and there isn’t a great technology for reverse engineering, this thing that you and I are making right now, so that our deaf prospect in the future can get something out of it.
On the other hand, this is a great thing for our future clients who are blind because screen readers are not good. They’ve been relied upon by the blind for a very long time and they’re getting better. There’s been some interesting programs about that and the way that people actually use that technology, but it’s still not great, so I think that you definitely need both in terms of getting to humanity, as humanity is, and one serves a different purpose than another and as Lauren has pointed out multiple times, there are people who are gonna relate better through one than another.

Mark O’Brien: Of course.

Chris Butler: But I do think we are moving into a space where maybe the sand is shifting a little bit, where text is starting to either even out or maybe even become subservient to audio, and that’s okay. It’s a turning of the tide, but it’s technologically feasible for every single person listening to this right now, to do this thing that we’re doing right now.

Mark O’Brien: Right, and back to the marketing angle, a lot of firms out there who really just want an excuse to not market are saying text is dead, so therefore, we’re off the hook with marketing because it doesn’t matter anyway.

Chris Butler: Right. We heard the same thing almost 10 years ago, content marketing is-

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, that’s been happening forever, so that’s just not true. You’ve got to develop expertise, you gotta show the expertise somehow or some way, and you’re probably gonna write at some point during that.

Chris Butler: Amen.

Mark O’Brien: For those of you who can’t see us, which is every single one of you, you should know that your facial hair plus your hair, hair combination right now is really, really, really good. He’s got them almost at the same length and it’s just like exactly right-

Chris Butler: My facial hair and my hair, hair? For those of you who can’t see, hair, hair is the hair that your hair grows. It the hair on top of … I have a very short haircut.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and it’s almost the same length as the facial hair and it looks really good. It’s like both are exactly at the right length right now.

Chris Butler: Every few months, Mark will identify something visually about me that he likes. It’s the shirt-

Mark O’Brien: There’s something about-

Chris Butler: And just walking on air for the rest of the day.

Mark O’Brien: There’s something about the way one’s fading into the other and it’s really, really nice.

Chris Butler: Well, you know. I’ll have to do a-

Mark O’Brien: I’m not sure what you did, but-

Chris Butler: One of these days we’ll get our video act together and the rest of the world will profit from this.

Mark O’Brien: Yes, my hair, the hair, hair.

Chris Butler: On that note, I guess we can wrap. This has been fun. Find us at Please share this podcast with someone that you believe needs to hear this message. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is grow an audience because we know that there are people out there who can benefit from this, who may never become our client, and that’s okay. That’s what this space is about. So, find us at iTunes, leave us a comment or a view and we’ll catch you next week.

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