Ask a Content Strategist: When Will the Robot Writers Take Over?

You write a lot about how the future of content marketing is technology boosting human creativity. But how long until the machines take over and the human part becomes obsolete?

-Susan, New York

When you read headlines like “The Washington Post’s Robot Reporter Has Published 850 Articles in the Past Year,” it’s bound to give you nightmares. Hell, I just had a nightmare that Contently fired me and replaced me with robot Will Smith, which is probably a sign I need to stop watching I, Robot every time I fly Delta.

While automation is destined to disrupt our professional lives to an epic degree over the next decade, I don’t think most writers should be worried. They just need to hone their skills to do the things robots cannot.

Algorithms like Heliograph, the Washington Post’s AI technology that spits out short articles, have gotten pretty damn good at relaying objective information backed by data, such as recaps of sporting events and analysis of financial reports. These are boring, formulaic assignments usually given to cub reporters in newsrooms as a form of hazing before they move up the ranks. It’s such a brainless activity that many reporters simply use a Mad Libs-style template to produce them.

What the robots aren’t very good at, however, is telling stories that build an emotional connection with an audience. They can’t connect with a reader by sharing a personal anecdote or describing the protagonist of a story with a vivid description. Robot writers can’t use the first person—at least not until we reach the singularity.

Neuroscience tells us these are the exact stories that build human connection. Our brains are wired to light up when we can relate to a narrative. That’s why a story in a far-out world like Star Wars works; Luke is the archetype of the working-class underdog called to great adventure, riding around in spaceships that look like 1950s hot rods. Even though the Star Wars universe is foreign on the surface, we can still connect to Luke and the world he inhabits.

This dynamic can also apply to B2B blog posts. I was the editor-in-chief of Contently’s blog, The Content Strategist, for years. The worst performing posts were the ones that began with bland stats or facts. The best stories began with a personal anecdote or a vivid scene that marketers could relate to—like this confessional about my biggest shortcomings or this profile of Marriott’s newsroom.

I often speak to college students who want to become professional writers. A lot of professors still preach the old-school route—cutting your teeth as an entry-level reporter writing straightforward news stories. While these assignments can make you a more concise writer, those jobs are going away. If you want to make it in 2018, you need to be able to find unique, human stories, and tell them with an engaging voice. And you need to be able to tell those stories across mediums—text, video, audio, graphics, and everything in between.

Should content strategists make an investment to learn to program Hadoop (on top of other data analysis tools), and would that help make us more marketable to work at Contently?

—Kate, New York, NY

This is a question that Shane Snow and I didn’t get to answer during the Facebook Live Q&A we did to promote our new book. So Kate, sorry for the delay.

The answer to your question: One hundred percent yes! Data skills are at the top of our job requirements for content strategists. It’s incredibly important to be able to analyze first- and third-party data to figure out what your target audience craves. We just hired a new content strategists (sup, Kema!) and she’s in the middle of a month-long crash course on data analysis. But one of the things that impressed us the most was how she used data strategically to optimize content programs at her previous jobs.

As I wrote in this Ask a Content Strategist column about creating data-driven content, data analysis is just the first step in coming up with a breakthrough strategy. It provides the creative constraints to unleash your best ideas. Plus, it ensures that you’re covering topics that interest your audience in the formats and channels they care about.

I have had reasonable success with Twitter about a year in with 1,100 followers. However, I don’t know how to handle my Facebook. I never really paid attention to it, but would like to retool it to be a way to promote content marketing towards a content marketing audience. Is there a way to do this? As it stands I have 240 followers, but they’re mostly unengaged, and I’m lucky to get more than 20 likes for my most popular content.

—Jason, Detroit

At the end of 2017, aspiring Black Mirror villain Mark Zuckerberg made a New Year’s resolution to crush the hopes and dreams of any marketer or media company hoping to generate organic engagement on Facebook. And boy, did he deliver.

The traditional Facebook game plan—posting links to interesting stories and videos with a compelling teaser—just doesn’t work anymore. However, there are a few tactics that still do:

Post from your personal account: Facebook is now prioritizing posts from individuals instead of media and brand pages. So content you post from your personal account will now get a boost.

This only works, of course, if you are friends with a lot of people in your target audience. I don’t know about you, but I’m friends with very few people in the content marketing community on Facebook. I relegate those relationships to Twitter and LinkedIn. I only use Facebook for big work announcements, like when my book came out or when I won the Contently company photo for a third straight year.

Facebook groups: Search out active Facebook groups that align with your target audience. Since you’re a content marketer trying to reach content marketers (so meta!), I’d suggest the Content Strategists group on Facebook. It’s private, but pretty easy to get in.

Then, be a good community member. Don’t just promote your own crap. Like and comment on other people’s posts. Share interesting things you’ve read that aren’t from your own blog. Facebook still promotes content from groups, although that could change at any time.

Facebook Live: Facebook isn’t as hot on Live video as it was two years ago, but it still juices live video much more than any other medium in its feed. You can set up a serviceable Facebook Live studio in your living room for about $60. Just get a $30 iPhone tripod off Amazon, a decent bluetooth lapel mic that connects to your iPhone, and have at it. Just be sure to teach people something interesting, and keep it short.

Facebook ads: Facebook may be a black hole for organic engagement, but it’s still the best paid content distribution platform on earth—even for B2B. We used Facebook ads to triple our email list in a few months, optimizing for posts that led to a higher newsletter conversion rate.

That’s how I’d recommend using Facebook ads—drive folks to blog content that compels them to sign up for your newsletter. Then you can have a direct relationship with them instead of relying on Facebook’s fickle algorithm.

Focus on LinkedIn instead: After substantially improving the way content appears in the feed, LinkedIn is having a moment. Native LinkedIn videos and LinkedIn Pulse articles get incredible reach. Among the four big social networks, LinkedIn was by far the biggest driver of sales for our book. Hundreds of marketers liked every excerpt we published.

I’d still exercise the same caution with LinkedIn as with Facebook: Don’t build your audience on rented land. But it’s a pretty great place to get out your story right now.

If you want a master class in using LinkedIn to reach content marketers with content marketing, just follow Trackmaven CEO Allen Gannett. That man has it figured out. And he’s one hell of a dresser.

I think my shoes worked better, but it’s up for debate.

Joe Lazauskas is Contently’s head of content strategy and co-author of The Storytelling Edge. Ask him your most pressing content strategy questions here, or email him at

Image by iStockPhoto

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