Can AI improve content marketing? Well...

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher February 2, 2024
Content creators, meet generative AI! Play nicely!

Content marketing social strategy concept © Joseph Mucira - Pixabay

It's been a little over a year since generative AI hit the mainstream with the announcement of ChatGPT, and everyone has jumped on the bandwagon to play with it or has been brought in kicking and screaming. So, where are we from a content creation perspective? Has AI made our processes better? Have they made writers and content marketers better? 

An AI for content marketing playground

According to The Impact of AI report from Filestage, 76% use AI to create marketing content. In this study, freelancers and agencies are using it more than brands. But in the Acquia report, State of the Marketer: Creating Compelling Customer Experiences in Challenging Times, 96% use AI for content creation, and these are mid-size to enterprise companies. And then, in the Semrush report, "Think Big with AI: Transforming Small Business Content Marketing," 67% use AI for content marketing and SEO. 

Three studies say that regardless of company size, AI has become a part of their content marketing. You probably aren't surprised because everyone says they are experimenting with different AI tools and technologies. So how are they using it, and how effective is it?

That's still an unanswered question. While many believe AI is going to help, much has to happen before anyone can honestly say it has had a significant impact. 

It’s a productivity driver?

Everyone believes the biggest impact of generative AI is that it will increase productivity. 

  • 96% are optimistic about the potential for efficiency gains - Acquia report
  • 83% say it will boost productivity - Filestage study
  • A Salesforce study found that 71% believe gen AI will eliminate busy work. 

According to Niklas Dorn, CEO and Co-founder at Filestage:

The start-up mantra has long been ‘done is better than perfect.’ So it’s no surprise that people at startups are feeling super-positive about AI as a productivity driver. 

There's a question here related to productivity though. What does it really mean? To know if AI is increasing productivity means you have to know what your current productivity level is and what your processes are to achieve that level of productivity. And what does it mean to be productive anyway?

If it takes me four hours to write an article with no help from generative AI, am I less productive if another writer takes three hours and uses generative AI? What if the quality of the piece is the same? If one day I use ChatGPT to help me develop an outline for a blog that I have to then review and adjust, and another day I write an outline from scratch using my notes and research, is one approach more productive than the other?

If it takes me an hour or more to figure out how to create the right set of prompts to give ChatGPT to get the results I want, is that a better use of my time than doing the work myself? 

In a recent TCA (The Content Advisory) webinar, Robert Rose made a comment that struck me:

We shouldn't have to become AI whispers in order to get good quality value out of the AI tools. 

If we spend so much time learning how to properly prompt AI, is that a good use of our time - is it productive?

It’s a creativity enhancer?

Some marketers and writers believe that generative AI is good for creativity. In the Filestage study, 59% said it would boost creativity; in the Acquia study, 97% were optimistic about the potential for creativity gains. In the Salesforce study, 71% believe it will inspire more creative thinking.

The only way AI has made me more creative is to show me how not to write like AI and everyone else. It forces me to think about what new or additional angles or ideas I need to add to a bland outline, or piece of content. But do I need AI to help me do that? Not really. 

AI can make me more productive because I am not starting from scratch, but it doesn't make me more creative. It could also have the opposite effect and produce an output that I don't like or feel is inadequate, and then I've wasted my time, or I spin my wheels trying to make something better rather than spending time creating something better from scratch. 

Not everyone thinks AI makes us more creative. In the Filestage study, some respondents were concerned that AI would only produce more bland, same-as-everyone-else content. 

It will. It doesn't have to, but it will as we continue experimenting and playing with it and brands (and creators) put out AI-created content to see how it performs. And if that content performs reasonably well - and some of it will - the impact will be felt in a few ways.

First, it affects writers who work hard to produce great content because now they find themselves competing with AI. Second, if they feel they need to use it to be productive or competitive (“AI won’t replace humans, but humans with AI will”), some may feel less important or less proud of their work because it’s not “their work.”

From the Filestage report:

'AI doesn’t only mean that the job gets quicker and easier,' says Petra Gönczi, Senior Content Marketing Specialist & Content Writer. 'In some cases, depending on the person’s personality, there can be a prickling sensation that reminds them that they didn’t actually create the piece, or at least, not all of it. How can you be satisfied and proud of your work if it is not really yours?'

AI doesn't make me more creative. Creativity is something you develop over time as you write more, read more, and try new tactics or ideas. People believe AI makes them more creative because it takes over some of the more mundane tasks that go along with writing. But those mundane tasks are key to the creative process for some of us. Handing them over to AI has the potential to stifle the creative process, as much as it enables it. 

Is the experimentation over?

If 2023 was about experimenting with generative AI, what does 2024 mean? For Dor, we're at the next step:

Over the last year, it feels like we’ve all been involved in one big experiment to test and probe the possibilities of generative AI. Now, looking ahead to the next 12 months, I think it will all be about refining how we use it. We know the prompts and use cases where it’s most effective, so we’re ready to start reaping the rewards of those time savings.

In the Acquia study, 39% said that "understanding how to use AI" is among their biggest martech challenges. In the Salesforce study, 39% said they don't know how to use AI safely, and 54% said that a generative AI training program is important to help people use it successfully. 

Robert Rose and Cathy McKnight's webinar would have been eye-opening for many (there's a guide that goes along with it if you don't want to watch the replay). So many people are caught up in the shiny new thing and aren't thinking clearly. Rose compared this generative AI craze to when web content management first emerged. It was something completely new and companies needed to learn how to build it into their content workflows to use it effectively. 

That’s what we have to do with generative AI - figure out how it fits into our content workflows to achieve the benefits it can bring. In their study, 80% of companies haven’t done this work yet. So: 

So, many businesses have explored their “readiness for AI” by simply allowing marketing teams or individual practitioners to experiment with it and see what use cases emerge. But there are problems with that approach.

For one, many of these businesses have no set standards, consistency, or organized processes for the ideation, creation, management, or measurement of content in marketing. And with no standards, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to know which, if any, of the many AI use cases will provide any level of scalable efficiency or added effectiveness.

Rose and McKnight shared a process that looked very familiar if you've ever been involved in a technology selection process. Map your current processes, select a set of use cases to guide your AI selection, and then enter the technology selection process. 

If you use this process, you are selecting AI technologies that work for you, not simply implementing AI for the sake of being one of many. You will be able to say if it's making you and your teams more productive.

This approach can work as much for freelance writers, agencies, and small businesses as it does for bigger companies. It might happen on a smaller scale, but it's still the best way to decide if and how to integrate generative AI into your content creation processes.

My take

We can't ignore generative AI; it will play a role in content marketing. It's how we figure out what that role needs to be that we need to spend more time on. And for those who choose not to use it, it's too early to say they will be left behind. 

A grey colored placeholder image