Lessons from a half-empty seminar room: What content marketers can learn from poetry

Image from Canterbury Tales

Lessons from a half-empty seminar room: What content marketers can learn from poetry





Lessons from a half-empty seminar room: What content marketers can learn from poetry


Eve Michell
Senior Writer

Eve joined us as our first apprentice in 2020. Since then, she’s become a key member of our AI working group, as well as our social media and newsletter teams. Working across a wide range of clients, she loves learning about cybersecurity, B2B SaaS and all kinds of enterprise technology. She’s an avid reader and published poet, having studied English Literature and Creative Writing in Canterbury, and she helps run an independent zine venture called EXIT Press.

As a student in Canterbury, the city that inspired the eponymous title of Chaucer’s most famous verses, I discovered a deep and fulfilling love for poetry: reading it, writing it and occasionally tearing it to pieces in a seminar room with a class of ten other critical, slightly pretentious youths. Now, as a writer working in content marketing, I’ve found that the lessons from those lecture halls and seminar rooms have transferred themselves to my career.

Here are some pointers from my poetic education that I try to apply to my copy to elevate it from tedious and technical to content that does more than just sell a product: it tells a story, and does it well.

1. Respect the rules, but be creative

From villanelles to haiku to sonnets, there are many formal, traditional structures that challenge poets to master meter and flex their syllabic and rhythmic muscles. In content marketing, we find the same challenge. Limited character counts for social copy, SEO keyword requirements and complicated templates from clients all require us to adhere to strict rules when writing content for them. These rules might intimidate a novice, but they are where the fun starts for the seasoned professional.

Staying within these requirements while presenting engaging messages within limited word counts is a balancing act that can bring out the best in a writer. We learn to do – and say – more with less: how to find the zing, applying that special touch that keeps a reader interested while covering all the points of the brief. And, the more you do it, the better you get at it, just as a poet’s first attempt at iambic pentameter will never live up to their fiftieth.

2. Make it relatable

Something I noticed during my degree was that turnout for contemporary poetry classes – poetry that spoke to the topics and issues that we students were going through ourselves – far outweighed the turnout for the more traditional modules. Reading Maggie Nelson’s prose poetry discussing modern-day queer relationships, sexual violence and motherhood ignited something in us that poring over John Donne’s 16th-century metaphysical works couldn’t. That’s not to say he’s not a strong poet. However, we could not relate to him in the same way that we could to poets of our own era.

Readers love to read things that they feel an affinity with and relate to. The sad girls read Plath, the psychonauts read Ginsberg, the activists read Lorde and so on. The lesson here is to really nail your target audience and write in a way that speaks to them specifically, acknowledges their experiences, understands their needs and attempts to give them a solution. If you find something relatable, you’re generally more likely to read to the end. Perhaps this speaks to the narcissistic tendencies of the self, but if you segment your audiences and target your readers, you’ll draw them in by appealing to their own subconscious self-interest.

3. Evoke an emotional response

Poetry often gets a bad rap for being a little too romantic, a bit self-indulgent or even – some might say – twee. There were a number of aspiring Byrons and Wordsworths on campus, debating the human condition and the importance of spoken word events, and making the maths and physics students cringe.

Dealing with emotional matters like heartbreak, desire, grief and trauma in writing can be difficult to do well. But, do it well, and you write literature that stands the test of time: Shakespeare’s sonnets, Keats’s odes and Angelou’s defiant verses and more tender poems, to name a few examples. While content marketing might not endure as long as these texts, it’s still about engaging with the reader, and making an emotional connection that benefits you and your reader.

Allie Decker at HubSpot writes, “Emotional marketing typically taps into a singular emotion, like happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, to elicit a consumer response.” This consumer response is the objective of all marketing. It’s not just in poetry that emotions matter: they have a real impact on the buying habits of your customers. Use them to your advantage.

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