At the start of the 20th century, being a great salesperson meant knocking on more doors than your closest competitor. But as early as 1916, a New York Times article declared the age of the traveling salesman was near its end, thanks to print advertising and the booming railroad industry. A hundred years later, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.
Two years ago, Gartner predicted that by 2018 robot writers will create around 20% of all business content, begging the question, are content marketers the traveling salesmen of the 21st century?
The Vanishing Marketer?
Fifty years after the New York Times’ dire prediction, the sales industry was still alive and well, though door-to-door sales were on the decline and even banned in many towns. But the future remained uncertain. In his book, “The Vanishing Salesman,” E. B. Weiss predicted that self-service could eliminate the need for sales persons altogether. Fifty years later, with the introduction of the Internet and ecommerce, it’s clear he was on to something.
While I don’t believe content marketing will ever go the way of the traveling salesman, I do believe marketing as we know it can’t last forever. The AP, Fox, and Yahoo are already using AI writers for short recap articles, and that AI technology is now available for free.
While it’s a long way from writing feature stories, this technology can easily accomplish short updates or summaries—a role that has helped many content marketers break into the industry (and pay their bills while they establish themselves).
To avoid becoming a casualty of this technological shift, content marketers should study the transition sales reps have made over the past century. Because despite all the dire warnings of the past century, most companies still couldn’t survive without their sales reps.
So what can we learn from sales?
By the end of the 20th century, people stopped answering the door for strangers, big box stores had replaced their sales teams with minimum-wage workers, and even phone agents were beginning to worry that voice recognition would soon end their careers. To survive, sales reps have had to differentiate themselves from untrained employees and uncaring computers. So they focused instead on building and maintaining relationships.
The same strategy will work for marketers.
While AI experts may be able to simulate an emotional response, robots are incapable of creating a true emotional connection. They can try to interpret humans, but they will never fully understand us. The content marketer who understands his audience, relates to his customer, and develops content that makes an emotional connection will outperform any robot, no matter how advanced its AI.
Focus on Continuous Learning
Sales professionals have long been early adopters of new technology. The way we connect is constantly changing, and sales professionals have used those changes to their advantage.
When the Internet was invented, sales reps quickly jumped on board, forging relationships through email and chat rooms. With the rise of social media, seeking out new prospects became easier than ever. So while many old-school sales reps were left behind, those who learned the new technology early positioned themselves for tremendous success.
In the same way, a willingness to keep learning will help content marketers stay relevant, no matter what changes lay ahead. Twenty years ago, print, radio, and television remained the primary mediums for reaching an audience.
Over the twenty years that followed, plenty of marketers saw their roles become obsolete, as they clung to the past. But those who saw the potential for online communication learned the technology, studied customer interactions, and positioned themselves to dominate the next big thing—and so content marketing has flourished.
If we’re going to continue to succeed, we can’t let ourselves become those obsolete radio marketers. We need to do continue learning and prepare ourselves for the next technological shift.
Develop a Unique Voice and Personal Brand
Anyone can read a sales script—even a computer. Which is why successful sales reps have learned to set themselves apart by developing their own selling style, their unique sales voice. By taking a unique approach, they are often able to overcome that initial hesitation and turn a cold call into a long-term sales relationship.
The same is true of great writing. There are plenty of skilled writers in the world, but only a handful of brand-name authors. Authors like Stephen King, J. K. Rowling and James Patterson are famous because they consciously developed unique, unmistakable voices that readers can’t get enough of.
Marketing isn’t that different from writing books—it’s just shorter, so the voice and personal style matters even more. If you’re writing content like everyone else, you as well throw in the towel right now. But if you’re willing to put in the time to create a signature style, your readers will gladly return over and over again, regardless of where technology takes us.
Back when salesmen traveled from house to house, they had to know everything about their product. They were peddling wares most people had never even heard of—or didn’t think they needed—and they were in your home, so simply avoiding a question wasn’t an option.
As the distance between the consumer and the salesperson increased, being the expert became less important. In the Internet age, when specs are available at a keystroke, having technical knowledge of a product is unnecessary. But today’s consumers rarely care about the technical details—they want to know how a product will work for them. So sales reps have transitioned from encyclopedias to educators, explaining the individual benefits of their product in a way e-commerce stores simply can’t.
Marketers, too, can no longer rely on simply presenting information. We need to become the educators.
Marketers, too, can no longer rely on simply presenting information. We need to become the educators. Today’s consumers demand knowledge, and while there are plenty of product specs available, it’s still up to content marketers to personalize that information and teach consumers how it relates to them.
That means studying our customers, finding out their knowledge needs, and creating content that fills a void and positions us as the content experts.
One of the cornerstones of successful sales has long been to make a personal connection. By getting to know their customers and sharing information about themselves, sales reps can build trust and loyalty—a timeless and effective strategy, regardless of what platform you’re using.
This is, perhaps, the one area that living people have the greatest advantage over machines. Yes, there will come a time when a robot can write a feature article, and it might even be a decent article.
But robots can’t tell personal stories. They can’t make a personal connection. Because they are not people. They can’t share the story of their last trip to Florida. They can’t tell you about the time they lost their wallet and couldn’t be more grateful for their credit card company’s fraud protection services. They don’t know what it’s like to really use a razor. It takes real people to tell real stories—and it will always take great content marketers to tell them well.
It takes real people to tell real stories—and it will always take great content marketers to tell them well.
Technology is always going to change, and that will change the way we market. Some of us will lose our jobs, no doubt about it. Forrester recently forecasted that one million B2B sales representatives in the United States will lose their jobs to e-commerce by 2020—that’s a lot of lost jobs, but the sales profession isn’t going anywhere. Neither is content marketing, so long as we continue to adapt and prepare for whatever the future has in store.