Note: I have not mentioned, and have edited out any mentions of, the names, companies, and websites this article refers to in a negative tone. At this point, the purpose of this article is to shine a light on the content farm crisis itself, and spread awareness of the situation.

Not to start a witch hunt.

content-farm-crisis

(Image Source: Freepik)

For the past two years, I’ve been focused on establishing the first and only content marketing agency in Pakistan. 

Why?

The city that I chose, Karachi, is a hub for content farms and content mills.

How do I know….

Ah, well, I was there. I’m guilty.

Four years ago, I knew nothing about content. I found myself in an interview with the CEO of one of these firms, and it went something like this:

CEO: Do you know what product descriptions are?

Me: No.

CEO: Oh, so you know like products on Amazon….yeah. Do you know what SEO is?

Me: No….

CEO: Then why are you here? (lol)

Me: Well, I don’t know what this stuff is now. But you give me about four months and I’ll be the best damn sales agent you have in that room.

CEO: Okay, when can you start?

Within three months, I was making up to $40k per month in inbound sales – selling content services, such as articles, blog posts, newsletters – you name it. They had the PPC engine going with chats and phone calls coming in by the dozens on the daily, and I got it done.

How? I was the first sales agent they ever had that gave a crap about what the people on the other end of the phone (or chat) were trying to do with their business. I wasn’t trying to just make a sale using the same exact script, for every single phone call, as if we were talking to hundreds of clones of one person with the same set of goals.

I actually worked out solid plans with them. I spent hours listening, learning, explaining, and planning – for every client (as it should be).

But 9 times out of 10, my projects would get cancelled, refunded, and I’d either have to hear from my disappointed/angry/sad client how I let them down, or convince them to give me another chance.

Why?

Because the quality was low. Always low.

Then I’d get upset and go on a rant while my manager and other sales agents listened. And they’d simply have to put up with it because I did well. And I’d have to put up with them because I saw what we could be if every sales agent cared, or if content managers actually helped their writers become brilliant content creators.

This was the cycle.

Well, screw that cycle.

Lol – Not So Fast, Pal

I left after two and a half years of trying to ignite change, preaching better methodologies, training every sales agent to revolve their strategy around giving a crap, and falling short – time and time again.

sway-a-thousand-men

(Image Source: QuoteFancy)

By that time, I was making up to $350k in inbound sales every six months and finally figured “why the hell am I doing this for them?”

I left and established Pantheon – Digital Marketing Agency (later re-branded to Planet Content, when I found our actual purpose – but that’s a different story). It was going to be the exact same business model, but with two main differences:

  1. I was going to truly care about my clients. My vision was to come up with brilliant ideas that actually pushed their businesses forward, and use all my skills, abilities, and experience to execute them flawlessly. To build great relationships with awesome people, and not see them as “clients.”
  2. I was going to truly care about my employees. My goal was to train the ever-living crap out of every ambitious, honest, and intelligent content writer that would hear me out. To provide them with endless resources that would help them master their craft, provide constructive and consistent feedback, lead them to the top of our industry, and not see them as “employees.”

It didn’t work at all – for two reasons.

Number one, it wasn’t long before I realized that all those times I asked questions about anything related to SEO or content and got extremely vague answers in return, was for a reason.

I was working ten or so hours a day, and because I felt like I was doing alright at my job, I thought I had it all figured out.

I didn’t explore my industry on my own and made the mistake of depending on my managers to learn everything about it. I asked them questions, and believed their answers.

It wasn’t until I was sitting there, “CEO” of my own “digital marketing agency,” when I took a simple content marketing course from HubSpot.

That’s when I found out I had no idea what the hell content marketing even was. I only knew what content writing was.

Infuriated that I had let myself be held back for two and a half years, misguided, manipulated into learning incorrect information, taught the bare minimum of what I needed to know, and ultimately, deliberately restricted to a specific skill level, I was lost.

I spent the next 5 months reading hundreds of blog posts, watching hundreds of videos, and devouring information on everything – copywriting, PPC, SEO, content marketing, landing page optimization, CRO, graphic design, video marketing, social media marketing, inbound marketing, 2D animation – anything related to digital marketing.

I went on a journey to understand it all at the highest-level and make up for the two years a content farm took from me.

And the other reason it didn’t work out?

Well, it turns out people don’t like being told they don’t know what they’re doing.

I mean, who would’ve thought?

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(Image Source:  Giphy)

I understand that this is a sensitive subject, and I try my best to put it all as “non-offensively” as I can, but from there, it’s not up to me. You either say “you know what? I honestly don’t know all this stuff, but I can damn sure figure it out,” or you say “screw this guy, who does he think he is?”

What Is A Content Farm?

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(Image Source: Freepik)

A content farm is a content writing service that hires any content writer they can get their hands on, and turns them into 5000-words-per-day robots that churn out, low quality content. They are interested in inexpensive bulk projects – often with rates as low as $10 per 1000 words.

And here, in this city, 99% of content companies do this, and they truly have no idea what content marketing is.

So much so, that the job titles “content marketer” or “content strategist” didn’t even exist in Karachi two years ago.

The first appearance of these two job titles in the market/workforce was through job openings for my agency.

Imagine that.

And now, even though these designations get thrown around left and right – the writers at these farms still have no idea what it actually means to be a content marketer or strategist.

Yet, content related companies have been around for almost two decades, while hundreds of professionals believe the roles of content marketer, content strategist, and content writer are one in the same.

Content marketing, and the world of creativity it encompasses, is limited to the simple act of writing content.

How does that even happen?

Let’s break it down.

The Content Side of Things at a Content Farm

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(Image Source: Freepik)

These mills create dozens of websites (with names like 123writer, expertarticlewriters, etc.), hide behind fake identities, and claim to be located where they aren’t (Delaware and NY are the preferred locations for some reason).

For example, try finding the LinkedIn profile of anyone else who runs a content writing or content marketing agency located in this city, or any social profiles (at all) of the sales & support agents (account managers) found on their websites.

They aren’t agencies founded by marketers but companies founded by businessmen. As a result, their goal is to maximize profit as much as they can. Which is all good, but they go about it in all the wrong ways.

The writers are at these farms are not:

Hundreds upon hundreds of writers that can’t tell you about:

  • Proper keyword research, user and search intent, or long-form content.
  • How search engines work, buyer personas, or organic link building.
  • How to create a content strategy, organic distribution, or content analysis.
  • More than 5 or 6 different content formats.
  • Marketing frameworks, user experience, or on-page SEO.
  • How to perform content audits, or more than two realms (SMM & Paid Ads) of digital marketing, in general.

And the list goes on.

cleveland

(Image Source: Meme Generator)

They are not given resources that help them further their knowledge of copywriting, landing page optimization, and web design, given access to experiment with or understand essentials such as Google Analytics, Search & Admin Console, or Tag Manager, or given constructive and consistent feedback that actually results in gradual and significant bumps in the quality of their work.

They are not taught how to take a client’s marketing objectives or business goals, and create unique strategies or valuable content assets that help accomplish those objectives or goals.

They aren’t taught, that, if you had to sum up the creation of content to one purpose – it would be creating something that makes you stand out by providing actionable value. Increased awareness, conversions, traffic and all that good stuff are simply results of effectively and consistently fulfilling that one purpose.

They are taught how to write an article according to a client’s brief and cover the keywords provided.

But they aren’t taught content marketing. 

period-table-content-marketing

(Image Source: Econsultancy)

Side note: If they can do any of the aforementioned things, it’s because they explored and learned it themselves, yet will never get the chance to permanently utilize it due to being restricted to simply producing articles and blog posts.

The relative few who saw passed it all and left these farms behind are killing it as freelancers or consultants, have moved beyond what should’ve been content marketing altogether and into other areas of digital marketing at other companies, or are with me.

The Sales Side of Things at a Content Farm

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(Image Source: Freepik)

On the other side of the void, the “sales” departments at these content farms are essentially call centers – but for content. They aren’t taught proper inbound marketing methodologies, how to do proper follow ups or conduct calls, and the worst of all, prioritize actually helping the person on the other end of the phone (or chat) over making a sale.

They aren’t taught to see these people as people, but as sales.

They are encouraged to go for the kill, give discounts until the lead is convinced or they’ve hit the bare minimum they can accept for an order, steal one another’s sales and leads, and taught how to receive infinite last chances to avoid refunds, which, ironically, is how a majority of their projects end.

The content department and sales department are in a way, rivals, and not teammates. They function as separate entities, rather than ones that co-exist. Sales gets whatever they can get their hands on, dump it onto Content, who then have to sort it out – regardless of whether or not they have the required expertise to successfully complete the project, are given a proper deadline, or even have the resources available to attempt it properly.

All that matters is that Sales somehow closes the deal and Content somehow makes it work.

And, remember, this isn’t one company. It’s dozens. From small to medium to large scales. Some mills with up to 80-100 writers. I know of at least one company that has 130.

Needless to say, you let this BS spew about for 15+ years and you bet your bottom dollar the entire industry will more than feel it.

The SEO Side of Things at A Content Farm

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(Image Source: Freepik)

Here’s where they get really bold. Buckle up.

A few of these content farms double down as SEO farms, as well. They often break their sales departments into two teams – one for content and one for SEO.

The sales team for content is taught only what they need to know to sell their content services. They’ll tell you Google recommends X blog posts per month, at X amount of words, and yeah.

The sales team for SEO, on the other hand, is taught quite a bit about SEO, but only to be able to convince prospects that they are actual professionals when questions come pouring in.

When speaking to them, it sounds like they might be legit experts. But they won’t be the ones doing the work. All the work will be done by the same writers from earlier, just with “SEO” in their job title, and maybe one or two so-called experts leading the way.

What makes me think they aren’t real experts?

Let’s play a game: How many things are wrong with this picture?

so-much-no

At a glance, you should see 5 red flags:

  • No actual SEO agency will guarantee results, that, too, within 30 days.
  • Pre-existing SEO packages aren’t a thing.
  • You can’t just create those 6 forms of content and call it SEO.
  • How do you guarantee a client will be 100% satisfied?
  • Discounts.

Now, hold on tight for this one.

thats-bold

And here’s all of us right now:

how-tf-meme-planet-content

(Image Source: Me, cause one meme wasn’t enough)

A so-called group of SEO professionals and not ONE of them said “yeah, um, DON’T make that claim, bruh.”

And that ‘Read More’ button doesn’t work.

By the way, this isn’t some small time firm either – they make well over $400k per month.

Identifying the Root Cause 

detective

(Image Source: Freepik)

Now, you may be thinking, “holy crap, he’s throwing them under the bus!”

And admittedly, I do feel bad. So much so that this article is over two months old, and I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I should publish it.

But then I ask myself, “what feels worse? Me potentially facing a backlash for shining a light on all of this stuff, or letting them continue screw over countless good brands, businesses, and people – day in and day out?”

Easy decision.

Now, just to be clear, there is talent in those farms. There are creative minds bursting with raw potential.

But they are misguided. Snatched up by these farms and turned into 5000-words-per-day robots that, well, you know.

They aren’t the problem.

The problem is that none of these content ‘agencies’ are truly nurturing that talent, guiding them through a genuinely sustainable career path, allowing them to completely explore the skills they must master in order to succeed, providing full access and information to the field and industry they’re involved in, encouraging them to consistently further their knowledge on content marketing & providing all the means to do so, allowing them to experiment or make mistakes, or hell, even sharing the names of the clients they’re writing for.

They are simply assigned projects and given awful deadlines, then held responsible if something goes wrong, in an environment where the person next to you finding success is a threat to your existence. If they end up leaving, they are oftentimes branded as traitors.

How Content Farms (Try To) Cover Their Steps

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(Image Source: Freepik)

“But these websites rank at number one on top review sites and have lots of social proof backing their claims.”

Yeah, definitely, like this video testimonial:

content-farm-testimonial

But, then again…

fake-testimonial-2

Why would an agency need to pay a professional actor for a positive review?

Because the real and genuine one’s look like this:

real-content-farm-review

And they aren’t hard to find.

Effects on the Local Digital Landscape 

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(Image Source: Freepik)

Just imagine: Hundreds and hundreds of people employed as content writers, dozens of people running content agencies, for over 15 years, yet, traditional marketing is still the norm.

You’re telling me that, in a metropolitan city with a population of over 14 million people, and dozens of so-called content agencies, there isn’t a single entity dedicated to educating businesses and consumers on the digital landscape of today?

Wait till someone like Brian Dean or Neil Patel hears about this super untapped market.

No, really, though.

Did you know that almost every single business’ digital presence here goes as far as a single social media account? That, too, Facebook.

Zero shits given about building a user-oriented and conversion-focused website, no care for SEO, PPC, proper SMM, email marketing – inbound marketing is unheard of. They don’t have a proper sales funnel and, again, still rely heavily on traditional marketing. They have zero interest in educating their consumers or their targeted audiences about digital marketing, and to be blunt, utilizing the tools and trends of today’s world – all because there is no one dedicated to consistently educating them.

But, hey, at least we’re finally catching up to the e-commerce boom.

Effects On The Industry As A Whole

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(Image Source: Freepik)

For this section, I’d like to share how a few industry experts feel about the type of content developed at content farms.

A Content Marketer’s Perspective

“I think the biggest thing from my end that we’ve seen is how easily and in how many ways poorly written content can hurt your site. You not only run the risk of posts not being optimized for SEO (or over-optimized), but if they overlap with other pages, it can hurt those rankings too, which most of the time defeats the whole purpose.

That’s not taking into account the obvious things like how it can affect brand voice and writing for the user but let’s be realistic, most companies using content farms are trying to just make a quick buck and probably don’t care about things like brand voice. Those are the types of sites that write for Google, not the user.

These tactics might work for a short period of time, but you are building a house of cards. Those are the types of sites that get hit the hardest when Google rolls out new algorithm changes.”

An Inbound Marketer’s Perspective

The ability to create content that is actually valuable to your audience starts by caring about your audience.

You need to care about their needs and problems.

You need to understand them and uncover insights and information that has the power to help them achieve what they’re setting out to accomplish or do what they want to do.”

A Client’s Perspective

“In an age where uninteresting and spammy content fills digital wastelands, it becomes even more important to create something of value, something that gives back to the online community rather than encumbering it.

Your content is a direct reflection of your brand, any imperfections perceived therein demonstrates to your followers that you don’t care about your organization’s image.

Ask yourself then, ‘why should my followers trust me with their hard-earned money‘?

It really is a no-brainer, the rewards for writing great, insightful, compelling content are bountiful. And on the other end, spamming the web is a surefire way to go out of business….fast!”

  • Ata Khan – Managing Partner – Xoobo

A Message to Local Content Writers

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(Image Source: Freepik)

Look, I know this is awkward – but hear me out.

Have a look at these Glassdoor job listings for content marketing specialists, content strategists, content marketing managers, and content writers.

You’ll notice two things:

  1. Their salaries are a butt load higher than the average salary for the same position in our local market.
  2. 95% of content folks in our city can’t do 50% of the things listed under those job responsibilities.

From here, it’s up to you. Be honest with yourself. Can you do all that at the very highest level? If you can, awesome, I hope you’re getting paid over Rs. 400,000/month for it – because you’ve seen those salaries, and regardless of the agency you’re employed to here, they earn their revenue in USD.

If you can’t do those things – that’s really no problem at all. There are a TON of FREE resources where you can learn everything you need to know within weeks.

I’ve even put together a quick doc here compiling it a lot of it into one place. Free courses you can take, awesome blog posts you can read, amazing marketers and agencies to follow – it has it all.

Devote the next three to five weeks to skyrocketing your career, implement amazing changes to your employer’s or clients content strategy, produce drastically better results, and ask for your salary to be bumped up significantly.

But first, start with going through a blog post and asking yourself if you can even write such a blog post without any help, or without an editor.

shia-just-do-it

(Image Source: Giphy)

After interviewing 60 writers, employing over 15, and training dozens over the course of the past two years, I only have 3 content marketers on my team. However, those 3 content marketers were confidently able to say “na, I can’t do this,” devoted themselves to figure it out, now they are absolutely brilliant.

So, What Is A Content Farm?

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(Image Source: Freepik)

I guess what the point of everything is, is that content farms are real and still a problem today. Probably more so than ever before.

They aren’t writing services where you can get affordable content. They are companies that pay horrible wages to writers they purposely hold back, while earning a killing off their efforts and leaving a trail of pissed off clients in their wake.

And as content marketers, it’s pretty much up to us to do something about it.

I’d like for us to first acknowledge this crisis and take actual steps to ignite change.

I’d like for those with voices that matter in the industry to start addressing the problem.

Maybe we can hold a conference here with a few industry leaders to educate any individual interested in content or digital marketing, or businesses looking to adopt a more modern and digital approach to their marketing efforts.

As long as we remain quiet and let these practices continue – nothing will change.

If these mills want to change their practices and adopt a better approach – I’m all for it.

That’s what this is about at the end of the day.

However, we shouldn’t allow these agencies to pollute our industry with their practices, ruin the professional progress of countless clients, create a false representation of what we do and diminish the real value we have to offer, and take advantage of writers who look to them for guidance.

Frankly – we should care.

It’s time to eradicate content mills and content farms and teach any individual interested in content what it truly means to fulfill the roll of a genuine content marketer.

At the same time, it’s time to help local businesses understand the digital landscape of today and encourage them to adopt a more people-centric approach to their marketing strategies.

While we’re at it, we can also educate clients on the importance of paying for value, rather than attempting to get things done for cheap and falling short – one of the major factors that fuel content farms.

I invite you all with me on this journey of overcoming the Content Farm Crisis.