Can you outsource all of your content marketing to AI? Can Artificial Intelligence research, write, and optimize your blog posts and articles? Content Marketing Agency VP James Scherer is on the cutting edge of AI and shares what it’s capable of, and where it falls short.
If you’ve been looking for ways to automate your content creation, save time (and money), and make your deadlines, this episode is for you.
Rich: My guest today is the VP of growth at Codeless, a content marketing agency, working with unicorns, like Monday.com, to drive growth through content at a huge scale. He lives in the UK with his wife, where he enjoys hiking, the historic countryside, and trying exciting new microbrews. Today we’re going to be talking about whether AI is ready to take over all of your content production responsibilities with James Scherer. James, welcome to the podcast.
James: Thank you so much for having me, looking forward to it.
Rich: So before we get into AI, I want to talk about beer for a moment. Because when I studied in London, which was way, way long ago, I was there for a semester back in 1989. I remember that when I went there, there was no good American beer. And I discovered how amazing beer could be in London drinking the bitters, the pilsners, the ales. I fell in love with John Courage, and of course Guinness made the right way. And then I came back to the states, and while I was gone apparently the microbrew revolution hit the states. And now there is amazing beer here in the states and here in Portland, Maine as well. I’m curious, what’s your favorite old school beer? And then what’s some of your favorite microbrews that you’re drinking these days?
James: So my favorite old school beer is Guinness. Which I think when people talk about how a good Coca-Cola you can only really get in Mexico and that it’s so different in the United States, it’s that same kind of thing. It’s that Guinness in the UK just tastes different. And it may be because you’re in a 12th century pub that makes it taste as good as it does. That’s my favorite old school for sure.
So my experience with microbrews is that I came here to visit my at the time girlfriend in 2010, and it was nonexistent. But it wasn’t really much of a culture here around microbeers, as you’re saying. And then we went away again for a few years, moved back here in 2019, and in those few years of just absolutely – and I’m from the other Portland give or take – so I’m from south Seattle so my experience has very much been like that kind of micro center of the world and in Oregon and Seattle and stuff. So that was what I wanted and that’s what I enjoyed.
And then coming back here in 2019, I’ve found that they found their kind of way here. And there’s a lot of really talented, really delicious… I guess the answer to your question is, I don’t have a favorite microbrew here because I just really enjoy trying the next one, and the weird one, and the one that has weird stuff in it, and they’re trying to make it with champagne or cherries or oats or something. That’s my vibe is, I’m on the cutting edge of the weird ones, for sure.
Rich: All right. That sounds good. And I will say that Guinness does taste better closer to the source. It’s not just because you’re in these cool, old-style pubs. Like, it is a different beverage in the UK and especially in Ireland. I went to the brewery, and it was just magical.
James: I think they do that intentionally. It must be intentional.
Rich: Well, I don’t know. They say that the reason why the bagels and the pizzas are so good in New York is because of the water. So who knows, maybe there’s something that’s going on in Ireland or in in the EU that… I know England is no longer part of the EU, but anyways, this is not a podcast about beer. So let’s move on.
You run a content marketing agency. So I’m curious to know how much you rely on AI, artificial intelligence, in the creation of content for your clients?
James: So it’s an interesting question. It’s a very valid question. And I think it’s also a very well phrased question. Because the answer is that we rely a lot on AI to create content. We do not rely on AI in any way to write content for us. So I’ve had a couple of conversations around AI-generated content and the role of AI in content creation. And for me, it’s about using AI to help you create content effectively, quickly, and at a high quality. And AI is really good at that.
AI is not currently, and we’ll talk about it, good at content creation. They’re good at giving you the tools to allow creatives to create really high-quality search-oriented content quickly and easily. And so we use it for everything. We use it for content brief creation, outline assistance, we use it for SEO analysis. Of course I’m using it for Grammarly and those kinds of tools just within an email that you send out or a within the content itself. We use software that checks where this thing’s been plagiarized. We use software that checks at the end of the day whether, yeah, something has a good number of key phrases that relate to the target keyword and make sure that the content is optimized for search.
So throughout our entire process, AI is like an integral part of it. At no point, though, are we using AI to write content, because the software’s not there yet, it’s just not.
Rich: So what I’m hearing is, I am not ready to semi-retire to a tropical island so that my view looks like it does on my desktop wallpaper. That is not where we are right now. And just give all my content creation to AI. Okay.
James: No, which is good, because then I wouldn’t have a job
Rich: Someone has to fix the machine when it breaks. Why do you feel that we should be using AI in the content creation process? Is there a cost savings? Is it a positive ROI?
James: It’s a good question. Okay. So there’s two primary reasons to use AI. The first is because it increases the quality of the content you produce. And the second is because it increases the number of content pieces you can put together in any given time.
So if we’re talking to people in the SMB space, they’re looking for either, I want to create a small amount of really high-quality content to compete, or, I want to create a high volume of pretty good content to compete. In my book from a content strategy perspective, you need to do both. Either way AI is going to help you do that.
So from a quality perspective, AI is going to read what you’ve already written and make sure that you don’t have comma splices, that’s Grammarly. It’s going to take your writer’s content and read what they’ve written and check that they didn’t copy it from Forbes. It’s going to read your content once you’ve written it, and check that you’re covering the subject matter that your competitor contact covering. Tools like Hemingway app and Grammarly would be the grammar ones. Tools like MarketMuse, Clearscope, and Frase take your existing content and we compare it to the top 20 search results for your target key phrase, and we tell you if your content is including the same secondary and semantic key phrases that they are. Basically, it tells you if you are covering this subject as comprehensively as your competitors are. So basically all of those tools combine to increase the quality of your content.
Now, the quantity perspective is that tools like Clearscope and Frase can also pull from ranking content and say, this is a sub-headline that all of the ranking URLs have are included. For this target keyword, make sure you include that sub-headline, make sure you’ve covered that. And what kind of this does is it allows you to pull inspiration, or at least just an understanding of what you need to talk about in your article in order for it to be comprehensive and populate a content brief or an outline, essentially. And when you give that to a freelancer saying here’s essentially the bones of a really high-quality article, can you flush it out with your creativity and your expertise. And then they put it together and you can be damn sure that piece is covering everything it needs to cover and you’re speeding up the process for you because you don’t have to make sure everything’s exactly perfect and they don’t have to spend the time outlining the piece before they write it, because it’s done for them.
Rich: At Codeless, do you work with a wide variety of different companies in industry?
James: Yeah, absolutely. For Money.com, which is one of those, they have $12 million per month for marketing budget, all the way down to an early-stage startup who hasn’t gotten a round of funding and is working out of a co-workspace.
Rich: I ask this because right before our call, I was talking to one of our clients about maybe doing some content creation for them. They’re in a scientific industry, and I’m just wondering if AI is good in more general industries, but maybe not when you start to get jargon heavy. Or does that not matter?
James: I would actually say that AI is currently better at creating B2C content and content for the financial and medical spaces than it is for the SaaS or B2B spaces. So Business Insider does publish some of their more daily updates on the stock market. For specific businesses, some of those articles are already AI-generated because it’s pulling from a set ‘here are the numbers, here are the words’ that tend to connect them. This looks pretty clean. Some person reviews it, and then it goes live.
The medical space, I don’t actually know too much if that’s the case with the medical space. But I would imagine that when your content is more fact-oriented, like just trying to connect a bunch of different facts together and the right words, it would lend itself to that. Where AI-generated content kind of falls down is any level of thought leadership, any level of true creativity, any level of ‘I’m going to make a complex topic simple to understand by adding an analogy to it’. AI is not going to get you an analogy that makes any sense whatsoever. If anything, it will complicate the issue.
And secondly to that, if I have a team of freelancers or editors, none of my freelancers is going to want to rewrite the piece of content written by an AI. They’re going to want to write a piece from scratch, because in content creation, it is far more difficult to fix something that’s broken than it is to write from scratch. And I guess that’s my opinion, but I think a lot of freelancers would agree with me, and editors are the same. Especially AI-generated content because it’s like, it sounds weird and you’re not 100% sure why. Like most of the time it reads okay, and then we’re like, actually it didn’t, what did that mean? What did that say? And you have to go back over it, and then tweaking that and editing that and fixing that takes far longer than writing the damn paragraph yourself.
Rich: Right. I’m also wondering, a lot of companies worry about voice. In fact, I was just talking to a company that targets luxury brands yesterday, and they were talking about how important it was for us to nail their voice. I’m guessing then that AI would not be good in a situation like that. At least as far as the final product is concerned. They might be able to do the research, pull that data forward, create the framework or something like that, but they’re not going to be able to nail the voice of a company. True or false?
James: Half true, half false. True voice, genuine voice, the addition of a person’s true personality and character to a piece of content, AI is not great at. What AI is good at, there’s this tool called writer.com that we actually use, which allows businesses – or in our case agencies – to choose on a spectrum essentially, a level of professionalism and formality you want to have in your content. It allows you to choose whether you want contractions in your content. It basically allows you to dictate brand voice, and then review content against that set specific set of parameters. So if one of our writers writes for more formally, when we pull one of those pieces in for a client that wants to write casually, it’ll identify that they use ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’, they’ll identify that their paragraphs are a little bit longer than a casual piece of content might want to be.
So in that way, AI can actually help align your content with your brand voice, but it can only do it in those very set ways. There’s 20 or so variables that you can edit and choose, and it will review your content against. But again, it’s not adding true personality. It’s just doing the things that computers and AI can do, which is check against a set of characteristics essentially.
Rich: Maybe it can’t be intentionally funny for example, or irreverent. Yeah. So from what you said earlier, it sounds like there are several parts to content creation that AI can help us with. So I’d like to break them down one at a time. And by the way, you’ve mentioned in passing a number of different AI softwares that can help. We’ll try and link all of those in the show notes. If you’re listening to this right now, don’t try and write everything down. Let’s start with AI tools that can help me research my topic.
James: AI tools that can help you research your topic would be – I’ll probably say their names a few times – there are a few primary tools that do a lot of it. Clearscope, Frase, and MarketMuse being the kind of primary ones that I’ve tried and used in the past couple of years. And we’re using one of those right now at our agency.
The majority of the research you’re going to, so there’s two stages of research through content creation. There’s the research of, what are my competitors talking about? And then there’s the research of, what do I want to talk about that they’re not? Because I want to bring something new to the table. I want to be a thought leader, but I also want to make sure that while being a thought leader, I’m also talking about everything that the reader might be looking for. And Google’s really good at identifying what the reader is looking for and rewarding the content that provides it. So the ranking content is going to be including the mass majority of, if not everything, that the is looking for.
So the research component of that is done via those platforms that are pulling from the top 20 search results and identifying here are the sub-headers. And in every case, also pulling like here are the statistics that these ranking articles are citing when they’re trying to make a case for, a TBCRY or something. And not only do they pull the stats that those articles pull, they pull the sources of them. Now I’m not saying quick kind of tangential, caveat thing, I’m not saying use these tools to write your article. What I’m saying is that what they can provide you is a stronger foundation and understanding of what you should be talking about. Because if they’re citing their own study on the ROI of Facebook or retargeting ads, maybe in your article you want to go find a trustworthy source of that stat or the statistics around that subject because Google readers are interested in that. Don’t use their stats, because then you’re just going to have to link back to your competitor. But that gives you inspiration for essentially what to go look for. So that’s researching and a quote.
The other research, as far as what to actually populate in your article, that’s not on the other competitor content, is still not really addressed by AI. That’s you and every writer going on a Google and searching for stats, man. It’s still done in the way that any journalist finds any information. You go to the sources that you trust, you pull the content from them, and you use it to support your argument.
Rich: All right. So how can AI, you tease this too, how can AI help us create the framework for the posts? We’re going to write it ourselves, but we kind of need it blocked out. Are there AI tools that you’re using right now that help us with that?
James: Yeah. So there are, and we’ve tried them and they’re pretty good. Again, MarketMuse, Clearscope, and Frase, would be the primary ones here that allow you to pull the sub-headlines you like from existing ranking content. What those tools will do is allow you to see essentially, they’ll pull the H2’s and H3’s or whatever from the ranking content and say, this is what HubSpot’s doing if you want to have this as your sub-headline or a variation of it, that it makes sense, because they’re ranking first for this key phrase.
For our agency, and we’re doing like 300 to 350 pieces of content every single month, I use our own outline templates. We have outline templates specific to each individual brand, and that allows our writers to do the same kind of thing but far more brand specific. So if we have one brand who’s really focused on getting the featured snippet for Google, then we make sure that in their outline template there’s a ‘what is’ section at the very top of the introduction. We use a set of a few kind of like winning introduction-style, essentially, and we require writers to hit a few different things within their pieces. And my concern, I guess this may maybe like my own control thing, is that I want to control my freelancers’ creativity to a certain extent. Because if I let them populate their own outlines from these tools, they may not focus on the things that they need to be focusing on. They may choose the wrong sub-headlines, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Our outlines are far more controlled space.
So if you are a brand that really cares that you focus on this component of your product and this article, I would say build your own outline templates, and then do an outline review stage after the fact. Before they draft, make sure the outline that they’ve prepped, the page, choosing the H3’s, and the bullet points, and the images, or whatever are all there and you like the way they’re going with a piece. Well, you can do that having it populate from one of those tools as well, and I’ll do a content brief. It’s just for me, when in an agency space, it has to be more brand focused. Because otherwise the writers will write the same article a hundred times, and I want them to write an article for that client specifically.
Rich: All right. How about optimization? I’m a big fan of search engine optimization and that’s a critical part of what we do and what our clients are interested in, what our listeners are interested in. What are the AI tools and what can they do when it comes to optimizing that for Google?
James: So, they can essentially read every single word written by the ranking content and tell you if your draft is covering the subject matter as well as it should be. What they can’t currently do, and this is addressed by a tool like Yoast or something within WordPress, they can’t read the backside of your content, your images aren’t compressed. You’re not doing your header formatting correctly. All of those kinds of not super content focused SEO optimization components. They are very good at reading the ranking content as it looks and as it stands. And then making a call on the volume of secondary key phrases and primary key phrases within that piece, and telling your freelancer or your writer or whoever that they don’t have enough, or they’re not covering this subject or this subject, which the record content is.
So all of those tools that I mentioned a few times will spit out, depending on who they are, a variation of a grade for each piece. So MarketMuse it’s like you’re scoring 44 out of 68. When you add in additional semantic key phrases or change the wording in this paragraph slightly, your score will go up. I’m not sure that Frase, and Clearscope does F to A kind of scale. And all of those can be approved upon by adding in more content or changing the content itself to more align with what’s ranking.
Rich: Okay. Absolutely. And it is interesting. You can really start to see from your descriptions of what AI is capable of, how it works, and maybe where it doesn’t work as well, which I think is very helpful for somebody listening in. One of the things I find very time consuming and irritating is creating the social posts to promote the content once it’s up on the website. Is there an AI tool you use that helps us generate the Facebook posts, the LinkedIn posts, the tweets?
James: A lot of the social media management tools will help you with that now. I haven’t messed with it with social media automation in a long time. I’m very much focused on long-term blog creation and content creation. So I wouldn’t want to necessarily, like I can vouch for the tools that I’ve mentioned here, but I wouldn’t want to throw out a name of one of the tools and having not messed around with it.
I do know we’ve used for a long-time headline analyzers, a subject line analyzer. Some of them are paid, some of them are free. Using those kinds of tools that, again, are just like pulling from their own computer heads of, “Hey, a question, is a best practice” in a subject line, or “A statistic needs to be at the beginning of this social media post” or “Hey, this is way too long, it’s going to be cut off by it” or whatever. All of those tools are still really handy, and a lot of them are offered with the social media management platforms.
Rich: Okay. Email is another way that we promote our content and also just communicate with other people. What are some of the AI tools that you’re leveraging in that?
James: The primary tool that we’re using to leverage automation-wise for that is actually Grammarly. So Grammarly does a really good job of telling you when, first and foremost, when you have the chromatic layer in an email, which is still massively important. But also just when you sound weird and wrong and awkward. But also, the emails that we’re creating are getting simpler and simpler every day. So again, this is just my experience and what I’ve seen work in the past year or so is the, everybody’s getting so many damn emails that if you’re not including the thing you want in the first split second of that email, they’re not going to open it or they’re not going to reply to it.
So if anything, I would say back away from incorporating AI into your email marketing campaigns and just double down on straightforward simplicity. Maybe throwing some of those subject lines into a tool, a subject line analyzer tool. But as far as making sure that you’re grammatically correct and everything, it’s Grammarly. Which is the same for, I mean, we’ve been using Grammarly to not sound like idiots for years now.
Rich: Yes, absolutely. And with tools like Grammarly, I always think kind of remind me of iambic pentameter. You should follow the rules of iambic pentameter, except when you shouldn’t, and then you break them. And that’s when things get really interesting. As an English major, I was always like you need to know the rules. So when you can break them and break them as often as you can get away with, which actually raises a question, I’m sure there are people listening who are like, oh my God, this is the end of Western civilization. Soon we’re going to have AI writing all our content, AI reading all our content and regurgitating for it. Why do we need all this? Why can’t we just do it ourselves? Do you feel that there’s a role for the AI independent writer, or is it all going to be going towards using some level of AI tools in the future? And I’m talking about business, I’m not talking about the next Harry Potter novel or anything.
James: Fact of the matter is that we’re never going to get… AI will never get to a place where it is bringing something new to the table. And it doesn’t matter. It physically cannot come up with brand new ideas, or takes, or interpretations of what’s currently going on. So if content creation, and good content creation is in any way thought leadership, which God knows it must be, otherwise we’re just piling more crap onto the pile of already published content. AI will never cover all bases.
That said, humans are extremely fallible. Especially when working with volume, especially when we’re doing this day in day out, which we need to be to target all the keywords that we want our brand to rank for. And we slip up and we miss things. And we also don’t know to include things that we need to include. You can be a thought leader, you can bring character and personality and casual language or cussing or whatever you want to bring to your content to make it stand out. You can bring all that to the table and still use AI to make sure the piece is optimized. So use AI to make sure that you didn’t actually spell that thing wrong.
We use Google Drive or Word or whatever. And what do we think the ABC tool on Word is that we’ve been using since 1994? That little, red line beneath a misspelled word, that’s AI helping you write content. So it’s not a new thing, it’s just helping us do it a little more effectively. But there is a line which I don’t think will be crossed, which is it is never going to bring something new to your table. And it’s never going to have a fun take on the interesting thing that just came out within your industry. It’s never going to add that character, the true, genuine character that people will respond to if you do it right.
Rich: And it almost feels to me, like it’s a difference between working with your hands, versus hand tools, versus power tools. The bottom line is, if you’ve got to build houses at scale, you’re not going to be hand sawing every piece of lumber. There are certain things that are going to speed up the process that don’t make the final product any less good or attractive. In fact, they might even make it better. But you’re still going to require at least at this stage of evolution, an architect, a builder, a general contractor, and interior decorator, and all those other human roles that have yet to be really replicated. And probably the same is similar with where we are in terms of AI and our content.
James: A hundred percent. We’re also talking to businesses who have a lot of this work to do and don’t have the time on their hands to go to the forest and cut down the tree, and then hand saw the tree, and then sand the tree for the next six months of their lives, if you’re wanting to create the right amount of content for your business. Which for the majority of us, is between eight to a hundred pieces of content in any given month depending on what you want to do. You need to be using a table saw, otherwise you will be sawing away at that article for no good reason, because it’s not going to come out any better. It’s something deliver any more for you again, because you can still add value to it. You can put something on a table saw and then add your own love, and care, and flavor, or whatever to that piece of furniture. Just because you used a machine to make it take you an afternoon instead of a year, it doesn’t mean it’s not yours. It doesn’t mean it’s not amazing.
Rich: I think another concern that people might have is, if I’m using AI to help me create a post, and my competitor in the same industry is using it, how do we make sure that those two AI robots didn’t basically create the same piece of content? You mentioned plagiarism before, what tools do you recommend for either accidental or purposeful plagiarism, and just to make sure that the content you’re putting out there is unique enough?
James: So the primary one we use is writer.com. We’ve tried a tool in the past called auto-correct. Both of those are pretty good. We stopped using Grammerly, not that it’s not a fantastic tool, but we stopped using it’s plagiarism checker simply because it was missing things. And in agency space, you can’t mess with that. It’s a non-starter and our writers are immediately dropped if they’re found to have more than 2% plagiarism in a piece of content.
So yeah, the question though around what’s to stop your piece from looking exactly the same as your competitor’s piece. Once you check it for plagiarism, the subject matter is still going to be the same. And that’s when you draft the article, you run it through these platforms to make sure that it looks great, it’s grammatically correct, that it’s hitting all of the marks you need to create search-oriented content. And then you pull it back and put it back in your word doc, back in your Google doc, and you add yourself to the piece. Without fundamentally changing the structure, or the subject, or what’s covered, or what you’re recommending. And a lot of that’s an introduction. Remember as well that the mass majority of your readers aren’t going much farther than an eighth of the way down the page anyway. So making sure that your introduction sounds like you, feels like you when it is hitting your voice is crucial. And then add the flavor that you want to add throughout the article.
My co-founder, Brad, is a big fan of cussing in his content. And it is really compelling and really impactful for a lot of people within that space. But as we move to more enterprise level now, having to bring that back with clear intention around content. Because previously our brand guide had said feel free to be casual, feel free to talk directly to a person, feel free to express your frustration about this thing through clear words with asterixis as in them. But now I’m having to claw that back. But I’m doing that in such a way that it’s still sounds like us, it just may not necessarily target the same market that we were in the early days of our business. And that’s only going to be done by a person behind the keyboard. No tool that’s out there is going to help us do that.
Rich: James, if somebody is listening to this and they’re like, “Oh, this is interesting. I want to dip my toe in the AI content creation waters”, what’s the one tool that somebody who works for a small to medium sized business should look at first to help them start creating either content at scale, or just helping them with the content creation process? Your best tool for that person?
James: It’s going to be Frase. It’s going to be Frase.io. They are a lower price point, they allow you to create unlimited number of reports, which is one of the main variables of pricing within these tools. Basically what that means is how many keywords are you pulling a report for that you can see what the ranking content looks like and what it’s recommending. So that tool is running a lot of the gamut. It doesn’t do plagiarism checks, but it’s really good at content outline creation, content brief creation. If you do want to go down that road, and it’s really good at analyzing your content and telling you whether or not you’re covering everything that you need to and you should. It’s also at the right price point for us.
Rich: Awesome. Fantastic. James, this has been amazing. So appreciative of you showing up today and sharing this with us. Where can people find you if they want to learn more?
James: Yeah, you can head to Twitter, @JDScherer. Last name is S C H E R E R. Or you can head over to Codeless.io and just check out that site and what we’re all about. Yeah, we are big fans and looking forward to growing this year with a few more clients. So our doors are very much open right now, and we’re excited to work with people.
Rich: It sounds great. Thanks again, James. I really appreciate it.
James: Thanks so much, Rich.
James Scherer and his team at Codeless are experts at combining strategy, SEO, writing, video and design to create long-form content for their clients. Check out the website for more info and follow him on Twitter.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.