Is Writing Obsolete?

quill pen

The written word is having a tough time.

It’s not just that literacy rates are surprisingly bad. (One source maintains that half of American adults can’t read an eighth grade-level book.) But even among people who can read, fewer and fewer want to read.

If you’re a passionate reader (as I am), this might bring you to the brink of despair.

I’ve been a writer ever since I was a little kid in great big glasses. That only solidified in the late 1980s, when I got started in what’s now called social media. (Back then it was called “virtual community,” when Stewart Brand and Howard Rheingold were the Darren and Seth of their day.)

The rise of the web brought in a renaissance of text. Billions and billions of lines of text. From bulletin boards and IRC to those first, stunningly hideous static sites, all the way to today’s mainstream explosion of the social web.

Now we’ve got some new tools to play with. It’s actually a lot like 1989 (when I started) all over again. And there’s a real opportunity to benefit by getting comfortable with the new technologies.

Trust me, it’s a lot easier than figuring out enough Unix to get around in a 1980s bulletin board system.

Compelling audio

If your idea of web-based audio stops at podcasts or internet radio, you might want to take a second listen.

The beauty of audio is that it’s tremendously portable. Your “readers” can bring you anywhere. To the gym, on a commute, even to Thanksgiving dinner. (OK, we don’t endorse that last one.)

Audio also creates an especially close rapport with your audience. The spoken voice is a wonderfully intimate thing. When I began creating audio content regularly, my interactions with my audience took on a whole new dimension. People felt like they knew me in a way they never had before.

One other thing that took off: my sales conversions. A trustworthy, friendly voice turns out to be a fantastic way to address prospect fears and concerns.

You still need to create valuable, authentic, and remarkable content. It’s just that audio gives you some very powerful new ways to do that.

Viral video

I’m just getting my feet wet with this one. I’ll admit it, the new Teaching Sells video made me itchy to try it out.

If you’ve been reading me for awhile, you know I’m a sucker for strong, emotion-driving imagery. The idea of combining that with voice and music is irresistible.

And now that I’m taking the tools for a test drive, I’m surprised that the technical part isn’t tricky at all. It’s really about creativity, a strong message, knowing your audience, and having fun.

Full circle to text again

We might want to think twice before we throw text into the trash can.

You know who still adores text? Search engines. I don’t know if search engines will ever be able to parse audio and video content as well as they can text. Having plenty of written material lets the search engines know what you’re about, and that’s still a very helpful thing.

And there’s one other group who loves text: buyers. Experienced marketers know that very often, “buyers are readers.” That’s because buyers are the ones who (because of their own need or your brilliant marketing) are desperate for what you have to offer. For many buyers, it’s text that closes the deal.

And don’t forget that there will always be some who just plain like to read. Audio and video by their nature take time, something in short supply. Whenever I accompany my audio content with a clean, well-optimized transcript, I get effusive thank-yous.

Who creates all of this?

If you’ve been judging multimedia based on half-baked podcasts and unfunny cat videos on YouTube, I can see why you haven’t been interested in jumping on.

But persuasive audio and video are another matter entirely.

We’re in the very early days of smart, sharp, relevant multimedia content made to be consumed via the web. And when you add in interactivity, conversation, and the ability to adapt content to suit different learning styles, you’ve got a revolution in the making.

The multimedia web needs smart, passionate content creators. It needs writers.

Like you.

We cover the creation of multimedia content extensively in Teaching Sells. In fact, that’s how I got started using these new formats for my own businesses.

We not only teach the technical aspects (thanks to our wonderful partner, Tony Clark) in a step-by-step way that even I can follow, we also show you how to create compelling, high-quality content that can be used in a nearly infinite number of ways.

Whether or not you’re interested in enrolling in Teaching Sells, you’d be smart to sign up for the wealth of free content we’ve created. You’ll learn a lot about the future of online business, you’ll pick up some ideas you can use in your own projects, and the video is just plain cool.

This free content will only be available for about 9 more days, so you’ll want to move quickly to make sure you get your copy.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and an instructor for Teaching Sells.

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  1. It is certainly true that persuasive video content on the internet yet to be fully understood. Many of the videos that I see on websites, including mine, are produced without a budget and cannot compare to what we are used to seeing on television. Conversely Anik Singal from Affiliate Classroom has produced some outstanding videos, very similar in style to Extreme Makeover, as has Eban Pagan for his Get Altitude Program. The interview style in Pagan’s You Tube channel is probably a more achievable goal for those who can rally a few friends and knock up a backdrop, some lighting and sound gear.

    Yet nothing will surpass good writing for its raw informational density. Unlike video where skipping through content is fraught with difficulty, text is easily scanned and digested. You mentioned that a large proportion of Americans are unable to read well. That’s only going to give more of a market to the audio and video sites that can use these media, rather than copy writing.

  2. Audio and video *is* copywriting (in the form of a script). You think Eban wings those interviews? ;)

  3. Thanks Brian. I think a balance between all three is essential as you never know what will hit home with your audience.

    Apart from the extra work for blog posts, it’s great for syndication of course.

    On Audio: Have you ever used the automated mp 3 creators, like the one that feedblitz provides?

  4. It’s funny, because in “internet marketing” circles, videos are the latest “in” thing… yet I still see many of them bore the pants off me, or ramble on for 20 minutes before they get to the point.

    The problem with video (and audio) is there’s no easy way of “skimming” the content to see if it’s even RELEVANT or not, which you can do with writing.

    In other words, there’s a copywriting “niche” that I think is still largely untapped, ie. copywriting IN VIDEO (and audio).

    As Brian just said, audio and video *is* copywriting.. but ONLY if it’s done by a good copywriter. For instance, some of the viral videos out there aren’t in this category, because they don’t have any calls to actions. They are just funny or cool videos that people have decided to share.

    That’s why I think it’s still largely an untapped niche… copywriting for video and audio.

    Anyway, now I’M rambling :)

    Great article, Sonia. I don’t think writing is going away any time soon. If anything, audio and video will complement writing, but I don’t think it will ever replace it.

  5. Text is king as far as I’m concerned.
    I appreciate that audio and video are important parts of the web these days, but when you just want quick access to some info which would you rather? A quick scan through a piece of text? Or sitting through a five minute audio/video presentation?
    I suppose it really depends on what kind of content you’re after, but I much prefer the written word.

  6. I agree. Video and audio are nice, but I like text much better. I think those mediums are great, but I personally would rather read then sit through a video. It is more personal in a way as it makes the person more real. But I can get more information from reading something. It’s going to be interesting to see where the times take us.

  7. Every other thing take over from last thing and this is universal fact. But however text are still alive, it can be write it down first and than tranfer in the format of video (by writing points what you are going to share)

    So writing will be stay here till the end of this world.

  8. I disagree that people don’t want to read. People don’t want to do what we commonly refer to as “read”, but most read constantly.

    My wife recently asserted that I never read. I responded that I read all day. I just do it on the computer. Not in a book.

    I don’t think reading is dead, but video and audio are becoming more prevalent for sure.

  9. It is real a tough job for me to write, even to write once in a week on any blog. It seemed to me that my thoughts had gone…

    for writing, a lot of reading is must.

  10. The vehicle (writing) may become obsolete, but words never will. And the EASIEST way to wrestle words into coherent ideas worth sharing is through writing (or typing) them.

    The horse-drawn buggy may be obsolete, but the wheel lives on—same with writing and words.

  11. You couldn’t be more right (write?) in asserting that wordsmithing is the bedrock of any effective communication.

    I resent (a little) the implication that podcasts are “half-baked.” Many podcasts — including my own — are completely scripted before recording and the resulting audio is tightly edited to deliver a quality product to the audience week-after-week. We take our writing and media production seriously and we do provide transcripts for our listeners.

  12. This stat about reading at the eighth grade level is old news. It’s actually quite a high rate of literacy, historically speaking.

    Also, the idea that readership is going down is a fallacy. (There are real stats on this out there.) The “reading” population (in terms of book readers) has always been very, very small (as reading always has been seen as an “elite” activity), and the proportion has remained rather consistent.

    The internet, on the other hand, could actually impact this in a positive way. It’s certainly more revolutionary than the printing press in its capacity to disseminate material and information effectively and efficiently.

  13. Great article. I’m with Shane.

    I think the problem is slightly skewed by the nature of the Internet. If we’re talking about books, writing cannot become obsolete, because then books are obsolete. The Internet is a malleable and progressive medium, where word may give way to audio and video as the ability to present ideas keeps pace with advancement. However, any in depth process with calls for action will always require writers, so I think it’s very unlikely writing will become obsolete.

    Language will always remain the most basic of parseable communication (for the end user, anyway), and some ideas will simply always be more suited to the written word than any other. Take technical instruction manuals for instance; the Internet is a huge archive for manuals and guides. The conversion of these into audio or video format will be uneconomic at best, and will lead to loss of meaning at worst.

  14. Opting to listen to audio instead of reading the material is not necessarily due to low literacy rates.

    I love reading. I also spend a lot of my time driving (which I don’t love so much). So when I see a blog or website that offers an audio version of their content, I am very happy. I will fore go reading the article or post and download the audio so that I can put it in my play list of things to listen to later.

    In fact, I did that with Brian’s Teaching Sells material. Instead of reading the PDFs which I downloaded, I listened to the MP3s later while driving, jogging etc. I am definitely going to try to take this approach in the future with my blog.

    At the end of the day, I think having multi-formats available for readers is the best way to go (after all, it isn’t called multi-media for nothing). Yes, it is more work for the content producer, but it helps the reader/user/customer.

    -Arif

  15. I’ve been thinking about jumping (well, slow stepping) into audio-video, too. Rather than replacing words with this platform, it is best to view it as a supplement to text — an additional visual boost to awesome content.

    The fact that search engines “adore” words is compelling enough to get me to hone the craft of writing pronto.

  16. I think the goal should be to present your information in the mediums that suit your market, in whatever combination that might be.

    That said, there’s nothing more frustrating than being a fast reader who’s stuck learning at the speed of the audio or video presentation, and transcripts are pretty easy to come by.

    I suppose if we presuppose that reading is becoming obsolete, yes; based on the statistics in the Teaching Sells report about the number of Americans who avoid reading, it’d just be silly to leave such a large market on the table.

  17. Make no mistake, I just got my free copies of the material. Like Robert Kiyosaki says in Rich Dad, Poor Dad

    [we’re moving from an industrial age to an information age where time is of the essence.]

    People crave information and want it fast! It would benefit all of us to jump on the bandwagon.

    Pete | The Tango Notebook

  18. Audio and video should be side dishes, not the main course. Only after you have learned to love the written content of a website would you venture to spend precious time listening to a podcast. By the way Sonia, I really like the idea of having podcast transcripts, something I might want to employ in the future. Thanks for that.

  19. @Paul, I totally agree, but I’d add that audio & video won’t replace copywriting, they are the product of copywriting (when you do it well).

    @Jeff, that’s always an excellent point to keep in mind–produce the material that your audience wants and needs, not that you want to create.

    @Kevin, you’re totally right, there are some amazingly well-written/scripted podcasts out there, which I should have acknowledged. :)

  20. Not obsolete, over saturated.

  21. @Sonia Thanks! Good post!

  22. Several years ago, I talked with Seth Godin about this, and he said something interesting. He said he could reach more people by putting his ideas into a video and uploading it to YouTube. But he doesn’t. Why? Because certain influential people will always pay more attention to a book in the bookstore than a video on YouTube.

    And he’s right. For Seth’s audience, a book is the right choice. It targets the people that he wants to be a member of this tribe.

    Sometimes, I wonder though why he doesn’t do both though. I don’t think you have to “choose” between the media that will best suit your audience. I think you’re far better off doing them all. Really, I think that’s what’s so powerful about the Teaching Sells approach. Instead of just introducing you to audio and video, it shows you how to create synergy between them.

    That’s where the real power comes from, in my opinion.

  23. Rob: the web is oversaturated with *bad* writing, not writing in general. Write something that’s truly magnificent, and it spreads easier than ever before.

  24. That’s right: the medium should fit the message. I was discussing video blogging with my partner last night, suggesting that I get into this based upon an engaging self-video Jennifer Koppelman Hutt posted on her site (The Whatever Girls on Sirius and FLN, if you ‘re interested). He said she would naturally be liked because her medium is already TV so people know she performs well via this channel.

  25. I like to watch video’s… On my DVD player or in the theater or TV.
    I listen to music in the car or on a mp3 player or home record player.
    Don’t like watching UTube much even tho some of the stuff I have seen is interesting…Or get to see old music videos I havn’t seen in years. Don’t listen to music on the internet either. It interupts my reading.

    I have had mp3 original music files up on a domain for years. I offer em all for free. I thought maybe somebody would enjoy hearing them… But building it and they will come is obviously not enough. I rarely get any feedback on the music… Or my blogs. But I keep doing it to try to get to my $100 goal at adsense to get a payout.

    I’ll check this program and perhaps make some changes
    Been following this and problogger for months in my reader. Shine on!

  26. I think TEXT will always be more universally accepted and convert higher. Some people get annoyed when they click onto a website and a video or audio clip automatically starts playing (I’m definitely one of those people).

    It annoys me because it forces me to give up MY control over the experience. I want to be able to browse or skim the text, I don’t want to have to sit through a 5 minute video. Whenever I see a video clip on a site and I have to hit play, I immediately notice how long the video is said to be. If it’s anything more than one minute, I’m usually gone – unless it’s someone I really trust or want to hear from. Sometimes I’ll try to remind myself to go back (perhaps by marking the email about the site as UNREAD), but I rarely do.

    Of course, I’m sure some people prefer the video clips over a long sales page of text, which is why it’s so important to test.

    I’d be interested in more test results on conversion rates between audio/video and text. From what I’ve seen, video does pretty good for getting someone to sign up for something that’s free, but text does better actually SELLING SOMETHING.

  27. Good video requires good writing. End of story. Excellent, well thought out, (and well edited…) writing wins every time.

  28. @Darrin, I have many of those same reactions. And from what I’ve seen, forced audio or video (in other words, starts playing before you click play) typically doesn’t test as well, although as always it depends on the individual situation.

    Couple of thoughts on what you have to say–a blend of text with audio and video can be tremendously powerful. Folks like you & I, who are readers by nature, need to be careful about assuming that all of our prospects are like us and prefer text at all points.

    Very often, I agree with you that the final sales page works best in text. But a few big dog marketers (Frank Kern comes to mind) are using video sales letters as the last step in the sequence and getting good results.

    You raise a great point, which is that one can’t simply say, “stop using text, start using video.” Everything depends on the specific combination of market and offer. I believe smart marketers will start using combinations of multimedia elements, testing sequences to see where each format creates the most potent results.

    What I would caution folks about is avoiding video or audio because it seems too hard or complicated to do well. On the other side of the coin, I’d equally warn of the dangers of just slapping anything together because you’ve got the tools, without including the kinds of copywriting & persuasion elements that we talk about here on Copyblogger.

  29. @ Sonia, excellent advice as I agree completely that we must be willing to test new formats to make sure we’re getting the best results possible. (Michael Masterson’s book CHANGING THE CHANNEL comes to mind as pointing out the importance of different mediums being preferred by different folks.)

    Here’s a question to ponder: does video work better for someone like Frank Kern because he’s selling mostly to people who already know him and trust him? Or, is he finding that the video sales page is working better on new people who are being introduced to him?

    Video sales pages are certainly becoming a bit of a craze right now. People like Yanik Silver are throwing up videos that run close to an hour long.

    Are these working on new customers? I don’t know. But I would speculate that these types of video are probably working on “tweeners” – that is, people who haven’t bought from you, but have been on your list for awhile. They keep up with you and then perhaps a big video presentation comes along and does the trick. This happens because, like you stated, some people just prefer learning in that medium.

    I would assume that MOST people are still persuaded more by the written word (assuming that written word is persuasive and inclusive). But that doesn’t mean that a LOT of people aren’t persuaded more by video.

    I think it all comes down to making the reader (or viewer) feel like they are a part of the experience, a part of the decision. Video, I think, can sometimes feel like it’s just telling you what to think, whereas good text allows you to get in the reader’s mind and paint a picture of what the benefits will feel like, etc.

  30. I noticed you mention how search engines are in love with text which is true, but they have also fallen hard for video and you also mention being able to read the media.

    Up until a month or so ago I would say you could take and build a video with no voice track and tell Google what you wanted it to know and dominate search results.

    Currently I’d say they are starting to take the audio and run it through some process that turns that into text then crawl it and index accordingly.

    I’m unable to get the results I used to with a video that has no voice track, but I can take the same Video with the same descriptions, keywords and title put a voice track in it and get the kinds of results I’m used to.

    Just my personal test results no known facts that this is really going on, but let’s face it dragon fly text to speech and speech to text has been out for a number of years now.

    I’m sure that the technology and machines are capable of doing this now.

    Great Article

    Dave Moore

  31. Reassuring to know that search engines still reward text.

    I was taught on a journalism course to always assume that your reader has a reading age of 10 in order to hold their attention! Oh, dear. What has the world come to?

  32. Good question, and good article. I definitely think writing is as important as it ever was. I design and develop web sites, and we work with copywriters to ensure copy for the web is concise and “usable.” It’s what separates the good sites from the bad.

  33. I love text better than video. Video forces me to watch the whole thing because if I skip a part I wouldn’t understand what the whole thing is about. Text does give you more control over what YOU like to read. Writing has been in the human history for years, it may be obsolete sometimes but it doesn’t mean that it’s not needed.

  34. Its funny within the last few days I’ve read several blog posts on this exact same topic, some calling it the Triple threat etc. But its all the same idea, that Audio & Video paired w/ the written word is the next wave in social media & marketing. Great post thanks!

  35. @Brian Certainly not, and it’s a good thing too. Videos that are winged are not as dense in quality content, which is why I like Eban’s videos they’re full of unique insights.

  36. In every area I work — design, development, multimedia, software — copywriting is a key element for the success of the project (and thankfully, the idea is being spread by others in the know).

    As much as I enjoyed producing the new Teaching Sells video, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the written script Brian produced. The reason it works is because of the writing — it’s the foundation.

    Being able to write effective, persuasive copy is always going to be an important skill to develop. The key now is learning how to write it for a variety of media.

  37. It’s interesting because it all starts with writing. Audio and video need to be scripted. Writing is also a good way to put ideas together in a coherent, logical way. If you want to learn about something–I mean really learn something–research and write about it. It’s why they had us write all those darn essays in school.

    I also think that the exercise of whatever area of the brain is used during writing is helpful and healthy.

    I’m reminded by a lecture I went to in college given by the actor Kurt Douglas. He said he admired film writers because without them he wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to say.

  38. While it’s nice to see an article by the sober member of CopyBlogger, your article raises several questions:
    “in the late 1980s…got started…in…social media” Nice to paint yourself as a pioneer, Sonia, but exactly WTF are you referring to?
    “Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold, Darren and Seth” Brand was never as big as his ego, Rheingold had a few moments of fame for his books, Seth needs to retire although lots of bloggers like to drop his name in articles as though that act grants them some kind of implied relationship. You can put those three back in the box. Darren is still readable and provides useful knowledge.
    “UNIX to get around in a 1980s bulletin board system”. Huh? Were you using DARPA? Couldn’t mom and dad afford The Source or CompuServe?
    “Compelling Audio” The last compelling audio I heard was that one you did with Naomi where you described eyelid herpes in such excruciating detail that I now shampoo with medicated soap twice a day. That was really creepy, Sonia. I’ll be kind and not ask HOW you became such an expert on eyelid herpes.
    “Viral Video” I really don’t need to see another 20 something guy sitting a foot from his webcam extolling me to buy his get-rich-quick ebook for $47. (Having your price end in 7 seems to be a trend with ebook/ecrappola marketers currently.)
    Search engines adore text? Didn’t know search engines were capable of emotion.
    The core failure of audio and video is that they are not referential. It’s too challenging to find the bits you heard or saw within that media. And if you are promoting multimedia to the illiterate generation then don’t cry about people no longer reading. Giving them more white noise to play back just adds to their inability to think or be creative.
    “9 more days” Oh God! The dreaded economy of scarcity! “This offer is only good until midnight!” “We’ve only got 10 more seats left!” “This absolutely the last time we are selling this ebook at this price!” Even your pal, Chris Guillebeau has recently dived into this dumpster of BS.
    Jeez, Sonia! I expected better things from you! Have you been nipping in Brian’s Emergency Liquor Cabinet #75 again?
    OK, time to cruise for dinner here in the Bay Area. Resuming radio silence…..

  39. @Mike, I can’t believe you would call me “the sober member” of Copyblogger. And here I thought we were friends.

  40. Terrible start to the article: “Less than half the adult population has an eighth grade reading level”

    Seriously, I don’t even have to research ti to know that stat comes from an interest group. Even if this generation is functionally illiterate –they’re not– the next generation is growing up with the web, reading and writing all day. I grew up texting, writing emails, iming and reading online. So does everyone else.

    I hate alarming statistics, and doomsday scenarios.

  41. One advantage that text has over audio and video is that it is scannable in ways that audio and video *can’t* be.

    This is vital for products that require long copy for optimium results–even when these pages are enhanced with audio or video content.

  42. I really hate it when I click a link and arrive at a video (or audio) file rather than a written page. It’s like when someone hands you a cup of tea when you’re expecting coffee – my rhythm is upset and the experience is unsatisfactory.

    But, I find it much harder to grasp information in a video than in written form. It doesn’t help that people often have strong accents that can either be distracting or unintelligible.

    Writing may be a low-fi medium, but it is more powerful than video or audio for many, but not all, types of information.

    As for those videos where someone is either a) standing and reading from a script or b) standing at a whiteboard, why bother?

  43. Sonia, let me apologize for calling you “sober”. It’s been so long since you called me for bail bond money that I thought perhaps you had started reading some of that AA literature that people keeping putting in Brian’s cubicle.

    Let me be the first to state publicly that Sonia is not unfamiliar with meeting and exceeding legal blood alcohol limits. Beyond that, I will refrain from posting photos or commenting on her behavior under the influence of “demon liquor”.

    Sonia remains a steadfast bastion of wisdom on the Internet, somewhat akin to being a lighthouse of intelligence beside the sea of Internet bullshit.
    Resuming radio silence….

  44. Sonia, thanks for encouraging video and podcasters to also include scripts. Not only for some of the reasons you and other commenters have mentioned, above, but also because of deaf people. Currently, there are no laws mandating access on the internet, but we’re working on it! Starting now to use ALL of the media available in multi-media, especially writing, will give all of your readers a leg up when the laws come to pass.

  45. Text is having a tough time, but I think it will hold its place. The simple reason is no other form of communication lets you think for while. If you are watching a video or listening to an audio, you are like a slave paying full attention till it ends, if it is well crafted. Your chances of being rational with audio visual media are much less compared to text. While reading text, your thoughts are also in action and are consatntly agreeing or disgreeing with the author’s views.

  46. People still want to read, but only what THEY want to read, not what others want them to read. That’s why the headline/opener is so important — to convince people that they want to read your copy. And that’s why it’s even more important to know your readers’ hot buttons before you start writing — so you can interrupt and grab their attention with something they actually care about rather than with mindless creativity.

  47. Once upon a time mother stayed home and taught their children to read – long before they got to school. Once in school it was the job of the educators to teach reading comprehension.

    How many times now are children asked to stand up and explain just what the class read? Its one thing to read and another to comprehend the message.

    Today, there are too many words. Copy writers babble on
    expecting viewers to be swayed by the length of the copy and just waste time.

    The beauty of the English language is the number of words it contains. Never stagnant, it adopts words from other civilizations which it happens to encounter. The real pleasure lies in the fact that it is a descriptive language and as we were always taught, it is unnecessary to use three words when two will suffice. A perfect example is probably one of the most descriptive and touching sentences in the world – “Jesus, wept.”

  48. I love when a blog incorperates video into the daily posts, but that is optional. All I need is some articles with bullets explaining what to do next and I’m happy.

  49. I’m skeptical about the importance of audio. I love podcasts and listen to lots of shows but they are all 30-60 minute shows. Not something you can exactly pass to someone else to listen to casually.

    People pass around videos but when they pass around audio it’s often a video (a still image with the audio under it), so even podcasts become video when it’s time to share it with friends.

    Audio is great but it’s deep, something for true fans, not something to interest the casual people.