Interview with web content guru Gerry McGovern

October 4th, 2006


Gerry McGovern is one of the foremost experts on website content. His books Content Critical and The Caring Economy are definitive. Gerry is one of our “Cool Friends” and was interviewed recently by Netconcepts’ founder and president Stephan Spencer.

I have had the privilege of reviewing Gerry’s upcoming book Creating Killer Content; It is unquestionably one of the best books I have read on writing copy for the web — accessible yet packed with practical advice. Gerry knows how to bring together disparate concepts and weave them into a cohesive strategy, including readability, usability, search engine visibility, conversion and online sales.

Gerry has pioneered a powerful technique for online marketers called Customer Carewords. His clients who have used this technique successfully read like a Who’s Who: Rolls Royce, BBC, Wells Fargo and Tetra Pak.

Gerry is an incredibly entertained public speaker with an enchanting Irish accent. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak live in person and via webcast. As a professional speaker and a consultant, Gerry sells his time at many thousands of dollars per day, which I can say in all candor is an excellent investment. I have been a long-time reader of Gerry’s weekly email newsletter “New Thinking.” Each issue delivers hard-hitting advice. Subscribe here.

Without any further ado, my interview with Gerry McGovern…

What is the biggest mistake that companies make in regards to their website content?
Thinking that customers care one little bit about the company. Customers care about themselves (their loved ones and their community). They hate websites that are organization-centric. How do you know if you have an organization-centric website? If any of your sentences or headings begin with the name of your organization. Stop talking about yourself. The customer knows who you are. They’re at your website, for crikes sakes. There’s a big, fat logo at the top of the page screaming out your name. You’ve already got their attention. Now it’s time to give them some attention.

What’s the best way to be customer-centric? Talk about benefits. Use second person–YOU. Paint a picture for the customer. Speak their language. Use their words. Stand where they stand, feel what they feel. Forget you’re part of the organization and think like the customer.

You ran an agency with over 100 staff. You have also been a solo consultant. What was the greatest lesson that you have learned from each of those two experiences?
The first lesson I learned was that I should have cashed out earlier. I was part of the whole dot com craze and had a company valued at $200 million at one stage. 12 months later it went bust. Seriously, what did I learn? Patience and focus. I’m a slow learner. I make a lot of mistakes, but I’m persistent. Sometimes I hate to learn so I have to work hard to keep my mind open. I think you need a long term plan. Even in an age of major change I still think you need a vision.

When I started on the Web around 1994, I felt that content was going to be really important. I stuck with that idea, and began to research how to create quality web content. It may sounds obvious now, but it was hard to sell the quality content concept during the Nineties. So many people bought into the idea that all you needed was some content management software and that then–magically–quality content would get produced. Without any management. And with little or no cost. Doesn’t happen that way.

Who are the people who most influenced you in your career choice?
I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I was pretty much self-motivated because I had to be. I come from a very rural part of Ireland. The idea of going to college was pretty new around where I lived. I chose marketing, and I really didn’t have a clue what it meant but I knew that it sounded different.

Peter Drucker would be a major influence now. He wrote in such a simple, clear manner, and he was so incredibly insightful. One quote I keep coming back to from him is that we have spent the last 50 years focusing on the T in IT, and we’ll spend the next 50 years focusing on the I.

Why have you dedicated yourself career-wise to website content? What is so special about that, that it has become your passion?
I always wanted to be good at something. I think someone once said that they had failed their way to success, and I certainly feel like that. There were so many things I found I wasn’t that good at–or that I found that I couldn’t really excel at. However, all along I was–in one way or another–working with content. And when I saw the Web the first time, it looked like this World Wide Web of Content. And it also was this huge opportunity. It was new. It was vast. It still is full of the smell of adventure. And I liked that. So I got up on my horse and headed out West to the new lands that content was building.

There is so much content on the web already. I get stressed surfing the web trying to keep up with the blogs in my industry because there is so much content. It is just exploding. The content is already out of control. Our brains can’t take it. Where is this all heading?
It’s a good question. I’m reading a book at the moment on how the mind works. It estimates that we are exposed to 11,000 bits of information a second, but that we are only conscious of 40 of them. (The word ‘bit’ being a technical measure of information.) Whatever the measure is, we’re exposed to a lot more today that we were 10 years ago.

But I think we’ll be fine. We’re going through a period of flux now as we move from an industrial age society to an information age one. The essence of what we need to know remains reasonably stable, in my opinion. Wisdom is not about volume. Quality does not always come with quality. There are long term trends at play. There are core patterns beneath the hum of noise.

First and foremost, we need to manage the content, not be managed by it. We have to stop being email slaves. Being constantly busy is not productive, and it’s certainly not good management. We need to focus more now on what we’re not going to do, on whose blog we’re going to stop reading this week because they’re repeating themselves. And ironically, in an age of content we need to get out more and talk to people–particularly our customers.

Consultants often talk of going after the “low hanging fruit” — the easy stuff that yields the biggest impact. What do you think is the lowest hanging fruit for companies with an online presence today in regards to their website content?
That’s a tough question. I think a lot of websites suffer from a belief by management that all the fruit is low-hanging. That if they just buy this fancy technology they get this amazing ladder that makes all the fruit low-hanging. Unfortunately, I think that if you visited a lot of websites today, you’d find a lot of rotting fruit lying around.

Basically, it’s time for management. The Web has been around long enough for a typical organization to be able to answer this question: Has the Web the potential to deliver real value to our organization? For a lot of organizations, the answer will be no. The website will deliver a little value, but will have negligible impact on the bottom line. For some organizations, the Web has the potential to deliver substantial value. And in that situation, it’s time to get serious. Time to manage, not administer.

Quality content is hard work. I’m sorry. I’d love to say otherwise, but it’s just not the case. But quality content can deliver significant return on investment on the Web.

I notice that you haven’t started a blog. Do you think this whole blogging trend really has something to it? Or is it all a bunch of hot air? Do you encourage any of your clients to blog? Is blog content too ephemeral?
You’d never know I might start one yet! In fact, because of your constant prodding, I’m talking with a group of my partners about starting a joint blog. I think blogging is amazing, and such a positive reflection of an open, inquisitive, questioning culture. There will always be a role for the book but the blog is the conversation where the next book might just be born.

Everything in its place. Let’s not get carried away. Blogging is a new form of conversation; a rough and ready way to share knowledge. It’s a form of research, a way of getting down and dirty and digging into the roots of an idea. To watch a brilliant thinker and writer blog is very illuminating. But I find that quality blogs–that I can go back to time and time again–are pretty hard to find.

I have so far not encouraged any of my clients to blog. Most of my clients–and they include some very large organizations–are still mastering the basics of how to manage content professionally. Blogging may seem simple, but it’s quite a sophisticated strategy, and it requires a very open, sharing culture.

Great content can persuade the reader. What should a company do to convince its website visitors that it is a responsible corporate citizen, one that gives back to the greater community and the greater good?

I buy a lot from Amazon. My sons keep telling me to use because it’s cheaper, but I’m a loyal Amazon customer, and it would take a lot to make me change. The reason I’m a loyal Amazon customer is because I actually genuinely believe that they care about me. Every time I’ve ever had a problem, their response has been simply fantastic–every single time.

There’s so much bullshit in marketing. So many organizations spinning that they love the environment or whatever just as some “branding” exercise. There are organizations out there that I detest because of the way they treat me as a customer. Citizenship begins at home. Organizations should treat their customers right. Show you actually, genuinely care about your customers. If we all did that, I think we’d make society a better place.


  1. […] I had the privilege of interviewing web content guru Gerry McGovern this week. Gerry shared some real gems. Here are a few highlights… […]

  2. Rich says:

    I thank you for this powerful interview.
    I’m moved to become a person of “content”,
    more than just scrabbling thoughts.
    Don’t get me wrong, I know also a lot
    of “content” is actually journalized trash
    but such is life!
    I will change starting from today.
    Thanx A Gain!

  3. by Rich — March 5, 2008 @ 10:05 am