Digital content is written in permanent ink

Having worked on copy for everything from blogs to billboards during the course of my career, I've always been acutely aware of that inescapable (and fundamentally terrifying) truth about printed content: once your magazine ad, flyer, article, whatever has been fed through the press and circulated to the world, there's no way to get it back.

This, of course, means that a mistake of any kind -- whether that's a simple unfortunate spelling error or a total cock up in marketing judgement -- is impossible (or, at the very least, expensive) to rectify. Your slip up's been immortalised in ink. Embarrassing.

Online content, on the other hand, offers much greater flexibility as any mistakes you make can usually be fixed with minimal fuss. Spot a misspelling on your latest blog post and you can simply log straight into the CMS and change it; decide that a sensationalist headline might actually be a bit much and you can just replace it with another.

One of my first jobs was as a Copywriter with the Manchester Evening News, where, as you'd expect, every last word had to be carefully pored over; my role at Code's the first time I've specialised solely in digital content -- so good times for me, right? Less pressure to get it 100% right first time, and more freedom to change my mind later on. Except it's not quite as easy as that...

Generating content for the web might sometimes seem like the equivalent of writing in pencil -- you can delete a misguided tweet or image, take down a blog that's caused readers offense or withdraw an unfortunate online reference. But the fact is that doesn't mean it disappears. Today, savvy users are quick to copy any dodgy stuff and put it straight back into circulation for you (thanks guys). Turns out you're not using a good old HB after all -- it's a big, fat Sharpie.

This means it's become almost impossible for brands to get away with making any kind of online slip up, and what initially seemed like a clever marketing idea can end up being a massive albatross around your neck. Probably the most memorable recent example of this was when American Apparel sent a discount code email to customers living in the predicted path of Hurricane Sandy. The devastating hurricane went on to kill 258 people and caused $86 billion worth of damage, and the clothing brand was accused of being inappropriate, insensitive and exploitative. Now that's definitely not going to help them sell more leotards...

Unsurprisingly, brands often fall into the trap of forgetting to check themselves on social media channels. Earlier this year, Tesco sent out an unfortunate pre-scheduled tweet right in the middle of the horsemeat crisis that referred to the social media manager "hitting the hay"; more disturbingly, Friends Reunited tweeted a picture of Woolwich "long before alleged shootings and beheadings of today" while the full story of Lee Rigby's horrific murder was still unfolding.

More recently, the social media manager for the Ministry of Defence got his personal and work account mixed up and accidently tweeted that "whoever allowed these glass monstrosities to be built should be hung for treason by the City of London". A PR disaster? Not quite, but this kind of thing still significantly damages reputations.

While that old adage that "yesterday's newspaper is tomorrow's fish and chip paper" remains pretty relevant, your online mistakes have a tendency to linger much longer. Print stuff usually quickly disappears into the recycling pile, but the bottomlessness of the World Wide Web means that it's likely that any online blooper will lurk around Google for some time to come.

Considering all this, I suppose that those early years of thoroughly proofing and carefully considering my writing has actually set me in good stead to work within a purely digital agency. While it's reassuring to know that things aren't quite as 'final' here as they were when I was working on printed materials, it's clear that it's just as important to make every effort to keep standards up.

So my advice to all you digital content writers out there is: never let yourself believe that online content isn't as permanent as printed. Picture that Sharpie, and think very carefully before you hit 'publish'.


A day in the life of a Talent Manager