Your audience is more impatient than ever. Free content is disposable. But you have something important to say – about your company’s valuable offering, or about something you want to share, or something you believe unique and compelling.
There are a handful of emerging guidelines to help content engineers succeed, and many of them can apply only to media that lives online. But none are more important than the first bullet point below.
1. Think tabloid. Soon a new generation will have forgotten them. And I am guilty of ignoring at least some of the tabloid-born advice I am about to give. But tabloids (in New York, we are talking The Daily News for instance) long ago invented short-attention-span content. They created headlines like “Ford to City: Drop Dead” and the now obscure but notable “Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” which turned out to be a story about how rural residents didn’t want to see movies about rural residents.
Look at any tabloid today (but hurry, as they are mostly going the way of all tree-based media) and you’ll notice the following traits: catchy, sometimes kitschy headlines; active voice (subject, verb, few adjectives, no adverbs); short paragraphs without semicolons (!); one sentence = one idea; and, if referencing culture, make it pop culture. This last one is important because we’re now in an era where one apologizes for erudition lest it may embarrass a certain type of reader or – night terrors! – send someone to the “dictionary.”
Include images, as they speak at least a couple of hundred words these days. And don’t forget to use alt text in case they don’t load (it’s a search-engine thing – they are blind to image content and look for descriptive text).
Finally, make sure your text is broken up (by subheads if possible, but not more than a few per thousand words). It creates white space.
Screen-tired eyes like white space.
2. Link! Readers get bored quickly and many are eager to leave your paragraph at the earliest possible moment. Any link is like an oasis. It provides relief from the prospect of having to shamble all the way to the next encampment with the nuggets of wisdom the reader already raided from the content-cave. With at least some of the excitement of a time/space wormhole in a Pixar movie, links offer the reader an escape. Hypertext has trained us all to believe that the content is always fresher on the other side of the link.
Search engines, not incidentally, value content with links more than content without links.
3. Write for the machine. Did you know your primary audience is an algorithm slogging through a quintillion motes of content on a server inside the Google bunker? You can publicize content without it, but as I often try to forget, there is a machine looking for keywords, parsing internal links, and making relevancy calculations based on your readers’ search criteria and increasingly their search history. There is no hope of page one or even page two in search, without kowtowing to the algorithmic panjandrum.
One tool in the market, Inbound Writer, is set up to help you gauge your content’s SEO viability and at least in theory boost your top-search chances even as you wordsmith.
4. Thou shalt tweet. And pin, and digg, and stumble, and even face the book that ate your mind. That means the full boat of social media for any shred of content you hope to gain from. And if you want to take the Wayback Machine for a moment, point readers to your blog, even your “website”; which should then point back to your blogs and tweets and Pinterests, which point back to your blog…don’t worry, they will just buy a new fan for those servers to keep them from glowing too red on your account.
5. Measure, fix, measure. Online content is like a fancy, powerful sports car: get it tuned right and it goes farther and faster than the other stuff. But like the same sports car, it’s constantly asking for some adjustment. A sports car will have a dashboard to tell you when to bring it in for service. So does online content!
Digital analytics – measuring web, mobile, social, and interactive – is probably the most overlooked of the necessary content success factors. It’s both an art and a science and its technical underpinnings may be esoteric to some; but as many have already noted, you cannot manage what you don’t measure.
Knowing the “who, what, when, where” regarding user interaction with your content is as critical as lug nuts on your sports car: let it get all loosey-goosey and the wheels fly off. Make sure your content is well-instrumented for analytics, that you are asking the right business questions, that your expectations of analytics are up-to-date, and that your dashboards are good for more than just banging your head against them.
Then, once you have made note of what is working and what is failing (a truncated sales-funnel, for instance)…fix it! From experience I can only note this is the part that shows the largest gap between hope and circumstance. People almost never like to admit a mistake. Machines don’t know shame; they are objective. Give them a listen. Then, tighten up and make the changes you think are needed. And test again. And again. Nobody told you to buy the Ferrari. But you did, and you are behind the wheel.
Perhaps we rage too much against the machine. It’s hard to imagine a content creator of any kind who doesn’t answer to some judge. Once I was teaching a class in advanced computer illustration and an objection came from one student who didn’t want to follow the assignment and wondered why she ought to. My comment to her was more or less as follows:
There are two kinds of content. One where they pay you and one where they don’t. If you don’t care about whether anyone ever pays you for your work, go ahead and do anything you want. You may get lucky. But if you’re expecting to get paid, follow the guidelines. Do the work and do it well. And care about what the audience wants. If you care enough and are good enough, your audience most of the time will reward you.
So it is with online content. In marketing, there is no panacea, only the hope of meaningful work that connects with an audience. And with an embarrassingly cheap ability to reach a whole world afforded by the IP revolution, we are churlish to complain that the IP protocol asks us to conform to its habits.
Or to please the army of readers it has conjured.
This column was originally published on March 26, 2012.