When you post content online, does it have associated calls-to-action? Do you show advertising? Are you sure users are seeing these things?
Unfortunately many users may never see your carefully crafted website, because that is not how they are accessing your content.
Content has stopped being constrained to our sites and we need to adapt.
I have a confession to make; I rarely see the Econsultancy blog. I am barely exposed to their calls-to-action, let alone their advertisements or sharing options. The reason? I arrive at a particular blog post via Twitter or a Google search (so bypassing the majority of the site) and then immediately fire up Evernote Clearly.
In case you don’t know; Evernote Clearly strips away navigation, comments, advertising and anything else other than the post itself. What remains is then presented in an easy to read format.
Increasingly this is how users are viewing your content.
Evernote Clearly is not the only such tool. Safari has this feature built in both on the desktop and more significantly on the iPhone and iPad. This makes the reading experience considerably more pleasant for those using smaller screens.
Not that website owners are as pleased as users. Removing CTAs and advertising can desolate revenue streams. Worse still, features like Clearly are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are also the ‘read it later’ services such as Instapaper, Pocket and Readability. Although primarily designed as a way of saving content for later consumption, they also strip away page elements in exactly the same way as Clearly or Safari Reader.
Then there are tools like Flipboard and Zite. These apps extract content from their original context (the website) and represent it as part of a personalised magazine. Once again the stories are presented free from context, advertising or CTAs.
Services like Flipboard are providing users with a far superior window on your content.
Finally, many people read content via email subscriptions and RSS feeds. These also show content in different formats. For example RSS readers often dramatically change how content is presented.
Also, once you publish an RSS feed, there is nothing to stop other sites from pulling in your content and replacing advertising and CTAs with their own.
The impact of removing calls-to-action and advertising are obvious, but don’t under-estimate the impact of removing context either. With users bypassing your homepage, never seeing your navigation and not being exposed to your brand, they have little sense of who has written the content or why they should care about you and your services.
With a growing number of users viewing content in this way, how do we face this challenge? We can either encourage people back to our sites or adapt to this changing world.
Let’s look at each option, beginning with encouraging people back to our site.
Back to the site
If we want users to give up these tools and view our content as we intended, we must first understand why they adopted them in the first place.
Adoption is happening for four reasons:
Convenience: Many of these services allow you to collect content from multiple sources and view them together. This is simply more convenient.
Even those services that don’t allow this (such as Clearly) present all content in a consistent format that can be customised to the users needs. You are not forced to adapt to the layout and typography choices of each site.
Clutter free: Users are fed up with website interfaces that are unnecessarily complicated by design and subsidiary content.
These applications strip out unneeded elements, allowing the user to better focus on the one thing they are really interested in; the content.
Readability: Reading on screen is not a pleasant experience at the best of times. Unfortunately many websites only make matters worse with poor typography and colour contrast.
These applications are designed to provide the best on-screen reading experience possible.
Rejection of advertising: We know that most users find advertising intrusive and distracting. They have long sort out tools that block adverts on websites and this is the next logical progression.
Services like Clearly, Pocket and Instapaper remove all advertising along with other distractions on a site.
It is obvious that if we want users to return to our sites, we need to take note of these reasons and design for them. Although we cannot match the convenience of these tools, we can build clutter free websites that put the emphasis on readability.
We should also be looking for ways to surpass what these tools have to offer. For example, while Clearly can read back a post using text-to-speech technology, on my site you can listen to a human read the posts. I also provide an estimate of how long each of my posts will take to read, something not offered by these services.
We need to be providing superior features on our own sites to draw users back.
Finally, we can offer interactive elements on our own sites that cannot be replicated on services like Instapaper. We have the opportunity to make our content richer and more engaging, so encouraging users to come back.
Notice that I don’t propose preventing these services from accessing our content. Yes this is possible, but I strongly believe that forcing people to use an inferior site will drive them away. We are better looking at the issue and addressing it.
Unfortunately, making our sites more readable and clutter free is not going to fully address the issue. It may prevent some users hitting that ‘reader’ button in Safari, but not all. Some will still want those ads gone and others will want the convenience of being able to group all of the posts they wish to read together.
Ultimately we need to accept that things have changed and adapt accordingly.
Time to adapt
Once you realise that you have no idea how users are viewing your content, you start to see it in a different way.
Elements that sat around the content have to be baked into it. For example, you cannot presume the reader knows about you or your site. It is therefore necessary to provide background and context in each post. That maybe as simple as referencing the source and linking to it (as I did at the beginning of this post) or explaining in more detail the broader context in which the post sits.
CTAs too have to be included within the copy. If you want people to comment on a post, you need to say that in the copy and link to them, rather than relying on the fact the comment box sits below the copy on your site.
Equally if you want people to contact you, mention this implicitly in the post, because they may not be able to see the navigation bar with the contact link.
However, the biggest adaptation is going to be in the world of advertising.
Advertising in a world of unknowns
Your initial thought might be that advertising should simply be embedded within the copy of the site. Instead of banners appearing in the header or sidebar, they should appear within the flow of the copy.
Unfortunately, this would be nothing more than a short term solution. Because advertising is sold in standard dimensions it is easy for services like Instapaper to identify and remove them.
But the ease with which they can be removed is not really the issue. The issue is that advertisers are fighting the user. The user doesn’t want to see advertising and so there will always be services that remove it.
I believe that there needs to be a fundamental rethink in the way advertising is bought and sold. Thinking in terms of traditional banner advertising is no longer going to cut it.
In fact traditional advertising is already under threat due to responsive design. This is because the current way advertising space is sold doesn’t translate well to mobile. Fortunately there are alternatives.
Advertising doesn’t just need to be dumped into the flow of copy, it needs to be integrated with it. This is something we are already beginning to see emerge.
Take for example Twitter's approach to advertising. Twitter could have placed traditional banner adverts on their website. However, they realise their content is viewed in a huge range of places, not just their site. Their solution was to integrate advertising into the stream of content in the form of promoted tweets.
Twitter integrates its advertising into the content.
Other sites take a similar approach by promoting products and services within articles relating to those offerings. These are textual asides that fit comfortably within the flow of copy.
Another approach is the one adopted by Mashable. It sells sponsored posts where a company can write an editorial piece for their product or service. These are vetted by the editorial team at Mashable and clearly marked to ensure editorial integrity.
This strikes me as a great solution for everybody. It allows advertisers to provide a lot more detail than a traditional ad, provides great content for the publisher and often an interesting read for consumers about a relevant product or service.
Mashable allows advertisers to post sponsored articles.
We should also be looking beyond the web for inspiration in this area. Television in particular has some possibilities. Take for example the model where a TV series is sponsored by a company. Could not the same be done on the web?
Companies could sponsor categories of a blog, a specific series or even individual posts. This would allow highly targeted advertising that is relevant to the reader and related to the copy.
It would be easy to start or end a sponsored post with a statements such as “this post on project management is sponsored by Basecamp.” Because this textual link is built into the copy it would be permanently associated with it, even when viewed through a service like Instapaper.
I fully accept that none of the solutions I have proposed here are without their challenges. However, something has to be done and website owners, along with advertisers have to start exploring the options. If not, site visitors will decline as well ad revenue and conversion through calls-to-action.