At a publisher, you normally think about content strategy in a way that delivers growth, engaged audience kind of growth.
Content strategy is about more than that, but I want to address the issue of building audience, since that’s what a lot of people will be aiming to do with their content strategy during 2013.
I’ve worked on a number of large sites, and I normally see the same issues to begin with – get these issues right, and engaged audiences often grow.
1. Strong, Simple Ideas
Many content strategies go nowhere because they contain elements that are either too vague or too complex.
Vagueness is expensive, and generally causes muddles. Broad propositions like ‘entertainment’ are out unless you have serious resources – let MTV do that. Try and focus on an overall issue or information stream that your consumers can’t find to the same quality anywhere else.
I wonder how many fashion e-commerce sites will create content streams that focus on broad celebrity in 2013? I strongly advise you not to be one of them.
Complexity occurs usually occurs when content editors create pieces that contain more than one core idea, or content that is badly arranged. Broad news roundups can be troublesome – particularly in a medium that suits bitesized chunks like video.
Bigger difficulties occur when you have pages focusing on multiple keywords or subject matter that really should be broken up. The subject of ‘pregnancy’, for instance, has a potentially huge range of subject matter that needs a very well thought out Information Architecture. Get it right first time round, and you won’t have the expense of fixing it later.
If you want to find out more about coming to strong, simple ideas, I recommend reading a selection of advertising books. Good advertising is normally excellent in condensing simple ideas that normally contain something unexpected.
Here are five of the best:
- The D&AD Copy Book
- Hey Whipple, Squeeze This
- Ogilvy on Advertising
- How to Do Better Creative Work (out of print)
- A Technique for Producing Ideas
"On average, five times more people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar."
David Ogilvy wrote that in Confessions of an Advertising Man in the 1960s, and it rings so true on the web today; poor headlining often leads to bad SEO and poor user engagement.
The number of very well written pieces I have come across, that have lost out on SEO and engagement due to weak headlining is vast. It happens that many content creators want to be tricky and clever in headlines – sometimes it can work in print, it almost never works online.
Tested advertising methods
I recently read John Caples’ book Tested Advertising Methods – the best book for headlining I have come across. The original was written in the 1920s, but seems incredibly relevant to the low attention spans of the web.
Through split testing direct mail coupons all that time ago, Caples was able to establish proven methods of advertising and headlining that would work over again.
I’m going to summarise here, but if you want to work on headlines, I cannot recommend reading this book more, since there are full four chapters on headlines within it.
Five rules for writing headlines:
- Try to get self-interest into every headline – is the headline applicable to the user and does it prompt them to read more?
- If you have news, get that into your headline (of course, news is a the bread and butter of much web content).
- Avoid headlines that provoke curiosity alone. Curiosity needs to be combined with other headlines.
- Avoid negativity – be cheerful. (Although this earlier post might say otherwise).
- Try to suggest there is a quick and easy way for the reader to get what they want.
Furthermore, due to SEO, proper nouns need to be used in full whenever they are used. No nicknames (magazine favourites such as K-Pez, Ri-Ri, R-Patz) are ever allowed.
Mail Online headlines are so long and keyword filled they have basically become sell line. There is nothing wrong with that if they get the reader to engage further.
3. Proper formatting
If your site doesn’t have a style guide, get one. Inconsistency makes it confusing for both users and writing teams. This should include basic rules like:
- Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.
- One idea per paragraph.
- Break things up with lists and images.
- Subtitle using h2 or h3 elements, not bold.
There are some famed arguments that users don’t read on the web. The reality is they do and they don’t – much the same as print.
People scan web pages as much as they flick through magazines, so you need to make sure they don’t switch off. It’s crucial that content creators can format in a manner that delivers the information as fast as possible to the user.
It’s why there’s been an infographic craze – those visualisations really do paint more than 1,000 words. For this part, I recommend taking a look at the huge The Yahoo! Style guide and I seriously recommend content creators learn HTML.
4. Using Multimedia
Since users 'probably' scan and don’t read as much as copywriters would probably like, then using imagery, video and applications is critical in grabbing their attention. They are also useful in bringing some further dimensions to your content.
All articles really need an image of some description, just to give some visual context. However, this doesn’t mean using a load of stock imagery. In the age of photo apps on smartphones, its simple too easy to create your own; Instagram can be a great place to start.
Video production is a comparatively complex beast – I’ve previously written a long post about video strategy and Econsultancy have a very comprehensive guide. Video king Gary Vaynerchuck has written that:
"Your content has nothing to do with the camera, the mic, the lighting or the set."
If you’re not looking to create TV looking video, then the above statement will do; a flipcam and iMovie will genuinely suffice for your video editing. However, if you want to take video seriously within your Content Strategy, it’s worth investing in the software and skills to get you that.
A videographer who knows Premier or Final Cut very well is essential, since these are very complex programs if you push them.
The final point is of this section is using applications. They are a number of great free apps you can use to improve content and make it more engaging. I strongly recommend you take a look at the following:
All of which are great if you’re looking to gather poll reactions and then create visualisations of them. Much like using photo apps to make your own images, you can use these apps to create your own infographics.
I might make a graph out of the responses to the poll below:
5. The 70/20/10 planning model
I’ve included planning at the end. This is because planning’s not much good if you don’t get the other four right, but planning is vital.
Many content strategies play it rather safe – you have blog posts, email, social updates and not a whole lot else. Problematically, the tone of these remains the same and seldom changes from a fairly impartial branded voice.
Instead of one dimensional planning, a 70/20/10 approach content planning can help innovation in content. The concept ‘borrows’ from Google’s model for innovation:
- 70% of workers time should be focused on the core business.
- 20% should innovate off what works.
- 10% should be dedicated to projects unrelated to the core business .
Applied to content planning this means:
- 70% of the content should be low risk, bread and butter marketing.
- 20% should innovate off what works.
- 10% should be high risk ideas that will be tomorrow's 70% or 20%.
There’s a very good explanation of the process on Neil Perkin’s blog. It’s important to use because with the web, you never really know how audiences are going to react, or where a new audience may come from.
Stick to the safe stuff, you’ll grow slowly and gain much more of the same. Add something a little different every once in a while, and you might find jolts of better reach and engagement from an entirely new yet valuable audience set.
This is not a definitive list, there are loads of methods to help grow audience but, in my experience, these are the most common core elements to fix.
You could write a full blog post or even a book on any of these. I hope that the ones I've referenced can help you further.