I started this series of articles by looking at how Slate columnist, Farhad Manjoo tackled an increasingly thorny issue: users of websites were scrolling no further than halfway down the page and often ‘re-tweeting’ posts with barely a glance at their content. On the face of things, Manjoo just wasn’t willing to tolerate the user either engaging with content, or re-serving content in anything less than its entirety. I just didn’t get it. Here was the user engaging with content. Here was the user re-circulating content. How they adapted and remodelled that content represented a key stage in the user’s ability to understand and assimilate that material, and a key stage in its redistribution.
The anxiety experienced by the Slate Magazine columnist is nothing new; the author wishes to micro-manage the response of his readers. He wants his readers to appreciate and absorb the full weight of the article. However, in wishing to keep his message intact, the author risks obstructing its user-journey. Not even Shakespeare was able to achieve this, despite several attempts by his acting company to stop his plays being printed. In fact, it may be fair to say that the bard’s remarkable endurance may even be because of his failure to do this. The constant cycle of being adapted and re-appropriated lies at heart of his success; Shakespeare’s dominance is maintained by this exchange mechanism. The Internet simply accelerates that process.
Re-tweets happen for a zillion reasons: to inform, to provoke, to support, to politicise, to endorse, to tease, to promote, to win a further recommendation, to maintain visibility in a key market area, to score a ‘follow’ from the original source of the Tweet; the list goes on.
There’s nothing to be gained from the Slate columnist griping that readers have shared his article without reading it in its entirety. The reader has always played a crucial role in the creation of text and such responses are vital to its evolution as commodity.
The role the reader plays in the story and life of text is nothing new, it is just that in the digital age the role is beginning to occupy a powerful and central position. You ignore the will of the reader at your own cost.
The digital revolution has made the page a travel-hub of sorts and the message it conveys an enthusiastic (if unpredictable) traveller. It’s our job as content marketers to ensure a smooth passage whatever the nature of the trip. I agree that this should force us to be better storytellers, but I think we can also be better baggage handlers. Here’s my three main tips:
- Use byte-sized content. Remember that the content you produce for your website isn’t art in the strictest sense of the word. Keep your content short, recyclable and preferably, re-tweetable. The digital economy is no different to any other economy in that it depends on exchange and re-distribution. If your content can be divided into smaller byte-sized ‘tweets’ then do it. There’s no law that says you must have one tweet button per page. Treat your content as you would any other commodity and be prepared to let it flow.
- Avoid the ‘one content for all’ mistake. If you want to ‘sell’ your article to a variety of different audiences you are going to have to be flexible. Responsive content means having an adaptive strategy. Medical writers and those handling healthcare communications have been aware of this for years. If you are making deliberate use of Twitter in your marketing campaigns, then adapt your content to the average Twitter user. Basically, engage with the medium on its own terms. Do the groundwork, look at the stats.
- Adapt your content and your format to the media device it’s being consumed on. Much has been made of responsive websites (these are design layouts that adapt to the various viewports on offer) but content that responds to the demands of a mercurial public tends to get overlooked. Address the circumstances in which your content is being viewed. Offer navigation options, graphic options. If your content is being viewed on a mobile device then chances are that time and bandwidth are scarce so shave off any needless excesses. You need to get to the message fast. Mobile users seldom have time or inclination to read a 2000 word thesis or wait for huge graphics to download.